Driving a Motorbike in Thailand

The stinging in my eyes rivals only the burning in my throat. The fumes from over fifty exhaust pipes comingle with the wood and oil smoke wafting from nearby eateries. If I were in a car, my air conditioning would filter most of this special cocktail of pollution from the atmosphere of my little steel and glass bubble. But I’m not in a car. I’m on a Honda Scoopy-i—a 110cc, Vespa-wannabe motorbike. And I have only a three-quarters helmet with a face shield to protect me.

Around me growls the collective idle of some 20 motorbikes. Bike models range from little mouse wheels like mine to beastly Ducati. Drivers include middle-aged Englishmen, young athletic Russians, schoolchildren, a family of three, two bar girls, an old American with a girl on the back, and many other variations. We all wait patiently for the green light, while a giant, white coach bus purrs behind us.

Every day I drive the dangerous streets of Pattaya and marvel at its diversity of hazards. It’s not enough that, unlike my British peers, I’m on a completely different side of the road. Everything is backwards for me. It’s also not enough that I’ve never driven a motorbike in my life, and never taken a proper class. Why foreigners like me think they can come to another country and straddle a motorbike without any safety training at all, let alone a motorcycle license, is a complete mystery. Why we also think that Thailand—a country that boasts the sixth highest accident rate in the world—is the place to do this, is simply astounding. That some of us don’t even bother to wear helmets is pure madness.

We foolish farang are only contributing to a collective problem. In this province, there are an average of three deaths a day from motorbike accidents. Many of our bad driving habits are mere mimicry of what we see Thais doing, like driving on sidewalks to beat the traffic light, or cutting off another cyclist to squeeze through a narrow passageway between two vans. But there are a plethora of contributors to the danger and frustration of driving the Thai motorways. The following are but a few.

 

Coach Buses

Every day and night, hundreds of coach buses packed with Korean and Chinese tourists barrel down Pattaya’s streets. One would think that the drivers responsible for wielding these double-decker juggernauts would need a special license, or at least demonstrate some driving skills. But they don’t. They’re rude, dangerous, and completely indifferent to the rules of the road and the safety of other drivers. They run red lights, turn where it’s too tight, change lanes without signaling or even checking if another motorist occupies that lane, and block intersections by turning during passive greens. And sometimes they follow motorbikes so closely I’d swear the bike is towing them.

And they breed. Seriously. Every day there are more and more of them. And there’s no limit to where they’ll go. They love to squeeze and wind through impossible alleys and side roads, farting their black, oil-laden exhaust fumes. (What’s maintenance again?) So if you’re on a motorbike and value the health of your lungs, don’t follow these behemoths too closely.

 

Songthaews

If there’s any kind of driver more aggravating than coach bus drivers, it’s the songthaew driver. A songthaew driver’s sole concern is revenue: picking up and dropping off passengers. He doesn’t care about the safety of other motorists, or even his own passengers, and cares for none of the rules of the road. When he sees potential passengers on the side of the road, he’ll cut across all lanes of traffic to get to them. As the passenger boards, he idles with his diagonally situated ass blocking all lanes of traffic from proceeding. Only motorbikes dare to squeeze by, and only at the risk of nearly being hit when he speeds carelessly back into traffic.

If you’re between him and a potential passenger, you’d better move or he will hit you. If you’re filtering on a motorbike, your most frequent obstacle will be a songthaew trying to reenter traffic from picking up or dropping off a passenger. If you’re driving fast, a songthaew will inevitably be driving slowly across all lanes. If you’re driving slowly, a songthaew will usually come speeding and honking behind you, and just brush your mirror as he passes. The only warning you can hope for is the whistling alarm passengers push to notify the driver of their stop. When you hear that, get the fuck out of his way.

 

Motorbike Vendors

It’s hard for me to be mad at anyone who is toiling to make a pittance, so it’s taken me a while to find fault with motorbike vendors. These are vendors who have had a crude sidecar welded to their motorbikes. Some of them house cooking gear, some of them carrying clothing, and some of them are empty skeletons in which wares and passengers are hauled. The problem is that they don’t really know what kind of vehicle they are anymore. They feel like a motorbike, but they’re almost as wide as a car. They demonstrate this ambivalence by playing Pac-Man with the lane lines. Cars can’t pass without overtaking, and motorbikes can’t filter. Sometimes, they also like to drive the wrong way down the road for a short distance. To their credit, however, they’re usually as aware of their awkwardness as a fat nerd at the prom, so they try to get out of the way as soon as is safely possible.

