The few minutes of morning quiet in Bangkok is quickly replaced by a frenetic chaos.
There is some blue in the sky at 7 A.M. before the sun begins its daily competition with haze, pollution that sticks in the throat, the hazard of growth and lax regulation. On Soi 11, the taxi’s red “hail me” light shines in the growing light, the driver slouches across the back seat of his tuc-tuc — a motorbike with seats and a canopy, which is only ridden once if the rider values her life — a street cleaner wields a straw broom, a vendor pushes his phone booth-sized restaurant on wheels into position, the deep hole soon to be filled with a vat of spicy, aromatic broth.
A block away is a main artery, Sukhumvit Road, the tourist district where vendors crowd the sidewalks and the BTS, known as Skytrain, runs over the clogged roadway, offering a second level of sidewalk above the fumes.
Many things have changed, some have not since my first visit to this street in 1987. Bangkok was an anything goes frontier-style town, inexpensive and exotic, a respite from the more exotic, less developed and politically unstable Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam but with more personality than Singapore. Ramshackle, low rises dilapidated by the tropics and crumbling wooden and tin shacks still exist, but the skyline today is dominated by modern office and condo towers, changing so quickly that when I visited Bumrungrad Hospital at the Ploenchit stop, I didn’t recognize the corner. Two towers had sprouted in the past year.
Bangkok has been tamed by development. In 1967, less than 400,000 visitors, foreigners and soldiers arrived in Thailand. Then came CNN bringing English to the world, making the city accessible to more travelers. The Aussies, Brits, Germans, Scandinavians, Americans and Japanese are joined today by Brazilians, Russians, Middle Easterners and Chinese. Forty years later 14 million international visitors arrived. Fifty-five percent of Thailand’s tourists are return visitors.
Bangkok commerce is a big stick wrapped with a cloth. Rough and tumble and liberal, an orderly chaos. Before Skytrain and the Subway, the MRT, several levels of bus transportation from moving hot boxes to air conditioned coaches both belching black smoke plied the streets.
Bangkok is a market economy. Soi 11 is a mishmash of commerce, morphing hour-by-hour, an invisible director with a story board deciding who will fill each patch on the street. A choreography. There is a morning Soi, quiet, almost tentative, day Soi populated by office workers and evening play time Soi, even Sunday Soi where vendors take over the stoop space from closed businesses.
Sales everywhere is a numbers game, it is inspiring to watch the persistent vendors, spending as many hours as it takes to earn a living.
Under nests of electrical wires, we see the recent past, two feet of sandbags, resting next to the building at the corner off Sukhumvit. A reminder of the horrendous flooding last October, a mere blip in the history of the city, viewed as an inconvenience, a testament to the resilience of the human spirit and the big city code that if one stops moving the people behind will run you down.
On the Soi single file pedestrian traffic, up and down, careful where you step along the concrete block sidewalk with its irregular, not-to-any-building-code construction. In front of the A/C stores are tables are weighted by clothing, knock-off merchandise, Ferrari shirts and Viagara, souvenirs and food stalls, where more than a few vendors pass the time watching videos on iPads. Under a cloth umbrella a woman repairs hotel uniforms on her turn-of-the-last-century Singer sewing machine.
Most food stalls have at least one table and a chair, others take up road space with more seating and space for washing the giant pots. There are barbecues and deep fryers.
Fruit carts laden with artistically cut individual servings of mango, watermelon, papaya and pineapple, TB20, 70-cents for a plastic bag filled with one cut up mango. Lottery ticket sellers with boards strapped to their chests. Motorcycle taxis and tuktuks share space with the tour hawkers.
There is Zak’s, tres chic Cape-Coddy-with-a-Thai-twist style wood house, a two-level, wine pub with its lush garden patio, lit by baseball-sized, colorful lights covered in fabric — a fire hazard maybe — competing with the hipster Volkwagon busses parked at the curb, mobile lounges, their own strobe lights and music, their chairs taking up not parking spaces, but reducing the Soi to alternating two-way road traffic, taxis, tuktuks and tourists.
A few feet away, the Vietnam-era Federal Hotel, modernizing with WiFi, but the restaurant blissfully old-school. A diner, akin to a New York City diner with its unfathomable menu, a long-time staff, regulars and home-cooked Thai food at a reasonable price WITH air conditioning. Across the street, an empty two-story, glass and concrete building, the word on the street, the future home of Au Bon Pain. Two more holes in the ground on this Soi, lined with re-bar a sign more will soon rise.
Behind Soi 11, more alleys, a labyrinth hiding more merchants, foot massage parlors, restaurants, bars. Everyone beckoning. “Mister, missus. You have foot massage, you have drink, T-shirt 100 baht.”
This is but one short block, a two-lane road, in a city with an official population of eight million, in an megalopolis of 20 million.
In our neighborhood, a new face, shopping has gone vertical at Terminal 21 at Skytrain’s Asok station, a lipstick building. A temple of retail to the teenage and 20-something fashionista. Travel the Skytrain line to find a newer face, ultra modern malls filled with Hermes and Cartier, including my favorite Paragon, with its Food Court of white-table cloth service restaurants and American fast food where the parking lots hold Lamborghinis, Masseratis and Ferraris.
Asia looks like a gazelle to me, lithe and nimble. America is a mature elephant, strong by lumbering. Asia feels newer, younger, energetic, but its societies are older. They have survived more turmoil, both the natural and man-made varieties, including recent financial collapses, the most recent in 1997 and the American-born Great Financial Crisis of 2008, which reverberated around the globe.
Asia doesn’t even have demography on its side. The median age in the US, the point where half the people are older and half are younger is 36.9 years and in Canada it’s 41 years. But the median age in Thailand is older too, 34.2 years and 35.5 years in China. In the Middle East, Egypt’s median age is 24.3 years and in Iran it’s 26.8. Those numbers indicate growth.
Asia is also suffering some of the same malaise as its developed cousins, food prices have increased but working class and small business incomes remain flat, the price of a two-hour foot massage has barely moved in six years.
The minimum wage in Bangkok is TB221 a day, or about $US7. Days are long for many. Airline pilots, doctors, dentists and engineers are at the top of the income ladder, migrant, illegal workers at the bottom.
Here the infrastructure grows, the Skytrain line has been extended, and the Skytrain is connected to an elevated express line to the airport. In America the infrastructure is crumbling, instead of taking advantage of the confidence in the US to catapult ourselves forward — foreigners continue to snap up American bonds keeping interest rates at historically low levels — we bicker, refusing to create a future direction.
In Asia, there is poverty, still, and old infrastructure, but everything that is new, is ultra new, as if they skipped the in-between steps going straight for the 21st Century.
Asia is viewed as still catching up, but sometimes they seem ahead.