Sunday, February 13, 2011

Tuk-tuk Bye-bye

Sometimes small changes in a place signal much larger ones.

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.


  1. Oh, Tim. Now I am going to have to get testy on you! New Yorkers? As the quintessentially rude, uncaring people In the world? Are we reduced to trite vilifying of 13 million people based on cartoon images gleaned from TV reruns and old Sylvester Stallone movies? Good grief, man. You can do better (and more truthful) than that. When you come to my warm (if not in it's climate right this minute) hometown for the Edgars in April, you will find out the truth: New York is the most welcoming big city on the planet. And if the shock of finding out that all those LA screenwriters and movie mogols have lied in the way they portrayed it gives you a heart attack, you will find world class compassion from whoever happens to be standing by.

    I hope you do come. I really do. So I can congratulate you in person. I promise I won't tell my fellow New Yorkers what you said about us. I'm not being overly generous in saying so. Just a typically friendly (and forgiving) New Yorker.

  2. Tim: we even have a few tuk-tuks here in Knysna - also upscale, also appealing to the tourists. Stan

  3. Whoops, Annamaria -- I didn't mean to denigrate ALL New Yorkers, just the unpleasant one-third of them. I lived roughly forty percent of the time in NYC for almost 25 years - had a great apartment at 55th and 6th -- so at least I'm not stereotyping from afar or from TV reruns. But you're right in that the 60% or so of New Yorkers who are terrific people are REALLY terrific people. The ones who are generally unpleasant can make themselves known pretty vividly, though.

    And if I do come for the Edgars (still up in the air), I'd love to say hi. (If you're still speaking to me, I mean.)

    Hi, Stan -- I think they're being exported for their value as local color. I've seen them in Phnom Penh, Seoul, and Singapore.

  4. T, when I said forgiving, I MEANT it. I hope you do come for the awards. I think you will find the ratio is a LOT better. You lived in midtown. In the neighborhoods, it is more like 92.3% good guys. Please let me know if you come. I'll prove my point by buying you a drink!

  5. So, will you be traveling back to Bangkok to work on the 5th Poke book?

  6. Tim,

    I am in awe of your mastery of the craft, how you capture the essence of a changing culture in a few sentences and incite an entire metropolitan area with a single phrase--or at least 40% of it:)). You're poifect!

  7. Thanks, Annamaria. I consider myself forgiven. I'm about 90% sure I'm going for the Edgars. Last time I was there was in either July or August for ThrillerFest, which is a great party.

    Everett, I don't know. To tell you the truth, I don't know much of anything right now except that all I want to do is write.

    Jeff, thanks so much for being so nice, but with the reviews you're getting, it's hard to believe you're in awe of anyone. Many congratulations!

  8. My city, the Big Apple, vilified. People can be very nice. I've met the greatest cab drivers, who help me with groceries, brought to my door.
    I saw someone hit by a van in my neighborhood; people came from all over the block to get him an ambulance, to wait with him.
    So much kindness.
    Yes, there is rudeness, too--like people stepping over homeless and other poor and hungry people and acting annoyed--that is very annoying.
    But so many people are not like that.

  9. Mea culpa. What can I say?

    I lived In New York nearly half-time for 25 years and know that the city is full of good people but also has a larger share of rude, can't-be-bothered people than, say, Ames, Iowa. The intent in my post was not actually to denigrate New York. When I first went to Bangkok, the people I met were Thais first and Bangkokians second. They still acted as much like village people as they did like big-city dwellers. Nowadays, the village isn't apparent at all in most of the people a foreigner is most likely to meet. It used to be that you got a fair sense of Thailand by visiting Bangkok. These days, it would be like trying to get a sense of America bu confining your trip to New York.

  10. I think your post is a reflection more of your own change of attitude than changes in Bangkok. It's common when first visiting a place to be thrilled with all that is unique. When the honeymoon wears off, we begin to see things as they really are.
    I've been going to Bangkok since 1990. I remember having to barter with taxi drivers and love the new meter taxis. I also love the skytrain. I think all of these things have made Bangkok better. It is still possible to find the older, more traditional side of Bangkok - any visit to Chinatown, or walking through the sois, or a ride on a longboat along the klongs, reveals a Bangkok that has not quite caught up with the modern world. Bangkok is a vibrant, ecclectic, world-class city. Food is everywhere, and yes, people are trying to make money. At least in Bangkok, they are willing to sell you something in return for your cash, unlike in the states, where people just want a handout for their crack or booze.

  11. You're part right and I'm part right. My relationship with the city is a decade older than yours is, and some of the changes I mention above -- especially in the attitudes one is likely to encounter -- were in place by the time you first went there.

    I still love Bangkok. Yes, it's become a world-class city, but it's also becoming a more typical world-class city. The great charm of the Bangkok I first fell in love with was that it wasn't typical of anything else in the world -- just Bangkok.

    On the other hand, see if you can find a post I wrote here, "The Travel Spoilers," in which I excoriate people who do exactly what I did in the post above. Yikes. I've become one of them.