The sun was brightening the sky around the high-rises of downtown Bangkok. It was a clear morning; you just knew it was going to be a hot day. Soi 11, usually crowded and full of energy, was not so busy and was getting cleaned. The roadway was being swept, garbage was being piled aside, hotel and streetside plantings were being watered. The taxi drivers and prostitutes were sitting around idle and apathetic after a long night. Only a fraction of the carts that line the street were around cooking food at 6:30 and only construction workers were eating. Bangkok was waking up and I was saying goodbye.
There are three main bus terminals in Bangkok that serve the far corners of this country. There’s a hub for the buses headed to the North and Northeast Regions (Chiang Mai and Isaan) and another serving the Eastern part of the country (to the industrial and beach towns on the east coast of the Gulf of Thailand). The one I use, Sai Tai, is the hub for points south and west and is the only one not at all convenient to the Skytrain or subway systems of this expanding metropolis. My bus leaves promptly at 8:10 from the station in the far western reaches of the city. I walk a half mile from my hotel to the BTS station, take the Skytrain to Victory Monument, then transfer to a local bus out to the terminal. I’ve made this trip more than a half dozen times and have the system down fairly well. The first time I made the trip I was unsure how long it would take. I knew that when arriving from my village, it can take up to two hours during rush hour to get from Sai Tai to my hotel. I figured that making the trip in reverse on a Sunday morning should cut that time in half. To be safe I’ve found it best to check out of my room at 6:30 and allow myself an hour and a half for the 12 mile trip. But that first time, not knowing, I snagged a taxi. I asked for a cab with a meter, but most taxi drivers know that easy money can be had from foreigners so they charge a flat rate instead. Unsure of the taxi situation at 6:30 in the morning, I acquiesced and knew I was getting ripped off, being gouged 400 baht ($11.50) versus the 60 baht ($1.70) I’d spend on subsequent trips using public transportation. I’ve learned, but things can be unpredictable.
At the end of February I was in Bangkok on Peace Corps business. I was taking the bus back, bright and early on a Sunday. The day was as already described, clear with impending hot. Although that can describe pretty much any morning in the Big Mango. I walked to the Skytrain stop on busy Sukhumvit Road and before I knew it found myself exiting the train at Victory Monument headed for the local buses that thread in and out of this city. I jumped on one of the ones headed out to Sai Tai (the #515) and sat. 7 o’clock Sunday morning and something was going on, traffic wasn’t moving. The bus was crowded, I was lucky to have a seat. We moved by inches along the route, past a couple of hospitals, a nursing school, past the Royal Residence, past the zoo, past a few institutes of higher learning and past more than a few wats, all the places I typically see in a blur if I’m lucky to find a seat. The trip from Victory Monument to the bus station usually takes a half hour, at most. It was nearing 8 o’clock.
I was getting concerned, a little panicky actually, and started thinking of my options. There were few. I thought about hopping off the bus and hailing a taxi but the taxis were already full and moving as quickly as the bus was. Traffic was stalled in both directions. Side streets were choked as well. I thought about grabbing a motorcycle taxi that could weave around and between the idled cars and buses, up onto the sidewalk as I’ve seen them do, but that’s a Peace Corps no-no. We were all headed to the same pinch point anyway, the one bridge in that area that crosses the Chao Phraya River. I kept looking out the window at the traffic, then at my watch. I started thinking about arriving at the bus station too late, missing the bus and needing to wait another 13 hours until the overnight bus left. I hate the overnight buses. And what would I do to fill those hours waiting? All day waiting?
I looked at the ticket I bought in advance for the trip back to my village, the one with the reserved seat that reclines, the snacks and the included lunch. I thought about the panic I was slipping into, the angst and the tightening chest, with each green light we weren’t gliding through. Oddly, there were no honking horns, no angry gestures, no pounding of steering wheels. I looked around at the faces of my fellow travelers on the 515, mostly students in uniforms (on a Sunday morning) and older adults all on their cell phones. I looked down at the faces sitting in the cars and the taxis stranded parallel to me, the people with the same fate as me, and I saw resoluteness and acceptance. This is the way it was to be. I was getting there, slowly.
By the time we reached the last college, in view of the Chao Phraya River, the traffic finally started to break up and we began moving beyond a snail’s pace. The minute hand was a click to the right of the 12 on my watch. We covered less than four miles in just over 50 minutes. I showed my ticket home to the bus’s ticket taker (Thai buses have ticket attendants) pointing out to her that I was to depart in just a few minutes. She must have said something to the driver because once we were over the river, clear of the traffic jam, he floored it. He barely stopped to let passengers on and off along the route and we made it the last six miles to the terminal at 8:07. I hightailed it off the bus running through the station to the appropriate platform in the back of the terminal, #13, lucky 13. The bus was still there and crowded and I awkwardly lugged my two bags through the narrow aisle, breathless and bumping dozing riders.
It didn’t make any difference. The bus didn’t leave for another half hour and nobody seemed to care.