Sunday, December 22, 2002


Friends: This is it. The last one. I can't rail as strongly against the urban mayhem of Bangkok as I might otherwise after spending a day with the Thai wife of friend Mike from Facets. But still, I have to say the traffic is as much of a nightmare as I remember it. It is as thick and noxious, if not more so, as it was two months ago. It took me nearly two hours yesterday to bike twelve miles across this gruesomely congested city after I left the highway that brought me from Chon Buri and I hit the gridlock. I almost would have preferred the worst of Cambodia's roads to the traffic of Bangkok. It wasn't dangerous, just horribly slow-going. I, the lone cyclist in this clogged metropolis of some eight million, and the handful of motorbikes, had a slight advantage on all the four-wheelers, as we could edge forward through the cracks in the gridlock. If I had minded my manners and stayed in line, it would have taken me twice as long to do those twelve miles.

I was slowed somewhat by the periodic need to verify I was headed in the correct direction, as the main thoroughfares don't always go straight and there are a minimum of signs. I was headed to the backpacker ghetto of Khao Son, just a couple blocks from the Grand Palace. Khao Son is just three or four blocks long, so it isn't widely known among the locals. But the Grand Palace certainly is. Unfortunately I didn't know the Thai word for Grand Palace and there aren't too many English speakers about, especially among the traffic police. Not a one I asked understood "Grand Palace," and only a few knew "King and Queen." But I did discover the tuk tuk drivers could usually confirm I was headed the correct way or direct me the correct way when I came to a tricky intersection. For a while I could rely on the sun until it got too high, and the wind, though I couldn't trust that it hadn't switched directions on me.

My first forty miles yesterday were free sailing, but not exactly a picnic, as I alternated between riding on the shoulder of a four, then six, lane divided highway, and the two lane frontage road that flanked each side of the highway. The frontage road wasn't very well maintained and after a brief shower was riddled with puddles and lakes of water that forced me back to the main highway. The traffic was comparatively light, however, this Saturday morning and what there was helped create a tunnel of air upping my speed. As I neared the city, the frontage road grew to six lanes wide along with the highway. But even that wasn't enough for the Thai road builders, as up above were another four to six lanes for those willing to pay a toll.

Another of the banes of Bangkok traffic is the lengthy traffic signals. Each of the four arteries feeding the busier intersections must await their own green before proceeding. There are four cycles of lights rather than the usual two. Rather than a minute wait, it is three minutes. And I am frequently forced to guzzle the fumes from the motorbikes clustered around me, who have inched to the head of the pack. I've been so desperate at times to escape a particularly foul exhaust pipe, I've actually picked up and carried my loaded bike to extricate myself from the fumes.

I wasn't eager at all to go back out into the city on my bike after I settled on a guest house, but I wanted to check in with Supphawan, Mike's wife, at the dental clinic she works at as its accountant and bill collector. At least I knew where I was going and, unlike two months ago, I no longer freaked out when motorbikes all of a sudden swerved into my lane and came barreling straight at me. It is accepted behavior when there is a break in oncoming traffic for the motorbikes to take over the oncoming lane. When it first happened, I thought the street had suddenly become one-way without me knowing it. The motorbikes don't try to terrorize however, so I just hug the curb and have no worries.

Supphawan and I decided to go to the large weekend market the next day, Sunday. I needed to do some shopping for that holiday that has been creeping up on me with a minimum of fanfare. Its barely acknowledged in these Buddhist regions. The 25th is just another day, and certainly not a day off, though New Year's will be a four-day holiday--Sunday through Wednesday. I was planning on biking out to the market, but was glad to have the opportunity to sample public transportation with an adept. Since Supphawan would meet me at my guest house at nine I planned to get out early on my bike to see if there is a Sunday morning lull in the mayhem of Bangkok traffic. I also wanted to try to orient myself a little better to the city. I still didn't have a very good handle on it. There are a few scattered skyscrapers, including one of 72 stories, but they aren't clustered together and with the angled streets they aren't much good as landmarks. I wasn't sure if I really wanted to learn this city, but I did want to go out and have a nice bike ride, which I wasn't sure was possible here.

