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I’ve Got A List Part 3



Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

Let me move on to a topic which is only slightly tangential to my previous discussion of hospitals, and that is driving. The point being that driving in Thailand is always a risky business which might land you in the hospital, even if you are standing still. Don’t believe me? Well talk to my father-in-law who was struck by a wayward bus while waiting to cross the road. Hell, even though I managed to stay out of the hospital, it was not long after moving here that I was rammed while sitting at a red light. In that instance, after asking for his phone number, Somchai, with a big shit-eating grin on his face promptly did a runner. It wasn’t the last time that Somchai would slam into me and run off, but I’ll get to that cute little incident in a while.

If it isn’t already obvious let me make it clear I believe that an extraordinary number of Thai drivers to be utterly pathetic. I’m sure that there are worse drivers. I’m sure those of you have traveled around the world could tell some hair raising stories of incompetence, but based purely on my own personal experiences in Thailand, I have to say that the Thais get my award for the being at the bottom of the barrel.

If you want to gain some insight into the mind of your typical Thai driver, I suggest you observe Somchai and his entire family behind a shopping cart at Big C. Note the complete lack of situational awareness. They stop and park their cart any time they want, anywhere they want. They will consistently block the aisle preventing other customers from getting by. They do not look to see if anyone is behind them before moving their cart out into the aisle. They will not hesitate to push you out of the way, even if you are pausing momentarily to put something into your cart. They will hold up the checkout line while one of the family meanders back to get something else. After paying they will stand with their cart checking their receipt preventing you from putting your bags into your cart. Finally instead of turning left or right after getting to the bottom of the escalator, they will stop dead in their tracks causing an inevitable pile up as other customers prepare to get off. While Somchai and his family are making your shopping as difficult as possible, never once will they make eye contact or apologize for anything. Remember all this is taking place while pushing a simple trolley. Now imagine the same mindset as they wreak havoc on a motorcycle or behind the wheel of a car or truck.

I’ve been told that tere are indeed laws which govern how Thais are supposed to drive a motor vehicle, but if Somchai has ever read them, you could have fooled me. Almost every Thai driver I see operates as if he or she exists in his or her own private cosmos, where “rules of the road” are mere suggestions that come into play only if the mood casually strikes them.

After so many years I now simply assume that Thais will speed through a red light without even slowing down. Stop signs are routinely ignored. The law states that you may only pass another vehicle on the right. That makes me chuckle since motorcycles pass you on any damned side they please. I’ve come close on many occasions to taking on someone passing me on the left, just as I am making a left hand turn. Did it matter to Somchai that I had put on my left hand directional light in a timely manner to indicate that I indeed intended to turn left? Any sane person, even if he was originally going to pass me on the left, would once he saw my turn signal, slow down to allow me to make my turn. The operative word here folks is sane, because only an idiot would not slow down but instead speed up…and by doing so almost surely get nailed. If I had hit Somchai, he would be squashed like a bug…D.O.A…dead on arrival. Would the fact that he was driving in a reckless, not to mention illegal manner have any bearing once the got involved? Surely you jest, because as we all know that in any motor vehicle accident, The Farang is Always Wrong. Somchai could have been riding in the dark, with no headlight, wearing black from head to toe, and talking on a cell phone, and Sawadee would still be found to have been at fault.

“But Sawadee”, you protest, “Surely the police are interested in finding out the facts. Even in Thailand an accident investigation must count for something”! Excuse me for a moment while I roll on the floor in hysterical laughter. “Facts! We don’t need no stinking facts”!

Do you recall the incident I mentioned where Somchai rear ended me while I was stopped at a red light, and then took off for parts unknown? I was able to provide the police not only with a description of the truck, but the letters and numerals of the license plate, with the exception of the last digit. Did they care? Did they attempt to track down Somchai? Do you believe in the tooth fairy and the Easter Bunny? Even a minimal look at the truck registry data would have found the culprit. Apparently that minimum amount of effort was too much to expect…especially on behalf of a Farang.

