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Tea Leaves

Stop the baht bus -- I want to get off!

Bangkok's breakneck development is destroying the charm of the city I love

Bangkok now boasts the world's 15th largest total of buildings of 150 meters or taller, and more are on the way.   © NurPhoto/Getty Images

When I arrived in Bangkok as an English teacher in 1997, just after the Asian financial crisis started, I was struck by its old-world charm and languid way of life. No two streets were alike, and each had its own stalls with permanently smiling vendors. For me, this was part of the city's quintessential charm; but it was about to change forever.

The transformation began with iconic buildings such as the architecturally unique Siam Intercontinental hotel, where the 1974 French soft-porn movie "Emmanuelle" was shot, which was demolished in 2002 to make way for the 15 billion baht ($479 million) Paragon shopping mall. A similar fate is about to befall the well-known Dusit Thani hotel, which is being torn down to make way for a more modern replacement -- one of many new five-star hotels.

Many cultural icons that helped to make Thailand famous have disappeared, including the Scala and Lido cinemas, for decades a fixed element in the Bangkok arts scene. The once-famous Lumpini Night Bazaar has gone, and street vendors can now trade only at night at Khaosan Road, another well-known hawker center.

The city's ubiquitous "mom and pop" stores have also gone -- superseded by international supermarket chains such as Thailand's Big C and the U.K.'s Tesco. Skyscrapers have sprouted everywhere: formerly low-rise Bangkok now boasts the world's 15th highest total of buildings of 150 meters or taller, with 69 complete and 23 more under construction, according to the Chicago-based Council on Tall Buildings and Urban Habitat.

The latest development dividing Thais is the 750,000 sq.-meter Iconsiam riverside mall complex, seen by many as affordable only for wealthy local Thais and Chinese visitors. More prosaically, fast-food joints are sprouting rapidly. Most central Bangkok streets seem to have two or three outlets for KFC, Pizza Hut or McDonald's -- not to mention the mushrooming 7-Eleven stores.

"Every time I go back to Bangkok, it seems as if another cultural icon has bitten the dust," says Don Linder, an American scriptwriter currently working on "The Cave," a film about the rescue of a group of Thai boys trapped in a Thai cave in July 2018.

"More often than not, it's the cities that drive and support a country's economy," says Linder, a long-term resident of Thailand who lived in Bangkok for a decade up to 2011, and now lives in the northern city of Chiang Mai. "There's always a clash between those that want to make the country (and themselves) richer, but in the process often overlook the value of cultural institutions, and those who want to do whatever possible to preserve traditional ways and structures."

Of course, the development of the city is linked intimately to its economic development. Thailand's gross domestic product per head increased 65-fold from $100.80 in 1960 to $6,595.00 in 2017, according to the World Bank, and much of that growth is attributable to the success of Bangkok. The city is now the world's top location for international visitors, attracting 20.05 million arrivals in 2017, according to an annual index produced by Mastercard.

But did the transformation have to be so brutal? Phil Robertson, a long-time resident of Thailand and a human rights activist, says the Thai government is selective about preservation, focusing on "elements of the natural and cultural landscape that fit with elite ideas of 'Thai-ness,' like famous temples, paintings, and certain handicrafts" while ignoring popular culture and day-to-day community life.

The result of this blinkered approach is that many local people have been forced to move from the city center to cheaper areas in the suburbs. "The poor here have no voice, nor equal rights," says Suranand Vejjajiva, who was a minister in former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra's government and is a cousin of Abhisit Vejjajiva, another former prime minister. "The rich 1% dominate totally," Suranand added. "[This is a] time bomb waiting to be exploded."

Pravit Rojanaphruk, a senior staff writer for Khaosod English, a Thai newspaper, says urban gentrification has been forced through in an "unjust" manner. "Unfortunately, [the poor] are often left to fend for themselves without the support of the more well-off Thais," Pravit says. "It's painful to see this happening."

Some think that the city's metamorphosis will erode its charm for tourists. Thailand's tourism ministry said recently that Chinese arrivals were down 19.8% in October compared to a year earlier, prompting fresh criticism of rapid development. "Bangkok's going down the gurgler, like so many unique cities," says Paul Wilson, a teacher from Wakefield, U.K. "Sorry folks, but we don't want another Singapore. It's too sterile and homogenous."

For many of us, Bangkok's charm lies in the Buddhist concept of wabi-sabi, the Zen aesthetic that sees beauty in things that are imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete. Not all visitors want the clean, orderly landscapes of Singapore or Japan, or want to shop in luxury malls. Many like the sense of creative disorder that Bangkok once exemplified -- the cheap street food, the rickety roadside stalls, the cramped transport in tuk-tuks and low-cost baht buses that exemplified the city I first got to know.

I fear, though, that those of us who dislike what has happened are wrestling the inevitable. The brutal truth is that those who don't care about the city's unseemly evolution vastly outnumber those who do. Mastercard forecast 9.6% growth in international visitors for 2018 -- easily the world's highest growth rate.

Tom Tuohy is a freelance journalist and author of "Watching the Thais," a book about expats living and working in Thailand.

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