CEASEFIRE ON SUKHUMVIT
By Andrew Biggs
It’s a jungle out there on the streets of Bangkok.
Behind the wheel we curse, cut in front, blast our horns, tailgate, angrily flash our lights, and do whatever we can to ensure we get to our destination quicker than any of those other despicable drivers.
We create lanes out of the shoulder. We ignore all notions of fairness; if there is a line of 20 cars lined up to get off the main road, that won’t stop some buffoon in a dirty white pick-up or dinky Vios brazenly driving up beside the line and cutting in right up front.
We begrudgingly allow cars in front of us despite not using indicators. They change lanes every 10 seconds, or whenever a tiny space opens up between two cars in the adjacent lane which could lessen the duration of their trip by a good 10 milliseconds.
Each and every car is the enemy. How we loathe one other. It is chaos; pure, unadulterated chaos.
Thailand … the Land of Smiles? Only when you’ve succeeded in forcing that dirty white pick-up or dinky Vios off the road into the shoulder, with a bit of luck overturning it in the process. Ha! That’ll teach ‘em.
Thus it was a cheerful respite this week when I took time out from my hectic schedule to renew my Thai Driver’s License.
I am an extremely law abiding citizen if you don’t count occasional indiscretions, all of which have gone undetected by the constabulary (and boy oh boy, you should see the mighty slab of wood I am knocking as I write that).
When I realized my license had expired whilst gallivanting on my recent European tour, the first thing I did upon returning to Thailand was renew it for another five years.
I did it at the Department of Land Transportation on Sukhumvit Road, Bangchak. I arrived at 12.35 pm, only to be greeted and swallowed up by a crowd of people on the same mission.
If you are expecting this to be a horror story about the abysmal service of bullying government officials, then I suggest you make your way over to another website immediately, because you are going to be disappointed.
“One of our testing machines has broken,” a DLT official announced. “We’re really sorry, but this is going to take some time.” She handed me a purple card with number 162 on it.
The DLT staff were friendly and apologetic to us all. There was a feeling of Buddhist resignation permeating the atmosphere; perhaps it rubbed off on me. We all knew we were in for a long wait, so we made the best of it.
I met an affable Indian man with whom I shared a common friend. There was another Indian who, for a couple of hours, was my new best friend. He worked in IT at Suvarnabhumi and he even bought me a bottle of water.
But the crowd was almost exclusively Thai.
There was the gaggle of motorcycle taxi riders, still sporting their orange vests, sharing hilarious stories about their passengers. A young guy kept flitting from his seat next to me to his wife and newborn baby, waiting for him at the other end of the cavernous place. I learned about his wife’s difficult pregnancy and the miracle of his son’s birth.
At one stage I dropped my pen; a Thai lady retrieved it and handed it over to me with a lovely smile. I accidentally left my cellphone on my chair as the queue started moving; one of the motorcycle guys tapped me on the shoulder to return it.
It wasn’t all rosy, though.
We were forced to sit through a 50-minute movie, ostensibly to teach us road rules but I think we all left with a better understanding of how truly dreadful instructional videos can be.
It’s a soap opera that follows two Thai kids. The girl, Noodee, lives happily with her flawless mother and friendly father who sports the biggest ears I’ve ever seen on a soap opera star.
The father plays the benevolent road-safety-conscious character who dispenses insightful tips on safe driving every 45 seconds. He’s the type of guy I get put next to at embassy parties. If I’d been writing the script I’d have had him under the wheel of a 16-wheel truck at the bottom of page one but alas, he made it through to the end.
Noodee’s best friend is Shogun, a sullen boy which stems from the fact his mother has flown the coop and his father’s a speeding maniac who fails to buckle his seatbelt and likes to run red lights; to call him two dimensional is being extremely generous to his quota of dimensions.
I was suffering from jetlag and I admit I fell asleep for ten minutes in the middle of the video, but it didn’t matter because it was plainly obvious Shogun’s father was going crash his car with Shogun in it, of course, rendering the kid a vegetable with limited chance of recovery, not unlike how those of us watching were feeling.
The end was as pathetic as it was obvious. Shogun’s father sees the error of his ways, and in the final scene, Noodee’s jug-eared father ratchets up the pedantic meter as he gives him a lecture on the benefits of safe driving.
This causes Shogun’s father to give up smoking and dedicate his life to the full recovery of his son. He has transformed into a foppish doctrinaire just like Noodee’s Dad. I liked him better when he was a rebel.
At the end of the movie we were invited to wait outside again. This we did, and our conversations continued. When our names were called, in groups of 20, we all stood in a very orderly line that snaked back and forth in the testing room. Nobody thought to cut in as we moved slowly towards the machines that tested our reflexes and vision.
There was one simulator where one has to brake as quickly as possible upon seeing a red light. We were all in this together, cheering when any of us braked quickly, encouraging those who weren’t so quick.
“I’m sorry I’m taking so long,” one flustered woman announced. She was having trouble with the brake and accelerator.
“Don’t worry about it!” came a chorus of ten people waiting their turn, flashing their killer Thai smiles. Even the testing lady was egging her along – “just relax; I’ll give you another chance.” On the third attempt she got it; the room erupted in cheers.
From there we did three other tests, patiently waiting and chatting and passing the time.
Finally, after four tests, we were finished. At 4.30 pm I walked out with my brand new Thai license, good for another five years.
Walking back to my car, that is when it dawned on me.
The carpark was full of dirty white pick-up trucks and dinky Vios cars.
That friendly crowd in there was exactly the same people I encountered on the Bangkok roads every day of my life.
It was but a fleeting insight. Soon I re-entered the cacophony that is Sukhumvit Road.
Behind the wheel I seamlessly re-entered the world of cursing, cutting in front, blasting horns, tailgating, angrily flashing lights, and doing whatever else one can to beat those other despicable drivers.