|Sample Bangkok Then and Now
|This is a portion of one of Bangkok Then and Now's half-dozen box stories:
Trams, a Way of Life
For 70 years, the tram was the city's principal mode of public transportation. Everybody rode them: Army officers, businessmen, high government officials, foreigners, tourists, princes, and ladies, (even children on their way to expensive private schools; imagine!).
They weren't the most comfortable of conveyances. They had no glass panes in the windows, only tarpaulin shades which could be rolled down to shield one from the rain or the hot sun. Similarly, there was no glass to protect the driver; during the monsoon season, he was issued a rain coat…
…Most victims were the unbelievably mangy stray dogs that roamed the streets. Jaywalkers, the deaf, drunks, inattentive pedestrians, or the opium-hazed were also frequently introduced to the business end of the trams. There is even an instance in the 1890s when a Danish driver inadvertently bagged a tiger that had been prowling near the slaughterhouses.
Tram drivers were regarded as the cowboys of the streets. Clad, like their trams, in khaki, they were dressed like soldiers, wearing shorts or trousers with a black stripe running down them, a decorative motif that differentiated them from conductors. Early trams were driven by foreigners, mostly Danes, but within a few years Thais took over driver duties.
The well-paid operators were held to strict inspections and were heavily fined or dismissed for carelessness; yawning on the job could result in docked pay. Not that these strictures curtailed their enthusiasm for their jobs. While these colorful characters amused some observers, they irritated many by their Wild West habit of careening around corners. The line was equipped with turnouts every 200 meters to allow two trams to pass each other. Bored operators played a game of chicken, approached the turnouts at full tilt, bells clanging. They usually slipped past each other with centimeters to spare. When they misjudged, one or the other would be knocked off the tracks. More commonly, they would clip a passing car or horse carriage. The approach of tram put the fear of perdition into most car drivers, inspiring much the same terror that renegade bus drivers elicit today.
A tram driver's bare feet massaged his footbell. Designed to warn pedestrians, it soon evolved into a medium for communication. Drivers conversed or challenged with the bells, even exchanging horserace tips. On payday, drivers bet on races or boxing matches, their feet furiously pumping out tips and odds with nary a need for a spoken word. A driver could lose his entire pay packet on a few rings of the bell…