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The Art Of Transport




By Andrew Biggs

There is a new business that has opened up on my way to work.

It’s called “Car Media Solutions” and that very name sums up everything that’s weird about modern society.

It was difficult to guess initially as to what service was being peddled. The fact it is offering solutions means there is a problem, and that problem is in the form of “car media”, whatever that is. If I had to guess I would say car media involves publications, broadcasters and websites devoted to automobiles, although the last time I flicked through True Vision’s plethora of TV channels, not one of them boasted being a “Car Channel.” If only the same could be said of shopping networks.

My assumption was completely off beam. “Media” here is not of the communication kind. Rather, it means bells. Whistles. Lights. Neon. And every conceivable thing that can flash and wink at me, affixed to a moving vehicle.

It’s not enough to have red brake lights at the back and white lights at the front of your vehicle for night driving, nor are the cute indicator lights enough to break the monotony. It is now possible to transform your vehicle into a discotheque.

Is this a portent of the apocalypse? We have witnessed the death of book shops and music stores only to be replaced by shophouses that can turn your pickup truck into a Studio 54 on wheels. I may not be able to find a shop that sells dictionaries or classic novels along Srinakharin Road, but thank goodness if I ever feel the need for red, green and blue flashing lights that trill up and down the contours of my sedan synchronized with my brake pedal?

It should be hardly surprising, since this is a country where expressions of popular art are found in the place we spend such an obscene amount of time — our roadways.

Just yesterday I returned from a couple of hours viewing such a display of Thai modern art.

Some of the depictions were of well-known identities of Thai folklore. More than a few were of a religious nature, weaving traditional Buddhist notions into a more contemporary theme.

Others were a little racier; expressions of the female form, highly stylized, yet exuding a pastiche of emotions that captured the mood and tone of the artist while evoking feelings within the observer of a nature that complimented the easily-apparent and undiluted intentions of its creator.

Excuse me while I pause … not just to turn down the Pedantic Meter, but to take a breath. That last sentence was 46 words.

You have probably already guessed the artistic works in question were not rendered on canvas. They were painted on metal.

This gallery passed me by, generally in the left lane, as I sped along highway 36 to Rayong two hours west of Bangkok.

Rayong is Thailand’s wealthiest province. Approximately one-third of all tax is collected from this single province, thanks to all the national and international conglomerates who have set up factories and refineries there.

Last Monday was a holiday for you, dear reader, but your favorite columnist had a gig in the heart of the eastern seaboard. During that trip I realized I was being distracted … by art!

There, emblazoned on the sides of every second truck and bus I overtook, were scenes as colorful as they were diverse.

There was, on the back of one truck, the Lord Buddha at the moment he attained enlightenment, his head shooting forth a golden aura as asps wove themselves around the Bhodhi Tree, a picture of serenity and all-knowingness, right above YOU ARE PASSING ANOTHER FOX.

(It did make me think twice about overtaking the truck, but even the Lord Buddha’s serenity couldn’t assuage my fear of not making it to the gig on time.)

I think it’s great that in an industry as dull as logistics, colorful art has permeated the very trucks that make up its core.

I saw a bus covered in Japanese anime – girls with big eyes and tiny waists holding bouquets of brilliant flowers, staring up into the bright electric blue sky while a nameless superhero with a bulging chest and equally-bulging red crotch flew overhead.

A Somchai Sinla bus went for a more American approach. Mickey Mouse beamed at me next to a very imposing bald eagle. Another bus had what appeared to be Adam and Eve on the plains of Isan, each giving the other a look seen commonly on the second-floor bars of Nana Plaza.

Then there was the truck with six macho cowboys with handlebar moustaches; the truck owner was clearly a fan of either the wild west or Silom Soi 4.

On the return journey the sun had gone down and the painted art was replaced by art of a neon kind — the type sold at that new establishment I mentioned at the top of this column.

I witnessed a bus bathed entirely in purple neon light. It looked like something out of The Matrix. The dark purple lights curved around the mudguards and on the corners of the bus, not unlike the lights at the disco at the Sunnybank Pub where I grew up. While dancing to “Get Up And Boogie” your teeth would light up, not to mention the dandruff on the oversized collars of your purple polyester disco shirt.

There used to be a time you would see buses like that one all the time, a time when all Thailand’s provincial buses were travelling discos. At the back, a disco ball and flashing lights blazed all night as drunken travellers danced and cavorted with total strangers to “YMCA” and Boney M’s “Daddy Cool”. Restrictions on alcohol consumption on public transport has meant the death knell for most of these buses, but I still saw one last Monday night.

Where does a truck driver get the money for such adornments? Neon lighting isn’t cheap. It is little wonder truck drivers can only afford flip flops while driving, and the very cheapest of methamphetamine, when they have to pay off their works of art!

I’m not complaining. It is refreshing to see artistic expressions as opposed to commercial ones on the sides of private buses and trucks in rural Thailand. They are bright and creative and nothing like the clean, soulless buses and trucks in civilized countries like Australia.

There are no Buddhas or Japanese anime on our freighters. Our buses and trucks are adorned with such killjoy information as HAZCHEM or phone numbers in case the truck driver is driving recklessly.

Bravo to the trucking and bus industry here for adding vibrant color to its vehicles. Is there anything harmful about such artistic depictions on the sides of buses and trucks? Well, maybe.

A Thai friend tells me the religious icons are talismans. They are visual amulets to ward off bad luck, to protect the driver as he makes his way along the upcountry lanes, roads and super highways.

That’s a nice idea but one wonders if our drivers are placing too much faith in them. Are we also forgetting that “car media” is a distraction from the job of driving a motor vehicle?

Today on a local news website there was a picture of a bus crash. The driver lost control and crashed into a ditch. As the bus is being dragged out of the khlong, one can clearly see, covered in streaked mud, the row of intricately-painted Buddha images along the top just above the windows.

A talisman is ultimately just paint on metal, and that is no match for methamphetamines and a leaden foot in flip flops.



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