My Adventures Driving In Isaan
The Adventures of a Strange Man in a Strange Land
As you can see by the extended title this story is about driving in Thailand.
WARNING What you are about to read is not for the faint hearted. Don't try to replicate these stunts unless you are a professionally trained American drunk driver with at least 30 years of training. If you have heart problems, a pace maker, hemorrhoids, bad night vision, high blood pressure, low blood pressure, diabetes, bladder problems, or a short temper when driving on roads with small Asiatic mental patients who seem bent on suicide and drive like they are being chased by all the demons of hell DO NOT attempt to recreate these actions!
To start off I had been in Thailand for about 3 weeks. I had spent time in Bangkok, Phuket, Pattaya, Chiang Mai and now was finally in Surin. (Or Sue Lynn as my lady claims it is called.) I checked into the Thong Tarin hotel after an exciting (not) 8 hour mini-van ride from Pattaya, which I had sworn I would never do again, but extenuating circumstances put this out of my control at this time.
Now, my lady lives in a village about an hour's drive from Surin. There are no taxis in Surin. What to do? Heeeeyyy, just rent a truck or mini-van from the hotel front desk! No problem! So for 1,000 baht a day (At the time about twenty bucks a day.) I rented some guys personal vehicle for a week. A 1996 Toyota, Mighty X, extended cab pick-up truck with all the trimmings. A hundred flower wreaths hanging from the rear view mirror, Buddha voodoo writings on the ceiling over my head, and 15 talisman thingies glued to the dash board for good luck too! Also thrown in were 5 cassette tapes of Lao music. What more can you ask for in personal safety and entertainment, huh? How about airbags and a frigging steering column on the left (right) side of the vehicle? Yeah, that's right, some guys personal truck. They have a deal with the hotel to rent their autos to people in need of wheels. No money down, no credit card, no showing a driver's license, no extra insurance, shit, hardly even any freaking gas in the damn truck!
Okay, no problem. I can do this. By the way, most of the vehicles use diesel fuel, and it is cheap. 300 baht fills the tank from almost empty and lasts 2 or 3 days of driving, unless you tour the countryside extensively as I did.
I don't know about you other people reading this but I'm from New England. There are a lot of Orientals were I live. (Mostly Cambodians, Viets and Lao.) In the U.S. the oriental driver is notoriously known as a slow, careful, and basically a pain in the ass type of driver, at least according to some of us non-oriental drivers. Maybe it is the shock of the cost of auto insurance that does this to them. I don't know. But, something changes them from the total goddamned maniacal drivers they are in their home country into the little old lady drivers we've come to abhor and despise in the states! Yeah, it's gotta be the money. Most Thai guys I encountered on the roads of Thailand drive like a cross between Evel Kinevels (sic?) evil twin brother and Mario Andretti! They'll pass you on the crest of a hill. They'll pass you on a blind curve. They'll pass you with a Mac truck bearing down on them with lights flashing and inches to spare! They are totally frigging nuts! And this is in the parking lot. WOW! Insanity. These guys are crazy man!
So I get the truck and park it in front of the hotel and hit the sack for the night. I need my rest for an early morning pole position start in the Thailand Grand Prix.
The next day my lady and I jump into the pick-up and head for the village. Happy village it's called. Sabai village. Well, it's not too bad of a start. The weather was a bit cloudy and rainy for most of my stay this trip with only a few major cloud bursts per day.
Now I'll tell you, I've driven all throughout Europe, and England and Ireland too, so this is not unfamiliar, driving on the wrong side of the road, sitting on the wrong side of the car and shifting gears with the wrong hand. I've done it before without too many problems. BUT! I've never had to deal with what seems like a million or two mental patients on motor scooters trying to hurl themselves to their deaths on the grill of my auto. Now I understand why most of the people I've met in Thailand have innumerable scars on their legs. Motor cyke trophies!
So I drive through Surin trying not to splatter too many of these people and maneuver myself around the three wheeled cyclo taxi guys without a one of them getting crushed. Oops! "Hey Darling, can you ask that guy to get off the hood of our truck and drag his moped the hell out of the street please? Thank you darling." Where the hell did he come from? Finally we get beyond the city limits. Ah! Some open road.
"Which way darling?" I say.
You might not know this but Thais don't really point, at least not the same way we do in the west. They take their hand sideways, like they're going to give you a karate chop, and then fold it left or right for directions. I look at my girlfriend and she's flapping her hand to the left. Okay. This ain't gonna work. I take the left and pull over on the side of the road.
