Jennifer Gampell
868/75-76 Soi Vanich 2
Songwad Road
Bangkok 10100 Thailand
Tel/Fax: (66) 2-237-3362
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December 10-11, 1999

Weekend Journal: Diary of a Skytrain Odyssey

By Jennifer Gampell

Day 1 (Dec. 5): "How much is a value-added ticket?" I shriek for the third time at the lone Bangkok Transit System ticket seller enclosed in his soundproof booth. The ear-splitting cacophony generated by trains rumbling overhead and hundreds of people milling around Silom station has obviously overwhelmed the receiving capabilities of the small round orifice in the middle of the window. The guy reaches for his microphone and releases a stream of unintelligible fuzziness. Shaking his head, he smiles one of those wonderfully all-purpose "now what?" Thai smiles. I scrunch down, stick my mouth near the opening at the bottom of the ticket window and repeat the question. He holds up three fingers; I pass him some money; he punches numbers into a computer. Finally, much to the relief of the 40-plus people waiting in line behind me, he slides a plastic card toward me.

The half-hour ticket purchase imbroglio has dampened my enthusiasm for riding Bangkok's long-awaited mass transit system on its first day of operation. Shoving the ticket into my wallet, I squeeze past the throngs and head back down the long flight of stairs to the street. Each of the 24 stations along the two-line, 23.5-kilometer elevated system has one escalator that runs up from the ticket concourse to the platform. But only at Central station where the two lines join together do escalators operate at street level. Personally I don't have a problem with schlepping up and down stairs, but many Thais aren't especially aerobically inclined.

Day 2 (Dec. 6): Some 400,000 passengers rode the Skytrain yesterday according to the newspapers. The resultant chaos was blamed on passenger inexperience, too few automated coin-only ticket machines and assorted other teething problems. Nonetheless, I keep hearing that the world's largest privately-financed transit system--it cost nearly $1.7 billion--needs at least 600,000 riders/day just to cover costs. If so, then yesterday was only a three-quarters portent of things that had better come.

Today, Monday, is a public holiday and Central Station seethes with humanity. Entire families have traveled in from outlying suburbs to ride the shiny new red, white and blue carriages. Despite the humongous lines, a festive, amusement-park atmosphere prevails. Most people I talk to fall into two categories: the ones who can't afford to use system regularly (fares range between 10 and 40 baht ($0.26-1.04) depending on distance traveled), and those who wouldn't abandon their cars for all the Skytrains in the world. With my prepaid ticket, I sail through the gates and ride the escalator up to the platform.

Walking ability or lack thereof has been a hot topic in Skytrain circles since early this year when disabled groups vociferously protested the lack of wheelchair access to the system. After protracted wrangling over who should provide it, about $4.4 million was allocated for lifts at five stations. (None were yet completed.) Now everyone's arguing over exactly who besides the wheelchair-bound can ride them. Wheelchairs are a rare site indeed in downtown Bangkok and hopefully ambulatory disabled will also be allowed aboard. Concurrent with Skytrain construction, the city also embarked on a project to replace the treacherously uneven and helter-skelter brick sidewalks along the route with a smoother, color-coded system. For visually-challenged walkers, a single file of repousse orange pavers supposedly demarcates the safest path to the Skytrain stairways. In reality, even sighted striders will have a hard time not following the orange brick road into power poles and telephone booths!

As for my inaugural ride…unbelievable barely describe the notion of traversing one end of central Bangkok to the other in a paltry 30 minutes. I've spent longer in gridlock at a single traffic light! Frankly, I think the harvest gold molded plastic seats with those little red and green flecks circa 1950s formica countertops were designed with the average Asian derriere in mind not the western one, but that's a minor point.

Day 4 (Dec. 8): I meet with Mr. Dhanachol Suriyanakangkoon, a division director at the Ministry of Labor and self-styled practitioner of "feng shui," the ancient Chinese art of geomancy. He holds the colossal concrete monster--he calls it the "Giant Snake"--and the subway line still under construction responsible for Thailand's economic crash. Together he says they're blocking Bangkok's 'chi' or cosmic life force. Nobody working or walking on the sidewalks under the huge, sky-blocking stations on Silom Road needs a geomancer to notice the exhaust-choked air, but who knows whether blocked 'chi' is behind the problems of the Thai banks in this, the city's financial district.

Day 5 (Dec. 9): What a difference a workday makes. At 6:45 a.m. the concourse at Central station is practically deserted. Since Monday, daily ridership has plummeted to 100,000. I tool around on the Sukhumvit line for a couple of hours observing passenger demographics. Early converts include local business-types, office workers, students and every expat you talk to. Others are still evaluating whether the convenience of riding the Skytrain compensates for the inconvenience of getting to it from the hinterlands.

Epilogue: The Skytrain's ultimate success depends only partially on ticket machines, signage and rider familiarity. More critical will be how fast the subway and other mass transit systems--like the stalled Hopewell project-- come on line. As Bangkok governor Bhichit Rattakul remarked at the Skytrain press conference: "Without the backbone we can't serve the people. We're hoping for Hopewell."

Copyright 1999 Asian Wall Street Journal