Running around the block

https://graphics.reuters.com/world-coronavirus-tracker-and-maps/countries-and-territories/thailand/

Wave three of COVID-19 has arrived in Thailand. Our infection and death rates per million are significantly below many other nations, but after the B.1.617 variant (the so called “Indian variant”) reached Thailand despite our borders ostensibly being closed, our earlier good fortune of few infections gave way to the realization that Thais are susceptible to COVID after all.

While generally compliant with mask mandates, many let their guard down after a year and ill-advised gatherings at illicit pubs and “entertainment venues” in the hi-so Thong Lor neighborhood were super-spreader events that ushered in wave three, just before the Songkran holiday in mid-April. The government, perhaps loath to cancel the Songkran for a second consecutive year, thousands of Bangkok’s upper crust traveled to Phuket, Chiang Mai and other holiday destinations. Large, mostly unmasked gatherings there helped spread the virus across the kingdom and then, the newly infected returned to spread the virus further across Bangkok.

A month and a half later, we are in a partial lockdown. Restaurants operate at one-quarter capacity with only one guest to be seated at each table. They close early for dine-in and no alcohol is served. The borders are still closed except for those with Certificates of Entry from the Thai government (in addition to visas and other paperwork) who undergo a 15-night quarantine regardless of their vaccination status. I’ll talk more about that in an upcoming post.

To top it off, among the restrictions has been the closure of gyms (understandable) and public parks (less so). This means my running, my preferred form of exercise, is now done on the sois of Bangkok in the pre-dawn darkness.

As the sky gradually lightens, I run in the street as it is still a bit safer than running on the footpaths, which are inconsistently leveled and often have obstacles (tree stumps, anyone?) and loose pavers that will give way and twist your ankle.

I take different routes, exploring familiar corners of the neighborhood I pass by frequently in a car as well as hidden troks, the narrow lanes that weave behind temples, along canals, and in areas not accessible to vehicles with four wheels. It is a chance to see more about the neighborhoods along the middle of Sukhumvit Road.

One of the more fascinating aspects of this part of Bangkok is its socioeconomic diversity. To be clear, the part of Sukhumvit Road stretching from Asoke (Sukhumvit 21) to Pridi Banomyong (Sukhumvit 71) – a five-kilometer stretch – is the wealthiest section of Bangkok. But behind the malls, high-rise luxury condos, nightclubs, Michelin-starred restaurants, and import car dealerships, you find these pockets of everything from modest 1960s-era apartments to slums and cramped construction worker shacks, the last of which have facilitated the rapid spread of COVID-19.

The four-story shop houses, which were the staple of the main streets, continue to give way to 30-, 40- and 50-story condo towers, many of which have prices starting at US$6,000 per square meter (10 square feet) and going much, much higher. In the past two years, the government finally instituted an annual property tax, although they are giving a 90% discount off the already low tax rate. Under-utilized land is taxed at a higher rate so, as you see in the picture above, vacant land is being planted with lime or banana trees, to be classified as an agricultural use while the owners await the opportunity to otherwise develop it.

One recent addition on Ekkamai Road, a hot spot for nightlife, is the addition of a privately-run multi-story car park, the first I recall seeing in this area. Given how car-centric Bangkok is, this is probably a good idea and may perhaps some of the annoying parking that clogs narrow sois and alleys.

There are pockets of culture to be found. This narrow khlong that cuts through the back part of the neighborhood between Thong Lor and Ekkamai roads, has provided a canvas for graffiti artists, something that was rare when I moved here in 2005 but now seems more common and, frankly, in many cases quite sophisticated. The water, though, is dreadful and I can imagine that the neighbors keep their windows closed even when the weather turns a bit more pleasant in the winter.

Hidden next to the 150-year old khlong Saen Saeb, one of the oldest canals in Bangkok, is the charming Wat Pasi (or “tax temple”). It is popular with locals and has unique square-shaped main building that looks much more like a mosque than the typically steeply-pitched red tiled roof on a Buddhist temple. The temple is actually very close to a large Muslim population and about five minutes along the canal, you will find Khlongtan Central Mosque or Masjid Jamiah al-Islam, a prominent mosque in this area.

Interestingly, in the last few years, Wat Pasi has undergone this redecoration with this tree trunks (real trees!) shipped here and set up to create a faux-forest scene. I’m unclear why the trees needed to be cut down instead of new trees being planted.