"Listen." I say to her. "I can't be looking at your hands for directions while I'm driving here trying to avoid killing too many of your fellow countrymen. Just tell me left, right or straight, okay?"
She gives me this blank look. I realize she has no idea of what left, right or straight is in English! Shit.
We have an impromptu English lesson on the side of the road. I never realized how hard it is for Thais to say left, right and straight. She's giving me let, lite, and stleht. She knows how to say stop pretty good, but it's usually fifty yards past wherever the hell she wanted me to stop. No spatial conceptuality at all. I can see driving in Thailand is going to be a definite test of our relationship and love for each other.
Okay, English lesson over we forge ahead. I get up to about 100 kph, a good clip for this pissant little piece of tarmac I think. Nope. Every Thai guy behind me wants to pass me! I speed up. Doesn't matter. 110, 120, it still doesn't matter. They still wanna pass. I finally come to the conclusion that no matter how fast I drive if there is a Thai guy behind me he will try to pass. It's inbred or something.
I notice as I am driving along that everyone is racing along at 100 kph or more on this shitty little two lane road. We come over the crest of a hill and there is a line of about thirty cars all stuck behind a couple of trucks doing about 40 kph. Here is where I got to see the true Thai driver in action! Everyone is playing Thai leap frog with their respective autos trying to pass these two slow moving trucks without getting splattered by the opposite on-coming traffic, which is all trying to do the same thing on their side of the road! Insane is the only word which truly fits here. And all along there are teenage mental mutants riding motor cycles and scooters as fast as they can on the side of the road. In the rain. With their hand over their eyes trying to see through the rain drops. WOW! Quite the rush! I felt like I was playing some sort of Sega or Nintendo driving game.
After about 45 minutes or so of this nutty crap we finally come to the "lite" hand turn to the village. I drive through a village of ramshackle huts and homes seemingly built of whatever the heck could be scrounged up during the drier season before the next rainy season started. Amongst these hovels, sorry, but that's what they are, is a sprinkling of nice houses.
"Take a let on this highway" says my lady.
"What highway, darling?" I say glancing about.
"Here! Take a let on this highway!" she directs me.
I look where she's flapping her hand and there is the entrance to a red mud road, filled with ruts and potholes all filled with water.
"Here?" I ask incredulously. "You actually called this mud trail a highway?" I say to her with amusement.
She gives me a dirty look as I sit there laughing and says, "What funny darling?" Which only makes me laugh harder. I try to explain to her that a red mud trail on top of a rice paddy dike, surrounded by a million acres of water filled rice paddies, would hardly be considered or called a "highway" by any stretch of the imagination. Another dirty look. She explains to me that the "highway" used to be about ten feet lower and would flood out every rainy season. So now they raised the road but haven't been able to finish and tar it because there has been too much rain. It should be finished in a few months once the rain stops.
"Okay, darling?" she grumped.
"Sorry for laughing at your highway darling." I say in apology. I could see that she was very proud of the fact that the village would soon have a highway that would not flood out anymore once finished and make it easier for the villagers to go to Surin on their weekly journeys for supplies. I realized once again how proud these people are of their country and why I liked them so much.
I put the truck in first, took a "let" onto the mud trail, and slowly made the torturous drive along the dike to her Happy village.
To continue relating my driving experiences in the land of smiles let me say "just do it!" I ended part one with my taking a let (left) onto the red mud dirt road to my lady’s village. Let's continue. After getting on the road I notice that one side of it is about 5 feet higher than the other side. Yeah, the left side I'm supposed to be driving on! To hell with that I say!
The right side was flat and a much better ride. I stay there.
What the hell? I hit a pothole and smack my head on the Buddha voodoo writings on the truck ceiling. I thought what stuff was supposed to protect me from bodily injury for chrissakes!
"Slowly darling, slowly." my lady tells me.
"What the hell darling," I say to her, "I'm only doing 2 kph! If I go any slower I might as well get out and frigging walk!"
She smiles at me and motions to me to go slower. Now I notice that the road (I hate to even give it that lofty designation) is scattered with heavy equipment. Dump trucks, graders, back hoes and such. It looks like as soon as it started raining the Thai operators just parked them wherever they happened to be at the moment and went home to drink whiskey and play cards until the end of the rainy season. What a frigging mess.
