Coffee Bars and the Quest for Third Places

An interesting article appeared in the New York Times this week about a trend of some coffee shops not offering seating – standing room only – and trying to make the space more about the coffee and the other customers than about hunkering down, plugged into your iPhone, iPad, and iPod.  This spurred some thoughts and I beg you to bear with me as I bring them up in the disjointed manner one might expect after having had a double espresso on an empty stomach.

First, a few excerpts from the article, to give you the general idea of it:

At times, the large back room at Café Grumpy in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, has so many customers typing and wearing noise-canceling headphones that it looks like an office without the cubicles.  A second Café Grumpy location, in Chelsea, prohibited laptops after too many customers ran extension cords across the room. …

When Café Grumpy’s owners … decided to open a third location … they built a solution to the laptop problem right into the design. The furniture consists of a counter in the back and a chest-high table in the front. …

“I don’t think I’d ever do a bigger space with tables and chairs again,” [one of the owners] said. “I appreciate the idea of when you go someplace and it feels like a home away from home, but I don’t think it should be a home office away from home.” [emphasis mine]

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Photo courtesy the New York Times

Earlier this summer, the Bluebird Coffee Shop in the East Village replaced half its tables and most of the chairs with two counters and a few stools.  “A coffee shop should be a place to meet your friends and hold conversations and cultivate ideas instead of — I’m going to get in trouble for saying this, so I have to be careful — instead of sticking your head in a laptop,” said [Bluebird’s owner].

 

Third Places

Years ago, just as I was starting university, coffee shops were starting to come into fashion in the US.  Starbucks was around, although not as ubiquitous as it is these days.  I remember reading an in-depth article about the concept of Third Places, an article that contributed to my interest, and my brief majoring in, urban studies.

Third Places are informal public gathering spaces that offer a balance between the spheres of home and work, the first and second places, respectively, in our lives.  Just as a tripod offers more stability than a bipod, the third place can serve to keep us from falling into a mental trap of “home to work and back again”.

The article, and many like it, identify examples of third places such as the cafe in French culture, the corner pub in the British Isles, and the espresso bar in Italy.  Places that serve to anchor neighborhood life.  The underlying thesis of the article was that the overall quality of life in a society is better when there is such a third place and declines in the absence of such spaces.

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The corner pub has served as a third place in Britain

 

Do We Actually Have Third Places?

I’ve observed is that we’ve built a great number of spaces that are designed to look like third places – indeed, Starbucks’ founder and CEO Howard Schultz (no relation) acknowledges that as one of the omnipresent chain’s motivations.  But these spaces don’t actually function as true third places. 

How many of you go to a business like Starbucks regularly enough that you know the employees who work there, but don’t know any of the other customers?  There are certainly many small businesses within walking distance of my house (including a Starbucks, I type a bit guiltily) where I recognize the staff but none of the patrons.

The element that is missing from our pseudo third places is our interaction with our neighbors, the other customers in the place.  Some of that may be because the third places we visit are largely outside of our neighborhood, often on the way to (or nearby) work.  That begs the question, are they really third places in the true definition of the word?  They cannot anchor a neighborhood if they are not in your neighborhood.

As an aside, I have to wonder whether the increasing political polarization in the US is due in some small part to this lack of third places in which we interact with our neighbors.  When we don’t know our neighbors, much less have the opportunity to interact and converse with them, what hope is there of having a civil dialogue about the issues of the day?

 

What About My Third Places?

About a five-minute walk away from my home, at the mouth of the soi (alley) where I live, there is a small corner spot that is a small, failing Japanese bar.  It is steps away from the entrance to the Skytrain station, near a busy intersection, and across the street from a private international school.  It strikes me that it would be the perfect location for a coffee bar that the NY Times article talks about.  Being at the gateway to my neighborhood and just next to a transit station, it would be the ideal crossing path for neighbors.  I don’t know if it would work financially – there are a lot of factors at play here – but in terms of being an effective third place, it would be well suited.

Another possibility is one of two small retail spots on the street level of my 8-story condo building.  It is currently empty but the juristic board says that a lease has been signed for someone to open a small cafe of some sort.  That would be an ideal third place, right?  Go down for a morning coffee, meet and chat with my building’s neighbors and other people in the neighborhood.  We’ll see if it works out like that.

Espresso Bar
Courtesy The Age newspaper, Melbourne

Somewhere in my mind, I imagine either patronizing (or owning) a place like the one pictured above.  An espresso bar that is crowded with people from the neighborhood, getting their coffee, chatting for a bit, and then going on their way.  Somewhere warm and convivial. 

