Dec 18, 2008|
Apart from now, Bangkok can’t exactly boast the best weather to go walking. But is that the only thing keeping us from enjoying this healthy, free, eco-friendly mode of transportation? Everytime we pound the pavement, we find ourselves tripping over shoddy patch-up jobs, monster potholes and crumbling blocks of cement—not to mention those booby-trap sidewalks that spit gutter filth onto our brand new sneakers. How come walking in Bangkok is such an (mis)adventure? Is it too much to ask for clean, walkable pathways? Can pedestrians, hawkers, motorbikes and cyclists ever share the space? We talked to those who use, clean, ride, walk and work on our streets everyday to find out their thoughts on the subject.
Deunchalerm Khiewpan, 26, pedestrian (consulting analyst)
Do you think that Bangkok is a pedestrian-friendly city?
Are you kidding? I love walking, but really, there is hardly a day that I can walk in peace. The footpaths are bumpy and smell like urine. The hawkers are all over the place and motorcycle drivers seem to think the pavements are their streets.
So, Monday vending ban: for or against?
I’m totally for it. I know the vendors have to make a living but sometimes they can be so irritating. So if we can’t completely avoid them, then I say it should be at least one day for pedestrians like us to enjoy vendor-free pavements. The hawkers can go take a rest. It’s a win-win settlement… that’s if the police and the tessakit don’t happen to be blinded by banknotes.
What do you want to see done to make Bangkok a more pedestrian-friendly city?
Repair the pavements. Get rid of the street vendors. Plant more trees and put the wires underground. Really, if any Bangkok governor candidate ran a campaign to sort out this mess, I’d definitely vote for them.
Boonrong Kayarum, 31, motorcycle taxi driver at Ruam Rudee
Do you drive on pavements?
Yes, usually in the evening when traffic is bad.
If you get caught, what’s the fine?
The fine is B400, but if I can negotiate with a police officer before he writes me a ticket, I pay only B200. I can’t really complain, though. After all, riding on the sidewalks is illegal.
So why do you do it?
Well, most of the time I manage to get away with it. So far, I’ve only got caught a couple of times. And it’s better to pay a couple hundred baht than getting stuck in traffic.
What do your passengers say when you drive on the pavement?
Nothing. On the contrary, they even like it because they get to their destination faster.
What about the pedestrians? Has anyone complained?
Not really. I guess they are used to it already. Most of them simply give way to me.
Nunnaree Panichkul, 26, pedestrian (assistant curator at TCDC)
What’s the most annoying thing you encounter on sidewalks?
Besides people who walk super slowly, I’d say the uneven footpaths. Narrow pavements with unfinished, shoddy repairs can make a simple walk to lunch quite a journey. It makes me have to always concentrate because if you let your mind wander for a second, you can end up embarrassing yourself quite easily.
So is Bangkok a pedestrian-friendly city?
Yes and no. It’s friendly in a way that you can find almost everything you want on the sidewalk. But it’s hard to walk with all the street vendors taking up the already limited space.
But don’t you feel something is missing when there’s no vendor on the streets on Mondays?
Not at all. I just go “Oh yeah…it’s Monday.”
So would you prefer the BMA ban street vendors completely?
No, Bangkok wouldn’t be Bangkok if there were no street vendors. It’s part of the city’s charm. But I agree with the Monday ban, though. There should be a day of the week for clearing and cleaning the streets.
Montonn Jira, 30, bicycle rider (musician)
Why do you like biking?
I enjoy the sensation of pedaling. I also like the fact that I am not dependent on any source of energy other than my own. I currently have a track bike with a Soma frame. It’s a joy to ride!
Why do you think Bangkokians don’t like to bike?
I think Thai people are extremely lazy, so they avoid all types of physical activity that involves being outdoors in the city. I also think the city doesn’t lend itself well to cyclists. It can barely handle cars and pedestrians. Too many potholes and a lack of driving regulations add to the fear of biking in the city. Also, the city is in an early stage of development. The population is still easily fascinated with what they think are modern (temporary) forms of transportation such as cars, trains, subways, and motorcycles. Once the trend wears out and the country is able to progress, they’ll incorporate a biking system into the city.
What’s your take on bicycle lanes?
They are pathetic, almost as pathetic as the bus lanes. Sharing lanes on the sidewalk with noodle vendors and lottery stalls is a joke! We would rather ride on the street with the bus and taxi drivers than have to dodge pedestrians and street food carts.
Anything that could be done to make Bangkok a more biker-friendly city?
