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The City of Angels

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Anybody who for the first time tries to discover Bangkok on his own will at a certain moment arrive at a point, when he will be desperate, because he has lost his way and orientation. One fears to stifle in this humid atmosphere, polluted with exhaust fumes. The sun is stinging, the sweat is flowing down, and one tries to escape into one of the climatized shopping malls. When walking around, one must learn to look up and down at the same time. Down in order not to break your legs in one of the many potholes in the sidewalks, and up in order not to collide with one of the many advertising signs, called “Bangkok Bells” by experienced Expats.

In the first days in Bangkok, a tourist gets the impression to be transferred to a kind of eastern Disneyland. Every time when leaving the hotel, he is curious, what new things not understandable for the Farang he will see.

He will shake his head, when seeing a motorbike loaded with 5 people, and he will be frightened and close his eyes, when seeing the workmen on a new high-rise building climbing around like monkeys without any safety belt. He will ask himself, what rules are in force in this town, and he will come to the conclusion, that there are no rules at all.

Bangkok has no real town center. Some people are taking the

Silom Road, where most of the banks and international societies have their offices. Others will think the region around

 

Siam Square, where the most department stores are situated, and others the first 3 kilometers of Sukhumvit Road where the most Farang Hotels and Bars can be found to be the town center. Besides, every district belonging to Greater Bangkok has his own center. No matter where he is located, it is not far to the next shopping mall, cinema, or restaurant. But also not far too shabby Chinese shops, half-crumbled shacks, electric cables hanging in a mess down, and sidewalks studded with potholes.

 

Typical of Bangkok are the flagrant contradictions between a hectic and a leisurely atmosphere, between wealth and poverty, a town, where modern age and tradition, palaces and slums, temples and brothels are situated side by side. In the commercial districts high-rise buildings and big department stores are lining the streets, where big crowds of people and a stream of qualming and stinking motorbikes, tuk-tuks, taxis, cars and bus’s are seeking their way right through a permanent traffic chaos, while in the intersections, policemen with breathing masks over their mouth and nose, are trying to establish a little bit of order into this chaos.

But when turning off from the main roads into the side streets, one can find there a partially rustic atmosphere, with simple wooden shacks, where sleeping dogs are laying in the streets, not even considering giving way for the town-walking Farang.

Nobody will travel to Bangkok to admire the beauty of this town. The population has increased in 30 years from 2 millions to 10 millions or more, and yet continues to grow, this without a functioning plan for the future, whose observance is surveyed by a building supervisory board.  Many of the things, which once formed the charm of this town, as the canals giving Bangkok the cognomen “Venice of the east” have been sacrificed by the hectic building activity, in order to make place not only for people, but also for a multitude of streets, banks, company headquarters and department-stores

The skyline of Bangkok, dominated by the high-rise buildings, is surely a symbol of the enormous social changes in Thailand in the last 40 years. The residents of this town, which 100 years ago were still occupied during the day with fishing, and during the night with slaying mosquitoes, are to day roaming around between the canyons of high-rise buildings, with a cellular phone at the ear. The Farang will at a glance get no better impression of the real Bangkok, than with this picture: Amid the busy commercial district, on the foot of every high-rising building, there will be a little spirit house, in order to give a home to the ghosts which have been driven out of their places by the erection of the building. The managers and employees when coming to their work in this building, are not simply passing by on this little spirit-house, but will fold their hands to make a “wai”, will eventually light a joss stick, or will hang a wreath of flowers on the shrine before hurrying to their working places.

Bangkok has always been the center for immigration, working places, education and career prospects in Thailand. More than ever it attracts to day the unemployed people from the whole country, looking for a job. The already small industry of Thailand is concentrated around Bangkok, so that for the people from the rest of the country, especially from the Isaan, there is no other source to earn their living as farming, even when the conditions are unfavorable.

Low income, high leasing interest for the fields, ceded to the banks or money sharks as security for leased money, lacking education, all this is driving the people from the villages into the towns, even if their only chance consists in enlarging the slums. Nearly all of these people have only a minimal school education and no professional training. If they are lucky to find a job, then as taxi- or tuk-tuk-driver, as servant, as hawker, or as construction worker. Even if their wages are very low, they are several times the amount of the money they could make in their village. Nearly all the taxi-drivers or fruit-sellers in Bangkok are coming from the northeast of the country, the Isaan. The younger and more beautiful girls are working mostly in the bars. Altogether they are forming the lower proletariat of the capital, and because they are differing in language and customs from the Thais from the heartland, they are living mostly separated from them in their own clan.

During the whole year, the climate of the town is hot and humid, with average day temperatures around 35 degrees Celsius. In the hot season, from March to May, the temperatures will often go up above 40 degree. In addition to this, there is a very high atmospheric humidity. The month’s from December to February however, offer agreeable mild days, with maximum temperatures around 30 degree. A big problem in Bangkok is the high atmospheric pollution, caused by the traffic pushing through the insufficient road net, together with high temperature and atmospheric humidity.

The traffic of Bangkok is a nightmare, a metropolis approaching collapse. Many people coming for the first time to Bangkok, will in the first day have a sensation, like in the last hours of the Titanic, it is sheer chaos. The dream of the “Venice of the Orient” will soon vanish during the trip from the airport to the hotel. Cars and more cars blocked in traffic jams and polluting the air with the vast amounts of fumes, emanating from their exhaust pipes. The air-pollution has so increased, that not only the traffic-policemen, but also some civilian people will wear breathing masks. Experts have found out that the inhalation of this air will steer as much harmful substance through the lungs, as smoking 3 packets of cigarettes each day.

