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This Buffalo Is Lost…Almost




This article partly stems from the fact that my wife, and I may even venture to add a large percentage of the population, are absolutely hopeless at reading a map. She could hold it upside down for all it matters and will still come to the same conclusion – I don’t know where we are or where we’re headed. Now this doesn’t really matter in Bangkok, as I prefer the public transport system anyway, but venture upcountry and it’s a slightly different story.

Now this is okay if you’re going down a well-travelled route on a major highway, but once they get off this to find that elusive temple or relative’s house, I swear they resort to blind reckoning, fluke and black magic (or a combination thereof) to find the place. Asking for directions at the wayside petrol stations or the provision shops are not much help either as the pump attendants or shop assistants are almost as clueless. That’s usually why they’re working there.

Take this scenario – we’re at her Mum’s place and have to attend a wedding at some place we’ve not been to before. ‘Where is the place?’

‘Oh, about halfway between Nakhon Sawan and Phitsanulok.’ Good grief, woman. That’s a hundred kilometre stretch, when do you want me to lob the dart out the window?

While I still dream about actually purchasing a nice shiny GPS, I don’t have an urgent need for one given that most of my routes are in familiar territory and the few odd ones can be resolved with a little pre-planning and a good map.

A compass helps, but most roads and highways in Thailand are quite well demarcated, so you won’t be too far away from some highway route sign and kilometer marker stone.

The Thai highway system numbering is designated by region and size of the road. Single-digit highway numbers are assigned to the main routes. Two-digit highways are major arteries and are typically divided. Three-digit highways are really no more than decent paved roads with two-way traffic, and the four-digit highways (hah!) are nothing more than a paved cart track.

The Northern region has all the 1’s, 1x’s, 1xx’s and 1xxx’s designations. The 2’s are in the Northeast and Eastern regions. The central region gets the 3’s, while the 4’s can be found in the South. There is some overlap between route numbering.

Do not, however, get the idea that if you stay on a particular highway number that it’s going to be the shortest distance between two points!

Take, for example, highway 1. It starts in Bangkok and ends up a little past Chiang Rai at the Laos border. To get to Nakhon Sawan, though, it would not be the quickest route as it follows the ‘old’ road that went past most of the major towns of the time, Lopburi being a major stop along the way. This route would almost double the distance than if you turned off onto Highway 32 and went past Ayuthaya instead, before finally joining up again just before Nakhon Sawan.

Do not confuse the highway distance markers with the routes. The distance markers are just that. Nothing more.

These days, with bi-lingual digital maps on CD and online resources, things are a lot easier.

Here’s another ‘Lek’ story. (Hey, Dana has the rights to ‘Noi’ and a certain pink teddy bear)

I’ve been ‘invited’ to attend another monkhood ordination ceremony. The invitation usually comes by way of depositing an envelope in my hand, on my desk, or with someone who happens to have my contact number. In this case, with Lek. My usual response is to stuff the envelope with a couple of hundred baht notes and send it off with someone who is actually attending the ceremony, writing off the expense as social obligation. In this case, however, I did have Saturday free, and thought, okay, right, once in a while.

After a light breakfast in Bangkok, I make my way up to Lek’s present place, a little off Highway 1. Apparently I’m a little early, as she’s just going off to get her hair done, so I’m stuck with talking to her daughter’s latest boyfriend. Nice enough bloke, though. Her son shows up some ten minutes later with his girlfriend, and they both wai me. ‘Hello, uncle SWB.’ He tells me that the ordination ceremony is for the NCO in charge of his section when he was doing his military service, and whom I had met on two or three occasions. Do note that this is enough of an excuse to hand out an invitation. Then again, they’re usually obliged to invite the whole village, so it’s one way of trying to recover some of the costs.

Lek finally shows up and I have a bit of envelope stuffing to do. I ask her where it’s at, and she mentions a temple name, but confesses she doesn’t know where it is. But not to worry, one of her son’s friends knows the place and he’ll be here in half an hour to accompany us. Right.

Well, it’s more than an hour now, and still no sign of this guy. She’s beginning to look worried, and the son still can’t get him on the phone. ‘Do you have the name and location of the temple?’ I ask Lek.

‘It’s on the invitation card.’

‘Show me.’

Lovely. It’s listed with the Changwat, Amphoe, and Tambon (Province, District and Sub-district). The only problem is, there are typically five different temples within a stone’s throw of each other in any given area in Thailand. Right. Give me five minutes.

I am fortunate in that Lek has internet access at home.

She does not have any downloaded map software, but I have bookmarked some online sites in my email account. I access the site and search, first by amphoe, then zoom in until I find the tambon. There are five temples in the vicinity. ‘What’s the name of the temple again?’ Ah there it is. Now I backtrack to our present location, and use the distance measuring tool to estimate how long it’ll take to get there. Hmmm. Slightly less than an hour, first down highway 1, turn off to highway 2xx and keep going till we cross highway 2x. The temple will be a little further up on the right.

Okay, let’s go. Lek shrugs her shoulders, smiles and then shoots me a sidelong ‘you crazy farang’ look. I laugh back. I have a feeling she doesn’t trust maps. We’ll see.

On the way, I show Lek, her son and his girlfriend how to use the highway numbering. ‘Look at the square white sign with the black border and the garuda (mythical bird symbol) in the center. The highway number we’re travelling in is in the middle of the garuda. When we reach a junction with another highway, arrows in the sign will indicate the direction in which each highway goes.’

Her son tries to call ahead, but all I could hear was loud music. Shouting into the phone didn’t make any difference.

They see a major junction up ahead and expect it to be highway 2x, but it’s something else with four numbers. I see a look of confusion mixed with panic on three faces. I say, just be patient. Surely enough, five minutes later we get to another major junction, and the left to right arrow indicates highway 2x, while 2xx continues straight ahead. I smile and tell them the temple shouldn’t be too far now. Lek shakes her head partly in disbelief, then laughs and tells her son, ‘See, we live here yet it is uncle SWB who gets us there!’ Soon enough, we’re in the temple grounds, but the party is obviously somewhere else.

Loud music can be heard somewhere in the distance, but as this is the season for ordinations, we could be crashing on someone else’s party. Her son tries the number again, and while he can’t make out what’s being said, the music on the phone is the same as that we can hear in the distance so we know we have the right party.

Half the village must have been there, with tables clustered around a central stage and several dancing girls in short shorts and bikini tops. At least two of the girls were going like the energizer bunny. Lek noted my raised eyebrows and laughed again. There was a fair crowd dancing in front of the stage in various stages of intoxication, and at least one of the girls in the crowd tried to have me join them for a swig of beer with the obvious intent of doing something nasty to me after the party was over. I politely declined while still trying to spot the energizer bunny girls.

Well, the trip back was much quicker, and the website has now been bookmarked for future reference on the computer. A GPS receiver is still on the back burner, but maybe I’ll give BKKSW a shout and see if he’ll introduce me to Jill…

Stickman's thoughts:

These GPS contraptions really are wonderful thing and the model BKKSW has is seriously cool.

You nailed it when you said that you need to check out the route first. I carry a decent map in the car that has everything in both English and Thai and that helps. It should be noted that some local road maps are pretty bad though, more a chart than a map!