A conversation with a friend at the bar reminded me of this email I sent out just about six (!) years ago. I thought I’d post it. you know, for old times’ sake.
I’ve been on the ground in Thailand for about 10 days now and have been amassing zillions of notes attempting to record the experience of being in a completely new place. There is much to tell, but for the moment I think I only have the time to focus on my interactions with the traffic in Chiangmai (traffic in Bangkok being beyond my ability to describe :). Bear in mind that during all this time I am adjusting to driving on the left side of the road.
The older section of Chiangmai is surrounded by a square moat of sorts, on either side of which are two arterial roadways, the one of the interior of the moat going counterclockwise, the outer road going clockwise. In other words, as you drive, the moat is always on your
right hand side. While it is not nearly so large as Bangkok, Chiangmai is big enough to make walking infeasible, and there is not a public transportation system to speak of. So after a day or two of insisting that I wanted the exercise of walking, I stopped at the first bike
rental shop I could find and picked up a flimsy looking blue bike equipped with a basket and a little bell that seemed painfully inadequate when compared to the buzz of two stroke motorbike engines coming from the street. But it had three gears, all of which were extremely useful, and the brakes worked reassuringly well, which was nice as the woman who rented me the bike laughed when I asked if they had helmets.
The most illustrative example of Thai driving habits that I can think of takes place at a red light. Firstly, it seems that oftentimes street lights are taken as suggestions of how you might want to progress, rather than strict instructions that imply possible punishment if not obeyed; when traffic is particularly busy policemen will come to direct traffic in highly trafficked areas. If it sounds like an awful job, it is- traffic cops in Thailand have significantly higher rates of lung disease than other segments of the population. But if the intersection is large enough, the traffic lights are generally obeyed simply out of necessity. At such intersections the cars all stop and the smaller vehicles filter through the spaces
between. If there isn’t enough space between the cars, it is acceptable to pull into the lane of oncoming traffic in order to reach the front of the line. So while the motorbikes ride through spaces of only a meter or a meter and a half at 20k/hr, the occasional cyclist
(me) tries desperately to maintain enough speed to keep his balance and not scratch someone’s car. By the time the light turns green, the cyclists have all gathered halfway into the intersection and start to move even before the light has changed color. Like the start of a horse race, it takes a few moments of jockeying to figure out who will go ahead of whom. The sounds of motors straining to their limits makes a comparison to a swarm of bees leaving the hive to feed on a particularly inviting field of flowers tempting. To make this initial explosion out of the gate more interesting, Thai traffic lights are on a longer cycle than those in America; this means that no one wants to wait through another cycle of the light before they get through the intersection. So even as the cyclists are taking off from one direction, they must avoid the last few speeding stragglers coming from the crossing street. Thanks to the lower gears on my bike (and a comically exxagerated effort on my part), I could attain some measure of acceleration through the maelstrom and get out of the way of people who drove real vehicles as quickly as I could. I would like to think
that they appreciated my clumsy efforts, but in truth they just considered me as just another variable in the intense, constant calculations required to avoid serious injury while driving in Chiangmai.
The bike and I got on beautifully, and it wasn’t until long after dusk when I realized that I had to make it all the way home without the benefit of the sunlight. As I mentioned before, the two directions of traffic around the moat ran on opposite sides of the water, meaning that if you are driving (or pedaling) on the wrong side of the water you will have to overshoot your destination, then make a u-turn on one of the bridges. And while I was more of less comfortable driving on left side of the road, I had to make my u-turns from the right lane. If there was anything that has made me appreciate the value of focus in the face of my own mortality, it is merging across three lanes of Thai traffic in the dark with only my ting-a-ling bell as a means of warning the cars and motorcycles around me that I was about to make a move.
As faithful as it was, the first bike’s rear tire did not hold out nearly as long as I would have liked, and I had to exchange it for another model. This one was bright red, had a seat so hard it bruised my backside after only a few hours, had no bell, only one gear, and suspect brakes. Fortunately by this time I was learning my way around the alleyways of Chiangmai and could use streets that put fewer demands on my bike’s limited means of deceleration. Despite its continuing utility, however, my aching derriere demanded that I return the cycle the next day.
Bike #3 was obtained from another shop, as the first one was out of bikes that met my admittedly low standards for ridability. Again it was bright red, although it beat out bike #2 in that it had several gears and a bell. Preposterous as it may have been, I was damned if I was going to go without SOME means of announcing my presence to the cars around me. As it happened, I got about a block around the corner before I realized that the bell didn’t work. I debated whether or not I should return the bike for another model for another half block before I realized the gear shift didn’t work either. Even so, my
desire to avoid conflict allowed the internal debate about returning the bike to continue for another half block when the chain came loose and I lost all ability to propel the thing forward. In light of this development, Mr. Mechanic (actually it was his wife, although I did
not address her as Mrs Mechanic), gave me bike #4.
Again the breaks didn’t work very well and I had to relent on my desire to have a bell come hell or high water, but the seat was agreeably comfortable, and with an even more outrageously distorted arsenal of motions and a remarkable wide range of creaks and groans from the bike itself I could coax the thing to move along at a fairly respectable clip (note that “respectable” is a relative term). It took me a while to realize it, but the bolt responsible for keeping the seat level had somehow come loose and unless I was very deliberate about keeping my weight in the right place, the banana shaped seat would tilt back into a position that could charitably be desribed as torturous. Nevertheless I persevered, seeing as I had already paid for the rental, and the bike persevered along with me. By the next morning the front brake had broken so that whenever I used it I would have to stop the bike entirely, dismount, and disengage the brake manually. By this time the brakepad would be hot to the touch and I had to wait for it to cool down. Not that I realized this until I had gone half way across the city asking myself “Why on earth is it so much harder to pedal today than it was last night?”
That was it, I said to myself, enough with bicycles. It STILL takes forever to get around the city, and given how cheap it is I may as well rent a motorbike. Mrs Mechanic seemed happy that I would choose to tour her city on the back of a Honda Dream for 150 baht
(about $3.50) a day, although her face drooped a little when I told her that I had never driven a motorcycle before. “You want automatic? 50 baht more,” she asked. I told her it wouldn’t be a problem and after a short lesson from her coworker I accidentally put the thing in gear and drove off into the smoggy haze without taking a helmet to protect myself. A few minutes later (and wiser), I found my way back to the shop and picked up the appropriate head gear.
If struggling to get up to a high enough speed to merge into automobile traffic on a bike is unnerving, figuring out just how to use the brake on a motorcycle going 60 k/per hour without gunning the throttle in heavy traffic is honestly a little bit terrifying. After a
day and a half I am getting the hang of it, however, and have even found myself zooming through the gaps between stopped cars, wondering why anyone would ever bother waiting their turn at a traffic light. Even so, I am intent on quitting while I am ahead (or rather, while my head is still attached to my body) and will return this bike as soon as I manage to finish the tank full of gas I bought for it.
Alright. Off to find some foodstuffs with which to fuel my ongoing search for employment. I am thinking of you all and will dutifully respond to those that email me. (to those that already have, I’m sorry it took me so long to write this!)