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The art of driving in Thailand

A vast gymkhana.

I would like to start with a general remark, and give a positive tone to my observations of the traffic in Thailand: “Driving in this country is a permanent obstacle race, punctuated with thousands of dangers. However, I have no hesitation in preferring the local driving freedom to the coercive rules making the Western roads safer”. For the rest, riding a motor bike is as risky as life.

Even anecdotic, the description of traffic problems is not inconsequential. It is easy to digress into social criticism of different customs and behaviours, or to put a joke on the hecatomb of causalities.  To follow the middle path of realism and objectivity is a difficult approach and I do not claim  success with my narration, founded on personal observations, experiments and emotions.

Here is an unsorted account of “generalizations” collected during my twenty years of  survival on the roads of Siam. They are among the most dangerous in the world, but also offer, especially in North, the most extraordinary journeys on motor bikes.

For foreigners, the first difficulty is the direction of the circulation. It is mostly a left-hand traffic.  However, even citizens of the Anglo-Saxon countries, in which circulation is always on that side, are surprised by the number of exceptions.

This is not the only point of amazement for aliens. Any surface can be used to drive, on the side and following the mood and opportunity of the moment.  Foot-ways are used by vehicles and highway lanes serve as parking. The definition of  “road users” is also broad, it includes elephants, gigantic lorries, frail pedestrians and timid cyclists, as well as motorcyclist and cars testing the limits of their performances.

All intermingle or gently fight on the same tracks. In this apparent disorder, a good level of composure, affability or perhaps resignation prevails. There is little aggressiveness  and almost no noise of horns.

Behaviour wise, one needs to think out of the limited box of traffic laws. Anyway, if such a code really exists, nobody knows it and worries about it. Some “consensual rules” provide help to ensure a minimum of fluidity between the users. For instance, it is important to avoid collisions with vehicles driving in front and to give priority to the biggest, the most prestigious and the boldest.

Other “postulates” are based on observations of driving behaviors. Speed is not limited by a panel, but by the technical constraints of the vehicles and dexterity of the drivers. The “law of universal gravitation” and the “square root of reaction time” are little known, apart from victims of accidents. Unfortunately they passed away without sharing their experiences. At speeds over one hundred kilometers an hour, a vehicle lead distance as short as one meters is a “suspended death sentence”. The slightest incident will immediately  revoke it!

The chronicle of “indulgences” includes many other idiosyncrasies. Markings give an air of modernity to the roads, they have no further utility. To be attentive to others, to be seen and to react properly, is the usual way to avoid accidents. This works well in many cases, even if frequent exceptions feed the statistics of casualties. Exaggerated speed (vision too late to react), heedlessness (vision impaired by  alcohol or illegal substances) and missing lamps (headlights also help to be seen by others) are the main human obstacles to reduce the “body count” on the asphalt.

Other “driving aids”, like traffic lights, help to regulate the crossing of vehicles in a nearly effective way. It is enough not to be color blind, inattentive or “high” to consider a stop. The waiting cycles are generally long and foster a filling gymkhana, between cars, by the smallest users, particularly the two wheelers. Attracted by the vacuum, they zigzag and penetrate, like a fluid between interstices. The aim is not only to go to the front, but to reach pole position. Jostling, the boldest dominate the “battle ground”, sometimes till the middle of the intersecting lane. In the back, the tangle becomes more complicated seconds after seconds, till the “green light” liberation. Amazed observers will then contemplate the dissolution, usually with few causalities, of an apparently inextricable Gordian knot.   People not ready to join the “forward stream” have a high risk of suffocation. No engine is turned off and the heavy lorries, with badly regulated carburetors, reject their emanations at nostrils levels. If they were cigarette packs, they would bear the compulsory label: ” my smoke kills”.

“Jai yen yen” – In cold blood on the streets.

