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Driving in Thailand

It is now the wet season in Thailand, which usually lasts from July through September. It's been raining so much this week I haven't gotten out much, especially since my only means of transportation is a motorbike. So, I thought I'd post another chapter from my book. I think the subject matter is appropriate since the prospect of driving in the rain is what's keeping me inside.

Chapter 13 – Driving

I have mentioned a little about driving in Thailand, mainly how dangerous it is. While there is no denying it can be a challenge, I have to admit that it is also a little fun. In addition to my motorbike, I have driven rental cars in Thailand and if it isn’t raining, I would much rather drive the motorbike. Some people call them mopeds and some call them motorcycles, but a moped is a bicycle with pedals and a motor; and what I own is definitely not a motorcycle. So, I call them either scooters or motorbikes. Traffic in Thailand is formidable. If you are from the U.S., the first thing to get used to is driving on the opposite side of the road. The slow lane is on the far left, not the right. In cars, the steering wheel is also on the opposite side. It doesn’t take long to acquire a feel for this, but in the beginning, it is important to be keenly aware, especially at intersections. Traffic seems chaotic at first, but once you have driven for a while, you can feel the rhythm of it. As a scooter driver, you are able to drive between lanes, and are expected to drive on the left shoulder to pass cars in traffic. It can be like a video game at times. If someone ahead is turning right, all the traffic in back of that car will drive around it by veering over into the left shoulder … where the motorbikes are expected to drive. Sometimes people pulling into traffic from adjacent streets will nose out into the shoulder, forcing the motorbike driver to pull into the car lane or stop until the car pulls out. Sometimes, dogs lay in the street and sun themselves on the shoulder, so everyone has to drive around them. You never know what is going to happen. The key to driving in Thailand is to always be looking ahead and to stay focused on driving. I wish someone would explain this to the many Thai people who are actually texting and talking on the phone while driving a motorbike! I am always shocked to see some genius driving with one hand on the handlebar, looking at his or her phone, while texting with his or her thumb. I see it every day. I have also seen up to four adults on a motorbike at one time driving down the road and passing people. I tend to drive around 50 to 60 kilometers per hour on main roads, that’s between 30 and 40 miles per hour. That’s not too fast. I’m normally not the slowest person on the road, but definitely not the fastest. My estimate would be about a third of Thai people do not wear helmets or eye protection, even though it is required by law. There are often checkpoints where people are pulled over for not wearing helmets or possessing a proper license. The people who are in violation simply pay 200 baht to the police and go on their merry way. That’s about $6. If you are coming to Thailand on vacation, I would suggest that if you don’t have experience driving a two-wheeled vehicle that the streets of Thailand are not the place to learn. The motorbike rental places will rent a bike to anyone. All they ask for is a copy of your passport. Sometimes they’ll ask for your original passport, but I refuse to give it up. If they won’t take a copy, I move on to the next place. Normally, if you only give them a copy, they will also ask for a deposit. I would rather leave them 2-or-3 thousand baht than my passport. It’s usually returned to you unless you have an accident. In tourist areas, the motorbikes around you bear watching. The person driving next to you may be on vacation and may never have driven a motorbike before that day.

Every shopping mall has a special parking lot just for motorbikes. You typically drive through a security station, collect a small, plastic card and find a place to park. The card is returned to the attendant when you exit. There are hundreds of motorbikes in these lots at any given time. In the U.S., you see very few full-sized motorcycles in a parking lot, and maybe no scooters. U.S. traffic infrastructure doesn’t really support two-wheeled vehicles the way Asian countries do.

When you come to an Intersection, all the bikes will make their way to the front of the line. It looks like the world’s biggest scooter drag race is about to kick off. Once the light turns green, it also feels that way. Many of the drivers take off as fast as they can, jockeying for position for the next half-mile. Cars normally sit still for a couple of seconds until all the pesky motorbikes have pulled ahead. It’s like flies around cattle. One day while I was driving to the mall I got quite a surprise. I pulled up to the intersection to wait for the light to turn green, and a middle-aged Thai man was on the motorbike next to me. Suddenly, he looked at my white skin and the blonde hair on my arm and reached over and stroked it! I was a little shocked and looked at him with a quizzical stare and he just grinned at me and said, in English, “Very nice!” At that point, the light turned green, and I drove ahead wondering what had just happened.

You may think that the man was gay and was hitting on me in some bizarre way. It’s possible, but he may have also just been commenting on my skin and blonde hair. Thais have a tendency to point out things that most westerners would not. If you happen to be overweight, as I am, a Thai person will point that out to you during your first meeting. I admit I’m fat, but not huge. At 53-years old, I’m 5’ 10”, and weight about 220 lbs. My waist size is 38”, so there are many folks around who are bigger than me. To Thai people, being called fat isn’t necessarily considered an insult, it’s just a statement of fact. The Thai word for fat is pumpui. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve met someone, usually a woman, and the first thing they say is, “Oh, you pumpui!” Imagine being in a bar in the U.S., you introduce yourself to the lady at the bar enjoying her cosmo and the first thing after “Pleased to meet you.” Is “Oh, you’re fat!” For some reason, the only thing that seems to be taboo with Thai women is mentioning that they have dark skin. Nearly every beauty product you can rub into your skin contains skin whiteners. Even suntan lotion has skin lightening chemicals. So, if you have no desire to lighten your skin when you’re at the beach but don’t want to burn, bring your own suntan lotion from home. The interesting thing to me is that most Caucasian people spend their time at the beach trying to make their skin the same color as Thais have naturally. Thais on the other hand cover themselves from head-to-toe in order to avoid any sunlight in order to stay as light-skinned as possible. I guess everyone wants what they don’t have.


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