I had a second interaction with the Boys in Brown after my next accident. This entire frustrating affair is detailed in something I wrote called, The Wheels of Justice. Let me briefly summarize those events. I was driving along minding my own business when Somchair felt compelled to pass where only a suicidal maniac would attempt to pass another vehicle, because there was simply not enough room to do so. Of course this is Somchai we are talking about behind the wheel of a large commercial truck. Before you could say Jack Robinson, Somchai had slammed into the right side of my Toyota, and without even slowing down, took off on his merry way. It is a miracle I hadn’t gone off the road and smashed into a building or utility pole. At least a dozen bystanders witnessed the entire event, and could easily corroborate that, a) I was as far left on the road as one could be without being on the sidewalk, b) that Somchai was driving in a reckless manner and c) that Somchai fled the scene of the accident. Losing all pretense at having Jai Yen (a cool heart), I pursued Somchai and eventually forced him to pull over. The SOB smirked at me and wanted to know what the problem was. Problem? You mean the small fact that you nearly killed me and then ran away? I then proceeded to call the police, who after taking their sweet time, meandered over to take a look at what the fuss was all about. My Thai isn’t all that great, but was adequate to explain what had happened. Furthermore, after returning to the scene of the accident I was able to have some of the Thais who saw the accident occur, explain the facts to the police.

Then it was off to the police station where I waited for hours while the cops enjoyed a leisurely lunch. Eventually Somchai’s employer showed up, and after a huddled conference with the police, Somchai walked away free as a bird…still smirking at me, while I had to cough up 500 baht. The fact that I never received a citation…in a society where you need paperwork in triplicate for any official offence, told me all that I needed to know. I had just been buggered and then forced to pay for the privilege.

I will have more to say about the Boys in Brown later, but for now let me return to my thoughts on Thai drivers. What inquiring minds want to know is why Thais consistently drive in a manner which is likely to kill them…not to mention a whole lot of innocent people? If I were a sociologist I might want to see if there is a relationship between the Thais religious beliefs and the way they court danger without a second thought. Does the fact that Buddhists believe in reincarnation play a role? I mean you certainly must be unafraid of death to do some of the things they do while driving. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that if you pull into traffic without looking to see if anyone else is coming along, then there is a high likelihood of death or dismemberment…and yet I see Thais do this continually. Hell, car and motorcycle manufacturers might as well save a few baht and simply not install mirrors, since most Thais don’t seem to find any use for them. The same goes for directional signals. When a Thai wants to turn, he simply goes ahead and does it. If that causes mayhem for other motorists, well that’s their problem. It simply boggles my find that there is no mediating filter in the Thai brain that evaluates the reasonableness of a desire, before implementing a course of action. If Somchai wants to do something he simply goes ahead and does it and consequences be damned!

I wrote a piece called The Very Long and Winding Road, describing a delightful trip my family and I took to Pai in Mae Hong Song province. That trip took me around 762 curves on narrow mountain roads. What should have a pleasurable driving experience was spoiled by one tail gating, horn honking member of Somchai’s family after another. These idiots weren’t happy that I was driving in a safe and prudent manner…though hardly driving like an old man. I was trucking right along. I simply didn’t relish the idea of driving off the edge of the road into oblivion. They on the other hand thought nothing of passing another vehicle while going around a blind turn or over a the crest of a hill where there was no way to no if someone was going to run into them in the other lane. This of course was not only as dumb as can be, but highly irresponsible, since they were as likely to kill someone else in addition to themselves.

Oh, if you decide to read this story, which actually does talk about all the wonderful experiences we had on this trip, you will also hear an amusing little story…in my opinion at least…about how Old Sawadee handed out a major attitude adjustment to Somchai in a parking lot in downtown Pai.

That brings up the not so delightful tendency of Thais to double and triple park in such a manner as to block you in indefinitely. Once again the desire to do something pops into Somchai’s head, and he immediately acts on the impulse. Allow me to give Somchai’s definition of the Right of Way. “I have the right to go where I like, any way I like, anytime I like, so get the hell out of my way!” Please feel free to use this quote.