I drive around a dump truck going up on the left side where it's higher and it feels like the damn truck is gonna roll over into the rice paddies! Whoa! I can see the newspaper headline now. "Stupid Farang Rolls Truck into Rice Paddy and Drowns. Thai Ladyfriend Survives Tragedy!" Hopefully she's smart enough to take the money in my pockets before the cops arrive, as they'll rifle my pockets anyway before I get thrown in the meat wagon.
The truck is covered in red mud from all the puddled potholes. The owner is gonna go nuts when he sees his pick-up I think to myself. I don't think he thought I'd be four wheeling it in the mud bogs of Isaan when he rented to me.
It takes us a good half hour to negotiate the dike road. At least three times I had to stop because a water buffalo didn't want to get out of the road. One actually lowered his horns and challenged the damn truck.
"Get the hell outta the way before I turn you into McDonald’s burger meat!" I had to yell at him before he'd move. At this time I'm also getting a bit tired of rice and noodles and he looks very tasty to me. There are a lot of steaks and roasts on his bones brother.
Finally we arrive safe and sound in front of our house. Everyone is there to greet the walking ATM and his lucky lady. I feel loved and break out in a stupid smile. Home at last! I get to visit the fruit of all my dollars once again! I also get to paint the whole house, as the Thai guys can't paint a straight line and I'm not wasting my dough on a shitty job from them. I'll do it myself! (That story later)
After spending all day with my Thai family and friends and painting the bathroom and one of the bedrooms I decided it was time to hit the road and return to the hotel. I kept the room for a couple of days because we were painting and I wanted to use the pool so I could bring my lady's look sow (daughter) and her nieces and a nephew for a swim over the weekend. Who wants to sleep in the paint fumes anyway? Only 700 baht extra for a couple of days, around twenty dollars US.
It was around midnight, and I was pretty tired after such a long day, so we said good bye and left. I made the torturous drive over the dike mud road without incident and hit the main highway in about a half hour. The roads were pretty empty at this hour. Dark too! Not many street lights (read none) in these areas. The farmers go to bed pretty early so the buffalo are all put away and the rice paddy tractors are not about, making for a much quicker and more enjoyable drive.
Before leaving my lady's sister had warned me not to drive with my windows down at night on the dark, deserted roads.
"Why, mosquitoes?" I said.
"No, mafia." was her reply.
"What?" I said.
She proceeded to tell me a story about a German falang who, while driving one night on the deserted roads nearby, had a lady run in the road looking all distressed and waving her arms at him. He stopped to see if he could help her and a couple of guys (ya baa drug freaks it was later reported), one with a gun, proceeded to rob him.
So my lady now will not let me drive with the windows down at night. Thanks Sis for scaring the shit out of her. She's always telling these Mafia stories to us and making my lady paranoid as hell. I promised not to stop for any reason and leave the windows up. (I think Toyota installs bullet proof glass in all their pick-ups don't they?) Sheesh!
Later we were tooling down the road, with the windows up, and it starts to rain lightly. I hit the wipers and we drive in silence for a while. No music now, just content in sitting with each other as the wiper blades slapped the windshield rhythmically. Her hand is on my thigh and she's nodding off a bit. I love quiet moments like this. All of a sudden I hear this loud popping sound from the front of the truck. "Ah, what the hell?" I grumble, and pull over to check the tires.
Now my lady is wide awake suddenly and asks me what I'm doing.
"I'm pulling over to check the tires, darling." I tell her.
"Be careful, darling." she says to me.
"Yeah, no problem." I say.
I imagine she has thoughts of the so-called mafia robbers and rapists pouring out of the rice paddies as soon as we stop. Thanks Sis!
I get out in the rain and do a quick check of the tires. It's pitch black out and I can't see much, but everything seems okay. I can't hear any leaking air so I jump back in the truck and start to drive again. My lass asks what was wrong and I tell her, "Nothing, no problem." All of a sudden we hear another popping sound, and another, and another! What the fuck? I slow down a bit and suddenly notice something moving on the road in the wash of the headlight beams. "What the hell IS that?" I say to myself.
Now I notice a huge frog jumping across the road in the headlight beam, and there is not just one, there are shitloads of frogs hopping all over the road; thousands of them, nay, millions it looks like, and I'm running over and killing tons of them! The little ones and medium sized ones don't make a sound when you squish the poor buggers, but the big muthafuggers make a loud popping sound when you score a direct hit with the front tires.
