This is our fourth visit to Bangkok. Bangkok is unique, fluid, and always changing. And we always look forward to further exploration of this vast and fascinating city, built over the swamp and floodplains of the Chao Phrayo River.
A lot has changed over 17 years since our first visit. There are new green spaces, MRT and SkyTrain extensions, and dozens (hundreds?!) of new malls and high rise buildings. But in many ways it hasn’t changed, including frenetic streetlife, food, and more traditional low rise and open living in most neighborhoods.
But the pace of change in urban mobility hasn’t happened as fast as you would expect, or in pace with other big Asian and global cities. And unhealthy air, noise, and traffic are still major drawbacks to daily life. Some of this is due to challenging and unstable governance, some due to a slowing of the economy and the pandemic, but at its core, Bangkok is fighting a legacy of car and scooter dependence that has been coddled, accommodated, and supported by street expansion and lots of (mostly free) parking at every destination.
Of course, the addition of more highways and toll roads has helped overall capacity, and apparently even the continuous congestion and traffic jams of 2023 pale in comparison to the true chaos of the 1980s and 90s before road expansion and rail transit began.
But it’s a catch up game, as the first SkyTrain (metro) didn’t open until 1999. Luckily, major development has been concentrated along transit corridors. And there are now 3 BTS SkyTrain lines with 62 stations and 2 MRT lines with 46 Stations. The buses seem to be a missed opportunity as they have little or no dedicated space and suffer in the congestion. These old buses belch a scary amount of diesel along the roadways into air often in the 150-200 (very unhealthy) AQI levels.
There is also an elevated driverless train line to the somewhat distant Suvarnabhumi (BKK) Airport that opened in 2010. These have all helped to reduce car dependence and expanded the reach of transit. But overall, the system is not extremely user friendly as the BTS, MRT, and Airport Trains are operated by separate companies, so ticketing is still separate and connections a bit clunky and congested. But it all works and much of the service is good. We just carried two fare cards and swapped out for SkyTrain to MRT trips, and bought an electronic single-fare token for our trip from the Airport.
We spent a week here in 2007 staying with two different expat friends. Outside of India, Bangkok was our first big Asian city experience. It was a globalization boom time. (And possibly peak?) We were mesmerized by the chaos and modernity of the city, then one of the fastest developing in the world outside of China.
At that time, we explored the country for 6 weeks, so saw the northern mountain regions, northeast rural and Mekong, and the southern peninsulas and fabulous islands. Like most western travelers to Thailand, we loved it. We stopped over here for 3 days in 2014 and 2017 as part of travels onward in Asia. Both follow up visits were enjoyable as we stayed in two different neighborhoods, but always close to a MRT or Skytrain station.
So fast forward to January 2023….two coups, military leadership, a new King, global slowdown, and three years of a pandemic devastating the tourist economy which accounted for over 20% of the GDP in 2019. It’s still the second largest economy in Southeast Asia, but the stagnation is obvious and frustrating for the hard working and constantly striving lower and middle classes.
Its growth and development is still chugging along, but it does feel like it the benefits of mega projects, skyscrapers, and industry are not reaching the masses. The unfortunate decision in the late 80s to embark on a massive roadway expansion in the city instead of transit set the patterns that feel intractable in today’s Bangkok.
On the bright side, a new central train station has been opened in northern Bangkok, that the government hopes to use as a hub of a vastly expanded rail network, with a specific goal for tourist service. Good plans if they can find the will and money to execute the plan.
Thailand still seems to need more tourist (and other?) taxes to pay for infrastructure. One of the highly touristed (and beautiful) islands Koh Tao has instituted an arrival tax for each tourist to help pay for much needed sanitation and environmental improvements, but it’s a modest fee (<$1), so progress will be slow. Thailand itself is also proposing an international arrivals tax of 300 Baht (about $10) starting in June, and monies are designated for accident services and development assistance. It still seems light based on the impact tourists have on the infrastructure. We all love Thailand, so we should help pay to make it more sustainable.
But the most obvious deficiency in Bangkok’s transport network is walking and cycling. It’s shockingly disconnected. The artery and capillary (Soi) network is disconnected by design and development legacy, as well as many routes being cut off by the remaining canals. But dead end streets are the nicest to live on and bring quiet from the chaos, so the challenge is to expand walking and cycling networks without inducing car and scooter traffic. It can work with some clever bollards, gates, or chicanes…and maybe some scooter traffic is acceptable as this would shorten trips for many from the arteries, as a grid is established.
So for us, this is a livability failure. The lack of connectivity has been recognized by some studies (See UDDC Goodwalk pilot plan) and a few small steps have been taken recently to improve pedestrian mobility, such as new ladder crosswalks and a corresponding law increasing fine for motorists violating ped ROW in them.
It is a bit encouraging, but pedestrians are still mostly a sub-species clinging to gutters, dodging scooters, and navigating a pretty hostile, polluted, and unpleasant streetscape on the main arteries. On hot and polluted days, which are many, it makes even the most ardent walker retreat to an alternate means. Tree planting and protection does seem to be coming with new development, which helps everything, heat, air, and sun protection for walkers.
But indeed this a just a drop of perspective from a non-resident Farang, and I don’t begin to pretend to understand the complexities of life and culture here. But the local officials and planners do. And many are working hard to make the long vision changes to lifestyle and infrastructure that will lead to a healthier environment and people.
Bangkok is a complex ecosystem of 11 million people, and finding the balance of economic growth and opportunity versus health, pollution, and mental health is tough. But as Asia often looks forward, I’m hopeful that next time we visit bangkok we’ll see more positive changes. Already they are considering a congestion charge, expanding the MRT, and modifying laws to improve pedestrian life. Just don’t move too many of the food carts out of the way….we can walk around!
Happy travels and on to Southern India!