 

Jaywalking

As if we drivers don’t have enough to think about between motorbike vendors, coach buses, and songthaews, jaywalkers add even more unpredictability to the mix. You maneuver around that accursed coach bus, filter past the motorbike vendor, and just as you’re about to overtake the songthaew dragging to the side for a passenger, there’s a fucking farang and his girlfriend standing awkwardly in the middle of the street, throwing off your whole maneuver. They’re really bad on Beach Road, to the point where you have to just keep scanning the sides of the road. And they also drive the songthaews crazy because they look like potential fare. But we all jaywalk, so who am I to complain?

 

Craters

Thailand doesn’t exactly spend a lot of money on its roads. So with all the traffic, especially the heavyweight coach buses, you’re bound to come across all order of cracks, pits, potholes, drains, and bumps. In a car these are manageable. On a motorbike, you’re likely to lose your girlfriend off the back if you’re not careful.

 

Cars

These are motorbikes in jumbo size. They’re just as unpredictable, impatient, and careless. And their humanity is almost completely masked by their heavily tinted windows. They’ll pull out from a side street to cut you off, even though there’s no one behind you for 700 meters. They hate the coach buses and songthaews as much as anyone, and they’ll pull any maneuver, however reckless, to get around them. And some of them are just assholes. They deliberately hover over the lane line to discourage motorbikes from filtering around them. One car nearly wedged me between him and a parked coach bus because he didn’t want me to get around his slow-weaving ass.

 

So how does one drive safely in Thailand? Well, basically you don’t. But if you want to increase your life expectancy, drive slowly enough to be able to react to the unexpected, and fast enough to stay with the flow of traffic. The safest place for a motorbike is in the main lane of traffic in line with other cars. Don’t attempt to overtake, and only filter when traffic actually slows down. Keep scanning all parts of the road to anticipate hazards, and keep checking your mirrors so that you know what’s behind you when you need to react. Most importantly, keep your cool. Don’t get impatient, don’t get too frustrated, and take your time. Mai bpenrai!

On Fatherhood in Thailand

With my nice progressive Berkeley education, it’s often hard for me to accept that stereotypes exist for a reason. That is, they’re based loosely on truth. Stereotypes come from something true—from a trend among a group of people. Where they’re dangerous is in their practical usage; they’re dangerous because people use them to make judgments about people they don’t know. So having meditated on the nature of stereotypes for a moment, and pondered their validity in creation but injury in application, I hope my fellow progressives will forgive me for leaning on the following stereotype to explore a social problem in Thailand:

Thai men are stereotypically infamous for infidelity.

In other words, Thai men are widely known for being cheating bastards. It’s probably not true of every Thai man, but it’s true of most the ones I’ve bothered to get to know. It also seems to be true enough to make Thai women wary of settling down with a Thai man. According to popular belief, 60% of Thais are born women, and of the 40% remaining Thais that are men, many become ladyboys and a sizable percentage are gay. Since gay men and ladyboys seem much more prevalent than lesbians or transsexual men in this country, there’s a large imbalance between heterosexual men and women. Are you getting the picture yet? It means that, at least according to popular belief, men are statistically enabled to be polygamous.

I don’t know if these statistics are true. Again, they’re only the cultural perception. What I do know is that I’ve heard too many stories and seen too many situations where Thai men live up to the stereotypes and cultural expectations. They’re notoriously lazy, seldom helping raise their children, keeping their homes in order, or even working. I’ve heard stories of Thai couples in which the woman raises the children, cleans the home, cooks, and holds a steady job to pay the bills, while the man goes out to hunt for more “strange.” If these stories are even half as true and half as prevalent as the cultural perception suggests, then it is quite shameful.

But before we point our “righteous” Western fingers at Thai men, let’s look at the three bent fingers pointing back at us (namely farang men). Whenever I sit at an airport gate waiting for a plane headed to Bangkok, or whenever I go to immigration here in Thailand, I see a host of silver-haired, fattening, balding, wrinkling, middle- to upper-class old white men travelling alone. And we all think the same thing: “Hmm, I bet I know what they’re after…”

Is it hasty to assume that old, pasty white dudes are scandalizing young, tanned Thai beauties? Fuck no! I’ll grant that not all of them come here for this purpose. But as I’ve written in several posts about Pattaya now, I’m inescapably surrounded by this trend. And while many of these men are faithful and just need a young, beautiful woman to coddle them in their autumn years, many others ditch their tanned trophies for younger ones. Even worse, many of these men are married and have families back home.

If you think I’m being judgmental—if you think I’m making hasty assumptions about the men around Pattaya—you’re probably right. I don’t know their story or their capacity for love or fidelity. But I must admit that even I’m not immune to the temptation that is omnipresent in this city, or even this country overall. It takes a lot of willpower to avoid tripping and soiling myself in the gutters here.

