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?

 

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.

Tearing Down a Shophouse

Each city has its own development  rhythm. Buildings are constructed then subsequently modified or added on to. Sometimes the buildings are torn down to make way for newer buildings. In some cities (think Florence, Italy) the rhythm is very slow. In other cities (Hong Kong!) one can be surprised by how staccato the rhythm is. Here in Bangkok, it is somewhat in between, though closer to Hong Kong than Florence.

A few weeks ago, I noticed that a pair of shophouses adjacent to the Thong Lo Skytrain station (the one at the mouth of our soi) were being demolished. The process took several days and was done largely by hand – laborers with sledgehammers started at the top of the building and deconstructed it, floor by floor.

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Interestingly, they are not removing the entire row of identical shophouses, just these two. The demolition process exposes the intimate way in which the buildings are connected: ghosts of the back stairs can be seen on the wall of the remaining shophouse. People are apparently still living next door to the demolished buildings: laundry is hanging on the roof area and tarps have been raised to keep the dust out.

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The demolition also exposed a large open space that I never knew existed behind these buildings. It looks like there may have been a small pool back there. As of yet, there are no signs announcing what is to happen with this space. The house to the left is a large private home on a lot covered with a pond and lots of old trees. Behind the open space is a large but shadowy hotel (the orange building) and to the right is an apartment complex (in green). I would guess that these shop houses probably date to around the 1960s so they are being replaced within three generations.

I look forward to seeing what development happens here. It seems too small for a condo – lord knows we have plenty of those sprouting up all around Thong Lo station! – but stranger things have happened.

 

Foundation Poured for Central Embassy

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While visiting the Central Chidlom department store the other day, I caught this picture of the construction progress on Central Embassy, the new 37-story high-end retail and hotel complex that is expected to open in 2013. The piles have been driven and foundation concrete had been poured. Subterranean work continues and I’d expect to see columns start to rise in the near future.

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The design is eye-catching, eight stories of retail topped with a twisting tower (to house Bangkok’s first Park Hyatt hotel) meant to echo a double helix. The building is covered on the outside with glimmering diamond-shaped tiles that recall traditional Thai temple roofs. Central Embassy will connect with the existing Central Chidlom complex through the walkway on the left of the picture. A bit harder to see is a second walkway, in the center-right of the picture, which will connect to the Ploenchit BTS Skytrain station.

Here’s an aerial view that I annotated to help orient you:

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The complex is built on land bought from the British Embassy. As one of the last undeveloped properties in the very pricey Withayu-Ploenchit area, the sale brought in hefty proceeds. In a bit of a kerfuffle, many locals were incensed that the British government profitted so handsomely from the sale of land that was gifted from the Thai government many generations ago. Finally, the Thai government clarified that the land had been given to the British government and was theirs to do with as they wished.

I suppose you could (easily) argue that the last thing we need is another mall and another hotel. No argument from me. That said, I like that we’re seeing continued infill development around transit lines. This increased density is preferable to continued sprawl. Not that the infill is somehow eliminating the sprawl, but you get the idea. Also, the design of this building is unique and contributes to Bangkok’s continued ascent from an architectural backwater to a city with an interesting skyline.

Extra: Here’s a link to a snazzy promotional video for the new complex, giving you all sorts of aerial fly-bys from different angles.

 

How Does My Garden Grow – Pt 4: First Harvest

With the US Thanksgiving holiday just a few days away, it seems fully appropriate that I was able to recently celebrate my first harvest from my balcony garden.  It was a limited harvest – one beet, one radish, and two cherry tomatoes – but at least it is a start, right?  For those of you who have missed my videos, I filmed and edited a new one to mark this momentous occasion.

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The harvest was a small one, but I was excited with it nonetheless.  On the left is a golden beet, on the right is a type of heirloom radish called a watermelon radish.  It is supposed to have a light green skin with a pink interior.  The skin was kind of a pinkish white instead.  Behind the two roots are my carrots which are slowly growing.

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Raindrops on the leaves of my third tomato plant.  Once we hit the start of October – the end of rainy season – the weather rapidly changed.  We’ve had significant rainfall only two or three times since then and my south-facing balcony has been bathed in direct sunlight for about 7 hours a day.  The plants have definitely enjoyed the sun, although I’ve had to be diligent about watering.

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One curious thing is that my tomato plants – both cherry and beefsteak – have had a problem with pollination.  So far only two fruits have grown.  I’ve not seen any bees around my plants but according to my online research, tomato plants are self-pollinating.  One technique recommended in some videos is to give the plants a good shake to encourage the pollinating.  So far that hasn’t seemed to help.  Plenty of blossoms come and go, but few ever become fruit.

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And there they are, my two cherry tomatoes.  Organic, homegrown, and mighty tasty.  Now if I could just get a few more of them off my plant, which is nearly three meters tall!

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Inside of the watermelon radish.  It had a nice flavor, less sharp than the conventional red radishes you see at the market.