Anyhow, the chance to run around the neighborhood helps me see more of the area, appreciate the range of lives and lifestyles that are here, many of which are largely invisible to me unless I go looking for them.

Skyline View of Bangkok

A week ago, a couple we know was in town from Chicago. They had a twenty-four hour layover on a cruise making its way from Singapore to Hong Kong. We met them for drinks at the rooftop bar on the Marriott Sukhumvit Hotel.

The hotel opened less than a year ago and is only a few blocks from our house. I had never been there but was amazed at how spectacular the views are – the roof affords a full 360-degree view of the city.

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This first view is looking to the east and southeast along Sukhumvit Road. You can see the BTS Skytrain running along the road and Ekkamai station is just blocked by the red condo building, located between the Gateway Mall (also red) and the temple complex. That makes for an interesting contrast, no?

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This photo picks up from where the previous one leaves off, looking from the southeast to the west. You can see that we are actually not very far from the Chao Phraya River and the port area Рif you look really closely, you can see their cruise ship docked. You will notice that the main part of the city is to the west, where the concentration of high rises is much denser.

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This picture continues from the far end of the bar in the previous picture. It looks from the west to the north and covers the entire Thong Lor neighborhood where I live. The BTS Skytrain station is on the left and you can see the line running into town along Sukhumvit Road. This neighborhood is more residential with lots of condominium towers, restaurants, and shops.

One thing that really amazes me about Bangkok, compared with many cities, is that there are high rise buildings all over the place with no real defined “centers” for the city. On one level, I think it makes the skyline a bit bland as there is no focal point. But at the same time, maybe being so spread out saves us from all having to commute to just one area. Who knows?

 

Old Houses of Sukhumvit

The neighborhood I live in – Thong Lo – is part of the “middle Sukhumvit” area in Bangkok.  Located east of the old city and not too far from the Chao Phraya River, fifty years ago this area was considered to be really far out in the countryside.  Well-off families of merchants and civil servants bought pieces of land for their weekend homes along narrow sois (alleys) that led off larger streets that paralleled khlongs (canals).

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Over time, their houses grew with additions for children and in-laws.  Trees grew, too, providing beautiful shade and cooler temperatures even as the city and all its ill effects – noise, pollution, pavement, and tall buildings – crept into the neighborhood.

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Since there are no annual property taxes (although they are being discussed by the legislature), there is little incentive to sell unused property.  As these old homes were encroached upon by modernity, families often fled to other properties and some of the beautiful residences fell into disrepair.

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Sometimes the family, or their descendants, will raze the old buildings and construct new ones.  That’s happening next door to us as two older houses have been torn down, the adjacent properties have been combined, and a new house if being erected.  Of course, this required the removal of some of the beautiful (and tall) old trees because the sons of the owner didn’t want leaves falling into their swimming pool.  Instead of leaves, they will get to be spied upon by half of my neighbors.

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Many of the older houses are built in a “tropical deco” style and were designed with the environment in mind.  With wide overhangs and carefully oriented windows, natural ventilation kept the house comfortable most of the year and air conditioning was rarely necessary as the breezes and large trees worked in tandem to cool the house.

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Not so much these newer homes, the designs of which are a mish-mash of styles, resembling nothing so much as a housing development in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  Take the above house which is being built on Sukhumvit Soi 10.  What is that deck-like structure elevated above the house?  It couldn’t possibly be chimneys because why would anyone have fireplaces in Bangkok?

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Sometimes the older houses, instead of being torn down, are turned to commercial uses either through lease or sale.  Just down the street from us, this beautiful three-story home (a bit hard to see in the background) is being transformed into a new branch of Curries and More, a Thai restaurant operated by the popular Baan Khanita group.  They are adding another building that is being built around the existing trees and it looks like the setting will be beautiful, complementing the style of the original house rather than competing with it.

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Another example, just next door to our condo, is a house that was turned into Red, an upscale Indian restaurant.  While the people living adjacent to the restaurant don’t appreciate some of the late-night celebrations held there, the owners have done a nice job using the original building.

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Perhaps the nicest example is across the street and a few doors down from us, a company that designs and sells furniture including outdoor patio sets that are perfectly suited to the wide verandas featured in the house’s design.

It is interesting to watch how the neighborhood changes.  What started out as weekend homes in the far suburbs has become condos, restaurants, shops, or just rebuilt homes in the vibrant heart of the city.  All a part of the unique character and charm of Bangkok.

