Letter from Bangkok
Julian Berengaut, author of the novel This Isn’t Easy for Me, has spent the last two years living in Bangkok, Thailand. He writes in about the sidewalks there.
Gloomy Thoughts on Walking in Bangkok
This city in not kind to walkers. Not unkind to all walkers, maybe, but awful to some of us, people like me who think—or at least who thought before they came here—that sidewalks can be taken for granted, that it was an inalienable right of any urban dweller to leave home and just walk somewhere, anywhere, uninhibited.
Bangkok’s heat and humidity—those things I knew about and those can’t really be blamed on the city. The old capital was sacked by the Burmese hundreds of years ago, and the new capital ended up further away from the warlike neighbors, a place where a big muddy river met the ocean.
The real problem is the sidewalks: often narrow, blocked by telephone poles, or old phone booths now used as storage sheds, or workers who are busy, sometimes fixing the sidewalks, more often doing their own jobs. Or they are broken up, missing completely, missing but replaced with sandbags, set at a 45 degree angle to the street (i.e., a part of some upward sloping driveway), taken up by food stalls or laying dogs. Food stalls seemed exotic at first with colors and scents but, after a while, you feel like you are taking a shortcut through a busy kitchen of a Chinese restaurant. Dogs just lie there sprawled motionless across whatever sidewalk there might be; seemingly less out of any happy satiation, more out of preserving whatever energy they accumulated from the scraps they had scrounged.
Signs pointing to landmarks are set at a height that allows the shorter locals to pass under; one particular sign pointing to the Swiss Embassy on Wireless Road tried to reshape the top of my head. Paranoia sets in when you are walking on a narrow sidewalk of a busy soi (alley) and the sidewalk vanishes completely because of someone’s construction fence and you have to step into the street, where of course motorcycles and cars drive as if they expect you to vanish into the thin air. And because traffic moves on the opposite side of the street from what you are used to, you aren’t even looking at the cars that will kill to begin with. And all of it gets worse when the monsoon comes—try to imagine walking on that narrow sidewalk dodging puddles of unknown depth and your umbrella has to be frequently held perpendicular rather than parallel to the ground because of all the obstacles, and everyone else’s umbrellas, and you soon realize that the real woe isn’t above as much as the cars that sneak up from behind and have a field day splashing you from head to toe. If you happen to survive all of it until the evening, then you will discover that in all of that, daylight was your greatly unappreciated friend.
I have never thought, until living here, that there could be a class aspect to sidewalks. There shouldn’t really be one, no? We should all be equal, rubbing our shoulders on sidewalks, whatever their quality, right? Well, no. In Bangkok there are perfect walkways underneath the tracks of the sky train: clean, level, protected from the harsh sun and from the rains, with English signs everywhere, and no beggars whatever. So what’s not to like? They are private ventures—they are paid for by big commercial establishments that line the streets. They don’t cost any money to use them, but their job isn’t to allow you to go where you want to go but to lead you from where you are to the nearest shopping mall.
So what do the locals do? They avoid sidewalks as much as possible. If they have to walk anywhere, regardless of the distance, they take motorcycle taxis, which are ridiculously cheap—and horribly dangerous, at least from the way they look. The local etiquette doesn’t allow the passenger to hold on to the motorcycle driver and there isn’t anything else to hold on to. It is worse for women who are expected to sit sideways. They don’t seem afraid at all. Older ones will be holding their shopping bags full of groceries and the younger ones will be busy texting, oblivious to the bike weaving in and out of the traffic.
And yet, and yet, the Thai haven’t given up on walking. Go to Lumphini Park at 6am on a Saturday or a Sunday. You will see crowds of people walking very happily. In fact, they will seem to celebrate their walking. Their average age will be above 60 years old; some will have walkers, some will be in wheelchairs; some will have canes; some will be supported by their sons or daughters. There will be couples, sometimes men, sometimes women, most often mixed. There will be larger groups of men and of women. Some will walk in silence, others will have animated conversations. Sometimes the older ones will behave like children—they will spray water on each other from behind with their water bottles. They will hold their umbrellas in their hands because they came from different parts of Bangkok and have to be ready for any sudden downpour. They will stop to observe monitor lizards laying at the edge of the lake in the center of the park. They will call out Sawadtee (Hello) to their friends, they wai to each other, they will stop to chat, they will form a little group and walk on. They will join one of the many tai-chi groups that must have formed at sunrise that perform their graceful moves to the music from boom boxes. Some will be too old or sick to stand, but still they will sit on benches and try to follow their tai-chi leader by moving their heads and their arms. Some will have accessories in their hands like fans or sticks, but most won’t. At one corner of the park, there will be a large and mostly younger group making their energetic moves to the loud sound of disco music. Elder men will organize themselves as military style formations to jog together to the sound of a two-tone noisemaker as if they were getting ready for basic training on Parris Island.
I want to stop and ask them to use their formidable energy to get the city to fix the sidewalks for everyone, including themselves. But, of course, I am a farang here and will do no such thing. But one thing that I will do, especially as I think about my life after my stay here is over—I will never take any simple, humble sidewalk for granted.
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