Plus, I’ve seen Western infidelity take its toll on my students. Most of their mothers are Thai, usually between mid-30s and late 40s; most of their fathers are Western, often hovering around 70.

If you want proof of how little many of these Western fathers take a role in their children’s lives, look no further than their children’s language abilities: even though many of their fathers are native speakers of English, some of my students can’t understand a question as basic as “What is your name?” They know nothing of the land of their father’s citizenship—some don’t even know how to find it on a map. Some of my students mourn the death of their fathers during a school year—from natural fucking causes. They write essays about fathers that never go out, never spend time with them, and never take interest in them, not necessarily because they don’t care, but because they’re too fucking old to care. And that’s the long straw! The short straw is that some of their fathers have another family back home and never bother to see their illegitimate Thai children. They just keep writing the tuition checks from afar.

Some might say it’s the fault of some of the Thai women, who play the game of how-many-international-sponsors-can-I-accrue, and end up getting knocked up when one of said sponsors comes to visit them on holiday. But Thailand is no egalitarian country. If you’re a woman without a university education, you have very few options for income. You either open some kind of shop or restaurant, you work 60 hours a week for a corporate retailer, or you work the sex-capitalized night life and make easily double what you’d make on the other options, but at the sacrifice of your dignity and sexual health. The only other viable option is to find a well-to-do foreigner and marry him.

And I can’t entirely blame Thai men, either. Legally, men have no parental rights in Thailand. When your legal code invalidates the role of fatherhood, how can anyone expect men to step up? If you have no parental rights, you have no child support, so there’s nothing keeping you from cutting and running. If you have no parental rights, you legally don’t have a child, and you therefore don’t have any legal responsibility to take care of your children. It doesn’t justify being a dirt bag, but it certainly reinforces the dirt-bag mentality.

So what is fatherhood in Thailand? Often, it’s a fucking joke—a joke with no punch line at the end, only poverty. It’s the delinquency of fathers that bolsters my respect for women in this country. So rare have I met women so dedicated to their families, so hard working, so nurturing, and so resilient. Here, the weakness of men amplifies the strength of women. And that’s the only good I can find in it all.

People Who Ain’t Got Time for #TheDress

Yesterday I posted a Facebook comment criticizing this whole what-color-is-the-dress obsession with a bit of dark humor. Now I’d like to expound on the main conceit of that criticism, with a bit of a spotlight on issues facing Thailand. Please understand, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with frivolous twitter debates per se. But since CNN has dedicated 5 news articles to this “phenomenon,” I’m now going to use it and all the attention it’s grabbing to re-shift our focus to things that matter. So here’s a quick list of some people who ain’t got time for #TheDress.

Fishing Slaves

Burmese migrant workers leave the port

My guess is they’re more interested in how to get out the exploitive situation they’ve been thrust into so they can once again see their family. I’m also guessing they don’t have smart phones.

African Miners

africanminers

The closest they probably get to the debate about the color of the dress is the rare earth metals that provide the electronic capacity for the debate to even occur on your phone. Don’t thank them—they do this for free because they love it.

Sweatshop Workers

sweatshop11

Yeah, they already know the color of the dress, because they’re the ones that made it. (Oh yeah, I went there)

Guantanamo Bay Detainees

gitmo

Ok, this is a technicality. They actually do contemplate the dress, but only because they fear it might be used in their next waterboarding session.

Aung San Suu Kyi

Aung San Suu Kyi visit to Berlin, Germany - 10 Apr 2014

I bet she likes dresses as much as the next gal, but shit’s a bit volatile in Myanmar right now, and she’s gotta think about an upcoming presidential election in which she’s constitutionally disqualified.

Mark Twain

MarkTwain

Ok, that’s not fair—he’s dead. But if he were alive and in the twittersphere he’d be eye-rolling the fuck out of this mass stupidity.

Yingluck Shinawatra

9153ri-Yingluck_Shinawatra

I think she’s too busy contemplating her fate as Thailand’s ousted and indicted late prime minister. If she is contemplating the dress, she’s probably hoping it isn’t remotely yellow.

Political Prisoners*

A prisoner

While we’re on the topic, plenty of people have been arrested and held without trial due to nasty interpretations of lèse-majesté laws in Thailand. They, along with every other political prisoner on the planet, probably don’t give a flying fuck about the dress.

*Unfortunately, if I provide links to articles explaining this issue in detail, I could get my blog taken down and possibly even join their number. If you’re reading from an IP address outside Thailand, do a little google search on Thailand’s lèse-majesté laws.

Syrian Refugees

Syrian refugees

Seriously, why as a nation aren’t we still talking about these people now that we’re barrel bombing their country?

Of course this list isn’t exhaustive. If you have any suggestions of people to add to this list, please post them below.