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The Bangkok Bus Driver (The Inside Story)

  • Written by Union Hill
  • October 10th, 2007
  • 5 min read



Over the years I have witnessed some of the best examples of bad driving you could possibly imagine, all over the world. Let’s be fair, Thais are not the world’s worst drivers. That accolade probably goes to the Egyptians, but Thailand must surely feature in the world’s Top Ten.

Whenever I see a bus in Bangkok, involuntarily the same questions always flash through my mind.

By the speed it’s traveling through city traffic, “Is it out of control? Maybe the driver’s had a heart attack and his foot is jammed on the accelerator”. By the angle that it’s skewed across three lanes blocking all traffic, “Has it broken down?” By the angle that it’s skewed across three lanes blocking all traffic, “Has it just crashed?”. “Why is the driver trying to overtake the bus in front when he intends to stop at the bus stop fifty yards ahead”. “Has any Bangkok bus driver ever had any formal training or even held a valid driver's license?” “Why are they always in such a god damned hurry?” I can’t believe that buses run to a timetable. Nothing else in Thailand does.

The other day I was following a white BMTA bus through Thong Lor. The driver was a complete lunatic. He veered constantly from the left lane to the right and back again for no apparent reason and with total disregard for other road users. On the back of the bus, was an official notice written in Thai that said something like, “If you have a complaint about the way this bus is being driven call 02 545 XXXX. The last four digits had been obliterated with whitewash.

I kept my distance.

When my wife’s friend Tia came to visit us recently she brought her new boyfriend along with her. Tia had been the mia noi of a military man for the last twelve years but that came to an abrupt end recently when he was blown up and killed by insurgents in Yala. Now she has taken up with a young Isaan chap who was, wouldn’t you know it, a bus driver. As he was enjoying my hospitality, I decided to ask him some questions. So as not to come off sounding confrontational and without wishing to offend the poor chap I couched my interrogation in friendly and polite conversation. It went something like this :-

“So Somchai, how long have you been a bus driver?”

“Five years.”

“Is it hard work?”

“It can be. Sometimes we are asked to work eighteen hours a day.”

“Really. But you’re not driving all that time are you?”

“Oh yes. I usually have to take something to keep me awake on those long shifts.”

“Something like Red Bull?”

“Sometimes Red Bull but I take some medicine to keep me awake sometimes as well.”

“Is it hard to get a bus drivers license in Bangkok?’

“License?”

“Yes, in the UK we have a thing called a PSV which is a Public Services Vehicle license. I think you have to be at least twenty one years old before you can apply and you have to pass an additional test in the bus before you can drive one on the public highway.”

Blank expression followed by “Uhh?”

“So how did you get a job driving a bus?”

“My friend worked at the BMTA office and he got me the bus driver’s job there. It was lucky I knew how to drive”.

“Have you ever had an accident?”

“Loads of times but never anything serious. Sometimes I didn’t even need to stop.”

“I read in the paper that 70% of road accidents in Bangkok involve buses. Do you think that’s true?”

“Dunno really. Many people in Thailand don’t know how to drive properly. Sometimes they just blame the bus drivers when there is an accident.”

“We’re always hearing about bus drivers running away if they have a bad accident. Is it really like that? Would you run away if you had a bad accident?”

“Why are you talking to me like that? Some drivers might run away if they are drunk or something like that and some might run away because they are afraid that the people on the bus might attack them if the bus had a bad crash. I worry about that also.”

I almost overdid it with that question so I softened my tone a little further.

“Many times I see people getting on and off a bus in the middle of the road because the bus cannot pull into the bus stop for one reason or another. That looks very dangerous to me. Do you let people get on and off your bus in the middle of the road.”

“People can get on and off anywhere they want. It’s not up to me to be careful for them.” – Accompanied by an ‘Are you for real?’ facial expression.

Following my impromptu bit of investigative journalism I drew a line there in case my guest took umbrage. I came to the following conclusions.

Bangkok bus drivers are frequently drunk or high on ya ba and Red Bull.

They have never had any formal training. Many never had any driving instructions apart from being coached by their father or brother. The BMTA makes no effort to check if a driver can actually drive before employing them.

Accidents are an occupational hazard. Minor ones are largely not reported and fleeing the scene of a serious accident is regarded as generally the best course of action for a bus driver.

Anyone who gets hit by a bus should not have been in the way in the first place. If you have an accident getting on or off a bus, that’s your fault and you’re probably a farang anyway.

I did ask other questions especially about road safety and operating a bus with safety in mind but Somchai simply could not comprehend the concept. He did make a comment to the effect that farangs seem to be overly bothered about safety but when everybody is careful, there is no problem.

So, who’d be Bangkok bus driver, eh? Thankless task.

Union Hill

Stickman's thoughts:

Funny! Poor old Somchai, you really did pout the heat on him!