Dining in Bangkok: Rocket Coffeebar

For nearly eight years living in Bangkok, I have lamented how few good breakfast and brunch restaurants we have. This has started to change recently and Rocket Coffeebar on Sathorn Soi 12 is a welcome addition to the breakfast scene.

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Opened by several of the people behind Hyde & Seek on Soi Ruamradee, Rocket Coffeebar’s vibe would fit in well in Stockholm, Sydney, or San Francisco. The interior is small – seating perhaps sixteen people – and is done up in stylish marble counters and tiles. Continue reading

Bangkok Bus Rapid Transit

Months after I thought the project was fatally stalled, Bangkok’s new Bus Rapid Transit scheme started running this past week.  Finally, the City of Angels is making some more progress away from private automobiles and towards public transit.

The concept of Bus Rapid Transit, or BRT, is somewhat akin to having a light rail system but substituting busses for the rail cars.  This way, you don’t have the significant infrastructure investment while still enjoying many of the benefits of light rail transit.  Cities as varied as Jakarta, São Paulo, Bogotá, Seattle, and Brisbane use various BRT systems to good effect.

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This first route (four more are planned in the years to come) is shown in green at the bottom of the map.  It begins near the Chong Nonsi BTS Skytrain station on Narathiwat Road between Silom and Sathorn Roads, running southeast along Narathiwat Road and then turning onto Rama III Road and heading west along the south side of the city, terminating on the Thonburi side of the river near the future Ratchadapisek BTS station on the western extension of the Silom Skytrain line.  Prolific blogger Richard Barrow has created a Google map showing the whole thing in detail. 

Based on questions I’ve asked, the new Ratchadapisek BTS station should be within easy connecting distance of the BRT terminus, but looking around once we reached the terminus, I could see the Skytrain tracks but no indication of construction of the new station.  Articles I’ve read in the newspaper say that BTS plans to have this extension opened by the end of 2012.  We’ll see…

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The first map left out one important part of the larger transit scheme here in Bangkok – the Airport Express.  The Airport Express (the dotted red line labeled “Airport Link” in the map above) just began trial runs for the public this week and I’ll take a ride next week and report on it, too. 

As you can see, we are starting to get a more comprehensive transit network in place.  If you are really curious, a reader of 2Bangkok.com created a very nice map that shows what our rail transit network would look like if every single proposed line and extension were built.  You can find that map here.

So let’s get on with a review of the BRT itself.  My friend Ken and I, after completing an errand at the US embassy, took the bus down to the Sathorn/Narathiwat intersection.  Last October I wrote an entry about the intersection and I’ve pulled some “before” pictures from that entry to contrast with current pictures.

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This is an artist’s rendering of what the intersection will look like (facing northwest looking up Narathiwat Road towards Sathorn) once the construction is complete.  The BRT station is at the bottom and the Chong Nonsi BTS station is at the top.  The area with the yellow arch is part of the pedestrian bridge that is being constructed over Sathorn Road, replacing two smaller pedestrian bridges that currently exist at the corners of the intersection.  A green-roofed walkway connects from the Chong Nonsi BTS station to the pedestrian bridge.  That walkway is pictured below, with the Chong Nonsi station in the distance.

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Current view of the walkway, above, and the way it looked in October 2009, below.

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A view from the Skytrain looking southeast towards the BRT station.  You can see the significant steel works that will form the pedestrian bridge crossing Sathorn Road.  This is the area where the yellow arches appear in the artist’s rendering a few pictures above. 

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A closer view of the walkway leading from the Sathorn intersection to the BRT station under construction in October 2009.

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And that same completed walkway now.  In the walkway, you pass through a ticketing area (which, I understand, will eventually use the same stored-value fare cards that the Skytrain, subway, and Airport Express will use) and descend escalators to an enclosed waiting room.

