By Andrew Biggs
It’s not often that your correspondent crosses a road on foot.
This is not because he doesn’t like walking, nor does he possess a private helicopter for short hops to the mini-mart to pick up lemons and tonic water.
It is more because crossing a road is usually done by pedestrian footbridge, of which Bangkok allegedly has the most of any city in the world, thanks to the chaotic nature of the unyielding, frenetic traffic below.
But this week your correspondent found himself witness to a curious Thai custom as he embarked on that hairiest of activities, that is, crossing the road on a zebra crossing.
It all began after I found himself in a Thonglor mall half a kilometre from my desired destination. For that I must apportion part of the blame to Google Maps, which sometimes goes awry and leads me to Fake Destinations, a nephew of Donald Trump’s Fake News.
Being a rainy-free Monday night I decided to walk the distance. It would save time, since it would be faster than driving it, plus I would reach my daily Fitbit goal of 5,000 steps. Yes, I know, everybody else’s daily goal is 10,000 steps. Well if everybody else ran naked down Silom Road, would I have to do the same?
It was on that evening stroll there and back, during which I had to cross the busy Soi Thonglor street, that I notice that curious ritual: Thai pedestrians on a zebra crossing thank the drivers who stop for them, by way of a quick nod as they make it to the other side.
Blink and you’ll miss it. There is a brief smile and a nod of the head. On the surface it is charming, and another feather in the cap of the Thais, the most courteous people on earth.
Alas, I am one who likes to scratch the surface, and that is where it ends in tears. So disturbed was I by this action after deep contemplation that it affected my entire evening, even to the point where I accidentally walked an extra 300 metres past my destination, resulting in my Fitbit having the computer program equivalent of an orgasm.
If you are a relative newcomer to Thailand, you need to know some fundamental do’s and don’ts here. I will not infringe on the territory of Lonely Planet or the Tourism Authority of Thailand. I do have one thing you need to know that will save your life — and I’m not talking about marrying that woman with the sick buffalo. That will result more in deceased retirement savings than your own death.
I’m talking about zebra crossings.
Zebra crossings in Thailand perform a single function; and that is to break up all that boring black you see on the roads.
In the three decades I have been in Thailand, there has been no serious attempt to educate drivers to stop at them. Drivers, thus, ignore them. In the frantic race to get to one’s destination, the need to stop for a pedestrian is counter-productive.
Now and again there is a well-meaning campaign which lasts for a good two or three days. Last year Thammasat University students stood on zebra crossings holding up banners explaining it was illegal to ignore them. It reminded me of tortured souls in front of oncoming trains. I am guessing those students by now have graduated and are getting on with their lives, their campaign nothing more than a fading memory — as it is with drivers.
Back in 2015 it was announced with great fanfare by the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration that white squiggly lines would be drawn on roads all over Bangkok. This was because lots of really progressive civilized cities had them, and they made drivers prepare to stop at zebra crossings. Sydney and London, for example, were full of white squiggly lines.
So too were Stockholm and Copenhagen. If Bangkok roads had white squiggly lines, then it proved it was progressive and civilized too.
Sydney. London. Stockholm, Copenhagen. Bangkok.
Can you spot the odd one out? Let me give you a hint; four of them feature drivers who stop at zebra crossings. One of them has drivers who speed up at the mere thought of them.
A squiggly line ain’t gonna stop a Bangkok driver. They don’t stop for anybody. Ambulances … pregnant ladies … the disabled? Not while I’m behind the wheel!
I once wrote a travel guide for Thailand in my first year in the country, gathering information for rookie foreign travelers. When it came to writing about getting around Bangkok, I wrote what I thought to be a succinct yet invaluable and perhaps life-saving paragraph:
“In Bangkok, zebra crossings serve no function other than to break up the blackness of the streets; they are pretty white lines on the road but that is all. Don’t for a minute think anyone will stop if you step onto one.”
What excellent advice for tourists coming from cities such as Sydney, London, Stockholm or Copenhagen. I felt more than a little holier than thou as I sent the story off to my Thai editor, Khun Veerachai, for perusal before being laid out on the page. If I could save just one life, then my article had been well worth the precious time I took to write it. Sanctimony is not one of my recently-developed character traits.
“Khun Veerachai would like to see you in his office kha,” his mousy yet polite secretary came over and said to me not a few hours later. “Now … kha.<<
I was still feeling pious when I entered my Editor’s office where I saw a print-out of my story on his desk, and a look of inclement weather on Khun Veerachai’s face.
“This paragraph about the zebra crossings. Can I delete it?” he asked.
“What do you mean?” I asked dramatically.
“It doesn’t really portray Bangkok in a good light, does it?” he said, choosing his words with the same care a durian aficionado chooses his first fruit of the season.
He went on to explain that my story would portray Bangkok drivers as brazen, wide-eyed sociopaths who’d stop for nothing, let alone a pedestrian.
Piety shrivels up and dies in the face of reputation. I put up a good fight, but in the end there was no way I could win. The lives of pedestrians needed to take second place to Thailand’s image, and the paragraph was deleted.