Through urban dwellings, the network of Thai roads is broad and comfortable. Four, six, eight lanes are  standard, generally with an insuperable central wall. These constraints of the fast traffic require escape possibilities, like the occasional regulated intersections and the omnipresent “U-turns”. During their manoeuver, large lorries block two or three tracks, whilst others are satisfied with slightly less, but all inconsiderately cut the road of speeding motorcycles. Two wheelers start fast and gallop ahead of the pack, becoming privileged targets of the “u-turner”, little impressed by light vehicles.

Excess speed on streets passing cities and villages are amazing realities. In Western countries the limits would be around fifty kilometers per hour. A lack of control equipment, like speed radars, leaves it to the unconsciousness or recklessness of the road hogs to fix the standards. In populated areas,  meters marking a hundred twenty kilometer per hour only wear out brakes and the nerves of the other drivers.

Among my preferred aberrations are the apertures authorizing perfidious “X-turns” toward the opposite lane (a “U-turn” in the wrong direction). This allows all sort of users to drive against the flow. Moving at the right place, you are supposed to see and approve the tactic of your opponents and avoid to collide with the culprits. Even vehicles heading in the same direction are a challenge to mindfulness. At any moment they might bent  right or left, without a former signal, even not realizing that they have a rear view mirror. It is important to be constantly aware of this “possibility”, but if a sign is given, by a flash indicator or a stretched arm , it becomes an immediate “certitude”. The driver will instantaneously cut the way, without concern about ongoing traffic operations. I had the opportunity to verify this assertion when a motorcycle cut my way, at right angle, letting me taste the tarmac. The hit-and-run driver quickly vanished, without worrying about how I would raise my chopper with a broken clavicle.

Another disconcerting operation is a right bent preceding a left curve into a side road. This unannounced  “zigzag” allows to enter, at relatively high-speed, into a narrow crossroad,  without risking to chip the car. If a driver, in a following vehicle, had intended to overtake on the left side (a frequent ploy) he will be lucky to avoid a smash and remain at least perplex.

In the chapter of forgotten street users, we can count the pedestrians. They are treated as pariah and I wonder that there are still some around. To cross the roads they run for their lives, facing the vehicles like bullfighter. It is vital to avoid protected zones (zebra stripes) providing a fallacious sense of safety, source of fatal issues. Traffic lights give a provisional harbor for them, but motorists quickly move off after a group has crossed the lane without awaiting the green light. Latecomer, trying to rush through the place, are considered suicidal.

Traffic lights, nevertheless, command a certain level of respect, but with a broad tolerance margin. A minimum of two or three vehicles will accelerate and pass the red light, before someone thinks about stopping. Depending on the speed and the size of the vehicles, this figure can increase considerably, until it event blocks the green wave of the opposite side. The lamps themselves are often in a pernicious or unexpected way, for instance very high, at cables crossing the horizon. The alternative between “starring at the sky” or concentrating on the preceding vehicles, is a risky choice. In addition, the lights regulating the straight lanes and the right or left one are frequently twinned on a panel. Thrusting the color, without focusing on the arrows, is a straight way to collisions.

Road users in Thailand (and I include foreigners ecstatic of their new freedom), remember the theorem defining a straight line as the shortest way linking two points. Opportunities to apply this are many. A “one way” street, for example, is hardly worth a trip around . Other widely accepted practices are the famous “X-turns” (driving against the flow), sharp cuts in the opposite lanes whilst “negotiating” curves, crossing at right angle through four tracks of a highway, and so on. We are in the country of tolerance and all surfaces, adequate for circulation, are open to everybody, as long as they are able to  fight for survival. The principle of natural selection leads to witness all kind of casualties, sometimes minor but far to often fatal. Columns reporting “death of dogs” in newspapers, would darken many pages. Nevertheless, dead animals are no real threat to motorists. The true plague, are beasts pushed by their karma to suddenly cross the road, particularly when a two-wheeler is approaching.

