In Bangkok, nothing can be said to be certain, except death, taxes – and traffic jams.
“Bangkok is by far the most developed capital city compared to neighbors such as Yangon, Phnom Penh or Vientiane – except that, thanks to the British and French, those others have all been blessed with logical road planning,” Thai architect Rungrabhi Bunnag tells me. “Their roads and major buildings were all planned at the same time but not Bangkok’s.”
Bangkok used to be called “the Venice of the East” and the history books show river and canal life. Everything from fruit to live chickens was once sold from boats, until the canals were filled in to limit the spread of disease and make way for much-needed roads. But this underlying water world means road plans took strange forms, as did the buildings.
“People began settling along the river and, when the population grew, it spread everywhere. Bangkok’s soil is also very soft and made of silt,” says prize-winning urban architect Ekkaphon Puekpaiboon. “Before the advent of suitable technology, people used to build only where there was good soil, so structures popped up in random places. There was no visionary urban plan.”
This lack of planned infrastructure is the reason for Bangkok’s notorious traffic jams, which bolt-ons such as the Skytrain, or the subway, expressways and ring roads seem to have done nothing to ease. I often jump on one of the excellent trains to avoid a jam but, given Bangkok’s massive sprawl, there is rarely a station near where I want to go. With a taxi or motorbike ride at each end, a train ride is an expensive option and beyond the reach of most locals for everyday use. Those with no other choice use the public buses but everyone else prefers to drive.
The heat and humidity mean Bangkok also has no walking culture. That’s made evident by the state of the sidewalks which are far from foot- friendly, especially in the high heels Thai women love to wear. And in a country where white skin is valued – women wear SPF 50 sunblock even to sit in an air conditioned office because “there’s always the window light” – any outdoor activity sends chills up spines.
One of the quirks here is this need to take several different modes of transportation for any journey just to avoid being stuck in traffic jams. A hop on the Skytrain, a boat across the river and then a quick motorbike ride is a typical day. But what I love about Bangkok is that there is really no such thing as a typical day. Only the fortune tellers can claim to know what tomorrow may bring.
Local Expert Julia fell in love with Bangkok while staying at this Truly Wonderful hotel. Check it out!