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The waiting room at the Sathorn station has glazed glass and air conditioners, making your wait for the bus more comfortable.  Interestingly, the rest of the stations along the line do not have air conditioning, only the two terminal stations.  But the other stations are in the middle of the road and, presumably, catch a decent breeze. 

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Busses, which look like Heimlich, the German caterpillar in the animated Pixar film A Bug’s Life,  run every ten minutes.  The operator’s compartment is separated from the passenger compartment, rather like on a train. 

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The layout of the floor includes bench seating in the front and lots of standing room.  Capacity is around 50 passengers.  An LCD monitor at the front shows a map of where the bus is on the route, updating in real time, kind of like the “air show” maps on airplanes.  Information on the monitor alternates between English and Thai.

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The back half of the bus has single seats, which seem to be a waste of the raised floor space.  They should change these to be benches as well, which would make better use of the space.  The two men in blue shirts and ties were from the BTS Skytrain organization, apparently conducting some corporate espionage.  Competition between transit systems must be fierce!  Ha ha…

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Near the end of the route, the bus crosses the Chao Phraya River on the Rama III Bridge.  Above is a view looking northwards towards the heart of the city.  You can see that many condos (and a few hotels) have sprung up along the river.  Supposedly, there has been a moratorium on further riverside development higher than eight stories, but I don’t know if that is actually true.  Off in the distance you can barely make out the gold-domed State Tower, which appears in the pictures from our stay last weekend at the Peninsula Hotel.

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Above is the view from the same bridge looking roughly southwards as the Chao Phraya River prepares to make a large turn to the east.  In April 2006, Tawn and I stopped by the temple you see on the right of the picture during Songkhran.  There was something like a summer school for young boys, all of whom had their heads shaved and had donned the saffron robes of novice monks.

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They were playing around – kung fu fighting, it looked like – on the roof of the temple in the heat of the early afternoon.  Not very monastic behavior, but it made for a good picture.  The rest of the story of that trip to Thonburi is here.

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Stations along the way are in the median of the road, requiring a climb up stairs or escalators and then across the road on a pedestrian bridge.  About 70% of the BRT’s route has a dedicated lane for the bus, set off from the rest of the traffic by green and white striped concrete barriers. 

The remaining 30% is on a section of road with only two lanes, one of which has been painted and signed as being only for BRT busses and vehicles with three or more occupants.  Needless to say, traffic on the remaining lane has become even more congested on that section of road, leading to a lot of complaints by car drivers that the BRT is worsening traffic, not improving it.  Hopefully, the policemen will actually enforce the law and keep drivers out of the BRT lanes.

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An interesting feature of the BRT system is that there are additional concrete curbs installed on both sides of the lane at the station.  The driver wants to get as close to the platform as possible to make boarding smooth and safe.  There are two small wheels sticking out from under the bus, parallel to the ground.  These sense the curb and alert the driver so he can properly position himself.  All boarding is through the single door in the center of the bus, which is at the same level as the platform.  There is one emergency exit (see the red handle?) at the back of the bus.

The trip took about thirty minutes one way and provided an interesting look at some corners of the city I don’t see very often.  The ride is smooth and comfortable, the stations seem well-located, and the directions and announcements were easy to understand.  All in all, I have to give a solid B+ to the Bangkok BRT system.  If they would bring the same sort of rationalization to the rest of the dozens of bus routes that ply this city, they wouldn’t need to build any more rail. 

Next week… the Airport Express is finally running.  Stay tuned.

 

New Hot Spot: Sathorn and Naratiwat

Similar to the other City of Angels in Southern California, Krungthep is very spread out, lacking a cohesive downtown.  Driving through the city, you find high-rise buildings spread liberally throughout the metropolitan area.  That said, there are a few areas with a concentration of office buildings, most prominently the stretch of Sathorn Road from Rama IV to Surasak Roads.

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Figure A: Sathorn Road, looking east from the Naratiwat intersection.  Decades ago, this was a wide canal with small roads on either side.  The canal was lined with fruit trees that were eventually cut down so as to widen the roads.