What about you?  Do you have a third place?  Do you see an absence of third places in our societies?  And what do you think about coffee bars without a place to sit down and plug into your digital devices?

 

First Ride on the Bangkok Airport Link

Three years late, the rail line to the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi International Airport has finally started running, although on a limited, trial basis.  Last week I headed out for a look at this latest addition to Krungthep’s transit infrastructure.

The new airport, Suvarnabhumi, opened more than three years ago about 30 km east of the heart of the city.  The planned rail service, the so called “pink line,” suffered through interminable delays caused for any number of reasons, not the least of which might have to do with the State Railways of Thailand’s notorious inefficiency.  The SRT, which owns the right-of-way, built, and will eventually operate the pink line, has never turned a profit in its more than half-century of operations.

Nonetheless, I’m excited that another piece in the transit puzzle is nearly put into place as the line started limited trial service almost two weeks ago.

Airport Link Map

The pink line is actually two lines: the darker line is the city line, which will make multiple stops between the airport and Phaya Thai, which is currently the westernmost station.  As you can see in the above map, there were several planned but unbuilt stations, shown with station names in outlined font.  The second, light pink line is the airport link, which will run nonstop between the airport and the Makkasan station (at Asoke and Petchaburi Roads), where the in-city terminal will be located.

If all goes according to plan, passengers will be able to check in for their flights at Makkasan station, receive boarding passes and drop off their bags, then ride on the train to the airport.  Their bags will be carried in a secure storage area and, already ticketed, will go from the train directly into the airport’s baggage system.  It sounds like there will be some delay before that part is operational.

Additionally, the plan is that passengers on the pink line will be able to connect with the BTS Skytrain at Phaya Thai and with the MRT subway at Makkasan-Petchaburi.  Sadly, it appears that neither connection is currently built.

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I met up with Bill and Ken, two friends with an interest in things both transit and aviation related, at the Phaya Thai BTS station to give the pink line a try.  During this trial run, only the two end stations – Phaya Thai and Airport – are operational on the pink line.  The train service is running weekdays from 7-10 am and 4-10 pm nonstop between these stations, although some intermediate stops will be introduced next week.  This trial run is free and will last until August, when the full system is supposed to be in service.

Above, you can see the Phaya Thai station of the pink line, the big concrete behemoth on the right, and a ramp that is supposed to connect to the Phaya Thai BTS station on the left.  You’ll notice, though, that the ramp stops about 5 meters short of the BTS station.  I’m curious about this because passengers will have to walk down to the street level, along 100-200 meters of broken, dirty sidewalk, cross an active railway line, and then ascend into the second station, regardless of which way they are connecting.

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Above: Flagman at the active railroad tracks that passengers connecting between the pink line and BTS have to cross, directs cars off the track as a train approaches.

My theory for this is that the two systems didn’t communicate very well, even though the BTS has been running for more than ten years so certainly wasn’t an unknown entity.  The ramp would connect a paid area in the BTS station with a public area in the pink line station.  So someone is going to have to pay to build and maintain turnstiles and a BTS ticket booth somewhere at the connection point.  This is insane because the three rail systems in town are supposed to be moving to a common ticket platform – one ticket, all systems – so the ramp should lead from the paid area to another paid area, not pass through a public area of the pink line station.

Anyhow, we walked across the railroad tracks with no problems and took the elevators up several levels in the new pink line station, being directed by friendly guards the whole way.

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The trains (these are the city line trains being used for the test run, not the airport link trains) are from Siemens and they look nice enough.  The stations along the line are not very impressive, a collage of grey concrete and grey metal.  Only the Makkasan and Airport stations are air conditioned.

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The line was pretty well used when I took it about 4pm.  By the time the train left, the seats were full with many of the passengers looking like airport employees or people who live out in the eastern suburbs.  There were also many local tourists traveling just to see the new train and, surprisingly, a few people actually using the train to get to the airport with their bags. 

Once the line is fully operational, the city line will charge between about 10-40 baht (up to US$1.25) and the airport link will charge 150 baht (US$4.75).  I would assume that the seating arrangement on the airport link train will feature pairs of seats facing forwards and backwards along with storage space for carry-on baggage.

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Notice the wide gap between the train and the platform.  It looks like there is a ledge under the door that can be extended, but they were not doing that.

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The monitors in the station show a video of the route, alternating between Thai and English.  There is also a countdown clock until the next departure – shown in seconds!  I’ve never seen a train station that shows countdown time in seconds.  And, believe me, SRT isn’t the sort of prompt organization that runs things to the second.

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Looking east from Phaya Thai station towards the Ratchaprarop station, the two closest stations on the line.

