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.