My final problem with how Thais drive regards their attitude towards their children when they are passengers in cars and on motorcycles. I fully understand that for many people, a motorcycle is the only way to transport their children. Still you would think that parents would insist on having their children wear motorcycle helmets. They do make helmets to fit even small children. Sam never goes anywhere on his mother’s motorcycle without wearing one. Sadly I rarely see children wearing them, and a very high percentage of teenagers never wear them. Sadly I also rarely see children buckled into a car seat. Car seats are not expensive, and even in Lampang you can buy one in the children’s department of the local department store. Even educated Thais who have professional jobs allow their children to wander around inside their cars at will. Everyday I see children standing…I repeat standing on the front seat of the car! Don’t their parents realize that even a minor accident, or in fact merely slamming on the brakes to avoid one, will turn their little ones into projectiles?

Allow me to step on to my soap box for a moment folks. I believe that any parents who needlessly place their children in jeopardy should be ashamed of themselves. Please do not write to me and tell me that I “don’t understand Thai culture”. I don’t accept that kind of bullshit. So many tragedies in life are beyond anyone’s power to avoid. You never know when you will have an accident. That’s why you do all that you can to protect your children. Why Thais fail to do so when it would be so easy to take sensible precautions completely mystifies me.

Okay, so definitively in my “Do Not Like” column about all things Thai is the way Somchai behaves behind the wheel…or handlebars as the case may be.

Also in my negative column is…and reluctantly I might add, are the Boys in Brown. I say reluctantly because I have tremendous respect for the institution of law enforcement. Back in the U.S I have many close friends who have served with distinction as police officers. The police have a tough and often thankless job to perform, so I don’t enjoy criticizing any of them. But here in Thailand, at least in my experience these guys (and gals) are not shining examples of the motto “To Serve and Protect”. I already talked about my two accidents and the rather shabby way I was treated. Add to this being shaken down on the highway for four hundred baht, for allegedly speeding, when in fact I was most assuredly not. In this instance I was once again not given a written citation. Instead the four hundred baht was tucked away in Somchai’s pocket and I was dismissed to “move along!

Police corruption exists in every country, but it is quite rare back in Farangland. Here it is an every day occurrence. Here in Lampang I have never been shaken down, in fact I have never been stopped at a police roadblock. In fact I think my face is familiar enough that the cops recognize me. Still I think in many ways the police are not doing a very professional job.

There are traffic lights at some major intersections in town that are often out of commission. If this were to happen back in Farangland, you would instantly have a cop on the scene to direct traffic. In the over six years that I’ve been living here, I have never once seen a cop out doing this seemingly obvious bit of police work…and Lampang has one hell of a large police force. Unbelievably I’ve instead seen cops standing around watching as cars dodge one another. Given what I’ve said about Thai drivers, you just know that no one is going to allow any other car to go before they do. It is amazing that I’ve never witnessed an accident. It is even more amazing that I haven’t been in an accident!

All over Thailand, and in fact undoubtedly this is happening even as I write this, motorcycles are being pulled over because drivers are not wearing helmets. You would normally want to applaud an effort to promote safety, because even a minor motorcycle accident is potentially deadly if your head hits the pavement. Unfortunately these checkpoints are more about generating cash than safety. If a helmet violation is not occurring while at an official checkpoint, most of the time a cop will not blink an eye, let alone ticket anyone. Meanwhile the police routinely see all kinds of seriously dangerous driving going on all around them and never pull anyone over. Except during Songkran and around New Year’s Eve, drunken drivers are rarely stopped.

The infamous Jet Ski scam could not exist without the knowing cooperation from the police. The reality that the local police are not only failing to end this shake down, but are often allened to be an active participant is disgraceful. The fact that higher authorities allow this well publicized outrage to continue speaks volumes for their integrity.

I should say as a matter of clarification that I am not shaking in fear at the mere thought of encountering the police. Aside from my car accidents, I have never had a single problem with the local authorities. In my neighborhood there are in fact two policemen with whom I am on friendly terms with. It is the institution that I am less than enamored with.

Okay, that’s enough negativity for the moment. I don’t want to give any of you the impression that I walk around scowling at all things Thai. So, let’s move over to the “I like” side of the tally sheet for a while.



Stickman's thoughts:

Thanks for reminding me why I no longer own a car!