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Wednesday, April 12, 2000

Taking it to the skies of Bangkok


By PHILIP CUNNINGHAM

On the anniversary of the King's 72nd birthday in December 1999, the revolutionary concept of electricallypowered mass transit finally hit Bangkok, a city long dependent on the noisy, noxious, internal combustion engine. Two short elevated lines, totaling 23.7 km of track, were built at a cost of 54.9 billion baht (about $1.3 billion). The narrow-gauge train, often only three or four cars long, glides over busy intersections, winds past office towers and allows curious commuters to ogle at the private estates, swimming pools and exclusive sports clubs below.

Siam Station is the heart and soul of the new system, arching high above the roar of thick vehicular traffic that rings Bangkok's central shopping district. The only place where the two Skytrain lines intersect, the station is dotted with tentative ventures by merchants not sure if the "sky" is the place to sell, but willing to give it a try, as nearly every other nook and cranny of Bangkok, including bridge underpasses and back alleys, have been thoroughly market-tested. Passengers can shop at an eyeglass store, a gold chain dealer, a convenience store and a mobile phone shop, and even sip coffee in a cafe perched on the platform, a familiar sight in cities like Tokyo but a novelty in Thailand.

The new system is not without its critics. The public is bitter about bloated budgets and endless delays (it took over two decades to build the system) caused by a long string of national leaders vying for a piece of the Skytrain contract, and angry that the train stops short of the suburbs. Newspaper editorials criticize the fact that the new train is too expensive for poor people to use.

When the Skytrain budget ballooned out of control, little extras like escalators were left out, so it's a hefty climb to reach the platforms three stories above street level. At Siam Station, a bespectacled gray-haired man wearing a traditional Chinese-collar shirt pauses to consult the elaborate instructions on the ticket machine, while a young man in military camouflage and a crew cut directs pedestrian traffic away from the choked staircase. Two big-shoed fashion princesses come bouncing by, bumping into a pod of sun-burned Caucasian tourists in sarongs and garish Hawaiian garb. It's the old Bangkok in a new setting.

Thai currency consists largely of bills, which makes it less vending machine-friendly than yen, where coins go up to higher denominations. People are going to have to get used to carrying around a pocket full of 10-baht coins if automated ticket vendors like that of the Skytrain, where fares range between 10-40 baht, are going to work. Tickets are single-journey and have a magnetic strip; in theory, they should speed through the automated turnstile, but in practice, the machine often chews them up, or worse still, the legs of passengers who don't pass quickly enough through the plastic jaws of the turnstiles. A station attendant watching the errant machine at Siam Station smiles apologetically -- a courteous reminder the system needs some fine-tuning.

Despite the glitches, there's no denying that sailing smoothly over the fuming crowds in an air-conditioned bubble makes Bangkok look like a magical theme park. Going west from Siam Square the train breezes over the brutal traffic below to make stops at some of Bangkok's toniest commercial locations, passing by the Erawan, President Meridien and Marriot hotels as well as the Sogo, Central and Robinson department stores.

Gliding above Ratprasong intersection one can also look down on the famous four-headed Brahma statue mobbed by flower- and incense-wielding tourists and troubled Thais seeking good luck. Then you can wing over to the Ambassador Hotel, crowded with inexpensive Internet cafes and budget tourists from China, Korea and Taiwan.

Sukhumwit Road has been somewhat darkened by the many pillars and overhead concrete conduits cradling the track, but a self-conscious effort has been made to give the support columns a "Thai" look, with the cement molded into vaguely tropical textures.

Bangkok's taxi drivers take a visible pleasure in hearing people complain about mass transit, but most of them have adapted quickly, not just to the complicated detours made necessary by the concrete islands supporting the pillars of the Skytrain, but to new revenue patterns.

"It's OK with me," one driver confided. "People still need to go to and from the stations and a taxi is cheaper, if not necessary for most trips."

Another taxi driver was quick to point out that "traffic is jammed up as usual. I don't see any difference. They should have built the train out in the suburbs."

The southern spur of the Skytrain, terminating near the Chao Praya River, takes one through an exotic urban geoscape. Immediately after leaving the concrete fortress of Siam Station, one can peer over walls that no longer effectively hide the shocking luxury of wide-open golf greens of the Royal Turf Club in the heart of the city. The train then passes the Regent Hotel, the AUA Language Center, Lumphini Park, and zig-zags past the massive banks and office towers of Silom and Sathon Roads.

"Office workers in Silom can have lunch at Siam and get back to work in an hour, something that was impossible before," says a poet who's a big fan of the new system.

Saladaeng Station is perched in the middle of Bangkok's infamous red light district, offering a bird's-eye view of "little Tokyo," best known for its Japanese-only girlie bars, though there are plenty of sordid strip shows, massage joints and open-air bars of the cowboy variety open to men and women of all nationalities. Patpong punters and late-night thrill-seekers will undoubtedly rely on tuk-tuks to take them home as before, since Skytrain service stops at midnight.

There isn't much point in boarding the westward train as it only goes one stop beyond Siam Square, terminating at the National Sports Stadium a few hundred meters away, but the northern spur of the new system is not to be missed. It soars past the towering vertical malls Siam Discovery and Mabunkrong, and races effortlessly over pungent streets and putrid canals in air-conditioned comfort to assume an almost planetary orbit around the great traffic circle at the Victory Monument, before straightening out again to head due north. Along the way are Phayathai, Rajthawee, Soi Aree and other shopping and business districts before the terminus of Mochit, which offers bus service to points further afield.

The Skytrain is a boon to the tourist and those who need to travel where it happens to travel, but will it make a dent in Bangkok's traffic jams?

"I took the Skytrain to avoid traffic jams on the ground and ended up in a traffic jam in the sky," explains a businesswoman who says she'd rather drive. "We had to wait half an hour up in the air."

Local papers have reported on such delays, due to improperly closing doors and backed up trains, but most of these problems were quickly sorted out. A Mercedes-driving friend says, "I haven't used it, and I don't want to use it. It's good for tourists but it doesn't go anywhere I go. It just makes the traffic worse and the streets darker."

But a little bit of shade in a blazing hot sun is not entirely unwelcome and some shelter from monsoon rains is better than none.

The Bangkok Post reported Dec. 23 that passengers were making 150,000 trips per day on the new line during the week, and some 200,000 on weekends, but the privately financed system is said to need at least 500,000 a day to break even. That's before adding on the costs for a planned 32.3 billion baht extension to the suburbs.

There are problems to be sure, but late is better than never when it comes to creating an alternative to the choking automobile traffic that has deformed a once elegant tropical city. The Skytrain demonstrates that public transport can be very good, and makes it possible for the people of Bangkok to move around downtown efficiently and on schedule, undermining the efficacy of the words rut dit (car stick), once the unassailable excuse for lateness.



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