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Bangkok. Wednesday afternoon. Time: 16.15. It’s a typically tropical afternoon, with odd patches of sunlight fighting their way through dense, cumulonimbus clouds that threaten to erupt into a thunder and lightning show at any moment.
As this is the Thai capital midweek, I’ve decided to use the city’s generally efficient BTS Skytrain to shuttle between Chidlom and the Emporium shopping/hotel/office complex at Phrom Phong. In the station, a group of Korean college-age students are gathering up coins to buy tickets, a cluster of German businessmen (blazers folded over their arms, small patches of sweat darkening their Oxford cloth shirts) are passing through the turnstiles, and a conga-line of Japanese tourists (all with hand fans, little terry towels for mopping brows and massive sun-hats) is making its way to the Central Chidlom department store.
On the platform the train slows to a stop, the doors whisk open and a welcome blast of cold air exits the carriage. I’m a relative newcomer to riding around on the BTS, as it doesn’t get close enough to many of the places I need to do business, but this trip it’s somehow worked out that three of the venues are either attached to stations or are less than a 100-metre walk from turnstile to reception.
Inside (and outside) the carriage, it’s clear the operators are doing an efficient job of maximising every available surface for ad space. With most carriages sold to Samsung or another mobile communications company, the interiors are plastered with ads for everything from language classes to fashion to new condo projects. It all seems quite normal and could easily be a scene on a mass transit train line anywhere in the world – until the train pulls into the next station.
On the platform hundreds of students are laughing, jostling, eating and studying. Most are in uniform (boys in blue shorts, white short-sleeve shirts with epaulettes and black brogues; girls in cotton dresses with Mary Jane-style sandals) while others have changed into more fashionable attire involving less baggy shorts, espadrilles, deep V T-shirts and vintage US college backpacks.
As the doors open and the students pour into the car, it’s not quite the boisterous scene I was expecting. Most chat away quietly in small groups, some are gathered around a Samsung or BlackBerry device looking at something and others are reading manga – overall it’s very orderly, polite and considerate. As everyone settles into their little groupings, it’s only then that you notice something’s a bit out of the ordinary.
At first it doesn’t quite register but as you do the calculations, you realise you’re witnessing something you haven’t seen in many western cities for decades – unsupervised six and seven-year-olds riding around on their own in a big, bustling city.
While most of the students are over 12, there are youngsters travelling in trios, pairs and even on their own. They pay attention to the stations as the trains come to a stop and you even catch one doing the logistical maths by counting on his fingers while looking at the map. As other groups of students get on and little packs exit, you wonder when it went out of fashion for children in London, Los Angeles, Sydney and Vancouver to make their own way to school, to a sporting field, to visit friends.
Is Bangkok that much safer than Melbourne? Is there a stronger sense of social capital? Are parents less bothered about the welfare of their children? Are Thai kids more street savvy? A few days later, at roughly the same time of day, I was standing at the busy Omotesando crossing intersection in Tokyo and noticed a similar scenario (one that hadn’t really clicked before) of very young Japanese children weaving through the crowds – backpacks strapped on, visors pulled down and clearly able to navigate through the city on their own.
I thought about after-school time in my own London neighbourhood, with vehicles idling along the kerb and parents and assorted childminders chattering on the corner, all waiting to collect children who are shuttled from home to school to friends to fencing to ballet. And they’re not just six or seven – they’re 11 and 12 and older.
The Canadian government recently issued a report that said the lack of walking and biking and the upswing in parental shuttling is creating a whole generation of little fatties (I don’t think they used this term but you get the idea) – and they’re right.
I’m also wondering if all this chaperoning is creating a generation of children who are scared of their own shadows, less adventurous and feel a greater sense of entitlement? Perhaps parental peer pressure is partly to blame as well – good parents walk their children to school, bad parents let their children take public transport or walk on their own.
Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine
More columns at www.ft.com/brule
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