TOPIC ASIA MAGAZINE

Skytrain is heaven

Travelling on the Bangkok skytrain can be a pleasurable experience and a very good way to get around Bangkok. I used to travel on it regularly and in the off-peak hours always appreciated the sheer bliss of an efficient air-conditioning system blasting at my sweaty back and preparing me for the nightmare of humidity that awaited outside the doors as soon as I was spat out.

But I also often used it in rush hour, going to and from work and this wasn’t such a relaxing experience. The air-conditioning had no chance against the sheer volume of hot bodies jam-packed against each other. Armpits in my face, stilettos punched into my bare toes; these are all the annoying side-effects of a traffic solution that has actually worked.

The Bangkok skytrain system was officially opened on December 5 1999, and not to as much fanfare as one would have hoped at the time. Potential passengers stayed away in droves as they gazed up at the tracks snaking through their city many metres up in the air. Bangkok residents saw it as a flimsy and ridiculous thing that couldn’t possibly be safe, especially perhaps with the stench of corruption still hanging over the construction.

However, after a few months of not falling down, and with no trains spectacularly coming off the tracks and crashing into the cars below, people did start to venture onto it and now more than half a million trips are taken on it every day, between 23 stations on two lines.

Siam Square is the main hub in the system and where the two lines intersect. Unfortunately it also used to be where I worked so I had to make my way up the elevators every day and stand on the crowded platform in the late afternoon, maneuvering myself carefully in order to have the best chance of actually getting on. Siam Square was also where they started to try and introduce what I like to call ‘skytrain etiquette.’

Thai people are generally very, very polite. However as soon as public transport is introduced into the equation they become a pushing, screaming mob who will kill in order to get on that train. This means that when the skytrain glides to a stop and the doors open the desperate crowd on the platform surges forward as one entity and tries to bully their way inside. In other cultures the norm is to wait for the disembarking passengers to get off first, and personally I see the logic in that as it creates space for new passengers. This reasoning completely passes Bangkok people by and there is always a dreadful scrum as one lot pushes out and the others push in.

At Siam they are now not only providing soothing public announcements about the value of waiting until the train empties, but have placed a number of specially designated ‘platform helpers’ whose job it is to make sure this happens. They run around telling people to move back and even try to ensure that the thoughtfully placed square area in front of each door is free of mayhem for passengers getting off to pass through with ease. It sort of seems to be working.

But for all my complaints about the BTS, I am actually very glad it is there. Once on the train, movement is guaranteed which is more than can be said for the snarling road system below. There is no negotiating the fare with a rude driver or spending desperate minutes trying to remember enough Thai to give directions that will get you at least in the ballpark of your destination. The skytrain is predictable and I know where it is at all times, which is quite a bonus in the sprawling, ever shifting expanse which is Bangkok.