Report from Tomorrow - Vol 26

1USD = S$1.70 (S$1 = 0.60USD)
1USD = 40 Thai baht
S$1 = 25 Thai baht


It seemed everyone we spoke to before coming here had some horror story about Bangkok traffic - like being stuck for two hours in the same place or some almost accident they were in. Our experience was different.

Bangkok traffic is heavy enough, to be sure. The roads were all torn up and the streets are in poor repair and are generally narrow. This is all true enough, but I found the driving to be pretty low key, at least compared to what I had imagined. No one was racing around recklessly or angrily honking their horn.

Thai's use the same "Asian merge" school of driving I described in an earlier Report. Traffic was very heavy most every time we went out. The streets are filled with cars and small trucks of every description and thousands upon thousands of noisy smoky motorbikes.

Motorcycles are certainly more efficient for getting around. As traffic slows and stops, the bikes start weaving their way forward. If a vehicle is over too far to the left or right and blocks those few inches between vehicles (where we would expect the white line to be), the bikes make their way between the cars and passed on the left and right - or in the middle of the road between the stopped traffic and the oncoming traffic - or on the sidewalks.

Eventually most all the motorcycles migrate to the front of the line waiting for the light to change. At every light there were 20-30 bikes at least. Ready, set, they're off!! in cloud of smoke and a roar at 120db. Those bikes turning right (across the oncoming traffic), immediately dart to the far right-hand side of the oncoming traffic and complete their turn on the other side of the road.

Heavy traffic will not deter our intrepid biker. The sidewalks (such as they are) are mostly empty and the pedestrians are mobile, so when the roads are full and the walking roads are pretty empty...

Public transportation in Bangkok is provided by buses (which compared to S'pore are old, unappealing and not air-conditioned), taxis (modern air-conditioned cars), trishaws (pedicabs, see trishaw.jpg) and via tuk-tuk. Moving to one area of downtown to another was typically about 60 baht in a taxi (less in a tuk-tuk we were told). In a heavy rain we took a taxi from the edge of downtown to our hotel for 120 baht. So getting around was certainly inexpensive.

The tuk-tuk (also spelled dtoog-dtoog) can be found all over Thailand. This is an small car seat mounted on a three wheeled motorcycle. It has a low top (so you can't really sit up), but is otherwise open so you can enjoy the "fresh air" and "simple sounds" of the city.

We were warned to avoid the tuk-tuks because they are dangerous and since there is no meter, it's easier to get ripped off. So we avoided the tuk-tuks in Bangkok, but Gretchen and I did take one in Chiang Mai. It didn't feel dangerous there, but the air didn't seem any more breathable.

In Chiang Mai we met an American family who had been in Bangkok a few days earlier. They had attended a Thai kick-boxing event and took a tuk-tuk to the hotel afterwards. It was midnight and the streets were completely filled with people leaving the event.

This family of four where packed into a tuk-tuk (I don't know how they could have done that). At one point the tuk-tuk was passing cars on the left (near where the curb would be, if there was one), when they saw a bus stopped loading people who had been at the event. Undeterred, the tuk-tuk just drove through the crowd and continued his weave through the streets. "Absolutely a ride from hell", was the father's description.

Thailand, Expectations and Our Reality

My view of Thailand was in sharp contrast with the reality we experienced. I've read so much in the news magazines in the past about Thailand's problems, I wasn't ready for normal everyday life. Bangkok has the moniker of "sex capital" and I expected theft and bribery to be common. The brochures warn you about taking only real taxis (not private taxis) and keeping track of your belongings.

I'm sure there are plenty of sex shops in Bangkok, but I never saw anything like them. We did not prowl downtown Bangkok at midnight and we were careful, as we would be in any large city, but we never felt threatened or harassed in any way. We were not cheated (that we know :-). The people were universally polite, friendly and well mannered.

I've become so used to Asians speaking English (as the great majority do here in S'pore), that I was always surprised to encounter someone who had only poor command (or none) of English. Seeing signs written in Thai was confusing as the lettering (44 letters, 10 vowels) is so different, my eye could not read two street signs and even decide if they were the same, much less decide if it matched some name on my map. Still, we managed well enough, like all tourists, with hand-written notes, English and hand and arm waving.