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The ride itself was very smooth, with the exception of one station midway through the line where there is a passing lane.  We had to slow down significantly to change tracks, breaking our otherwise good speed of approximately 120 kmh or 75 mph.  We were going faster than all but the fastest taxis on the expressway that parallels the tracks most of the way to the airport.

Along the way, there was a nice view of the many new housing development springing up near the airport and the new stations on the pink line.  This line will probably become very useful, less for airport passengers and employees, but more for locals who live to the east of the city and need a fast way to commute into town to their offices.

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It took just about 20 minutes to go from Phaya Thai station to the airport.  I understand that the airport link service from Makkasan to the airport will be about 16.  The train pulls into the sub-basement of the car park structure, connecting directly into the terminal building.  A quick ride up the elevator or moving sidewalks and you are at the arrivals and departures levels.  Very convenient on this end of the line.  In the future, you will be able to walk through this station to the airport hotel, which you currently have to take a shuttle van to.  The station will also have various retail shops, although those are all located on the hotel side of the station, which doesn’t make much sense.

There are some potential cons to the system right now and I’ll have to wait and see how it works once the whole system is up and running, then I’ll talk more about the cons if they haven’t been addressed.  For the moment, I’ll simply say that I’m glad additional transit options are opening and I hope that we’ll see several more in the next few years.

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Speaking of which, one has to wonder where the pink line, which ends just to the west of the Phaya Thai station, will go in the future.  The master plan shows this line continuing, turning north and heading towards the old Don Meuang airport (and beyond) and also turning south and heading to the current Hualamphong train station and then underground, across the river, and southwest to Samut Sakhon province.  Ambitious!

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.

 

Denuded and Exposed

Last December I wrote about some of the changes happening to the landscape in the Thong Lor neighborhood of Krungthep (Bangkok), where Tawn and I live.  Most notably, for selfish reasons, is the demolishing of two houses adjacent to our condo.

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One Sunday morning last December laborers started demolishing the internal structure on this first house.  You can see our condo building – one of two U-shaped buildings that face each other around a swimming pool – in the background. 

Thankfully we live on the back side of the building from this picture so the noise and dust didn’t affect us all that directly.  But like any property owners, we were curious what was going on.  Was this adjacent property going to become a thirty-plus story monstrosity like the one to our southeast?

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A few days later, heavy equipment came in and the building, an old single-family home dating from the 1960s, was razed.  Once most of the rubble was carted away, everything was quiet for several weeks.  Then about a month ago they started the same process with another house in the property to the left of the one pictured above.

On behalf of the panicked residents, uncertain about what was going to be built just outside their balconies, the homeowner’s association pressured the juristic office to contact the Wattana District office.  The news came back that the properties are owned by an elderly woman who is building houses for her two sons.  There would be no large condos, just new single-family homes.  Of course there are plenty of examples on our street of “single family homes” that become extended family six-story apartments.

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Then two weeks ago, once again on a Sunday morning, the construction crews arrived and started cutting down all the trees and vegetation on the two, now one since the wall between them had been demolished, properties.  A few days later they also cut down two beautiful old trees that were at the back of their property, situated so that they provided a nice green backdrop for our pool area.

Last Sunday morning was the annual homeowner’s association meeting.  At the meeting, the head of the association, a Thai man about my age who lives in the mirror image condo from ours on the same floor, explained that he had personally contacted the homeowner and offered to compensate her for the trees so that they could remain standing.

She explained that her sons were going to build a pool and didn’t want to deal with the leaves falling into it.  Bleh.  How’s that for a lame excuse?  If you can afford to tear down old houses to build new ones, I think you can afford a pool boy.  They are inexpensive here.  (I keep suggesting we hire one but Tawn says no.  Ha ha… just kidding.  I mean just kidding about hiring one, not about Tawn saying no.)

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The view from our balcony now includes a clear view of the denuded property and the soi (alley) beyond.  There used to be two really beautiful trees that would put forth these large pink blooms twice a year.  I’m hoping they will plant some new landscaping but it could take a decade to get our verdant view back.

At this homeowner’s association meeting there were four vacancies for the committee.  Three people, including Tawn and a British expat who has lived here more than seven years, volunteered for the positions.  One of Tawn’s big issues is greenery – both aesthetically and also since it affects our property value – so I’m sure this will be an issue that gets addressed at the next committee meeting. 

Also, the British guy (John) and several other people have offered to help pitch in money to plant trees on our side of the property to replace the ones cut down.  We’ll see how that goes as the planter area is less than a meter wide, so I don’t think the large root ball of a tall tree could be accommodated.

