Notes from Farangland – Part 3 – Infrastructure, Traffic, Pollution
Whenever I return to Heathrow from Thailand, or somewhere else in South-East Asia, I am always impressed with how clean and tidy it looks here. The terminals have been, on the whole, quite nicely renovated, and terminal 5 is impressive. I personally feel that England could do with a new super airport, but on the whole Heathrow is doing a good job – although it is creaking at the seams. It’s certainly not as impressive as, say, the Emirates dedicated A380 terminal at Dubai Airport, which really has to be seen to be believed, with its giant cascades, transparent elevators, and sleek and clean automated train that takes you from inside the terminal to the downtown area.
Still, as you drive out of Heathrow onto the M25 and head out of town things only get better. Well maintained roads, flowers on roundabouts, clean and efficient modern cars. You will rarely see some old and broken down truck, dangerously overloaded, belching out black smoke and being driven erratically by some peasant off his head on Yaba.
As you get off the motorway you will drive down pleasant country lanes, past well-kept village greens and equally well-kept houses, their gardens a riot of colour in early summer, hanging baskets daily watered. Yes, there are more pot holes around these days, mostly due to some heavy rain we had, but it’s not long before repairs are carried out, roads are resurfaced and they are forgotten.
And talking of flooding, how about Bangkok’s notorious flooding in the rainy season? Was it on these very pages that I read about them trying to turn back the flood by pointing boats in the opposite direction and putting their props on full throttle? Sure, they had it pretty bad on the Somerset levels, but then what do you expect when you build houses virtually below sea level? The generally well-organised vibe of Britain’s roads is a far cry from the roads and infrastructure of Bangkok. Or worse yet, Manilla. Manilla is quite honestly the worst city I have ever been to when judged on infrastructure. The roads are almost permanently grid-locked. Which actually turns out to be a good thing, because the driving there is so bad, and so reckless, that if drivers could get up any kind of speed the road fatalities there would rise exponentially to truly apocalyptic levels. Bangkok though is not much better. To my mind there’s no worse torture than jumping in the back of a taxi that has no seat belts, and then being driven at warp speed across the most chaotic and dangerous roads I have ever known. Frankly it scares the shit out of me. To put some numbers on how bad things actually are, the road fatalities in Britain last year were around 2.75 per 100,000 inhabitants. In the Philippines it’s 9.1. In Thailand it’s 38.1. In fact Thailand is pretty near the top of the table for road fatalities.
Then there’s the pollution. London, with its congestion charging and general cleanliness, is these days quite pleasant in many areas. It’s much cleaner than Paris, which is fast becoming a toilet. The trains in and out of London are now, generally, efficient and clean. There is crowding on the commuter runs, but on the whole the train and bus services, though not universally available, are pretty good these days. The UK is near the bottom of the table of countries ordered by air pollution. Thailand is middling. It’s a more complicated picture than space here allows to go into, but, on average, I would expect the overall air quality in Thailand to be half that in the UK. Countries like Australia and New Zealand have even better air quality. You can tell a lot about a country by its broadband and telecommunication infrastructure. It has to be said that, even back in 2003 the mobile phone service was pretty good, and cheap in Bangkok. Far cheaper than the UK. Bangkok also featured a bewildering array of colourful phone cards of various description. The UK has done a lot of catching up. Broadband infrastructure has improved quite dramatically, as has mobile phone available and quality. In my house in a small town in North Hampshire I had fibre optic to the door and was getting download speeds of over 70Mbps on BT’s Infinity service, and I had zero downtime. Even where I am now, out in the wilds of Wiltshire, I still have fibre to the door and comparable download speeds. I would not be surprised if before too long I was getting 100Mbps+. Generally my experiences with broadband in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, and Manilla have been less than I’d hoped for, at least from the reliability perspective.
Still where those cities do surpass Britain is in the quality of the shopping and restaurant outlets. The shopping experience is far better in my opinion than in London. The only place I know that exceeds Bangkok for the shopping experience is Dubai – and Dubai exceeds that experience in ways I couldn’t have imagined. Quite simply Dubai is probably the best shopping experience in the world right now. The malls have to be seen to be believed, but it’s the overall quality and cleanliness, the vast choice, and the range of options, the ease of transportation and so on that makes the overall experience so wonderful. You could eat your breakfast off the floor of most public toilets in Dubai – it’s that clean. What England has that you won’t find in either Dubai or Bangkok are the small village pubs, the boutique hotels, and the traditional B&Bs complete with their crusty old landlady and “bed by ten” rules. Generally, I find the infrastructure to be far superior in England, at least compared to Thailand. Granted, Thailand is not the “third world” country it once was, but there are still some serious issues with pollution in Bangkok, and with the general ease and safety with which you can get about. England on the other hand is surprisingly pleasant, clean, safe, pollution- free and generally well-maintained.