Mickey Sheehan

The rise of the pedestrians

Will we ever claim back Bangkok's footpaths?

So then.....we've lost another Bangkok institution. This time it's the Pak Khlong Talad flower market. Not that I ever went there you understand. I have limited needs for flowers in wholesale quantities but I heard many travelers describe Pak Khlong as a delightful market to walk around - one of those places that was accessible but still something of an adventure.

Anyway, the flower vendors, after years of rising at daybreak and filling the air with beautiful scents and aromas, have been told to gather up thy orchids and sling their hook.

The closure of the flower market follows hot on the heels of the Silom Road street vendors who ply their trade near Patpong, also being told that the end is nigh. I was never a huge fan of this area but for thousands of tourists, no package holiday fortnight was complete without a saunter down Silom and the opportunity to barter for moody Rolexes, the latest blockbuster movies - all guaranteed to play on any DVD player in the world (honest guv!) - and fake Ralph Lauren polo shirts.

Love them or loathe them - the Silom night market and Pak Klong were part of what made Bangkok Bangkok, but one by one, we seem to losing these famous landmarks and with it the very essence of this often times chaotic city.

Who is Bangkok for?

I read an interesting article by Sasiwan Mokkhasen on the Khao Sod website. Titled ‘Vanishing Bangkok' Khun Sasiwan asks the important question ‘what exactly is Bangkok trying to become - and just as puzzling, who is it for exactly?

Bangkok Thais and local expats seem to be very divided on this issue. "Bangkok is in danger of becoming a third rate Singapore" was one comment I read on social media. "Who wants to walk around in some sort of sterile European environment" was another.

One person clearly in favor of kicking everyone except pedestrians off the footpath is Vallop Suwandee. Khun Vallop is the gentleman in charge of Bangkok's reorganization campaign, which started a couple of years ago. ‘It's all about pedestrian rights' says Khun Vallop. Plus the footpath-blocking vendors don't pay taxes and they pour their garbage into the already overworked sewage system.

I've never met Khun Vallop but I'm warming to him already. I'm a pedestrian you see. Not only that but I really love walking. I'll support any man whose first thoughts are for the rights of Bangkok's crazy pedestrians.

Assault course

Yesterday, I made the 15-minute walk to my local bank. Mercifully, it's a journey I only need to do several times a year and usually I'll grab a motorbike taxi. However, the morning rush hour had ended and the temperature was cool by Bangkok standards. So I decided to walk.

On that relatively short stroll to the bank, I counted no fewer than 16 cars that were parked on the footpath, forcing me to change direction and walk in the busy road itself.

I was almost knocked over, not by a motorcyclist using the sidewalk as a short cut as is usually the case, but by two giggly teenagers on a bicycle with no brakes.

I then had to negotiate a T-junction where legally the traffic is allowed to flow in two, possibly three directions. I stood there for a moment and counted. If you included cars doing illegal u-turns and motorcyclists cutting corners they shouldn't be cutting, the traffic actually flowed in six directions. To use one of mother's favourite expressions - ‘to cross the road, you needed eyes up your arse'

I should also mention the missing sewage cover and a chasm that was easily large enough to swallow me whole and probably spit me out somewhere in the Gulf of Thailand. That would of course have been completely my fault for missing the stick and paint-pot that were placed to act as a warning.

And finally the pedestrian bridge that I had to cross as I was nearing the journey's end and the metal staircase that has rusted and rotted over time and now in parts resembles some sort of poacher's trap.

Bangkok is a pedestrian's worst nightmare. But of course you already knew that. So do the Thais. How often do you see them walking anywhere of any great distance?

A glorious vision

But I'm one of life's optimists. I dream of the day when Khun Vallop's vision materializes and pedestrians rise up to claim the footpaths that are rightfully theirs. What a day that will be!

Unfortunately, closing down these sprawling obstructions like the flower market, is only a beginning. Who's going to tell car owners that footpaths are not parking lots? Who's going to admonish motorcyclists who use the sidewalks as a way to beat the traffic gridlock? Who's going to repair the numerous broken paving slabs and fill in all the holes? The list goes on.

Hold on. Something else just struck me. If we ever see the day when Bangkok becomes a sheer joy to walk around, and yet they've moved on all the street food sellers and kicked out all the market traders - there'll be nowhere to actually walk to!


Well if you are a walker. Bangkok is not that friendly to you. But if you are able bodied you can walk around most of these obstructions. My heart goes out to the disabled body folk who would have a nightmare getting around bangkok in a wheelchair. I've been to Singapore perhaps 60 times and to me it is just like going to another Australian city (yes, I'm an Aussie). I go for work but I wouldn't go there for a holiday. Nothing to see that I couldn't see in Australia. Many years ago Singapore was different and a bit like Bangkok, Saigon and there was a sense of adventure when you went there. Now sadly all gone. But that is my opinion. Others I know disagree. I sense that Bangkok authorities dream about becoming the new Singapore and are hell bent on achieving it. But it will mean the end of Bangkok as we know it and it will become just a second rate Singapore. A pseudo Singapore with a corruptocracy/ military junta (depending on the situation) rather than a dictatorship. The sellers on the footpaths/sidewalks are part of the culture of Bangkok. If these go Bangkok will lose its culture the way Singapore lost its culture.
Then everyone will start exploring Saigon.

By Steve, Abu Dhabi (8th July 2016)

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