Anyhow, we’re feeling more exposed these days, now that our neighboring land has been denuded.

 

Changing Landscape

This morning I went for a bicycle ride, enjoying the breezy weather and using the opportunity to see what’s changing in Wattana, the larger district in which Tawn and I live.  This area, with its large expat and middle-class Thai population, is forever changing.  In what used to be the outskirts of town forty years ago, well-off Thai families built their weekend homes here along the canals and fruit orchards.

The canals and orchards have long since passed with condos, restaurants and spas taking the place of the 1960s style modern Thai family homes.  One of these homes, located in the property to the north of our condo, has just been torn down.  The condo’s management has checked with the district office to see what is planned for the property but no plans have been submitted yet.

Interestingly, most of the demolition was done by a team of a half-dozen laborers.  It was only shortly after the point shown above that a machine was brought in to tear down the final walls.  The result, weeks and weeks the sound of breaking glass, cracking concrete and tearing wood.  Made it a bit hard to record audio for some training programs I was working on.

Something I noticed from our side of the property was that a poster of His Majesty the King, something that pretty much all Thais put on a wall in their house or place of business, was still attached to the wall even as demolition commenced.  Is that kosher to do?

At the end of our soi (the small alleys that branch off the main roads) another large property has been cleared and construction fencing erected.  According to the sign posted on the front of it, a seven-floor condo is being built there.  More neighbors.

Riding through the Wattana neighborhood, I spotted several interesting things.  On Sukhumvit Soi 33, which is in an entertainment area geared largely for the Japanese community, I noticed this massage parlor.  Based on the various massage services offered (“Lady of the Night Massage”?) I would assume that it isn’t the most legitimate place to find practitioners of traditional therapeutic Thai massage.

My riding took me up along the train tracks that run parallel to Petchaburi Road.  For four years now the Airport Express (“red line”) elevated rail line has been under construction.  Bear in mind that the airport itself opened three years ago.  Word is that it will be running either in April or August of next year.  As most of the physical construction is complete, the frontage roads that parallel the tracks of the traditional railroad (the red line being built above the right-of-way for the regular train) has been rebuilt after having been shut down during construction.

There is a lot of housing built adjacent to the train tracks.  I’m sorry for the people who live there; I’m sure the noise of construction was terrible and the noise of the trains not much better.

I was able to follow the train tracks about 8 kms to the east of my house to the Hua Mark station (just shy of halfway to the airport) before the paved road runs out.  I then turned around and pedaled back, overshooting my house and going to the main in-city Makkasan station, located at Asoke Road.

This is the Ramhamhaeng station located at Sukhumvit Soi 71.  Oddly, there are a dozen parking spaces under the station, wholly inadequate for any actual parking needs.  Also interesting: at all of the stations there are escalators that will run only in the up direction.  The tracks are four to five stories above ground but passengers will have to descend manually.

When I made it to the main Makkasan station, I pedaled into the construction gate and asked the guard if I could ride around.  Not surprisingly, he didn’t think that would be a good idea despite the fact that the roads are all paved and perfectly safe to ride on.

Some other sights: the Terminal 21 building, about which I wrote a few weeks ago, is making quick progress now that all the foundation and underground work is done.  I’ve started shooting weekly pictures of the progress so that in the end I have a record of this building, which is rising at the corner of Sukhumvit and Asoke Roads.  Anyone need another nine-story mall, cinema, office building and service apartment?  Good, you’ll be glad to know a new one is being built for you.

Passing another construction project on Ekkamai Road, I was tickled that the contractor made an effort to put the sign in English.  Normally I have to practice reading Thai but this one was very clear.  The project is to “make new restaurant.”  Now, we’re not going to tell you what restaurant it is.  That’s a secret.

My, How The Neighborhood Changes

Browsing the posts on 2bangkok.com, there was an interesting collection of old photos of Krungthep, many taken by servicemen who were hear during the Vietnam War era, as well as those taken by others.

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One photo that caught my attention was this one, dated 1957.  It is taken at the intersection of Rama I and Phaya Thai Roads, looking east.  (Google Map here)  There used to be a traffic circle – gone now – and the green area on the left is where the Siam Discovery, Sian Center and Siam Paragon malls are. 

Between the time of this picture and today, the land that was Siam Paragon was home to the beautiful old Siam Intercontinental Hotel.  This landmark, with lush tropical gardens and a unique roof line, opened in 1968 and then was torn down in 2002 to make was for Siam Paragon.

After seeing this photo, I decided to go seek out the same vantage point and see how fifty years have changed the landscape.

