Navigating the Streets of Bangkok

August 7, 2000

I reflect on my younger years during evil gym class where I was picked last 98% of the time for any team. Occasionally we did obstacle course races with stationary objects with tire tubes, wooden horses, balancing beams, round and hollow cement tubes, and jungle gyms. For some unknown reason, I usually did quite well at this. But nothing, nothing in my life, perhaps even if I’d been a gymnast or a navy seal member or champion agility dog of the universe, nothing could have prepared me for navigating downtown Bangkok.

Trying to walk in Bangkok is one of the greatest physical and mental challenges one can face. I believe ‘Reach out and touch a high voltage wire’ should become the new city slogan. The following descriptions are based on pedestrian experience, as I am still not brave enough to drive here.

Stationary threats consist of large, small, or forming holes, raised slabs of trip ready cement, smooth marble slopes covered in sand thus turning them to ‘ice’,070800k1.jpg head-smashing staircases, decapitation fans with no coverings on their blades, bricks, half-full cement bags, garbage cans, open pans of boiling oil, hot coal stoves, gas tanks, dirty dishes, tables, chairs, neon lights, and stacks of food to bump into provided by your friendly array of food vendors.

Other stationary threats include human beings or animal obstacles, missing or crumbling sidewalks, gaps, cracks, and gashes in cement, walking terrain at 10-, 20-, and 30-degree angles, open construction areas, and karaoke singers. Perhaps the greatest of all stationary threats is the ignored traffic light and pedestrian crossing zone.

Please note that many of the stationary threats listed above may, for one reason or another, become a non-stationary threat at any time.

Non-stationary threats include boxes, packages, equipment, and things being carried by other people, pedestrians, pushed or pedaled vending carts, mopeds, elephants, motorcycles,070800k2.jpg bicycles, trucks, busses, and cars of every age, shape, color and temperament.

Other non-stationary threats include hot water being tossed onto the sidewalk, wafting fragrance of cooking chili peppers still capable to give a good sting, elbows grabbing for cell-phones, entering- exiting-U-turning vehicles of all kinds (perhaps on the sidewalk or in the wrong lane), live welding shows, tuk-tuks, push carts, taxis, dogs, wheelbarrows, and many many moving people.

Please note that many of the non-stationary threats listed above may for one reason or another become a stationary threat at any time. Policemen hold this interesting double category of stationary and non-stationary. They may sit harmlessly but then suddenly rise to give you a fine for littering or jaywalking.

It is virtually impossible to “auto-pilot” through the city. Sometimes even full-concentration won’t get me through safely. I think about the population explosion within Bangkok. The city070800k3.jpg just grew too fast to keep up with itself. There are no strict zoning laws that I am aware of and Bangkok doesn’t even have what could be pinpointed as a downtown area. I realize the mess isn’t really Bangkok’s fault but nevertheless I am still running the obstacle course of Bangkok, Thailand. My bottle of water is empty and I really need a shower.

Sometimes when combined with the heat, fumes, not knowing where I am, and wishing it would all be over with, I think I might just lose my mind. I don’t smell very good, don’t look very good, and am exhausted from the sheer concentration from participation in a live video game where I may not get a second quarter.

I curse the city. I curse myself for not staying safely indoors. I pray for fresh air and a green pasture. Some cows and one gurgling stream please with a side order of peace and quiet. Hold the chainsaw.

Then I change my negative attitude in an instant by imagining a herd of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) officials, Food and Drug Administration bureaucrats, Act 250 enforcers and health inspectors taking on the city right along with me. I suggest that those of you who have the opportunity to take the downtown Bangkok challenge try this sometime. You are guaranteed to fall down laughing…if you haven’t fallen down already.

All of this is what makes Bangkok Bangkok. If all of these obstacles some day order or organize themselves or disappear they may even end up being missed.

While I was out taking photographs for this article I met Mr. William Thornton. He was navigating the streets of Bangkok in his wheel chair with absolute skill. Mr. William Thornton lost the use of his legs in the Vietnam War and has been wheeling around the world since then. He says Bangkok is one of the friendliest places he has navigated. He took off down the road faster than a taxicab when we were finished chatting.

Don’t let these scary streets of Bangkok scare you away. What you will see, smell, and hear while navigating them is more than worth the unique physical and mental challenge of it all. Your eyes are certain to be more than open.

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