Letter From Bangkok
The first thing you'll notice about Bangkok is that
it is nothing like the guidebooks. I guess they figure that people going
on a holiday in a far-off country don't want to flip through a book and
see a picture of a large paralyzing traffic jam. Maybe it would remind
them too much of home.
It is not like the folks in Bangkok are not working
hard to solve their traffic problems. They are. They have a wonderful
elevated train system that is now five years old. This Skytrain system,
although short, has addressed the critical problem of connecting the large
expensive tourist hotels to the overpriced mega shopping malls. First
Bangkok also has a brand new subway system, the MRT,
a lone line five months old. I rode it and found it to be just like the
Skytrain, but with zero view. I'm told this is state of the art. The day
after I rode it, they had their first crash, with one hundred injured
people. The whole system has been closed since. I wondered if I should
have told them I was coming.
I bought a day pass for Skytrain. I wanted to see as
much as I could. I started to think, OK, suppose I was a Bangkok worker
and had a day off. Where would I go that doesn't cost money and is not
oriented toward selling me something? The public space. Where is it?
This time of year the temperatures are lower and it
is dry, but the trade-off is that the air is filthy. If you set off for a
walk, the air along the roadways is especially horrible. I found roads and
sidewalks to be worn, soiled, crowded, and in a state of advanced decay.
Maybe there's a nice park somewhere. I saw one marvelous sanctuary of
trees, flowers, grass, and greenery but it wasn't open to the public. It
was something for the royal family. Behind the tall walls, it looked
empty. I did find another green open space but that one was for the Thai
military. It had a sports field and track.
I asked a woman at a shop, "Where do you go on your
"Stay at home," she answered.
I spent time asking people questions, and this is the
picture I drew. The average worker gets paid about 7,000 Baht a month for
working six days a week (that's about $175 a month). Housing is miserably
cramped. Workers take crowded, overloaded buses to work and back.
Employers can get around paying their workers so much by hiring immigrants
from Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar (formerly, Burma) who don't have legal
residence. They can pay these workers 4,000 baht a month or even less. The
workers are afraid to ever voice a complaint (the Thai rendition of ďdon't
ask, don't tellĒ).
The other side of the coin (if you have a coin) is
the spaces for those with money in their pockets. If the sidewalks and
streets are hot, crowed, noisy, and polluted, then there are spotless
shopping centers with restaurants, bars, designer brands, Internet access,
and many, many other things nestled in clean, new, air-conditioned
tranquility. I don't need to say much about these because, funny, they
have many of the same stores you'd find in malls in America. If that's
what you want, you needn't go anywhere.
Meanwhile back in Bangkok, what I started to notice
(anyone who's been here will tell you the same thing), itís rather amazing
how ó under such difficult conditions, with so little to work with, in
such crowded conditions, in the rotten air, and in this mega city ó itís
amazing how incredibly gentle, kind, hard working, patient, and
resourceful the Thai people are. Itís amazing what close relationships
they have with others and how much they like to have fun. My advice would
be to try to spend your money with the Thai people themselves as often as
you can. That way the money will not go to the multi-national outfits that
will just ship it back across the sea. It will go where it's most needed
Don't worry about traffic or bad air here in Bangkok.
What is lost because of it is more than regained by the sweetness of the
people and the richness of their culture. And, yes, there are many tourist
sites to see. Wats, temples, palaces, and museums, to name just a few.
I asked a woman where I was buying a soft drink if
she had ever gone to one of the Bangkok museums.
"No, never go. No have time. Have work every day. No
time to go museum."
Photos by Scott Harrison.