Quoting his farang friend, a local lad said to me
recently, “Martin thinks you drive like a Thai”. Well, I know not to shoot
the messenger but even strenuous interrogation failed to reveal whether the
comment was complimentary or an indictment of my road manners.
I opted for the former, since my observations of Thai
driving during 30 years of holiday making and recently as a car owning
Chiang Mai resident have convinced me that the two as which dictate decent
driving (alertness and anticipation since you ask) are shown in abundance
Naturally, if I do drive like a Thai then it may be seen
simply as an example of when in Rome do as the Romans do. The flaw in that
remark is that today no-one but a fool would choose to drive in Rome. Not
even a get-away car. It’s safer by foot and quicker by moped. The exception
is Italian men, who love their cars. They jostle for their affections
alongside their Valentino trousers and mama’s home made pasta. I’ve long
admired their dexterity at being able to steer a car, adjust their crotch
and all the while remain tied to their mother’s apron strings.
Over here, the Thais are less concerned with vehicle
ownership. Cars are expensive and motorcycles a dangerous necessity. Some
prize their snazzy BMW or Mercedes but for most it is simply transport and
the ubiquitous pick-up a means to a livelihood. The result is scant regard
for the cleanliness of the vehicle, something that also applies to the
engine, adding to pollution in the city.
Driving seems quite relaxed, with drivers too busy
checking their make-up or chatting on mobile phones to indulge in road rage.
So it’s a possibility denied to visitors to Sri Lanka for example or to the
south Indian state of Kerala where a rodeo rider has more chance of
survival. In Chiang Mai the physical structure inhibits speeding at least
for four wheeled vehicles and the generally laid back atmosphere endorses
The same cannot be said of Bangkok nor - thanks to
visitors in silly jeeps and monster -sized motorbikes - in Pattaya. But for
most novices city driving can be undertaken with ease. Outside towns
different rules apply and the first one is to avoid driving during
celebratory days such as the King’s Birthday, when Thai manners also take a
Not that reckless overtaking is uniquely Thai, nor is a
reluctance to indicate. But the ability to insinuate and weave oneself
through fast traffic does have a special Thai feel to it. The eye is always
on the main chance for advancement and undertaking and tailgating become a
way of life.
In Chiang Mai this style somehow works. A short journey
from, say, Rincome to the night bazaar area will show that this calculated
meandering allows for a traffic flow than the congested roads should allow
for. The recent addition of barriers at junctions and u-turns has aided
this. Who knows what an accessible public transport system might do for us?
When I mentioned this topic to a couple of friends their
comments were refreshingly nationalistic. The Brit. asked me to mention his
abhorrence of shirtless farangs on motorcycles. This was not a beach town! I
agree, but the behavior is only one more manifestation of bad manners in the
face of the Thais more modest dress sense. What worries me more is the
disregard for speed they and their Thai counterparts show.
There, I’ve done it. The second friend - an Aussie- asked
me not to whine. Not to indulge in that characteristic they ascribe to all
us “whinging poms”. Sorry but I can’t but end on a sour note. For all the
skill of most road users, the give and take, the general obedience to road
signs and traffic lights, many drivers and most young motor cyclists are
Even in Italy, they have finally conceded that crash
helmets are no longer a fashion item to be worn casually from the left
wrist. Thais - equally vain or not - will have to follow suit or continue
dying needlessly. The same goes for the happy notion of driving three or
four to a bicycle made for two and to the use of mobile phones when driving.
Ditto for drunk-driving. The police might well adjust their work pattern and
stop homing in on morning commuter traffic to station themselves outside a
few discos at 3a.m.
All of this sounds hideously restrictive. Not “sanook”,
not Thai at all. The same was once said of seat belts in cars, Thais will
not take kindly to this invasion of their liberty, but the future holds no
alternative. And for those who think it does I’ll end on a small true story.
On the day I sat down to write this a young friend told
me that his brother had just been awarded 150,000 baht compensation
following an accident (he had not been wearing a helmet but the car driver
was considered reckless. A lot of money, I said. Yes he replied, a lot. But
he would sooner have his eye back.