Transport Me

What is my experience of Bangkok so far? As a newcomer, I find that my experience of places and where I actually end up going are heavily dictated by their proximity to the BTS and MRT rail lines and to a much lesser extent, the canal ferry.

By way of explanation, apart from being a critical part of any city infrastructure, modes of transportation are intimately tied to the ways in which we mere humans perceive time and space. How we experience spaces have so much to do with the ways we move through them. As a former art history major, I can never forget that this basic, fundamental underpinning of architecture and sculpture.

Wolfgang Schivenbusch said as much about the impact of railroads on the newly industrialized European psyche back in the 19th Century. To people who had never before encountered machine speed – newly freed from the constraints of human and horse power – railways “annihilated” space, compressing distances to a mere standardized unit of time. I’ve been entranced by Schivenbusch’s ideas since I described how the layout of Burning Man distorts perceptions of time and space in my undergraduate Reed thesis

All this comes back to me as I continue to explore the behemoth of a city that is Bangkok. Newly industrialized and multi-nodal, it’s difficult to define a clear center of the city. 

Compare this to a city like Beijing (where I have also lived for periods of time), in which major driving routes are arrayed like concentric rings around the old imperial center. The city’s centralized design reflects the power it is meant to embody – on a smaller scale you can see this in the layout of the Inner Court of the Forbidden City, where gates encircle ever smaller areas down to the Emperor’s personal residence (the Palace of Heavenly Purity) – the most guarded and empowered space.

My perception of Bangkok thus far has been one punctuated by railway stations. I board from one stop, step into a sanitized, air-conditioned tube, and then disembark in a different neighborhood. I have no referent as to the actual distances between places. Marc Augé coined the term “non-places” to describe spaces like this, where people merely pass through on their way to other, more important places.

But lately, I’ve been wondering about all those in-between places – hidden pockets that I feel a duty to explore. I think it’s time for me to take on new perceptions of the city by choosing different modes of transportation. Up to now, I’ve created a personal mental taxonomy of transportation that I clearly need to rethink and possibly dismantle:

  • Motorbikes are good in a pinch, though dangerous. Can’t beat the fun factor though, unless it’s in…
  • Tuk-tuks are for tourists willing to pay a price for the novelty. Makes for great photographs though.
  • Taxis are for travel to the airport or traveling with more than two people. The price to pay is the risk of being stuck in notoriously unpredictable Bangkok traffic.
  • Walking through the city comes with a number of obstacles. This was literally one of my first lessons here, as I dodged motorbikes riding on the sidewalks.

There’s much to be gained in such exploration. The BTS and MRT hearken to a modernized, more developed Bangkok that has turned rich, lived spaces between railway stops into mere empty space on a map. But there’s so much more to the city than that, and I mean to find out. As soon as I decide how to get there.