Twenty-five years have passed, and if Bangkok drivers were brazen wide-eyed sociopaths in 1990, what are they now? Is there a word for “brazen times ten”?
And yet despite being roundly ignored, zebra crossing keep popping up on our streets — often in tourist places. Why is that? Perhaps if we didn’t paint them on our roads, we would look like some under-developed nation and that would make us look bad on the international stage. Perhaps the government is keen on making us a hub for zebra crossings or, more recently, squiggly white lines.
What is the relationship between a zebra crossing and a squiggly line anyway?
It’s a psychological ploy. Apparently when you approach squiggly lines, you are led to believe the road is narrowing and that makes you slow down. At least it works like that in Sydney, London, Stockholm and Copenhagen, so it should work here.
Never assume anything, dear reader. First of all, this trick relies on the expectation that drivers have their eyes on the road. Bangkok drivers gaze intermittently at the road ahead but that is in between Line messaging, checking Facebook pages, watching soapies on the TV screen mounted just to the left of driver’s seat, and painting one’s fingernails.
Second, how can a squiggly line go up against a deep-seeded, ingrained desire to ignore zebra crossings for fear of having to slow down?
I know; I tried it once.
I was driving along Sukhumvit Road where there was a zebra crossing. I would normally have ignored it except that as I approached, a group of school students had already stepped off the kerb and was on the white lines.
I momentarily forgot myself; perhaps I was reminiscing about Sydney, or London, or Abba or Hans Christian Anderson. Whatever the reason, I slowed down. And stopped.
What transpired was a tirade of intimidation as the man in the pick-up truck behind me went ballistic. My actions caused him, too, to have to stop not to mention nearly rear-ending me. He blasted his horn and when I looked into my rear view mirror I could see his lips writhing and contorting, as is necessary when one spits vitriol at a bald-headed farang in the black Teana in front.
In summary; stopping at a Bangkok zebra crossing is as dangerous as a pedestrian thinking he or she can safely cross the road on one.
Wouldn’t it be great if squiggly white lines truly could change the bad habits of an entire city. It would be a lot cheaper than enforcing traffic rules, or mounting a serious campaign to teach Thai drivers what they must do when approaching a zebra crossing (and can we throw in an extra bit about how to properly use a roundabout?)
Perhaps that is why Thais are so nice to the occasional driver who stops for them. It takes a benevolent, educated, caring soul to slow down and allow them to journey across those broken white lines. That requires an acknowledgement of thanks.
I witnessed it twice on Thonglor last Monday. It reminded me of Sophie’s Choice. Amid the barrage of vehicles hurtling down Soi Thonglor, one or two of them made a decision. Do I run them down or do I save them? The three or four pedestrians around me on that crossing smiled and nodded their heads to the drivers who, in their equanimity, had made the ultimate sacrifice.
Bangkok could well be the only city in the world where this behavior takes place. I am wondering if I need to give a nod of thanks to people who stop at red lights. What about those drivers who drive on the left-hand-side of the road? Are they to be singled out, smiled at, and nodded at too?
I asked my Thai staff about this misplaced gratitude.
“We’re just being polite,” my personal assistant replied, somewhat offended by my disdain. “What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s like when you hold the door open for me and I walk through first,” my sales director, a woman, explained. “I say thank you. It’s good manners.”
I listen to their explanations and nod my head, just like a pedestrian does to benign drivers.
I don’t have the heart to tell them they are wrong. One does not need to be polite to a driver who stops at a zebra crossing. It’s the law. He must do it or he is fined 500 Baht — in a perfect world, that is.
Campaigns don’t work unless they hurt. What if we set up cameras that automatically fined any driver who ignored pedestrians on zebra crossings, just like the ones that catch me doing two kilometres over the speed limit on the expressway? I’m funding a mid-level police station somewhere in Isan with the fines I have to pay on a monthly basis. I would feel much more at peace with myself if I knew this money was coming from drivers who ran zebra crossings.
Or perhaps, more sinister-like, the nod of thanks is a metaphor for the entire Thai system of blind deference to one’s elders. We are currently riding the crest of a wave of unprecedented corruption in this country, which has left Thai culture bruised and battered, because the corruption emanates from some of the most respected tenets of Thai society.
Top officials at the Education Ministry have been gouging budgets meant for poor students. Meanwhile a large group of the highest-ranking monks is being arrested on charges of corruption, with some culprits having to flee the country.
The Education Ministry … the monkhood. Two institutions that command the utmost respect. The average Thai paid the deepest deference to these officials, who unknowingly were raping the system. When one is unknowingly prostrating oneself before thieves, what’s a little nod of thanks towards a selfish driver?
By the way, my travel guide story had an unexpected happy ending. Khun Veerachai was “asked to leave” not long after — something about unaccounted for expenses — and in the ensuing kerfuffle the order to delete my offending paragraph never made it to the lay-out guys. The paragraph ended up being published. Editors, like squiggly lines and zebra crossings, are oft times ignored.
Official LINE: @andrewbiggs