 

New Pedestrian Bridges at Asoke and Thong Lo

For a city of about 8 million people with generally poor mass transit systems, Krungthep (Bangkok) can sometimes surprise you with the usefulness of some of its infrastructure development.  A good example of this are the pedestrian bridges built to connect some of the BTS Skytrain (elevated rail) stations to surrounding buildings.  In a city with lots of traffic congestion, poor air quality, and even poorer footpath quality, an elevated way to get from the station to the buildings is a big incentive to get out of the car and into the mass transit.

Asoke Road

The junction of Asoke and Sukhumvit roads is an example of this bridge building trend.  One of the busiest intersections in the city, crossing at street level has long been a hazardous activity for pedestrians.  Located at the intersection of the MRTA subway and the BTS Skytrain, this junction houses three high-rise offices each with a few floors of retail, two large hotels, and a nine-story mall that is under construction.

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The pedestrian bridge built under the Skytrain viaduct, heading east from the Asoke station.

In the past two years, pedestrian bridges were built to the west of the BTS Skytrain station, connecting the two hotels and one of the three office buildings.  Then a large bridge was built to the east under the Skytrain tracks on Sukhumvit, crossing Asoke in a single cantilevered structure.  On the east side of the junction the pedestrian bridge connected to the building in the southeast corner, but not to the newer building on the northeast corner.

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The northeast corner of the Asoke-Sukhumvit junction. 

Before the pedestrian  bridge opened across Asoke, you had to descend from the Skytrain station to the subway station, cross under Asoke road in the subway station, and then reemerge at the base of this building.  The subway entrance is in the lower left of the photo, near the large umbrellas.  The new pedestrian bridge is on the right that connects directly to the building is on the right.  What follows are some pictures of the connection under construction over the past two months:

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Taken about six weeks ago, you can see in this picture how the new extension of the bridge will connect from the existing pedestrian bridge (shown in the very first picture in this entry) to the third floor of the building.  At this point, just a part of the metal framework has been put into place.

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A few days later, crossbeams have been added and some of the concrete flooring is in place.  You can also see how a stairwell to the street level – a requirement for all the bridges that connect to buildings to allow after-hours access to the pedestrian bridge – fits into the design.

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A few days after that, the columns for the roof structure are mostly in place.  The following week, the roof itself has been added and most of the side panels are installed.

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Finally, about two weeks ago the bridge is finished and is nearly open.  Lighting is working, as you can see.  This will be much more convenient to access the building and its businesses.  Certainly much easier than having to pass through the subway station to get there!  Plus, you can now descend to the street and access businesses along this side of the street more easily.

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A second example of new pedestrian bridges is going up on the west side of the Thong Lo Skytrain station.  This is my neighborhood station and it lies just to the east of the junction of Thong Lo and Sukhumvit Roads, two stops to the east of the Asoke station.

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Looking west from the foot of the Thong Lo Station

The main driver behind this bridge is the Noble Remix condo (the purple building) which will have two floors of retail below about 35 stories of residences.  While the retail floors will get traffic from the residents, there’s no hope of anyone else traipsing over there unless it is convenient, and that means a pedestrian bridge. 

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Looking west from the station’s westbound platform.

Looking from the station platform to the west, you can see the condo on the left and the entrance to my alley on the right, just under the tracks before the first column.  The rationale for needing a pedestrian bridge is that someone walking along the sidewalk has to go along the petrol station and then cross a small but busy alley between the petrol station and the condo.  By building the bridge, it is safer and more convenient for pedestrians. 

At the same time, some stairs will be built on the north (righthand) side of the road in front of the international school – the building that is wrapped in blue construction tarp.  This should be safer for students and their parents to access the Skytrain station.

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Looking back from in front of the international school towards the BTS Skytrain station, you can see the condo to the right and the first columns of the pedestrian bridge.  This is about two months ago.

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As of four weeks ago, box frames were built around the train viaduct’s columns.

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A few weeks later, the bridgework was added to connect each of the support columns.  For the past two weeks, no further work has been done including the connection to the station itself.  I’m curious to see how quickly they will finish this project.  It seems like it should not be difficult but each step has moved quite slowly.  In the end, it won’t benefit me very much but it is another sign of progress in making the Skytrain more accessible to the area surrounding the station and and more user-friendly to potential passengers.