Sunday, February 13, 2011
When I first went to Bangkok, back around 1981, the tuk-tuk was ubiquitous. And that was a good thing because taxis -- battered, dented, pestilentially dirty, wrong-side-drive Japanese cars 25 or 30 years old with the word TAXI printed on them somewhere -- were a crash course in Third World Life. The fare was subject to vehement barter that often continued even after the cab was in motion, there was no air conditioning, and there was only one completely dependable thing about the experience: However much you paid, you had been taken and taken good, and had quite possibly just set a new financial world record for the route.
Tuk-tuks, on the other hand, were relatively cheap and had the additional advantage of being somewhat cool, since you were, in essence, outdoors. Sure, you were sucking up the fumes of thousands of badly tuned motors, and sure, the top was angled downward at the precise angle to make sightseeing impossible (note the way the girl in the back is sitting), but you got out and dismissed the driver without feeling like you'd just personally paid the bill for hundreds of years of colonial oppression. And in the only Southeast Asian country never to be colonized.
And tuk-tuks were an adventure. You knew the first time you got into one that you had a story, if you lived to tell it.
But not today. Today, Bangkok is full of immaculate taxis with meters (although some drivers refuse to use them) and glacial air conditioning, and the tuk-tuk is grimly accepted by Thai drivers as a quaint but necessary piece of tourist nostalgia. And tuk-tuks cost more now than taxis do, unless you have the misfortune to get into the taxi of some Bach of barter who can turn a two-kilometer ride into an afternoon of exploration.
Unfortunately, the tuk-tuks are a symptom of widespread gentrification that's gradually taking what was once the most gloriously eccentric big city in the world and turning it into a suburb of (insert name of some dull city here). Many of the things that used to be part of daily life for the Thais have become cheap scenery for tourists. Just to take one example, supermarkets are supplanting sidewalk markets, turning the sidewalks into places to pay too much for crap T-shirts, drawstring pants that can be bought on the beach in Venice, and little models of tuk-tuks that are made in China. And all the life and good cheer that animated the older markets has staled into false smiles for farang.
Stale is, unfortunately, the word for much of what once made Bangkok unique. Bangkok people, once as friendly as any you'd find anywhere in the Kingdom, have become New Yorkers. Many of them are no longer particularly pleasant, and they seem to regard foreign visitors as walking ATMs.
On the other hand, I have an American acquaintance who suffered a heart attack there recently, and the emergency brought the old Thai spirit to the fore. People helped him up, flagged down a taxi, and jammed themselves into the cab to help him get out. The taxi took them to the best hospital in Bangkok, and the people carried the American into the hospital as the driver left without asking for payment. The hospital, Bumrungrad, gave him first-rate care, even calling their chief cardiologist back from vacation four hours away. After several weeks of care, my acquaintance left the hospital under his own power, with a bill that came to a little over US $5,000.
So do I still like Bangkok? Yes, and it continues to fascinate me. Do I still love it? Not really, no. But I may come to love it again.
at 2:29 AM