First, limit the amount of cars in the city, and encourage biking by enforcing driving laws. Then educate people about the benefits of biking as a form of transportation and how it will help to improve the city’s eco system and economy. Then provide bike lanes and bike stop lights, bike stations to lock up our bikes, a license and registration system to track and monitor the bicycles in the city, and subsidies for those who choose to ride instead of drive. Wishful thinking, but for Bangkok to develop properly, it needs to establish a strong biking system.
Amphorn Phusalee, tessakit officer at Siam Square
What does your job involve?
A tessakit officer has many responsibilities, like helping the traffic police and working with the environment sections. In short, our duty is to take care of Bangkok and make sure everything runs according to the BMA laws. But most people only associate us with looking after street hawkers and vendors.
What’s your take on the Monday vending ban?
I like it. It makes my work a lot easier and the footpaths a lot cleaner.
Like it or not, a tessakit officer has a pretty notorious reputation. Do you have your side of the story you want to tell?
I realize that we have a not-so positive public image. But really, it’s not what you think. Most of the vendors are very cooperative and obey the rules, so there are hardly any issues.
Anything you want to say to the street vendors?
Please help take care of the footpaths.
Veth, 42, blind street performer at Tha Prachan Pier
How do you get here?
I take a taxi or a motorbike from my house in Ratchaburana. Usually I go to Silom, though. I only come here on Saturdays.
Any problems getting around Bangkok?
Of course, especially when I go to unfamiliar neighborhoods. The biggest challenge is when I want to cross the road. I usually have to ask a passersby to help.
And does anyone help?
If I’m lucky, I’ll run into someone kind enough to take me all the way to where I am headed. But if they don’t have time or can’t be bothered to take me across the road, I’ll just ask for the direction to the nearest overpass.
Bangkok is not a handicap-friendly city, is it?
No, there’s hardly anything to facilitate getting around the city. It’s already very difficult for me to navigate my way through other pedestrians and all the vendors on the sidewalks, let alone hop on a bus or take the skytrain. The sidewalks with Braille blocks [those yellow embossed blocks with dots and lines] might seem useful, but vendors tend to set up their stalls on them, so most of the time I end up bumping into or tripping over someone’s stuff.
What can we do to help make your life easier?
Just take a few minutes out of your busy schedule and give me a hand when I’m in need. I couldn’t ask for more.
Tai, 25, vendor on Khaosan
How do you like the Monday ban?
I don’t really like it. I want to come here and sell everyday because I get bored staying at home. Here, we are allowed to set up the stalls on the first and last Mondays of the month and the business is good. There are more shoppers on Monday than on Sunday. So if I could choose, I would change the vending ban to Sunday.
Does the house owner complain about you setting up in front of their home?
No, because I pay them a rent and electricity charge. Then I also have to pay the tessakit and sometimes the police, too.
The police too?
Yes. The tessakit come every month. With the police, it’s up to their mood, but usually we have to pay B200 per shop. We can bargain sometimes, if business is not good.
Are you willing to pay?
What can I do? I have to pay if I want to sell. Actually, we used to think about protesting because we didn’t want to pay both the tessakit and the police… but lately the cops don’t drop by that often.
Have you ever thought about setting up a shop in markets like JJ or Suan Lum Night Bazaar?
Of course, but I can’t afford the rent. JJ is way too expensive for me. It costs some B100,000 to secure a spot there, while here it costs me B10,000.
What do you say to those who think you are a nuisance and should be banned completely?
Nothing. Like today when I was setting up my stall, a few passers-by complained that I get in their way so they had to walk on the road instead. I just kept silent, as usual, because I know that after all the sidewalks are public space. But hey, I need to make a living and I try my best not to take up too much room.
David, 30-something, vendor on Tha Prachan
Do you have to pay anyone to secure your spot here?
Of course. Call it “rent” if you will, but I’d rather call it “a garbage charge.” You know, every month the tessakit will make a visit to collect the money, which can be anything from B1,500-3,000.
Have you ever gotten into a fight with them?
When I was younger, yes. I’ve been a vendor since I was 19, and back then I was pretty hot-tempered. But now that I’m older, I realize it isn’t a wise thing to do because you’ll lose no matter what.
Would you prefer the Monday vending ban to be lifted?
When Apirak was governor, there were talks about lifting the ban so we, street hawkers, could do our business seven days a week. But now that he’s gone, we have no idea what will happen. Personally, I like the Monday ban. It might not seem like it but setting up a stall is very exhausting. Monday is my day off.
Would you like the ban to be changed to another day of the week?
No! If they change the ban to Friday or Saturday, it would be a nightmare. Monday is perfect because the foot traffic is low.
What would you say to those who claim you are a nuisance and should be banned from the streets?
