Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Take a walk on the… which side?

As far as urban planning is concerned, I always try to make the point that it is much, much more than just sidewalks and zoning laws. And that is why I’m most surprised when, a couple of weeks into life in Bangkok, I’m obsessing over non other than… er… sidewalks.

At first glance, it’s baffling how Bangkokians, who live in a city infamous for its horrendous traffic, can be so averse to walking. To my co-workers, walking the seven minutes between the office and the skytrain station is unheard of. Why walk when you can take an air-conditioned shuttle bus that takes about 3 times as long? As a matter of fact, the walk from the parking garage to the elevator lobby is already considered a bit of a nuisance. But eager to experience Bangkok at the street level, I arrived determined to walk.

That was, until I realized I didn’t exactly know how to walk in this city.

Precisely due to a lack of zoning laws in Thailand (thought I’d throw this in to humor the planners amongst us), developers can build straight up to the kerb, taking up every inch of real estate that might otherwise be turned into a sidewalk. Recently on my soi—which has been experiencing a building boom of late—a big span of sidewalk disappeared overnight to give way to an ever-expanding construction site. At the foot of the huge “We build what you dream” sign on the scaffolding are cement mixers, dumpsters, trucks, and piles and piles of stuff (could be building materials, could be roadkill of the day… I’m not too sure) depending on the time of the day. That leaves those who choose to walk with no other option but to go down the middle of the road -- which would have been plenty scary if it were a quiet two-way street. Now bring on the tuk-tuks, the motocycle taxis, the buses pumping out black smoke, the push carts with stuff deep-frying in bubbling tubs of oil, and the occasional stray dog. Apparently, while someone’s building my dream, my walk home at night has turned into a bit of a nightmare.

Even where sidewalks do exist, walking doesn’t necessarily get easier. A sidewalk exists—at least in theory, between my office and the skytrain station —but it’s so uneven and so full of potholes that you start wondering if this is actually built along a fault line.

But, when you ever come across a patch of level sidewalk that is of considerable width, you'll realize it is meant for so much more than just walking. Sidewalks aren’t simply there to conect you from point a to b. They are destinations in and of themselves. Here you can eat (and I’m not just talking about ad hoc food carts. The sidewalk “restaurant” at the end of my soi features laminated English menus with pictures!), shop, have your clothes mended, play card games with your friends, build furniture, perform, and be entertained. The other day, I saw someone skinning a pig on the sidewalk; a few meters down the road, someone else was grilling bananas. Sidewalks are where people make their living, and where life takes place.

Two sprained ankles and a few close encounters with headlights later, I’m beginning to understand why Bangkokians don’t like to walk. But when you’re inside an air-conditioned cab, you can’t possibly feel the crispness after a heavy downpour, or taste the barbequed meats in the air. So I'll probably keep walking, but will watch out in order to avoid ending up as roadkill deep frying in the steamy caudrons on the roadside.

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