But lo and behold, there was a Sunday moratorium on traffic, at least until eight, and for the first time I could spin my legs freely in Bangkok for more than a few moments at a time and almost forget myself and feel the purity and joy of riding my bike, which is, after all, what I live for. It felt so good and was so unexpected, it was almost enough to make me think this metropolis could be livable, but I could not be tricked into such an admission. But it did allow me the revery of being reminded what a sublime pleasure it is to effortlessly glide along content and carefree. I felt as exalted as I do out in the hinterlands and on my traditional Sunday morning Marlboroing ride with Joan and Waydell in Chicago. I was almost sorry I couldn't bike out to the market, though I knew any time spent with Supphawan would be time well-spent.

Our bus was air-conditioned, a welcome surprise. And it came equipped with curtains to block out the fierce sun. But sitting in a vehicle just inching along quickly had me yawning uncontrollably despite the company of Supphawan. I felt like a trapped animal. No one who knew better, as I did, would willingly endure the insanity of being confined to this box. I wondered what sins my fellow prisoners had committed to end up here. I couldn't tell if they were heathens or infidels or simply the unenlightened.

It would have been faster to walk, that is if the sidewalks weren't so clogged with vendors and pedestrians. The streets are so wide it would be easy to give up a lane to bicycles, but no one rides bikes to begin with and a free lane would immediately be usurped by all the motorbikes. So this is another city that will choke itself to death unless petroleum runs out first.

The market is one of the world's great ones selling everything imaginable from puppies to antiquities. It is just a Saturday/Sunday affair, so many people make it an outing. I was sorry I wasn't hungrier, so I could sample the many foods available. It was mobbed, mostly by locals, but a fair number of travelers and tourists were there as well. It truly looked like the last weekend before Christmas with the mobs of shoppers. I was able to find enough trinkets to satisfy my obligations, but Supphawan couldn't find what she wanted for Mike for me to take back, so I got to experience a mall with Supphawan as well. It was equally mobbed.

There was a multiplex at the mall. Since it was a movie house, Facets, that brought Mike and I together, it seemed appropriate that Supphawan and I indulge in a movie. Our legs could certainly use a break. I was able to contribute six dollars for our two tickets to the international gross of the latest Bond picture. We saw it on a screen and in a theater comparable to any back home, except all seats were reserved. When we purchased our tickets there was a small screen by the ticket-seller showing all the remaining seats. Supphawan was shocked that in America people can just go in and sit anywhere. After the previews the screen flashed,"Please pay your respects to his Majesty the King." Everyone in the near full house rose to their feet and watched a montage of snapshots of the King and people holding up framed pictures of the king and billboards of the King as the national anthem played. It was quite well done, enough so that I felt like applauding when it ended. The only other difference between this movie-going experience and one back home is that the previews and advertisements for companies such as Nike, Honda, Nokia and McDonald's went on for half an hour. I didn't mind at all, as I was happy to have my time in this air-conditioned movie palace prolonged.

Supphawan took me home via canal, the same way she commutes to work, so I didn't have to contend with traffic, just the noise of the boat's souped up engine. As I walked home at dark I heard the national anthem again at six. It wasn't the music that first caught my attention, rather the people standing at attention on the sidewalk. I was almost exhausted enough to hit the hay, but I had this final obligation. I thank all of you for reading and for all your responses. Cheers to anyone who read all of them. Jim Redd calculated it came to about ten words for every mile I bicycled--3,529.

These are the musings only my journal would have been privy to in the era before the Internet. When I warily started sharing them with a few friends several trips back I would have been appalled and horrified to imagine it would grow to these proportions. I was able to do more editing this time, thankfully, before I had to click on the send button, but obviously not every time. It has been a pleasure to get all of this out of my head, leaving it space for other thoughts. I appreciate your indulgence.

Later, George

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