"Jesus Christ! Look at them all!" I say to my lady.
Question: Why did the frog cross the road?
Answer: Who the hell knows? He's going from one rice paddy to another across the road that is exactly identical to the one he left. What? Are there more mosquitoes over on the other side to eat?
I finally tell my lady that I believe these frogs are suicidal. Do frogs go to heaven? I don't know, but if they do I have just populated heaven with a shitload of froggies, man. Just call me the Jack Kevorkian for all of Thailand's suicidal frogs.
At first I try to avoid them all I can, but this gets a little dangerous on the rain slicked road and I finally give up caring about the dumb things.
POP! POP, POP! POP POP POP POPOPOPOPOPOPOPOP!
I'm starting to get a rhythm going here and break out into a Frank Zappa song about frogs I used to love. The song I loved that is, not the frogs. My lady looks at me as though I'm nuts. I am, so I don't get insulted, and I start laughing and ask her if she'd like to stop and get some froggies for breakfast tomorrow.
Mmmmmmm! Kow Pad Froggy. "Yummy!" I say to her. Kow Tom Frog soup! Delicious I would think.
She gives me a punch and a dirty look. But I think she's thinking seriously about my offer to stop. I've told her before I think the Thais are Ba Ba Bo Bo (crazy) when it comes to food. They'll eat damn near anything, and every part of anything! They'll eat the frigging tires off the truck if they were hungry enough and nothing else was available, and make it taste good and spicy too. Hey, every time I stop on the side of the road with some Thai women in my truck they will proceed to descend upon the countryside like a plague of locusts stripping nearby foliage and trees bare and munching away with glee!
My Thai family is all women, no men at all, except old Papa who lives in Pattaya and is never around, a notorious butterfly (philanderer) in his youth, so I'm told. My lady, 5 sisters/cousins and Mama and a shitload of aunts and nieces make up our family. (One 6 year old nephew, is my lone guy pal, who also agrees with me that the lasses are all Ba Ba Bo Bo (crazy) and yak (talk) too much.) I'm not complaining though. They treat me like a king. I never want for food, or a beer or a massage. I feel like a silverback gorilla being groomed by his harem most of the time. Now if they'd only be quiet once in a while I'd be in heaven. Yakkity, yakkity, yak! Shaddup for god's sake! I'm trying to watch the game. They laugh and ignore me.
After settling in to village life and being awoken every morning by the Bossman (or as I refer to him now, my future homicide victim) I realize I am now designated "taxi man". I have the wheels, the tank is full, and heaven forbid anyone should have to take their moto-cyke to town as usual when they can ride in the relative luxury of the bed of my Mighty X Toyota pick up. (and save on fuel too)
So one morning my lady informs me that we have to go the electric company to talk to them about the bill. Seems my lady and her sister think they are being over charged for the electricity they use in our in-home noodle shop. The guy across the street
runs his own metal shop and his bill is a lot less than theirs, and he is constantly running machinery and such. The ladies want to know why so much for them.
"Okay, let's go whenever you're ready darling." I say, while scrambling up some eggs in the wok for my breakfast.
I had, by the fourth week in country, sworn off rice and fish sauce and chili peppers for breakfast, as it was wreaking havoc with my digestive system. I love it, but my guts were protesting against the daily use of those fiery additives to the local dishes. I am a pretty good cook myself and like to cook. I've had my lass teach me how to cook my favorite Thai dishes and make them for myself when I go back to the states. Just not every day though. Our daughter loves to eat my scrambled eggs and fried ham for breakfast. Every morning I'd cook breakfast for her and myself before she went off to school. Smart kid.
"Where is the electric company office, darlin'?" I ask my lass while we ate.
"Oh, just in next village from here. Not long way." she says, while spooning in 4 or 5 heaping spoonfuls of crushed red peppers into her morning rice soup. I shudder watching her do this.
"Daaaamn woman! Take it easy with the friggin' peppers." I say, shaking my head in amazement.
She does this every morning and then bitches all day that her stomach hurts. No kidding, dummy! I tell her I don't want to hear about her stomach, as I told her not to eat so many hot peppers for breakfast and she just won't listen to the dumb falang, me. "Food mi dee (not good) I think." she always says.
"Yeah, it has nothing to do with the quarter pound of hot peppers you put on it, right?" I'll chide her. Silly woman.
