CROSS ABOUT WIRES
By Andrew Biggs
An important high-level meeting this week resulted in my being driven down Sukhumvit Road from the Ploenchit intersection all the way to Asoke.
This was largely due to my driver taking a wrong turn.
How I would dearly love to extrapolate on this minor point, focusing on the shortcomings of the Thai education system that fails to equip some Thais with the necessary knowledge to read maps. How else do I explain my driver, despite Google Maps shouting directions from his phone in clear Thai to “turn left at the off-ramp”, still turning right?
I will not extrapolate on that point because I have a new resolution not to say anything bad about my staff, even when they commit despicable acts of stupidity. Suffice to say, that is where I ended up — sailing down Sukhumvit Soi 3 towards Asoke in furious silence.
That Soi 3 corner used to be dubbed “Soi Kremlin” owing to the large number of heavily-made-up young Russian women who hung around asking passing male strangers for a light.
They are gone; although across the street is the famous and still-thriving Nana Plaza where doctors recommend hepatitis vaccine shots prior, and delousing after, any excursion near the vicinity. Workers included.
It was while I was sitting in the back of my car that I glanced out the window and realized something was amiss.
I haven’t been down that part of Sukhumvit for a while on the street level. But as I looked out, starting at Soi Kremlin, I realized there was something not quite right about the road.
Something was out of place … something, I daresay, a little sinister.
There is a great conspiracy theory out there on the net called the Mandela Effect. It states that our collective memories have been altered owing to glitches in the fabric of the universe.
Some put it down to CERN’s Hadron Collider experiments. We all believe something happened in the past when really it didn’t. Americans, for instance, are convinced they grew up reading books about the “Berenstein Bears” when in fact, it is spelt and pronounced “Berenstain.” The Queen in the Snow White movie says “Magic Mirror on the wall,” not “Mirror Mirror on the wall” as we all remember it to be.
That is the feeling I had on Sukhumvit this week. It was the same old Sukhumvit I’d known and abhorred all these years and yet … and yet …
The tailor shops were still there. So were the souvenir shops and overpriced restaurants. Had this trip been around 2 or 3 in the morning I might even have seen a gaggle of Russian girls hanging out for a cigarette lighter.
I wondered what the slight change had been that made the roadside look a little skew-whiff, a word my astute grandmother often used, especially when describing me.
Then it hit me.
The power lines.
They were gone.
Like most Thai streets Sukhumvit Road is normally a cacophony of inter-dispersed overlapping cables just above head level, though drooping dangerously close to the crowns of those of us exceeding a height of 180cm. The very top of the electricity poles are electricity lines; moving on down are telephone wires and, at the very bottom of the wire hierarchy, internet cables. The bottom ones are the ones that resemble dusty black spaghetti.
The actual poles belong to the Metropolitan Electricity Authority which rents out the space on them to the likes of TOT, Dtac, AIS and True to hang their wires.
Along Sukhumvit those poles are bare now. In fact they are completely gone! There is a renegade wire strung across the entrance to Soi 11 but to be honest, the change is quite staggering. Clearly they have been sent underground.
That was yesterday. As I write this column I am again in the back of my high-end sedan, my driver blazing forth down Srinakharin, confident he will make no mistake in navigation thanks to an absence of any turns whatsoever.
Srinakharin Road is another major roadway clogged with cars and three-tiered dusty black spaghetti. As we approached the Pattanakarn intersection there was one pole so overburdened with wires it was edging close to collapse.
This wire chaos is very Thai. It is almost an inherent part of any Bangkok street’s persona. This was confirmed back in June, 2016, when Bill Gates made a lightning visit to Bangkok.
In his short time in the capital he could have snapped any number of delightful vistas, such as the view from his Penthouse suite over the bustling Chao Phraya River as colorful long-tailed boats plied the waves.
Perhaps he could have snapped glorious Wat Arun, or the regal splendor of the Grand Palace.
No. He snapped the dusty black spaghetti instead.
He posted a pic on Facebook of our notorious wires. But Gates made a blunder – a lesser-sophisticated columnist might say he got his wires crossed — and said despite so many electricity lines there were still lots of blackouts.
First of all, they weren’t electricity lines he’d snapped. And second, Bangkok didn’t have a problem with blackouts.
These were facts the incompetent upper echelons of civil service responsible for power were quick to point out and jump up and down and high-five one-another with glee, the most energy they’d exuded since receiving their acceptance letter into the Thai civil service all those decades ago.
Nevertheless the damage had been done; the world had seen what we Bangkokians see on a daily basis.
How coincidental is this; despite decades of inaction getting these cables underground, not one month after the Gates pic, the government announced a 50-billion baht plan to put all cables underground on 40 roads in and around Bangkok. I am in the process of sending Bill Gates a list of other things to photograph next time he hits Suvarnabhumi in order to get those things done.
The fruits of Bill Gates’ trip have manifested themselves along Sukhumvit Road. The wires have gone. There is an expansiveness about the road; all the way from Nana to Asoke, you can look up and see a sky no longer marred by black wires —shame about the big concrete BTS up there but hey, it’s still an improvement.
For old expats, the change is uncomfortable. We’re so used to seeing disarray. There was a light at the end of the tunnel, literally, as we reached the Asoke intersection. Asoke still hasn’t been cleaned up, and dare I say it; there was a sense of warm familiarity as we were greeted with the twisting black eyesores suspended above the heads of scurrying pedestrians. Back to the Bangkok we know and love — how I missed you for a minute there!
Sukhumvit is a far cry from what it was even a year or so ago. The sidewalks are cleaner and wider and easier to traverse. It is orderly and open, at least on the outbound side.
It’s not just Soi Kremlin that’s gone, either.
Gone are the back-to-back street stalls selling exhaustive arrays of colorful trinkets and clothes amid makeshift stalls lit by stark light bulbs. Gone are the hagglers, the tricksters, the Burmese touts, the deaf vendors, the tourists in African garb, the calculators into which inflated opening prices are punched.
All that scrambling humanity pushing and shoving for attention. Gone.
And in its place?
Well, look at it now. It’s all tidied up thanks to government initiatives and Bill Gates.
It is cleaner and much easier to access.
In fact it is now a normal-looking street like you’d find anywhere else in the world.
And that, dear reader, is the big big problem.