Raising a stink over light rail

Sun Journal

A bad taste: Some Bangkok residents fume over a transit system's concessions to a girls' school.

January 03, 2000|By Justin Pritchard | Justin Pritchard,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

BANGKOK, Thailand -- On the wrong street at the wrong time of day, the air here is an intoxicating elixir of exhaust and soot suspended in tropical torpor. And then there are the really bad blocks.

Like Ploenchit Road, near the intersection where Mater Dei School sits cater-corner to the Central department store.

During rush hour, Thais who scurry through this stretch press white cloths to their mouths in a gasping effort to filter the caustic swirl. Tourists eye the block as if entering an alley where surely something foul lurks.

By legend, the world has no streets more traffic-tangled than the boulevards of Bangkok. But how did the air get so particularly nasty there on Ploenchit Road?

Blame it on the Sky Train -- the light-rail system that some in Bangkok believe will help solve the city's pollution woes.

The problem was foreseeable. Like a giant concrete canopy, a Sky Train station platform covers the street. That concentrates the fumes belched by the city's buses, cars and three-wheeled tuk-tuks.

"The structure is similar to a tunnel," grouses Paisal Sricharatchanya. "The air is trapped." His daughter is a pupil at the nearby Mater Dei School, and he has mounted a campaign against the station. "They have to bear in mind their social responsibility."

The $1.4 billion Sky Train opened Dec. 5, the polished crown jewel of King Bhumibol Adulyadej's massive 72nd-birthday celebration. But long before the congratulatory backslaps of that happy day, even while crews sweated across the city to build the system's 25 stations, it was clear that the Sky Train was not welcomed by all.

For three years Paisal has been demanding that his daughter's school not be burdened by the station. He wants the Bangkok Mass Transit System to move the structure a block or two away. It was a classic not-in-my-back-yard campaign -- commonplace in the United States but quite out of place in a country like Thailand, where superficial social harmony is sacrosanct.

"We thought we were doing good for the school by putting the station there for the students," says Kasame Chatikavanich, chairman of the Bangkok Mass Transit System board. His wife, three sisters and a grandniece all have attended Mater Dei, and he thinks he understands the school only too well.

"All the students come by Mercedes," Kasame says with a groan. "You know, how can you take these people, convince them to come by train? If this station is based on a Thai school, not a rich girls' school, they all will be crying for us to stop in front of their school to let out the students."

Bangkok traffic is so bad that some parents install mattresses in their cars so children can rest through the long journey to school. Others have added portable toilets. In a forlorn attempt to beat the rush, many commuters drag out of bed at 5 a.m. and clock out of work in the middle of the afternoon.

But Mater Dei is not ordinary Bangkok. The prestigious Roman Catholic girls' school has a leafy oasis of a campus set amid one of the city's busiest commercial nodes. Inside its walls, uniformed girls play gleefully and learn eagerly while the rest of the city slogs through its day. When the final bell rings, parents -- or their drivers -- scoop the girls into luxury import cars.

The Sky Train threatens the girlish idylls at Mater Dei, according to Paisal, and he catalogs the reasons:

Students are "static targets" for noise channeled from the congested road below the station platform. Maybe, eventually, this will deafen them.

What's more, the dense pollution will scar the girls' lungs and, in the long term, retard their development.

And the station will attract riff-raff who will harass 1,850 innocent girls.

"They made a big toilet here in front of our house," Paisal says.

So Mater Dei threatened to sue. The school appealed for sympathy from King Bhumibol's personal secretary. It demanded environmental-impact studies.

In the United States, perhaps the first step would have been to protest. Not in Thailand.

"The Catholic nuns taught [the girls] to be very subservient, very soft, very Thai ladylike," Paisal says. "They wouldn't think of doing something like a protest."

But eventually they did. As the situation deteriorated, the girls mobilized. They marched through the streets, chanting a now-famous refrain: "No Way Station!"

In the end, Mater Dei's moral and political suasion won concessions.

The transit authority installed fences around the platform so that passengers cannot look down onto the Mater Dei grounds. That didn't cover all the angles, though -- Paisal wants additional trees on the school grounds to complete the privacy buffer. Also, the authority will install an air-conditioning system in the school's gym next to the station.

But the school's reputation also took a few bruises. The platform is a small part of a big engineering work intended to benefit the entire city. The fact that Mater Dei looked out for its own needs rather than celebrate a source of pride for Bangkok has soured some residents.

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