Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Motorcycle fright

One of the most unnerving sights in Thailand, and much of southeast Asia, is the practice of packing a group of people onto a motorcycle, then speeding off through the chaos of the region's traffic. It is especially frightening to see entire families on a bike, with the smallest child perched in front. Generally, none are wearing helmets, and if one does, it is not the child. Even westerners adopt the Thai way: I have been surprised to see Americans driving motorcycles with un-helmeted children sitting in front, dangerously exposed to the harsh realities of traffic physics.

Using motorcycles is a relatively inexpensive way for Thais to get around; it's a practical mode of transportation used to get from one point to another.
Motorcycles weave through traffic with ease and are always three deep at the red light, roaring off the instant the signal switches to green. Westerners are especially vulnerable to taxi door-motorcycle collisions, as they are not used to the dashed lane markers serving as legitimate motorcycle lanes, and simply open the door upon arrival without bothering to look behind for fast approaching bikes. Westerners are also vulnerable as motorcycle drivers, often failing to carefully estimate the space available. One colleague is now in a hand cast, having been on the losing end of his motorcycle and a car's side-view mirror.

In addition to the increasing number of automobiles, it is very common to see pedestrians, bicycle riders, pedal carts (some actually on the freeway), push carts, wheelbarrows, sleeping dogs, small herds of domestic livestock, and the occasional elephant. Throwing all of this into the mix of speeding traffic seems to be a certain recipe for disaster. Amazingly, one rarely sees an accident at all.

Thinking about this oddity, I have my own theory: Because of all the obstacles that are guaranteed to be in a driver's way while negotiating traffic, there seems to be an instinctive "flock mentality" that has evolved. Entire stretches of traffic respond in unison, often several lanes across in the blink of an eye, much like hundreds of birds together in flight. As a result, errant canines, swerving bicycles, and distracted pedestrians are spared.
As a colleague wryly mused as we swerved our way to school in a taxi: "What are all these dashed lines on the road for?"

Monday, December 8, 2008

The Kindness of a Stranger

It is one of the most heart-warming experiences one can have anywhere: A complete stranger extends a helping hand with no expectations for repayment. In Thailand, it is known as "making merit," a charitable act that increases the chance of reincarnation to a better place and situation. Or in many cases, it is done simply because the stranger has empathy and a kind heart.

We were spending a night in a nearby province in an out-of-the-way hotel on a river, and had called a taxi to take us 30 km to the city of Nakorn Pathom where we toured the world's largest Buddhist pagoda, followed by a leisurely dinner and some shopping. There were large crowds due mainly to the festive atmosphere of a national holiday, in this case, the king's birthday. Thailand's King Bhumibol (Also known as Rama IX), who is the longest sitting royal in the world (62 years), is revered by the populace for many reasons, not the least of which is his sponsorship of over 4,000 projects, mainly in the poorer areas of the country. (Image from en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bhumibol_Adulyadej)

As fireworks exploded over the pagoda, we wandered to the main street to hail a cab. It soon became apparent that there were no taxis anywhere. Approaching a group of motorcycle taxi drivers, we asked about securing a cab. Our concern grew when they blinked and replied that there were no taxis in the city. As our plight was discussed, the traffic policeman came over and added his sympathetic voice to those of the cyclists. No one seemed to know just how to get us home, as there was no way we were going to hop onto the back of a motorcycle for a lengthy highway trip.

Presently, a man rode up on his motorcycle and asked if he could be of help. When we explained the situation, he paused and said, "I have a car. I'll take you." When he rode away, the taxi cyclists pulled up chairs for us to sit curbside, and chatted (mainly with Kat in Thai) about the situation and the holiday. In a few minutes, the man returned, we were ushered into the car (the policeman held the door for us), and were whisked away to the secluded hotel. As we drove, the man talked at great length about the king and the great esteem in which he is held by Thais. "To Thais," our Samaritan said, "He is like a god."

When we arrived at the hotel, we offered to pay for the gas, and to buy our hero tea, but he waved it away. "I want to do it," he said. He then tapped his chest. "I do it because in my heart I love the king." He bowed and drove away into the darkness, and much relieved, we returned to our bungalow, thankful for the kindness of a stranger in a land where in reality, we are the strangers.

Monday, December 1, 2008


There are many ways in Thai language to pronounce what westerners may consider clear-cut consonant sounds. For instance, there is more than one sound that is close to but not exactly a “k.” Sometimes transliteration shows it as a “k,” sometimes a “g,” and differentiates between “kh” and “k.” Often, especially at the end of a word, it is not pronounced at all, what teachers refer to as “swallowing” the sound. Therefore it was not surprising, but yet amusing for me to see on a student’s paper, as one step in the procedure for a laboratory exercise: “Be sure to wear a lab goat.”