The Hidden Verdancy of Bangkok

The thing about Bangkok is, it isn’t a very pretty city. Being in a tropical climate, I always expect that it will be a lush, verdant city. Even though I’ve lived here more than seven years, I still have that expectation somewhere in the back of my mind. The reality, though, looks a lot like this:

At least, that’s how it looks from the street level. The buildings are built close to the roads, with only narrow footpaths that are only occasionally dotted with trees. Those trees are usually subject to harsh pruning by laborers armed with sharp saws and little horticultural knowledge.

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Over time, my understanding of Bangkok’s relative verdancy has evolved. What I have come to see is that the city has a lot of green space, but that most of that green space is not public. Sure, as you walk down the alleys and streets, you may see some trees and bushes. For the most part, though, they are on private property, peeking over high walls. As a result, you walk in the full heat of the tropical sun.

Compare this with Singapore (pictured above) or even Kuala Lumpur, cities with mature trees lining the public footpaths, providing shade, cleaning the air, and making the city more pleasant. Now, don’t worry – I’m not about to turn this into a Bangkok-bashing, Singapore-loving entry. I just find the comparison to where our greenery lives interesting. 

When you rise above the street level, as in this view from the Conrad hotel in the particularly lush Wireless Road neighborhood, you can see that there is quite a bit of greenery in Bangkok, although as mentioned before, much of it is not visible from the streets.

In fact, some of the grander houses live in a lush, tropical paradise. Except for the high rise buildings looming overhead, you would think you were in a jungle!

Sukhumbhand Paribatra, elected this past Sunday to a second term as governor of Bangkok, has promised to radically increase the amount of park land. By most estimates, Bangkok has less than one-tenth the amount of green space per resident compared with an average city. Let us hope that some of this green space can be expanded out of parks and into our everyday lives.

Of Soi and Motorsai

Thailand is a country of cat-nappers. Wherever I travel, I see plenty of people who, in their boredom, lethargy, or exhaustion, take every opportunity to shut their eyes and rest. Maybe it is the heat and humidity?

On the list of jobs I would not want to have is the motorcycle taxi driver or khon kap rotmotorsai. While the offices of Bangkok are filled with women, the men from the countryside find jobs like this one. For a fee paid to the mafia and a license paid to the government, they receive a colored vest and an assigned stand at the mouth to one of the city’s many long soi or alleys. 

Inhospitable to pedestrians, the soi are usually too narrow, too winding, and too sparsely populated to justify mass transit. Instead, we flag down a rotmotorsai, hop on the back, and whiz our way to the mouth of the soi where we catch a taxi, bus, or train onward. Dangerous? Yes. I only ride the motorcycles on our soi, where the drivers recognize me as a regular and are familiar enough with the traffic on the street to know where caution must be paid. 

Why are our streets laid out in a network of long, narrow soi? It is thanks to the rice-growing past of the central plains of Thailand.

As you can see in the picture above, rice paddies were laid out in long, narrow strips that connected to a main canal or road. As the paddies were drained, paved, and developed (the housing developments are the strips of mostly red roofs) the streets followed the long, narrow contours of the agricultural past. A map of Bangkok shows that legacy: thoroughfares a kilometer or more apart with long, narrow streets stretching out from them. Few of those streets, though, connect the larger thoroughfares.

The result is that many of us live some distance away from major streets and if we aren’t driving, have to find our way out of the soi under an unforgiving sun. It’s enough to make you cave in an ride on a motorcycle taxi or, perhaps, to want to take a nap.

A Room with a View

Cleaning up my company laptop before returning it, I came across some orphan photos that I never shared. Interesting odds and ends like this one:

A toilet at Singapore Changi airport that offers urinal users an expansive view of the tarmac. One imagines that travels could end up standing there much longer than needed, fascinated watching the airplanes coming and going, resulting in long queues for the toilet. Much nicer than the usual airport toilet, no?