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Now you see the Skytrain track, an elevated pedestrian walkway and, upper left, the office building that is part of the Siam Discovery complex.  MBK mall is off to the right of the picture.

Would be interesting to see more “now and then” photos.

While walking from BTS National Stadium Skytrain station to this photo site, I watched a pick-up football game (Thai pronunciaton: foot-BON) played on a concrete pitch.  Thought the colors were interesting.

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The Thais love their footbon!

 

Walking the Dog in Singapore

P1140648 The final night of my trip, I stayed with Otto and Han at their condo near Sentosa Island, in the south of Singapore.  (Will Zakiah notice that I didn’t say “Southern Singapore”?)  We weren’t alone, though, as they have a Jack Russell Terrier named Mantou (饅頭) – Mandarin for those plain steamed wheat buns popular in Northern Chinese cuisine.

Right: Otto and Mantou.

It is safe to say that Mantou lives a life of pampered luxury and receives no shortage of affection, being lavished with attention and played with throughout the day. 

He must have done something right in his previous doggie life – pulled someone from a fire perhaps? – to have earned a rebirth as Otto and Han’s puppy in this life. 

One of the nicest things about staying with Otto and Han, besides their good company, is that it gave me a chance to experience Singapore from the perspective of “everyday” Singaporeans, living in the suburban government housing blocks known as HDB flats. 

P1140631 The Housing and Development Board is an interesting organization.  Its mission is three-fold: to provide affordable, quality homes; to ensure vibrant towns; and to focus on the community.  Set up in 1960, the HDB has overseen a complete overhaul in terms of the way people live.  Gone are the slums and squatter settlements, replaced by planned and organized high-rise flats that now house an amazing 84% of Singaporeans.

Left: a typical HDB tower.

To be certain, there is a fair amount of grumbling by Singaporeans and those who have the means to, usually do escape to privately-owned and developed condominium complexes. 

But for the vast majority of residents, HDB housing provides the opportunity to affordably own a clean, efficiently-designed flat in a community that is walkable, has most of the services you would need in one place, and includes spaces for public life to occur.

Idyllic, utopian, and very typical of the trade-offs that one makes if you live in Singapore.

One observation I’ll make just from staying with Otto and Han: their place is quite spacious for two people, nicely laid out, has an excellent view of an adjacent green space, and enjoys very good cross-ventilation.  In fact, the house was very comfortable just with a ceiling fan going.  From my perspective, it has a lot going for it.

Sunday morning Otto invited me to join him and Mantou on a walk, which gave me more of an opportunity to see the suburbs and various HDB “towns” – each of which have their own elected town council. 

The first thing I noticed, as we set off through their own town, was the amount of community interaction.  Breakfast business at a vegetarian restaurant downstairs was hopping as people came and went.  Cars were being washed, dogs were being walked, and at a pavillion designed just for that purpose, residents hung their birds and admired the incessant chirping.  (Each birdcage hook has a number, just so you don’t forget where you left your bird!)

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We headed out the front entrance of the town and made a right turn, heading to the main street.  Along the way we walked on smooth, level foot paths that were incorporated into broad, grassy shoulders next to the road.  Large trees provided plenty of shade and even though it was a warm day, it didn’t feel as hot as it does when you’re stumbling down the uneven pavement in Krungthep, sweltering in the direct sunlight.

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Over the years, the HDB has collaborated with private developers to create towns with a little more flair and individuality.  One we passed had a bit of a nautical theme to it.

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We continued for about ninety minutes, following wherever Mantou would lead.  Along the way we passed a Thai Buddhist Temple, a sect of Buddhism that is growing in popularity throughout Southeast Asia.  This temple looks just a little like the one on Russell Street in Berkeley.

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Our path took us across a main expressway into town.  Even then, the pedestrian facilities were clearly marked and crossing this large intersection didn’t feel like a life-or-death game.  To top it off, the expressway was clean, smoothly-paved, well-marked, etc.  Can you imagine something like this in Thailand?

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To be certain, comparing Singapore and Thailand is really comparing apples and oranges.  As much as I wish my footpaths were smoother, my government less corrupt, and the trees along my walks provided more shade, there are many good aspects about life in Krungthep.

And I’m well aware that many Singaporeans and expats who live there feel a bit stiffled by the “big brother” government, the almost sterile cleanliness of the country, and a sense that there isn’t anything to do there. 

If anything, Singapore provides a pleasant change of pace, a different view of the world, and a few moments of wistfullness, hoping that maybe, one day, the Governor of Krungthep will have the power to implement a few small changes that would make the Big Mango a little more beautiful, a little easier to navigate, and a little more pleasant for those who live, work and visit here.