Creativity can be expected and feared when Sunday drivers are involved. On the other hand, one should be able to rely on the skills and behavior of professional drivers and public transportation. This is by far not the case and they are not more trustworthy. This group of people are prone to create accidents as they wear the burden of an explosive cocktail, combining nonchalance, pressure to carry out many trips, badly maintained vehicles, tiredness and stimulants. Countless journeys end up against obstacles, in collision with other users or in a ravine. I am also very cautious about the load of trucks. The stuff is often loosely  attached and prompt to release itself on the road. I once experienced a flight of a dozen of wooden palettes, jumping against me on a highway. My reaction time, to curb to the other lane, was close to the limit.

And yet they are moving!

All users and all roads are not equal as far as accidents are concerned. Whilst stuck in the legendary Bangkok traffic congestions, the main risks are suffocation and poisoning through carbon monoxide. In the countryside bewilderness prevails. At any moment a horde of animals might occupy the tracks of a road, also used to dry rice and vegetables or to trail home drunkards (on foot, motor bike or in a coffin). Another “lively” feature is the quality of the pavement, when potholes make place to “pig bathtubs”, with uncertain depth, filled with water from the last downpour. As most of the roads are in good conditions, degraded sectors come unexpected. “Work in progress”, on the bitumen, is generally marked by large tree branches, more perilous for motorcycles than the holes themselves. The same stalk is used to signal vehicle breakdowns. It is usually “forgotten” on the spot after the incident is cleared.

In the center of Bangkok, the traffic slowdown is an effective protection, not against accidents globally (as the capital is the largest contributor to them) but against their gravity. In addition, rescue services are efficient, with a dense network of ambulances competing for every corpse.  The nearly deserted back tracks of remote countryside are also quite safe. The heaviest tribute in human lives is paid by the capital’s suburbs and the other large cities. The flourishing  Chiangmai, with its teenage students population, the “Hi-So” of Bangkok in secondary residences, the emigrated workers from nearby Burma and an important quota of tourists, often makes it to the top of the obituary hit list.

Touring Isan (the  North-East) for more than 3000 kilometers on a motorcycle I have not seen a single accident and not crossed a single crushed dog (this is quite unusual). Just back to Chiangmai I  saw a car having struck a tree, in the perimeter of my residence. The driver was probably dormant, in the middle of the day. A taxi driver also told me that he made a trip to recover a motorcyclist in the mountains who felt asleep whilst biking.

My account of generalized anecdotes does not give an exact depiction of the reality. All Thais (or foreigners in Thailand) do not drive in an inappropriate way. It is worth to acknowledge their equanimity when they thwart the road impediments, keeping a regular course and their smile. However, some listed individual behavior or local practices are astonishing, sometimes amusing, but often dangerous (as demonstrated by the casualties statistics (1)).

“Make no mistake  – the Thais are not the only people in the world who have bad driving habits. However, they could drive in a far better way … the inhabitants of Thailand are very gifted in handling motor vehicles. In which other country can one see a drunken 14 years old girl “zigzagging” on a 50 cc motorcycle while speaking on the mobile phone with his friends sitting “Amazon” on the back seat with a terrified puppy in the arms? They should not be in the street, but in the circus.”
(3) Olivier Benjamin

I personally saw such a situation. I could not swear that the girl was drunk, but all other elements were in the picture.

Next post (second part): The roots of the disorder –  Means to cut the hecatombs – Personal conclusions and prevention measures.

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(1 )  Songkran’s (the Thai New Year) “seven dangerous days” ended with 373 deaths and 4,332 injuries in 3,977 road accidents nationwide.

Motorcycles were the vehicles most involved in road accidents, about 82 per cent of all vehicles. The biggest cause of accidents was drunken driving (40.66 per cent), followed by speeding (19.96 per cent).

A total of 5,271,977 drivers and motorcycle-riders were examined at checkpoints nationwide. Of those, 408,020 were cited for violating the law, including 137,806 for driving without a licence and 136,772 for not wearing a helmet.