The town needed 30 years, to construct a piece of elevated railway, which should relieve the streets from the suffocating car traffic. When it was finished, it was discovered, that the stairways to reach the station level, required the condition of a mountaineer, and were not accessible by older or handicapped people. Besides, the use of the train capacity was so low, that from the beginning the company made an enormous deficit. For most of the Bangkok population the fares were unaffordable, and those able to pay the fairs, were not willing to renounce to the prestige, they get by driving with their own car to work or to other business

Touts and Con Men

Be aware of people accosting someone friendly on the streets. It is not the normal Thai way, and these types are mostly touts, who will or pull on the naive Farang themselves, or bring him to a shop, were they will try to sell something to him at excessive prices. This applies also to tuk-tuk-drivers, offering to the Farang for a certain amount of Baths a sightseeing tour around the town. The trip will always go to some shops, where the driver will collect his commission, which will be added to the already excessive prices

In the vicinity of the tourist hotels there are lined up one tailor shop after the other, offering to the tourist’s cheap tailor made suits and shirts. The owners are mostly Indians, having an excellent skill, with much friendliness and good knowledge of languages, prompting someone to buy clothes. Even thought they are calling themselves tailors, taking someone's measurements with much fuss, all the orders are going to cheap “Sweat Shops“, where the clothes are cubbled together by unskilled worker, coming from Isaan, and paid starvation wages.

The surest way to loose ones money, is to follow a tout to a shop, where precious stones are offered at bargain prices. The Farang, who is taken in by such an opportunity, buying for expensive prices gems of allegedly first quality, could just as well throw his good money into the next klong, or better give it to a temple, so the money will serve to a good purpose.

A frequent swindle, used by tuk-tuk and taxi drivers is the “no change” trick. But if one will make clear to the driver, who allegedly has no change, that in this case one cannot pay, he will quickly find in a corner of his pockets the necessary bahts, to give you the required change or if he really has no change, get it from one of the shops on the street

Many Thais meeting Farang in a tourist-center will get a totally wrong picture of the wealth of the Farang. Working as maid in a hotel, as taxi driver, or as a waiter in a restaurant, they will earn perhaps between 3000 to 5000 Baht a month. When they see, that many Farang will spend on a single afternoon more money, as they will earn in a whole month, they will easily get the idea, to drain off a little bit of this wealth into their own pockets.

The drowning city

Bangkok is a relatively young city.  It was created only in 1782.  For defense reasons, the city was established on low-lying swampland, and for commercial reasons in the plain of the Chao Phraya, which was in the rainy season always exposed to inundations.  200 years ago, the founders of the city knew what they did, but could however not foresee, which problems the choice of this place causes today for their descendants.  Bangkok lays to day only a little above sea level.  The whole city sinks annually some centimeters and thereby always approaches more to the sea level.  Except to external factors like heavy rainfalls, and global problems like a global rising of the water level of the oceans, there are however house-made problems, which let Bangkok move ever closer to the sea level.  The city sinks above all, because over many years more and more groundwater was pumped for domestic and industrial use.

Because of the swampy underground, all buildings must be founded on piles, reaching into a more deeply lying layer of clay.  Since the natural sources of water in Bangkok cannot keep up with the excessive growth of the city, more and more deep wells are drilled. Due to uncontrolled evacuating of millions of liters of groundwater for the supply of the population and above all for industrial needs, from the deep wells under the clay stratum, the counter-pressure of the groundwater decreases against this layer. With dwindling counter-pressure, the water in the clay stratum is pressed out by the weight of the earth layers and the buildings over it, and thus the volume and the load-carrying capacity of the clay stratum decelerates. This circumstance, together with the boom of construction activity in the last decades, cause the city, which at present rises only two meters above sea level, to sag more deeply with a speed of approximately ten centimeters each year. This with the result, that today large parts of the city are already under sea level, having not anymore a natural outflow by the Menam- River, traversing the city of Bangkok, and must be discharged by pumping systems. In the monsoon season, the regular inundation of whole quarters constitutes a large problem for the inhabitants of the city.

When in the rainy season the clouds in the sky form themselves into threatening mountains, at every moment a tropical downpour can occur, with several decimeters rainfall per square meter.  In a few minutes the roads will become rivers, the insufficient and usually half clogged sewers can only discharge a small fraction of the immense amount of water. The same applies to the overstrained pump systems, and in short time the roads are standing several decimeters under water. In districts situated more deeply, the water level will often reach a height of more than one meter, especially if the rainfalls meet with the tide, coming upstream from the gulf of Thailand. 

In former times, the canals called “Klongs”, going crosswise through the town, and getting Bangkok the appellation "Venice of the east" served as natural sewers for the rain flood.  They were however nearly all filled up in the last 50 years to procure land and roads for the development of the city. Today nearly the whole surface of the city is sealed with some hundred square kilometers of concrete, so that rain water cannot any more seep into the ground.

In the last decades, enormous sums of money were invested by the city and the government into the solution of the inundation problems. But up to now, all solutions remained more or less patchwork. By raising the roads, in order to make the motor traffic unobstructed by the flood, the water floods into the adjacent populated area, where the dirty broth then is rotting sometimes for weeks.

The only community that the city once called „Venice of the east“  still has today with their Italian twin town, might consist of the fact, that Bangkok threatens also to drop also into the sea, this however much faster than Venice.

We do our best to provide accurate and up to date information. However, if you have noticed any inaccuracies in this article, please let us know in the comments section below.
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gruffert Just joined
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Surin, Thailand
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