Well, with my stall sitting right in front of Thammasat University, I do get that comment from the professors from time to time. But really, I don’t expect those with doctorate degrees and a high salary, who might never step their foot out of their bubble, to understand how hard we have to work to make ends meet.
Mattika Sirirattana, 36, pedestrian (stylist)
What do you think is the biggest nuisance on the sidewalks?
Some might point fingers at the street hawkers, but I think pedestrians are worse. Some of them simply stop to bargain and block the path for the rest of us. And then there are those who smoke, throw garbage and spit on the pavements whenever they feel like it. That’s simply disgusting.
You are for the vendors?
I guess, yeah. Shopping and selling on the footpaths has been a part of our daily life. You can’t just ban the vendors because they are unsightly. I believe that if the BMA can come up with effective and practical zoning system, the vendors can do their business seven days a week and we, pedestrians, don’t have to bitch about them hogging the sidewalks.
So if the vendors don’t get you ranting, what does?
Oh, a lot, especially the motorcyclists that use sidewalks as roads. When they get pulled over for driving on pavements, they like to complain about being taken advantage of by the cops. But they don’t seem to realize what a nuisance they can be when they casually ram into people on the footpaths. Another thing that really bugs me are the street side shophouses. It’s amazing how they seem to have no problem extending their shop perimeters onto the sidewalks—space which clearly belongs to the public.
Prasit Kongdang, 32, pedestrian (photographer)
What’s the most annoying thing you have to encounter on the sidewalks?
Hordes of ignorant shoppers who block the way, pausing to bargain incessantly for every little thing. The streets aren’t yours, so please let other people walk.
But aren’t street hawkers also responsible for creating congestion on the sidewalks?
In a way, yes. But like it or not, street hawkers have become a part of Thai culture, adding to the hectic charm of Bangkok. Plus, we can’t really get rid of them. I think Thai people, including me, prefer street shopping to mall shopping because you get more bang for your baht.
Monday vending ban: for or against it?
I’m all for it. No matter how much I enjoy cheap street eats, I think it’s good to have a day when the pavements are clean and tidy.
What do you want to see done to make Bangkok a more pedestrian-friendly city?
Ban smoking on the streets. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not an extreme anti-smoker, but it’s kind of a pain to have to watch out for people holding lit cigarettes while you’re trying to squeeze your way through crowded streets.
That’s it? No complaints about crumbling footpaths or the caved in sidewalks?
No [laughs]. It’s not that big a problem for me. I consider it a charming art piece. You can even get some nice shots out of those hideous sidewalks.
Porn, 57, sweeper at Sanam Luang
How much do you get paid?
Around B10,000. It might seem a lot but don’t forget that I’ve been doing this for 15 years.
Who do you think actually make the pavements dirty, is it the vendors or the pedestrians?
Well, I’d say both. My daily shift is from 1-9pm. But now it’s only 3pm and I’ve already filled two giant rubbish bins.
So is Monday a better day for you since there are no vendors around?
Of course. But this street has many trees, so I still have to clean up lots of falling leaves. I’m not as fit as I once was. My legs and my knees hurt a lot these days. Sometimes I ask my son to come and help me out.
What do you say when a passerby or a hawker litters the streets?
What can I say? I used to tell people to put garbage in the bins but most of them reply saying, “It’s your job to sweep, so why don’t you just shut up and sweep?”
Pisate Virangkabutra, 37, bicycle rider (product design lecturer)
Why do you like biking?
It’s the only vehicle where the more you use it, the better it gets. You’re the engine and you get to exercise while you bike. Plus, I’d rather stick to my bike than put my life into some reckless motorcycle taxi driver’s hands.
How often do you bike?
Not as often as I want to. When I was in Australia, I used to cycle a lot. There, people commute by bike but, in Bangkok, bicycling seems to just be a form of recreation you do in a park. There’s no infrastructure to support bikers. Who wants to risk their life cycling alongside giant buses and speeding motorcycles on the streets? And we can’t really bike on the pavement because it’s already packed with pedestrians and vendors.
What do you want to see done to make Bangkok a biker-friendly city?
Unlike what many people and the authorities think, there’s more to be done than just building bicycle lanes, which are pretty ridiculous I might add. Look at the bicycle lane on Sathorn. One minute, it’s on the sidewalk. Next minute, it’s down on the road. If you really want to encourage people in a car-dependant city like Bangkok to bike, you have to come up with a comprehensive system. Where can I take a shower if I bike to work or where can I park my bicycle? Plus, there’s no law to protect bicyclists. What if we get in an accident?
So do you think street hawkers, bikers and pedestrians can peacefully coexist on the same sidewalk?
In an ideal world where the sidewalk is super wide, then yes. But I think it’s impossible in real life. We all just have to learn how to share the space and respect each other.