Every city, like every person, develops its own character, its own charm and unique quirkiness. Bangkok, or BKK as it’s known, is a large, dense city, roughly the same size as NYC. Contrary to the city I wrote about last week, Bangkok is considerably more livable. Why? Like NYC, the city never sleeps. It’s colorfully vibrant, relatively safe, its people friendly, and the food incredible. But more importantly, it’s a walking city with a fairly good public transportation system. You could easily live there without owning a car.
There is so much going on in Bangkok that I could only do a smidgen of what I had hoped to accomplish during a three-day layover on my way back to NYC, not the least of which was the Chatuchak market, where I happily spent both days of last weekend.
I could fill a couple of pages with all that I like about Bangkok, but at the same time, it has certain quirks worth noting.
Skytrain and Metro
Most large cities have them. A few, like Bogota, Colombia, and Lima, Peru, both capitals of their countries, managed to royally mismanage their public transportation systems. Mobility in those cities is so bad that traffic congestion is a good reason to scratch them from living consideration. Chennai, India, is another city to scratch for the same reason.
Both the elevated skytrain and below-ground metro make getting around Bangkok a relative breeze. But unlike the systems in many cities where fares are set regardless of the distance, in BKK, the fare is dependent on where you get on and off, and you need to know that before you get on.
Therefore, prior to entering the system, you must select your destination and purchase a ticket for the specific price to that destination. For the Sky Train, you can only purchase the ticket from machines, which do not take paper currency. The ticket booth attendant is there, for the most part, to exchange bills for coins, because unless you arrive to the station with a pocket full of coins, you queue up to get them. Then you queue up to use one of the few machines to buy the ticket. Two queues for the price of one. At least BKK’s metro and airport ticket machines accept paper bills, but not the machines for Skytrain. For such a modern and otherwise well-run system, it’s, well,….odd.
Most cities have systems for keeping themselves clean. In NYC there are publicly maintained trash cans on every corner. In Medellin, Colombia, for example the city maintains several refuse cans on each block. In Bangkok, they are virtually nonexistent.
There is so much delicious street food, tasty thai coffee, fresh cut fruit, cold coconuts, that after you are finished, there are precious few places to discard the packaging. I’ve carried around so many empty coconuts, having thoroughly enjoyed the cold, sweet water inside, only to be left with the quandary of where to ditch the shell. There must be a hidden army cleaning up the debris left in discrete corners. The city is not dirty. Still, it’s odd.
It must be a law in Bangkok for operators of motorbikes to wear a helmet. The city is filled with motorbikes and a large portion of them are ‘for-hire,’ as designated by the orange vests they wear. Every motorbike driver wears a helmet.
However, the passenger is not required to wear one. That means when hiring a motorbike as a taxi, which makes a lot of sense when traffic is at a standstill, you simply hop on the back. The drivers don’t carry extra helmets. The head protection is aimed clearly at the driver. Passenger be warned: your head is not as important.
One evening last week I wanted to go not so far from where I was and it seemed like a motorbike was the most expedient.
Before I knew it I was weaving in and out of traffic on a highway, my hair blowing in the breeze. It was exciting, but not that comforting. I shouted to the driver to get off the highway. He laughed. But then he could, his head was protected, mine wasn’t. Odd.
My first visit to Bangkok was pre-metro and sky trains. Traffic was worse in the late 80’s then it is today. Getting around meant hiring a tuk-tuk, of which there were thousands. Or, you could hire an air-conditioned taxi. Hiring either involved a negotiation. No taxis had meters. After hailing a taxi, you told the driver where you wanted to go, he would give a ridiculous figure, about two or three times the normal fare. Then you would give a ridiculously low figure and hopefully arrive at an agreed fare somewhere higher than what a normal Thai person would pay. It was a tedious game, especially going somewhere new with no idea of distance.
Several years back on a pass-through trip I was delighted to learn that BKK passed a law requiring all taxis to have meters. Getting around was so much less tedious without the back-and-forth game. Now sadly, many taxis have gone to switching off their meters. Several times I wanted to take a taxi to different areas of the city, only to hop into the cab and have the cabbie quote me a ridiculous price, while refusing to use the meter. When I asked at the hotel why, they said it’s turned into the luck of the draw. Some taxis use their meters, but many choose not to, knowing that non-locals will end up paying more. Odd.
…if there is one. Bangkok is diverse and rich in vibrancy. Sure, it’s crowded, polluted and humidly hot. But the color trumps what some might otherwise consider the downside. And some of its oddities may even add, in a strange way, to its attractiveness.