The Bangkok Microbus
In the days when the skytrain and the subway system were mere figments of the imagination and something best left to other Asian cities, you had three options for getting from A to B. You either took your chances with a clapped-out old taxi or rode the public bus. Or you walked.
Then along came the Bangkok microbus. A fleet of brand-new vehicles offering a stress-free alternative to hours spent squashed on a normal Thai bus with your nose pressed against a stranger's sweaty armpit and your bum in an office girl's packed lunch. Aimed primarily at the Thai middle-classes and the more discerning commuter, the Microbus had a strict no standing policy. If there were no free seats on board, the driver didn't stop, regardless of how many passengers at the bus stop gestured frantically or questioned the driver's parentage.
Inside, the buses were spotlessly clean. There was no chewing gum pressed against the underside of each seat and there were no crude drawings of schoolboy genitalia. The driver wore something resembling a uniform and a TV screen showed educational programs and the odd pop music video. In the early days, the service even employed a dolly bird to hand you your ticket and then walk up and down the aisle with a tray of dainty sandwiches and sensibly priced snacks. This was bus travel as it was meant to be. The fare was set at 20 baht (a considerable sum at the time) and as my father would say - it kept out the riff-raff.
It's difficult to say exactly when the decline set in, but once they dispensed with the hostesses, it all went downhill pretty sharpish. The drivers - for so long the epitome of good manners and commendable standards - became tired of seeing their loutish bus-driving Thai counterparts have all the fun. The Microbus drivers were clearly missing out. They too wanted to be able to drop off passengers in the middle of a four-lane highway and to accelerate past a bus stop whenever they simply couldn't be arsed to stop.
To woo back the commuters and arrest falling passenger numbers, the Microbus company reduced the fare from 25 baht to 20 baht and then as low as 15. In the end no one had a clue what the fare was. I remember asking one driver and he just shrugged his shoulders. The buses went from dusty to dirty to filthy. The TVs stopped working. Even the ticket machine was either broken and hanging off the door panel or would spew out a hundred tickets for each passenger. The end was nigh.
Opening a fast-food franchise in Bangkok has always been a gamble, but few franchises came and went quite as spectacularly as Yoshinoya, the Japanese fast-food chain that specializes in shredded beef served over a bowl of rice. I've been in branches of Yoshinoya in Tokyo and they're generally busy. In Hong Kong, punters are queuing five deep at the counter and the assistants can barely cope. So what went wrong opening a Japanese restaurant in a city where come lunchtime in most Bangkok shopping malls, there isn't a spare seat in a Japanese restaurant anywhere?
I include Yoshinoya in this 'memory lane' section because one of the branches opened on Ramkhamhaeng Road near to a school I was working in at the time. Although the menu was limited, Yoshinoya made a refreshing change from the bland dishes served up at the local food court or heaven forbid, it beat taking the short walk to McDonalds and experiencing that overwhelming sense of gastronomic failure you get from ordering a Big Mac and fries.
Yoshinoya was always a 'teacher's special treat' though. Whereas a meal could be had for around 60 baht in McDonalds, Yoshinoya was charging a hefty hundred baht plus for its signature beef bowl. Teachers might have been stupid enough to pay that twice but not the frugal folks of Ramkhamhaeng. Within six months the restaurant had closed down and the other branch on Silom Road followed shortly after.
BTS Shuttle Bus
The idea was very simple - to have a small fleet of modern buses that would ferry skytrain passengers from outlying residential areas to the main skytrain stations, saving them both time and money and encouraging more and more people to let the train take the strain. It was a fine idea in principle but as is often the case in Thailand - the execution was lousy. I could see a huge flaw in the system from day one.
The service was basically free to all skytrain passengers on production of a pink ticket that you got from the ticket office at the station. The biggest problem the company faced was identifying who was a bona fide skytrain user and who wasn't. The system was a complete joke. All you had to do was ask the kindly lady at the ticket office for some BTS shuttle bus tickets and she would hand you a book of about fifty. And if there's a system to be abused, then Bangkokians will find a way to abuse it. Shuttle bus tickets got into the 'wrong hands' and the buses became a convenient free service for locals who had never been on the skytrain in their lives. It became the transportation of choice for street urchins and air-conditioned luxury travel for the mothers and fathers of street urchins. The rest as they say is history.
There is still sometimes a shuttle bus service that runs from BTS Onnud station to the BITEC exhibition centre in Bang Na. I never take the shuttle bus despite BITEC being fairly near where I live, but I do see passengers queuing for it. And there isn't a suit or briefcase in sight.
