Saturday, October 31, 2009

And You Thought California Traffic was Bad

Quick, what are the first things that come into your mind when you think about driving in Bangkok?  What did you come up with?  Pollution?  Never-ending traffic jams?  Car horns blaring incessantly?  Well, I'm here to tell you to toss out all of your preconceived notions of what it's like to guide a motor vehicle through the highways and byways of Thailand.  Our experience has been a little bit different.

Okay, driving here is not all sunshine, lollipops, and rainbows, but it's not as bad as many people might think.  A proper disclaimer is probably warranted here.  We lived in California for six years, during which time I spent an inordinate amount of time driving on the Bay Area highways which schooled me in the fine art of changing lanes and allowing others to merge in heavy traffic.  I refused to allow four years of driving on the Washington, DC area Capital Beltway to undo all of those lessons.  What I'm saying is that my concept of what constitutes "bad traffic" might be distinctly different than yours, which no doubt colors my perception of driving outside of the United States.  With that caveat in place...

There are a lot of vehicles on the road here.  Metropolitan Bangkok has about 15 million residents, so of course there are a lot of people on the road.  Traffic on the surface streets can get very congested, especially after it rains and some places flood, but from what I've been told it's much better than it was even ten years ago.  Bangkok has an above ground commuter train--called the SkyTrain, oddly enough--that has helped ease congestion, and a system of elevated expressways has also moved a lot of traffic off the surface roads.

That said, I find the way traffic here moves to be almost beautiful, when it's moving.  What appears to be chaos is something more akin to flowing water.  I know my parents can appreciate it, as can many others who have lived and driven outside in Asia.  Traffic just seems to flow, like water.  All available space is open for driving.  Sure, there are three lanes marked, but why bother when you can get five cars abreast in that spot?  As one of our neighbors so eloquently noted, on her last visit to the United States she said, "we'd all get there a lot faster if you'd just let me drive in the emergency lane!"  If you need to merge into another lane, you put on your turn signal (usually) and you start moving over.  Most often, as long as you do it with the same flow/speed of the surrounding traffic, you'll make it in without so much as a scratch, bump, or...wait for it...wait for it...a horn honk.

Bangkok's conspicuous lack of car horns blaring was almost immediately noticeable to me.  I've been in traffic that appears similar in Phnom Penh (Cambodia) and Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam), but in those places they use the car horn like government agencies use their budgets (use it or lose it).  Not so in Thailand.  Horns in Thailand are used almost exclusively when someone pulls an extremely rude or dangerous maneuver, otherwise upsetting the unspoken order.  It's amazing.  Amazingly quiet.

Driving on the left-hand side of the road isn't really as difficult as you might imagine.  It's definitely much easier when everyone else is doing it, though.  I've also found that it's a bit easier when the steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car.  It's also much easier to pay the nice toll-booth people when you are sitting on the right-hand side.  The biggest challenge so far has been getting a feel for how much clearance I have on the passenger (left-hand) side of the car.  It was interesting a couple of weeks ago while I was traveling in the northeast provinces that it suddenly dawned on me that it felt perfectly normal to be on the left side of the road.  Weird, yet cool.

One big challenge that you cannot escape are the motorcycles.  They are everywhere, and they buzz in and out and around the cars, not unlike gnats at a family picnic.  When traffic comes to a stop for one of Bangkok's uber-long red lights, the motorcycles all weave their way up to the front of the queue.  That doesn't bother me, really, but when I'm looking to change lanes or make a turn and I've got one (or more!) motorcycles right next to me, it makes me nervous.  Nervous for them, of course, because the laws of physics dictate that when a motorcycle tangles with a car, even my mini minivan, the motorcycle loses every time.

Ninety-nine percent of the cabs here are Toyota Corollas.  And they are very easy to spot, because they are very brightly colored.  Pink, orange, blue, yellow, green, and some combination of those colors.  Some years ago the government mandated that all cabs and buses convert to natural gas--this has helped reduce the amount of pollution, but with 15 million people, the air quality in Bangkok can still get pretty nasty.  Now, as if a Toyota Corolla didn't already have limited trunk-space, most of their trunk is already occupied by the gas cylinder that makes the car go.  Usually this is not a problem, since most people using a cab in and around Bangkok aren't carrying a ton of stuff, but let's just say the Soderborgs won't be taking a cab to the airport for their next vacation.  Although, before we got our mini minivan, we did load all seven of us into a cab on two occasions, because we quite simply had to be somewhere.  Never again, at least not if I can help it.  Have I mentioned that they aren't so big on the seatbelt/child seat thing here?

The other day on the way home a police car came up from behind, lights flashing and siren blaring.  Following immediately in the wake of the police cruiser (another Toyota Corolla, by the way) was a big, black Mercedes, which was obviously carrying someone important because all the windows were tinted so nobody could see inside the car.  Now that in and of itself isn't all that funny--the funny part was that they both had to stop and pay the toll to use the expressway.  The only people who never have to pay the tolls are members of the royal family--and when they are traveling, the entire road gets shut down until they pass through.  Terribly inconvenient, sometimes.

One last note.  I just want to say how proud I am that Mali did not hesitate to join in the fun.  Within days of getting our car from Japan she was out and about driving around because she refused to let the prospect of driving on the "wrong" side of the road deter her from getting done what needed to be done.  Way to go, honey!

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