After eating and cleaning up I jump in the truck with her and her sister and off we go to set the thieving electric company straight. We drive down the still unfinished "highway" past the temple complex, where Mama is making breakfast for the monks and splash through the potholes and dodge the occasional chicken, water buffalo, and dumb damned soi dog, which all seem to think they have the right of way. I honk and wave at the kids walking to school, trying not to splash them as I drive by. They all know me, as I visited the school recently to meet my look sow's teacher and talked to the principal about buying some used computers for the kids to learn on. They wave, and laugh and yell at us as we pass.
Further down the road my lady tells me to slow down and take the next "let" left.
"Where?" I ask her, looking for the turn.
"There." she says, flapping her hand at a red mud trail which meanders off into the surrounding rice paddy fields.
I turn onto the road, if you can call it that.
"Go slow, darling." she urges me after I whack my head on the roof a few times.
"I am going slowly dear." I growl back at her, while maneuvering around a water filled pothole the size of Crater Lake.
This has to be the worst "road" I have ever driven on in my entire life! Unlike the new unfinished highway, this road is completely level with the surrounding rice paddies, to the point of being under almost as much water as the rice fields themselves. What the hell?
"Darling," I say, "Is this the way you always go to this village?"
"Yes, is shortcut." she informs me, as though I should know that.
"You mean there is another way to get to this village besides this way?" I exclaim, while trundling through another three foot deep mud hole.
Red water splashes off the windshield and I have to turn on the wipers to see through it. In front of me I spy a man floundering in another mud hole. He is trying to upright his scooter, which is lying in the water of the puddle he tried to drive through, which is a good three feet deep.
I stop. I watch. I debate. Should I get out and help this poor bastard? He falls back down into the water on top of his scooter. I can hear him swearing in Thai, or maybe it was Lao, and watch him get up dripping wet and slimy with red mud. He grabs the bike again and struggles to upright it and push it out of the puddle. I look down at my clean feet and leather sandals and decide, "Hey, screw him. If he's stupid enough to try to drive his scooter through a puddle the size of Lake Champlain he can just help himself." I'm not slogging through that mud and water to his rescue.
"Which other way is there to this village?" I ask my love.
"On highway, darling." she replies.
"You mean the paved highway outside our village?" I snarl at her.
"Yes," she smiles at me, "but long way. This shortcut."
I throw her a scathing glance that should have cut her to ribbons where she sat.
She looked at me with that blank, innocent face and said, a note of worry in her voice, "What wrong, darling? You okay?"
I gritted my teeth, trying vainly to bite back my retort, realizing to her this is a normal, everyday event, but I had to ask her.
"Darling, does insanity run in your family? Or is it just you?" I asked her, acid dripping from my words.
"What you say, darling?" she queries me, not understanding enough English to get my sarcasm, but definitely understanding the tone of my voice.
"Why the hell did you take me this way to the village? Why didn't we just go on the highway?" I barked at her, watching the poor sod finally get his scooter to the side of the mud trail.
"This shortcut!" she replies again, crossing her arms huffily and glaring out her side window, avoiding my stare of incredulity.
"Darling," I snap, "This ain't no shortcut! This, my dear, is the frigging road to hell!"
She's pissed and confused. I'm pissed too. Forget her. I'll explain why going down this "road" isn't such a bright idea to her later that night. Right then I don't think she was in the mood to listen to me. I then tell her we are returning from the electric company on the highway and not going back the way we just came.
"Up to you." she says frostily.
"Damn right it is." I mutter back, "Shortcut my ass!"
It took an hour to traverse the road to hell. I almost got stuck in the axle deep red clay mud a dozen times, and informed her that if I did get stuck her and her sister were getting out and pushing. That went over well. Whooeee! And if I did get stuck I was gonna rev the engine and pop the clutch, and spray her ass with mud from head to toe while she was pushing.
When we finally got to the electric company I spotted an outdoor bar/noodle stand that sold beer and whiskey. I informed her and her sister that I would wait for them there.
"Fine." she barks, and heads toward the electric company building.
"Beer Chang please proprietor, and Mekong whiskey too. No, not a glass, the bottle thanks my man."
I sat and waited for my insane darling and her sister to finish their business while I pondered the horrors of getting stuck on the road to hell in the middle of bumfuck nowhere Isaan and having to walk a couple of miles through the water filled rice fields with six inches of red mud sucking at my feet.
"Another beer Chang please waiter."
Jesus save me from her shortcuts!
(The Central Scrutinizer)
More magic from Cent!