I find the idea of a meal consisting of chicken and biscuits to be perplexing at the best of times, but Popeyes is clearly a very popular franchise restaurant in the US so who am I to rock the boat. Alas, if you open a fast food restaurant bang opposite Patpong, Bangkok's premier entertainment zone, with hundreds of pissed up foreigners all with a life-threatening case of the munchies - and your restaurant is still empty - then I guess you're in real trouble. Such was the case with Popeyes. You could go in any night of the week and have whole sections of the restaurant to yourself.
The odd adventurous Thai person would occasionally wander in, look at the menu, scratch their head in bewilderment and walk straight out. You could see them thinking "Ok the two pieces of chicken I get but what do I do with the biscuits or the scones? Is that meant to be dipped in the strawberry jam? Or perhaps you spread the jam all over the chicken?"
Didn't stand a chance.
The Tax Clearance System
If you think the whole Thailand visa conundrum is a headache now, just be glad that you weren't here in the 90's - and the days of the tax clearance system. If you had lived or stayed in Thailand for more than 90 days, you needed a tax clearance certificate to show immigration on departure at the airport. It was a piece of paper that the immigration officer took off you and filed in the nearest waste paper bin, so going to get the certificate at a pokey little building in Banglamphu became the ultimate fool's errand.
The tax office had no queuing system. There was none of that civilized taking a ticket and sitting patiently until your number was called. There were just one or two windows behind which sat two stressed and harrassed-looking administration officers and it ended up as survival of the person with the sharpest elbows. The whole system was chaos. You dreaded a visit to the tax office in Banglampoo from the moment you arrived and filled out the usual badly designed form to the moment - probably an hour or two later - you squeezed yourself out of the door assaulting a dozen Arabs in the process.
When the tax clearance system was scrapped, foreign residents danced in the streets. I know I did.
Washington Square Cinema
In the days before the Bangkok multiplex movie theaters, with their VIP love seats, touch screen booking and buckets of popcorn you can barely hold with both hands, moviegoers were severely limited in where to catch the latest Hollywood blockbuster. There was the Lido Siam Square with its screens the size of a large beach-towel and the clammy, cavernous Scala, also in Siam Square.
And then there was Washington Square Movie Theater between Sukhumwit 22 and 24. I've always retained a great fondness for the Washington ever since I took my Mom and Dad there to see Jurassic Park and they slept through the entire film. At one point my Dad's snoring even drowned out the dinosaur fights.
There was always something strangely reassuring about seeing a film at The Washington. Bangkok had nothing like the after-dark options it has now, and The Washington - hard though it is to believe now - still represented 'a decent night out' Was it having to step over the odd soi dog as the ticket queue shuffled forwards? Was it the unmistakeable waft of urine from the gent's toilets? Or was it the dampness of the battered red velvet seats? Who knows but I bet you miss all of that as much as I do.
The evening would invariably start with a snifter or two at a neighboring Washington Square bar. I found an hour of listening to retired Texan oilheads berating the Thai bar staff and generally acting like a tit, the perfect hors d'oeuvre to an evening in front of the big screen. You just had to make sure you didn't arrive too early to purchase tickets at the box office.
This meant sitting on wooden benches in the non-air-conditioned waiting area waiting for the previous show to end. Once the moviegoers started filing out, you could stand up, readjust your clammy underpants and choose any of the seats not occupied by either a cat or a homeless person.
As more and more movie theaters opened up around the city, The Washington lost any appeal it had and was transformed into a transvestite cabaret.
The Pizza Hut All-You-Can-Eat Buffet
It only lasted a couple of years but every Wednesday afternoon, all roads led to Pizza Hut for their weekly all-you-could-eat buffet for an unbelievable 75 baht per head. Nowadays that will barely get you a side order of onion rings but for 75 baht, in a three or four-hour window, you could sit with a group of your chums and all gorge yourself stupid, as the waitresses brought you unlimited pizza slices washed down with huge jugs of Pepsi. There was no catch. There was no membership card. You simply stuffed pizza down you until tomato and mozarella cheese leaked out of your ears.
But nothing good lasts forever. Groups of Thai teenagers and schoolkids bent the rules by craftily eating the pizza centres and leaving the substantial crusts on a communal plate. Pizza Hut was never going to stand for that. You might say the schoolkids ruined it for the rest of us. Yet another reason I've found to hate teenagers.
While we are on the delightful subject of all-you-can-eat and drink deals, let's give a special mention to Thai restaurant chain, Dailomon, and their magnanimous decision in the mid 1990's to run an all-you-can-drink beer promotion for just 99 baht. I shudder to think what the guy who dreamed up the promotion is doing now, but I'm guessing it involves touching shit with his bare hands.
One thing is for certain - he had no concept of just how much ale some foreigners can sup. And as the last German tourist staggered down the street before sunset, pausing only to empty the contents of his stomach in a small sub-soi, the Dailoman management team shook their heads and realised they had committed something akin to business suicide.
If you have any more 'memory lane' contributions, please let me know.