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Moving Vehicles

But the real reason I liked to drive in Thailand was that it was interesting. You had to be intensely alert to avoid collision, and you were not frantically bored by regimented multitudes all obeying the law rigidly and stopping because they saw red and going because they saw green. Driving was creative in Thailand.

--from Mai Pen Rai Means Never Mind, by Carol Hollinger

            In Thailand, driving follows all the logic of a suicide. For the first-time visitor the traffic in Bangkok, especially, can seem pure licentious chaos. The capital of course is infamous for its traffic. At any time of the day or night the conditions on the roads alternate from swift-flowing free-for-all to complete paralysis. That people actually get anywhere at all in the daytime is a miracle in itself. Here, driving as an expression of one's personal esthetic and attitude to problem solving has most certainly reached the level of high art. Indeed in light of the lax enforcement of the traffic laws, one's interpretation of this esthetic is granted the latitude for Picasso-like inventiveness. I lack the words to accurately describe it. This impromptu anarchy of confusion and smoke, steel and rubber, must be seen for oneself. I think for many people in the world Bangkok's traffic is what symbolizes the Thai capital most succinctly, whereas for permanent residents it's a year-round thorn-in-the-flesh. For the western resident, appreciation of Thai driving habits—improvised anew out of necessity daily—requires discrimination. This is perhaps understandable. If near-death situations remind one how wonderful it is to be alive, in Thailand one has the good fortune to be reminded of the wonderfulness of life nearly every day.

            The Thais are unquestionably some of the politest people on the planet. Until they get behind the wheel of a vehicle. Then, a transformation occurs. No sooner is the ignition turned than ordinary rules of decorum and courtesy become null and void. Respectfulness is suspended, tossed out the window like an old cigarette butt. What were laws five minutes before are now merely recommendations—symbols of some frankly impossible ideal. The Thais are realists. For them traffic signals and stop signs are totem reminders of how things might be in a perfect world. Which of course this is not. So why obey them? Alas the average Thai, put in charge of a vehicle, interprets his ability to move the pedals and shift the gears as his carte blanche to go whanging down the road however he damn well pleases. He cuts off others rudely, stops in the middle of the road, crosses four lanes of traffic in one breath, goes the wrong way on a one-way. He flies through red lights as if putting the vehicle out of motion were a danger to his good name. And why shouldn't he? It's his vehicle.

            One theory for this radical change in behavior, once installed behind the wheel, is that of the so-called “repressed individualism” of the average person. In Thai society one's "size," position and status—or lack thereof—determine to what extent laws can be evaded or flouted outright. Unlike ordinary folk, pu-yai (literally "big people") are allowed to get away with some egregious stuff. This includes traffic laws. In Thai culture "bigness" is its own immunity. Outside of one's vehicle, therefore, one is constantly constrained and forced to compromise. Individualism is quelled for the sake of social harmony, at the same time that rank and status are accommodated and deferred to. Respect must be continually shown to one's elders, community leaders, social superiors, etc. In this way—goes the theory—stresses build up.

            But inside one's vehicle, and on the road, it's a different story. Writes noted scholar of Thailand William J. Klausner:

                        The pent-up frustrations attendant on the need to restrain one's individualistic expression in the face of superior status and power are freed and dissipated as one careens [in one’s car], with somewhat reckless abandon, edging ahead of what might well be a high government official, the manager of a large company or even one's boss. If one is anonymous behind dark-tinted windows, so much the better. There is no need for the deferential bow, the submissive slouch. One rides high, wide, and handsome (1987:360).

             Given the necessity of bending one’s individualism to the realities of Thai social expectations, I can only imagine how marvelous a tuk-tuk driver must feel when he cuts off a Mercedes-Benz.

            In Thailand there are any number of ways to get from A to B: airplane; buses [both the fast, comfortable air-conditioned ones and the orange-colored tamada (regular) buses—more on these anon]; trains; tuk-tuks (three-wheeled motorized things, nicknamed The Chariot of Smoke by Bangkok farang, and described as “uncomfortable and unstable, but popular with the tourists,” by one guidebook); boat ferries; song-taew (pickup trucks rigged with benches and a covering); samlor (three wheeled bicycle rickshaws) and motorcycle taxis, to name just a few. In theory these forms of transportation provide the traveler with an array of choices appropriate for any distance required to cover. And often the system works quite well, despite unavoidable waits. But it's when all these vehicles are on the same road, apparently all equally incurious of local traffic laws, that things can get a little weird.

As far as Bangkok traffic is concerned, it would be temptingly easy to dismiss the ever-evolving choreography of three million vehicles on the streets as an unbridled mobocracy. But I don't believe this description would be entirely correct. For in its way, driving in the capital follows a pattern of its own. And having had some experience with the traffic myself, I'm not so critical of Bangkok motorists as I used to be. I now see the quirkiness and wild-west guerre à mort of the driving as something different—expressions of frustration if not outright survivalism at its purest; people trying to deal with a difficult situation, to cope. That is probably the best explanation of Thai driving—coping. The traffic problems of Bangkok are intransigent. They are hard on everyone and will not improve any time soon. So, when in Bangkok these days and my taxi-driver endangers my life in some previously unimaginable cowboy manner—by, say, nearly resurfacing a sidewalk with a slow-on-the-jump pedestrian—yet gets me where I want to go faster than I had expected to get there, I usually give him a nice Isaan thank-you. Most of them are displaced Isaaners anyway.

            Bangkok's streets are madness. But somehow it all works out: for example, when thirty different vehicles meet in an intersection and do their own thing, and no-one dies; when tuk-tuk driver Somchai uses a school playground as a shortcut; when a group of motorcyclists begin a game of chicken with an oncoming bus, veering at the last second (and inches from a rearview-mirror beheading) onto the outside curb or back into the flow of traffic; when, on descending a bus, you have to hit the pavement in a sprint; when your taxi driver naps during traffic jams, reads the newspaper or leaves the car to go order some grilled bananas across the street; when you give the taxi driver clearly-written Thai directions to your destination, but he can't read or write; when the motorcycle-taxi hired to get you somewhere in a hurry begins going in the opposite direction on a one-way bridge, like some Hollywood chase scene come horribly alive; when you've been driving around in the back of a cab for twenty minutes before the overly-polite driver finds the gumption to tell you he really didn't understand where you said you wanted to go when you got in; when the boy who collects fares on the late night city bus also has the job of keeping the driver awake by means of  shouting profanities at him from wherever he's standing in the bus at the moment; when you get stuck in traffic, in a tuk-tuk, directly behind the exhaust emissions of a bus; when you get physically uprooted from your seat as the bus-driver turns the corner and has to brake, hard, for an elephant or some homeless madman playing in the street—when all of this happens and no one really gets hurt or loses their temper, and somehow people crawl into the right bed at the end of the day, it soon becomes clear that Bangkok traffic is a miracle of well-oiled… inefficiency.

 

About the Author
blaine comeaux
Location: Stationed in Thailand
Story: Moving Vehicles
Date: 2142008

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