Bangkok's Boom vs. Thai Culture

Critics say traditional values and quality of life are threatened by the city's frenzied growth

RAMPANT development is threatening the Siam Society's tiny pocket of traditional Thailand. For years, the gracious old-world headquarters of the 86-year-old society stood as an oasis of Thai art and culture amid rising office towers, encircling condominiums, and choking traffic.

But now the Society is faced with a financial crunch, and even the doyens of culture are ready to sell out and surrender their traditional nook in central Bangkok to a skyscraper. The plan has aroused many who contend Thailand's boom mentality has gone too far.

``Bangkok is going downhill because money can talk. People here will change anything for money,'' says Sitra Phanasomburna, a business executive and outspoken Society member. ``We need to preserve our old culture. Money should not buy our society.''

Above the blare of car horns, the hubbub of shoppers, the roar of motorcycles, and the hammering of pile drivers, a small but persistent chorus of critics is beginning to question Bangkok's dizzying growth.

In recent years, the Thai capital, a frenzied city of eight million people, has boomed with unprecedented prosperity. Spurred by government economic liberalization and a Japanese investment push, the economy has zoomed ahead at a double-digit clip, exports have mushroomed, foreign money has flooded in, and consumerism has taken off.

Most Thais, seemingly unbothered by the urban decay about them, have been cashing in with happy-go-lucky abandon. Still, residents here are starting to admit they are paying a high price for such runaway growth.

Taxi drivers, whitened knuckles gripping their steering wheels, curse interminable, around-the-clock traffic jams. People worry about new high-rise developments which sprout unchecked and strain water and electricity supplies.

LONG-TIME residents watch with dismay as the city's once-charming canals disappear under stagnating garbage or new roads. City officials, unable to stop the use of faulty construction materials, warn that a spate of recent building collapses is only the tip of the iceberg.

Even Thailand's revered royal family has begun scolding publicly the environmental abuse.

``Thailand is rapidly developing and has the potential to become a (newly industrializing country),'' Princess Chulabhorn, one of the king's two daughters, said in a recent speech. ``But unfortunately, this is not accompanied by similar progress in its ability to deal with the negative impacts of industrialization.''

Thanks to the Gulf crisis, environmentalists and social critics hope the breakneck development will slow. The world oil crisis has stunned Thailand's economy, which imports 40 percent of its oil, and forced the pro-business government of Prime Minister Chatichai Choonhavan to curb energy use.

Recently, many new building projects were put on hold. Road taxes were doubled. Orders were handed down to enforce speed limits more strictly. And Patpong, the city's giddy red-light district, has to turn off its neon lights after 9 p.m.

Still, social and economic observers say a kinder, gentler Thailand of the past already is gone. The gap between rich and poor has widened with the top 20 percent of the population accounting for more than half of Thailand's annual income.

The extended family is weakening as divorce increases and rural workers flood the city in search of jobs. Eager for a television or motorcycle, families are plunging dangerously into debt, researchers say.

Land speculation is driving housing prices out of the reach of many Thais. ``Every day, I fight the traffic at least six hours to get to work,'' says Podjawan Siriyaman, a 28-year-old waitress. ``We used to live closer, but our rent kept going up. Now we have to live beyond the airport.''

``All the growing environmental problems and social injustices in our society are the result of this money creed,'' Prawase Wasi, a Buddhist philosopher, told a recent seminar. ``We are willing to destroy other people, and nature too, in our ruthless pursuit of money and money alone.''

As frustrations build in Bangkok, the city's sorry state is emerging as a key political issue. In the forefront is Bangkok Governor Chamlong Srimuang, Thailand's hottest politician and a key power broker in recent political battles.

A retired army officer and a devout Buddhist who has been likened to a scout master, Chamlong has campaigned against corruption and urged urban revival.

Earlier this year, he swept to a second term on a track record of cleaner city streets, eased flooding during monsoon rains, and less blatant bribery among municipal officials.

However, Bangkok remains an unmanageable urban monster with a deteriorating infrastructure. Chamlong says he receives constant complaints about noise pollution, road conditions, and the uncontrolled construction expansion, but his hands are often tied.

The governor has been unable to get central government funding to build more promised overpasses to budge snared traffic. His calls for powers to arrest and fine building contractors have put him at odds with the powerful Interior Ministry which controls the police department.

``If I were to bang the table and say no, I could be sued for withholding a permit,'' he told a Thai newspaper recently.

One bright spot is the central government's approval this month of a controversial mass transit system delayed for two decades by politics and corruption. The $2 billion elevated rail system called ``Skytrain'' is scheduled for completion by 1997.

However, many Bangkok residents question if traffic relief is on the way. ``Chamlong epitomizes the Old and the New Thailand,'' says a western environmentalist. ``He's doing what he can, but he has to work within the system. He's only one man.''

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