something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.
The Chao Phraya winds through Bangkok like a serpent, muddied waters twisting through the haphazard urban sprawl before emptying into the Gulf of Thailand. The canals are lined with communities and open spaces; as we walk up, children play basketball across the water while their elders eat noodles and smoke. The throaty roar of an engine sounds and a longboat races towards the dock, pulling alongside with a swelling of water as passengers disembark. More jump on before it speeds off again, the water churned to a froth behind it.
Once the arteries through which the blood of the City of Angels flowed, the river and canals linger still — an ancient layer to a sprawling megapolis in a state of flux.
Now, a different river winds through the city, one above — not below — its asphalt streets. The serpent of concrete and metal winds through the heart of the city, connecting the key business districts and elevating its passengers above the controlled chaos below. I’m referring to the BTS, Bangkok’s Sky Train.
Our tour starts overlooking the roundabout around the Victory Monument. From the Sky Walk, the massive traffic circle is built around the structure, and the current of the city flows through it. Looking down at the mass of traffic, it seems like chaos. There’s no obvious formality to the motion, no sense of order. Tuk-tuks, taxis, and buses move in a free-wheeling circle, changing lanes and weaving through each others’ paths.
The Sky Walk follows the curve of the road, and the flow of people walking its length mirrors the flow of traffic below. Walking around the Monument, we can see street carts and markets stationed at the base of the Sky Walk, vendors taking advantage of the busy thoroughfare to maximize their visibility. Like the canals before, the Sky Walk attracts the informal economy of Bangkok like a magnet.
Our next stop reveals a different side of Bangkok. Just off the BTS line, a vacant lot lies overgrown and lush, while condos rise immediately behind it. Bangkok is not a dense city, but rather a sprawling one, and spaces such as this are left vacant due to beliefs that they are home to lingering spirits. Due to this sprawling nature, the ‘center’ of the city is anything but. Instead, key business districts are linked by — you guessed it — the BTS.
Next along the BTS is Siam Square, where shopping centers have grown like weeds. Ornate, sprawling, and filled with hordes of milling millennials, the complexes have sprouted up on land owned by the nearby university. In many, the corridors between shops are exposed to the outside. Benches attract couples who huddle together; the densely packed malls have replaced the public spaces of old. Walkways connect the malls to the Sky Walk, the adjacent space becoming an extension of the mall itself. Like the leveled cities of Coruscant, Gotham, or Blade Runner’s Los Angeles; Bangkok’s cityscape is morphing as the BTS level is superimposed over the street, just like the streets were built over the canals before them.
At the end of it all, we find ourselves 45 floors above the city at the Octave Rooftop Lounge and Bar on top of the Marriott Hotel Sukhumvit. The serpentine shape of the BTS glimmers amidst a sea of lights, ferrying denizens of the megapolis to and fro in the last hours of the day. Like the canals below it which linger still, it is an integral part of this chaotic city which has no center. Somewhere in the darkness, the Chao Praya flows inexorably towards the sea, through a layer of Bangkok still more than a memory, but slowly moving into the shadow of Time.
I was lucky enough to go on the Megapolis tour of Bangkok with Aleksandra of Context Travel. An urban design and development instructor at Thammasat University, she came to Bangkok several years ago because she was interested in “…researching and teaching in an area with contradicting forces shaping the physical and social space of the city”. Most recently, she has started working with Context to help them launch their Bangkok tours.
What attracted me to Context Travel — and the reason I approached them at the TBEX Asia Networking event — can be summed up in their motto: Tours for the Intellectually Curious Traveler. Diverging from the popular tourist sites, Context instead looks at cities around the world with an academic eye, and their tours dive deep into the history, culture, and architecture of different locales. Their tour guides are experts in their respective field, whether it be architecture, history, etc. As someone who normally isn’t too fond of tours, but loves learning about the places I visit, Context seemed to be a good fit.
*DISCLAIMER* While the tour was comped, my views and opinion of it are entirely my own. I received no compensation for writing this post.