The Nation  2009-04-18
http://www.thaivisa.com/forum/Songkran-Traffic-Deaths-Up-Injurie-t258549.html
accessed september 2009

(2) The Outsider’s guide to Thailand, Olivier Benjamin. Bangkok books, 2005

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The original post was publish in French: http://wp.me/ppkTL-1U
It was translated into English with the support of Yahoo Babel Fish.

On the right path, each step is a journey.

The shaman said:
“you must not eat cow’s meat … Think of the ox. A strong, handsome animal. He helps man in the fields and on the road. To eat him you must kill him. That meat enters into you and turns you, too, into a murderer.”

(1) A Fortune – Teller Told Me, Tiziano Terzani, Flamingo 1998

I decided, a few years ago, not to consume Bovine meat anymore. No justification or explanation of this choice is needed as it was not founded on a dogma nor is it an indoctrination, nothing esoteric, but a banal personal reflexion. In spite of its limited practical impact it is a positive intention and, “on the right path, each step is a journey”.

The year of the ox (2) gives me the opportunity to make an apologia of this symbolic animal and to demystify my resolution. It was not without consequences on my entourage. My friends were  amused and adapted, in my presence, some gastronomical practices, even the selection of some restaurants. They accepted this change without skepticism, mocking remarks or proselytism.

My determination goes back to a time with a widespread epidemic of  the “mad cow” disease. There was no relation for me to this epizooty, however, fear to contract the Creutzfeldt-Jakob illness was an acceptable “à priori” for giving up eating ox. Personally, I was geographically far away and not sensitive to sanitary arguments about the devastations of a disease having particularly touched the United Kingdom.

A posteriori, I discover many arguments speaking in favor of a reduction in meat consumption globally. These elements, however, were not part of my decision at that time, as it was only based on a daily life’s anecdote.

When traveling the countryside of Thailand, I often stop my motor bike to appreciate and photograph the rice plantations with there random patches, delicate color shades, reflections and undulations who never fail to fill me with admiration. Everywhere, busy families of peasants punctuate the landscape with their indigo colored costumes. Now and then, small huts with thatched roofs of broad foliages, offer a precarious shelter to rest and eat. Strangers passing-by are greeted with broad smiles and any question related to the meal will immediately trigger a proposition to share it. Knowing the fondness of farmers to consume all kinds of animal proteins, from the more crawling to everything winged and flying, I generally avoid to accept this charming custom. It is then enough to tap its belly to signify that one just leaves table and is already “full”.

Without going as far as tasting the food, I am always interested to know about the the contents of the dishes. Traditionally, meals were wrapped in banana leaves, modernism has often replaced them with plastic bags. A merry hubbub introduces me to the delicacies of the day and the alternatives seasonally available according to the success of huntings and harvesting.

Communication is done with laughter and conspirator’s onomatopoeias, punctuated by the questions: “can you eat this?”. With some practice, everything can be eaten. Rodents, inhabitant of the rice plantations, and many kind of insects are delicacies. If a little money is available, poultry, ducks, pigs and shrimps will  enhance the daily repast. Pointing toward a beast of burden, I get reprobative pouts. No! Not the ox, it is a sin, this animal has value, he brings us his assistance in the fields and on the roads.

In the West, we do not consume our pets, dogs and cats are saved from butchers, sometimes even the rabbits, tortoises and other playmates. An Asian farmer can have similar feelings towards its work companions. His respect of the buffalo, the cow and other bovine family members combines a practical and a sentimental value. It is not only founded on the teaching of the Buddha (3), which protects any living being, but a personal conviction anchored in the heart of many peasants.

This attitude seduced me and I adopted it. This is not a crucial renunciation, however no stone is too small to build a road, no contribution is unimportant if the intention is positive, “on the right path, each step is a journey”.

