I rode the Skytrain in Bangkok the week it opened. It was new, it was free and it was the first time in my life I ever took public transportation. Since I am an American, this is not all that startling a statement. Taking an American’s car away is tantamount to castration.
It was so easy and clean and efficient. Most importantly, it took you where you wanted to go.
I’ll never forget my Thai girlfriend’s reaction. She asked me to meet her at a café in Silom. When I arrived right on time she asked, “How did you get here so fast?” Beaming with pride I said, “I took the Skytrain”. She looked at me like a dog who just heard a funny noise. “The what?” “The BTS … the Skytrain … don’t you know about it?” I asked incredulously. “Is that thing finished?” she asked. From the window of her car, I pointed out the transportation marvel whistling by overhead. She still didn’t get it.
And for a long time, nobody got it. I remember riding in sparsely populated trains all over town at all times of day. Foreigners were taking advantage of the BTS, but Thais were mistrustful. It seemed as though Bangkokians wore their traffic scars like a badge of honor. Bangkok traffic is the traffic all other bad traffic is measured by. They acted as if it should suck to get around, it’s part of Bangkok charm.
Well, those days are long gone. BTS lines sprawl all over town in all directions. Coaches are packed all times of day and additional trains are brought on-line during peak hours. Once a new line opens, the part of town it services immediately comes to life. With the addition of the MRT Subway and the Airport Link, Bangkok is easier than ever to traverse. If you insist on clinging to your car keys or taking some other form of ground transportation, you can still experience that old Bangkok charm by sitting in traffic for hours. It can still suck to get around in Bangkok.
Last month, one of my students, a 17 year old Thai kid, asked me what it was like before the Skytrain. It occurred to me this boy grew up totally in the modern age. He’d never known his hometown without the convenience of good, cheap public transportation. It was a peculiar question, but even stranger was the fact he was asking a farang to school him on his own city.
So, I considered the question for a moment and began my history lesson. “Well Chai, first off, all the foreigners were restricted to Sukhumvit Road, and smartphones hadn’t been … “