Along this stretch, the Sathorn-Naratiwat intersection seems to be the new hot spot.  Located next to the Chong Nongsi BTS Skytrain station, this intersection has several new condos, hotels and office buildings in various stages of construction or recent opening.  Real Estate sections of the local newspapers tout this as the place with the most quickly rising land values in the whole city.

In a few years, this intersection will be home to the tallest building in Krungthep, MahaNakhon Bangkok, a 77-story tower that will include the new Ritz Carlton Residences, private condos and a luxury hotel.  The pixelated design by Ole Sheeren (designer of the iconic CCTV Tower in Beijing) promises to add a unique focal point to the city’s skyline.  Inspired by DNA, I have to wonder why anyone would buy into a building that looks like it is disintegrating.

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Above, an artist’s rendering of MahaNakhon Bangkok.

Let me take you on a tour of the area.  There are many interesting things going on here. 

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First, a map to give you an idea of where you are.  The letters on the map correspond to other pictures in this entry and the arrows show the approximate direction of the view.

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Figure B: Looking from the Chong Nongsi BTS Skytrain station platform southbound towards the Sathorn and Naratiwat intersection.  The track makes a right-hand turn onto Sathorn Road, heading towards the Chao Phraya River.  Most of the new construction is occurring on the right-hand side of this picture.

Below, another shot from the same platform, looking westbound between two buildings.  The one on the right is a condo that recently opened.  The one on the left is a mixed-use complex that is still under construction.  In a rare act of historical preservation, the Bangkok Metropolitan Authority required that the former Russian Embassy (shown on the map above) be preserved and incorporated into the development.  This beautiful colonial building is a treasure.  Hopefully it will not be lost in a forest of tall buildings, just like the main character’s home in the recent Pixar movie, Up!

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Figure C: From the Sathorn-Naratiwat intersection looking back towards the Chong Nongsi BTS Skytrain station.  There is a new pedestrian walkway in a stalled stage of development.  This is part of the “BRT” – Bus Rapid Transit – project that the previous governor of Krungthep started.  This idea would create a light rail like network, but using buses instead.  The infrastructure is less expensive to build than rail, which sounds fine by me.  

The walkway would connect the Skytrain station to the BRT station on the other side of the intersection, visible in Figure E, below.  The construction has stalled because of an investigation into how the project was procured.  Once again, accusations of corruption.  My opinion is that even if the rest of the BRT system remains stalled, completing this walkway would be a good idea.  It is, after all, almost complete. 

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Figure D: This is a wider shot showing looking north towards the BTS Skytrain station.  I took Figure C from the corner of the pedestrian bridge on the right-hand side of this photo.  The only way to cross this very busy intersection is to use the pedestrian bridges.  If you disembark at the BTS Skytrain station, you currently have to descend to the street level, navigate the vendor and motorcycle-strewn sidewalk, then climb back up the pedestrian bridge to cross Sathorn Road.

If the elevated walkway that is part of the BRT project were finished, it would provide a direct, sheltered connection for BTS Skytrain passengers who are going to the Sathorn-Naratiwat intersection.  Sounds like a good idea to me!

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Figure E: Pivoting 180 degrees to the left from Figure D, looking south along Naratiwat Road, you can see where the BRT station is in a frozen state of construction.  There is another walkway that would connect that station to the pedestrian bridges at the Sathorn-Naratiwat intersection. 

The big question is, why was I down in this neck of the woods in the first place?  I have a Canon Laser Printer/Copier at home and had several used toner cartridges I wanted to recycle.  None of the retailers who sell Canon toner will accept the used cartridges for recycling.  After contacting Canon via email, a helpful employee called and explained that I could bring the cartridges to their headquarters to recycle them.  Canon is on the ninth and tenth floor of a building that is just to the left of Figure E.

Just trying to do my part to save the world.  I double-side my print jobs, too.  Ha ha…