H.P. Saucecraft on Driving For Your Life In Rural Thailand
The Thais are not the worst drivers in the world, although they seem keen to give that impression.
They’re not even the worst in South East Asia; the feeling that Vietnamese road users are out to kill you is not without foundation, and the Cambodian understanding of the rules of the road is even sketchier than the Thai – going offroad through a jungle carpeted with landmines can sometimes seem the safer option in a country where road users on the wrong side of the road have precedence. Lao PDR only has one road, but abundance of good luck and an almost supernatural attentiveness is required to get from one end to the other. Or even across.
Thai drivers have a 360 degree blind spot. They will cheerfully drift across lanes, pull out, reverse, overtake and slew to a halt with zero awareness of other road users. Mirrors (in cars or on bikes) are used exclusively as personal grooming aids, allowing minute inspection of complexion flaws while parked in front of the Seven or speeding across an intersection. Why on earth would you want to look where you’ve been? What’s the point of that? The interiors of Thai cars and trucks are festooned with good luck talismans which work hard to compensate for the lethally obscured view. The really careful Thai driver never neglects to lift his hands from the wheel in a respectful ‘wai’ whenever he passes a temple – a friend of mine did this regularly, and heart-stoppingly, on a curved section of raised expressway in Bangkok. But the barely-suppressed urban road rage which infects some drivers in the capital is mostly absent out here in the sticks. Near misses result more often than not in exchanged smiles – that was lucky! – than punch-ups. But the white painted outlines of crashed vehicles on the streets of my home town are frequent reminders that you can’t be too careful.
The rule of staying alive on Thai roads is simple – the answer is yes. Is that clapped-out pick-up truck really going to slew across the road and force me into a crowd of schoolchildren waiting to cross? Yes. Is that cute girl really going to walk her scooter backwards into the traffic without so much as a glance? Yes. Is a nine-year old barefoot boy on a stripped Honda really going to shoot airborne across the main road from a farm track? Yes. Will that government officer flashing his Hilux headlights really smash into me headlong unless I drive into the ditch? Yes. Is that tuk-tuk really going to try to edge between me and the foodstand? Yes. Always allow for the worst possible scenario as the best and drive accordingly.
Rural Thais use motosai to carry anything that can be persuaded – even momentarily – to stay on. Trussed pigs and caged chickens, long bundles of pipework or bamboo, furniture, sacks of rice and cement, and of course the extended family. And some dogs standing upfront, preferably wearing T-shirts and sunglasses. Although six-up is much rarer here than in Cambodia, the sight of three girls nested on a Honda busily occupied with phone calls, iced coffees, and checking their make-up while swerving through what passes for rush-hour traffic is one of the routine pleasures of streetlife. If you’re at a safe distance. The business at hand – transportation – occupies the least part of their attention, if at all.
Thais have a vampire-like terror of sunlight, and will do anything short of wearing a hat to prevent it hitting their faces while riding a motorbike. Usually, holding a hand over their eyes is enough. In the absence of a pretty parasol, they will improvise protection using an electricity bill, school books (there are no other kind of books in Isaan), kitchenware, or clothing pulled right over the head. The risk of catapulting off because you can’t see where you’re going is rated a distant second to the unflattering effect of the sun’s rays on the skin, and this one-handed technique presents the farang driver with a whole new level of driving survival challenges.
Even empty roads (and they’re not exactly rare out here) aren’t an occasion to relax. To suggest that ninety-nine per cent of road construction funding disappears into local government officers’ and construction company bosses’ (usually the two are related, if not identical) trouser pockets would be the vilest insult and possibly something of an exaggeration, but the impression that Isaan roads are made by coolie-hatted labourers flattening a red dirt track with their bare feet before giving it a fine misting of black paint is hard to shift. In a landscape where water is always present, with roads necessarily raised on levées above the rice fields, the concept of drainage seems completely alien to the Thai mind. Thai “plumbers” have a touching faith in the ability of water to run uphill (it comes out of taps, right?). So the water moves, as water will, under the roadway, sucking great pot-holes out of it. Eventually someone may come along with a bucket of dirt, but the potholes’ continuous reappearance is seen as a baffling natural phenomenon about which nothing can be done. The occasional stretch of properly-built road (where the funding actually reached the works due to some administrative oversight) is cruelly deceiving, changing suddenly and without warning into a meteor-scarred lunar surface that will snap your shock absorbers like drinking straws, or, if you are crazed enough to be on a motorcycling holiday, separate you from your ride, possibly permanently.
Other features offer relief from the boredom of long cross-country drives. In addition to sink-holes of disaster movie proportions, Isaan roads boast knife-edge ridges of tarmac, where the roadway has melted and set into tyre-shredding waves. And then there’s the livestock – will that cow amble across the road right in front of you? Yes. And probably dragging a tether that will get caught in your suspension. Cows and buffalo, unlike Thai drivers, are very aware of your presence but do not give a damn. They have the divine right to go where they want and stand where they like, and they are quite solid enough to fold up the front of your truck like origami, so you do not want to hit one, not even for fun.
The gendarmes of my home town have a relaxed approach to motorcyclists not wearing helmets, in spite of the fading 100% HELMET posters on every other lamp-post. Basically we don’t have to, so we don’t. Twice a week the boys in brown set up roadblocks on the main road to make a few beer tokens from motorcyclists who have – incredibly – forgotten this regularly-observed ritual. The workaround which avoids this rigorous police initiative takes a continuous stream of bareheaded motorcyclists – as paperless as a Microsoft workspace – directly past two official buildings: the driving licence centre and the main police station.
I love this country.