Later on, some research and readings devoted to the environment reinforced my conviction about the adequacy of my choice. Beef has a low conversion efficiency of feed to meat proteins. The process is also intensive in water consumption and the extension of bovine breeding has catastrophic effects in certain countries. In Brazil, it contributes largely to the destruction of the Amazon forest (4,5). Perhaps more humorous, a serious study of the Australien government recommends the replacement of beef by the meat of kangaroos. The bovine emit significant amounts of methane, a polluting gas for the atmosphere (6).

Recently, the film “Home” of Yann Arthus-Bertrand (7) highlighted, for a large public, the harmful effects of certain excesses. Among the quoted examples were the consumption of 30′ 000 liters of water wasted for the production of one kilo of beef, and the use of half of cereals marketed in the world for animal food and the production of fuel.

Finally, it is also necessary to distinguish the religious interdicts, in particular in hinduism. The backgrounds are similar as the cow was protected by the Brahmans for his utility and its symbol as a source of life. It became thus taboo to kill this animal. The farmers, on the other hand, do not act because of a prohibition but through compassion.

This approach allured me some years ago. It was of course a very small step. Becoming totally vegetarian would probably be much better … and, why not?

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(1)  A Fortune – Teller Told Me, Tiziano Terzani, Flamingo 1998

(2)  A New Chinese year began on January 26, 2009 and finishes on February 13, 2010. This year is placed under the sign of the buffalo (or ox),  one of the 12 animals of the Chinese zodiac.

(3) This attitude is not ordered by Buddhism which prohibits to kill, but not to consume the majority of the meats, if the animal was not killed specifically to be offered as a meal to the monk.

(4) Three or four reasons why eating beef might become the subject of open social disapproval:
its highly energy-intensive (the energy required to produce one kilogram on a table in the UK is among the highest for any foodstuff) its water consumption is big (instant data from Fred Pearce’s book: 11,000 litres “to grow the feed for enough cow to make a quarter pound [100g] hamburger” – compared with 500 litres for a kilo of potatoes) commercial beef ranching creates a monoculture – and can even lead to desertification of the area.
http://thenextwavefutures.wordpress.com/
http://thenextwavefutures.wordpress.com/2007/05/24/beef-starting-on-the-road-to-disapproval/ (accessed in September 2009)

(5) The past three years have been the most destructive in the Brazilian Amazon’s history. In 2004 26,000 sq km of rainforest were burned: the second- highest rate on record. This year could be worse. And most of it is driven by cattle ranching.
George Monbiot The Guardian, Tuesday October 18 2005

(6) Professor Ross Garnaut, the man asked by the Federal Government to help save the planet and reduce the impact of climate change, has published a 620-page report, which forecast higher electricity, gas, food and petrol prices for us all, predicted that unless a way is found to reduce livestock methane emissions, that iconic Australian animal, the kangaroo, could become a regular feature on our dinner plates.
Garnaut warned that food prices will rise to a point where households will move away from traditional beef and lamb, eat more chicken and pork and re-runs of Skippy will start being shown on the Food Channel.
There are an estimated 1.5 billion cattle on the planet, their four-chamber, bacteria-filled guts generating more than 100 million tonnes of methane, about 20 per cent of the emissions thought to be contributing to global warming.

Kangaroos, apparently, are far more polite dinner guests. “Australian marsupials emit negligible amounts of methane from enteric fermentation,” wrote Garnaut, who added that scientific modelling shows the potential for big reductions in our sheep and cattle numbers. These could be replaced at the same time by expanding the present population of kangaroos from 34 million to 240 million within 12 years.
http://www.garnautreview.org.au/chp24.htm
http://www.garnautreview.org.au/domino/Web_Notes/Garnaut/garnautweb.nsf
http://www.dailytelegraph.com.au/news/roo-not-for-our-bland-palates/story-e6frezz0-1111117646351
(accessed in September 2009)

(7) “Home” Yann Arthus-Bertrand, June 5, 2009 . Movie presentented worldwide, on multiple media, for the World Environment day.

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