Bangkok: Traffic, Temples, And The Future Of Retail

By

Leonard Zwelling

Bladerunner. That’s all I could think about as the van inched through traffic the likes of which I had never seen. There were electric billboards everywhere in the night sky. They were mini-movies for all kinds of products and other than the displays not being in 3D, it seemed an android would tap on the window at any moment. And a walking one could have. No flying cars here. That’s how slow the traffic moved from the airport in Bangkok to our hotel downtown. Probably, at three in the morning it is a thirty to forty minute drive. At five PM, it took two hours. I have been in traffic in Houston, LA, New York and Rome. Bangkok wins. This is the worst city to drive in I have ever seen.

The population of the city is listed at about 8 million, though our guide tells us it is 12. The country, at about 65 million is smaller than Viet Nam, but at least 10 to 20 years ahead in technological development. And in cars. Oh sure, there are plenty of scooters on the surface roads which also don’t move all that well by dint of the five minute red lights, but it is the shear number of cars that is so impressive.

We were supposed to go to another Chabad House in Bangkok for Friday night services and dinner. Google estimated that it was 55 minutes away at midday. That would be two hours at four or five PM. We had to forego this opportunity this time, regrettably.

Bangkok itself, much like Cambodia, is a series of sights that are temples plus the royal palace. Here, they are not 800 years old. Most have been built by the royal family in the past 200 years or so. There is the sacred jade Buddha in one and the huge (think Statue of Liberty huge) reclining Buddha in another. We, of course, are escorted through another of the series of produce markets the likes of which we have seen from Viet Nam to Cambodia. Here one market is actually on the water as merchants fill boats with goods and slide by selling to one another as well as to tourists on the shoreline along tight canals filled with “long-tail boats,” wooden craft with long rudders of steel that end in a small propeller driven by an old gas engine. It’s very Mad Max in appearance. It’s all part of the scene along the Chao Phraya River that bisects the city. Boats are going up and down the river moving goods and people down stream, upstream and cross stream at all hours of the day and night. But mostly what we did in Bangkok was sit in traffic. Yes, it’s that bad.

Our last full night in the city led us to take one of those long-tail boats up the river from our hotel to the site of a new mall that may represent the future of retail in the age of Amazon. It is called ICON SIAM. It is eight floors of high-end retail space with one level of restaurant after restaurant of every shape and size. Christmas music was playing which is quite curious in a country that is 87% Buddhist. We thought we were done with the mall after a dinner of paella in Bangkok. Not even close.

We walked past the ice cream stands to a whole additional area of the mall. It is called Sook Siam. I assume that sook is like the shuk in Jerusalem, a market. There were row upon row of brightly colored booths with young women cooking every type of food one could imagine. So in addition to all the restaurants, and the huge expanse of retail space, there is another mall within the mall for food on the fly. If it is immediacy of purchase, unlimited variety and the communal shopping experience that retailers will need to battle Amazon, it all comes together at this new mall in Bangkok.

We are getting ready to leave downtown and stay at a resort hotel near the airport. It is in a semi-rundown area of town as districts leading to airports can often be. But inside the gates is an oasis of calm with a golf course—with lights to play at night. I kid you not. The caddies are all women in powder blue outfits with long white sleeves. They drive the carts.

As I write this at five in the morning waiting for the 7:10 to Narita that will carry us to the long flight home to Houston, I am sanguine about our stay in Southeast Asia.

Cambodia appears to be a third-world country with rampant poverty and a government trying to get everyone a job of some sort. The price of every thing in Cambodia is very low. Viet Nam, for some reason, is more advanced, but as a Communist government and, like Cambodia, reeling from the effects of war and oppressive regimes, it too has a lot of catching up to do. Thailand is on the move. It’s young population seems ready to leap into the 21st century, but the traffic is so bad, I don’t know how anyone gets anything done unless they live and work near a Sky Train stop.

If travel is supposed to broaden one’s horizons, this trip has certainly done that. Despite everything we see, it is the overwhelming sadness of what America did to Viet Nam that lingers. What ripped me up 50 years ago when I saw it on TV every night has done it again.

These nations are all striving to be great. They have deep histories, many very violent. They seem to share one common dislike. China. The Chinese were everywhere we went. They were noisy and pushy and very aggressive. People in each of the countries we visited expressed a dislike for their neighbors in Southeast Asia, but real animus and concern toward China. The world may be dividing between those in the Chinese sphere and those in the American with Russia still trying to insinuate its importance. But it will be the U. S. and China who most affect the world. They are still battling it out in Southeast Asia. But the number of Christmas trees in many non-Christian countries suggests that the West is winning.

Leonard Zwelling