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Golden beet.  I have only seen red beets sold in Thailand so was very excited to have golden beets.  What I’ve decided, though, is that root vegetables are a poor use of limited container space.  I need to focus on vertical plants – tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, etc. – where I can get more yield per square meter of soil.  Of course, I guess the tomato plants haven’t really panned out yet, have they?

Here’s the video of the autumn 2011 harvest.

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The healthy salad I made from mostly store-bought vegetables and my few container garden vegetables.  The shredded golden beet is on top, some sauteed beet greens, and the radish.  Success!  Stay tuned for more gardening developments.

Previous entries on this subject:

How Does My Garden Grow – Part 1: Defying Gravity 
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 2: A Move to the Sunny Side
How Does My Garden Grow – Part 3: Back to Seedlings

Skytrain Sukhumvit Extension Opens

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Another piece of Bangkok’s transit network puzzle fell into place on August 12, as the 5-station extension to the BTS Skytrain Sukhumvit line opened.  After more than a year’s delay caused by a problem ordering track switching mechanisms on time, passengers can now travel all the way to Soi Bearing (Sukhumvit 107).  This extension gives access to the Bang Na district, a very congested area of the city that has long been in need of additional mass transit.

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Updated map on the ticketing machine obscured the day before opening.

The BTS Skytrain, the first of Bangkok’s three rail transit systems, opened in December 1999 and currently operates a 55-km network composed of two lines and 32 stations.  An average of about 472,000 trips are made on the system each day, with many days exceeding the half-million mark.

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The five new stations all have the same design with the the tracks running through the center of the station and two platforms on the outside of the tracks.  An improvement in these news stations, along with two stations on the Silom line that opened last year, is that the roof covers the entire space.  The original stations have an opening in the area over the tracks, resulting in passengers being partially exposed to the elements, especially the when the sun is lower in the sky.

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One improvement – all the new stations have elevators.  Most of the stations in the system do not have elevators, making travel by train inconvenient for people in wheelchairs (who would have a hard time with most of Bangkok’s sidewalks, too) and parents with strollers.  In front of the elevator doors are three safety posts, the purpose of which is not clear.  Perhaps they are meant to keep someone from rolling out of the elevator and onto the tracks.  I guess if someone was backing out they may not see where the edge of the tracks is, although they would have to travel a couple of meters before reaching it. 

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One challenge to mobility is that the stretch of Sukhumvit Road on which these new stations are built, has narrow sidewalks.  The placement of station stairs and escalators essentially blacks the sidewalks, leaving no room for wheelchairs or strollers or even for two people to pass each other.  This seems like a problem that could have been overcome, although I have noticed that the traffic lanes actually narrow as they pass beneath the stations, so perhaps squeezing out more space was impossible. 

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Fortunately, there are signs of some amount of foresight in the construction of the track viaduct and support structure.  At the point between Udom Suk and Bang Na stations, the track viaduct is wide enough for two pairs of tracks.  In the picture above, just above the pedestrian bridge, you can see the end caps for two additional tracks.

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Turning 180 degrees and looking southeast along the tracks, the left side of the next support beam has a pad on which one of the track viaducts could rest.  The train track passes between two levels of the expressway at Bang Na.  One of the planned future extensions, although there is no specific timeframe in which it will be built, is to have a spur line branch off from the main Sukhumvit line and head northeast along the expressway.  This extension would include a stop at the BITEC convention center.  Currently, the closest station (Bang Na) is about a kilometer away, although an indoor walkway is being constructed to connect the station and the convention center and looks set to open in a few months.

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The problem with the new five-station extension is that it is projected to add some 100,000 additional trips to the system each day, but during rush hour the system is already at peak capacity.  This view of Asoke station, taken at 6:30 pm on a weekday, is too typical. 

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The layout of station entrances, something that would be difficult to change significantly, is narrow and results in ticket machine lines running into the fare gate lines running into still other lines. The entrance areas at the new stations seem to be wider, which will hopefully help.  Another thing that would help at existing stations is to remove small retail kiosks adjacent to the fare gates.  These consume real estate that could ease the congestion of foot traffic.

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The capacity problem is less about station entrance design, though.  It is primarily an issue of not enough train cars.  There are 35, three-car Siemens trains on the system.  Last year, following the opening of two new stations on the Silom line, 12, four-car Bombardier trains were added, running exclusively on the Silom line.  This additional capacity was immediately swallowed up.  In October 2010, the operator of the Skytrain ordered an additional car for each of the three-car trains, although it seems these will not arrive until at least next year.  Also next year, an additional four-station extension will open on the Silom line.  Dr. Pichet Kunadhamraks of the Ministry of Transport’s Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning, indicated by email that he thinks these additional train cars will satisfy demand.

Earlier this year, the Transport Minister asked for residents’ patience until 2015, by which point some 60-plus kilometers of additional rail lines will have opened, adding to the approximately 103 kilometers currently operating.  It will be interesting to see whether these new lines and extensions open on time and, if they do, what impact they have on the city’s traffic.  Bangkok is a city that would be well-served if it had a comprehensive network of rail transit.  It would also be well-served by a bus network that feeds into that network, rather than largely duplicating it.  That, however, is a topic for another day.