Sunday, June 23, 2013

Part 4: Transportation Special!

This week's episode will be related to the various times of transportation in Thailand! They have various degrees of speed, cost, and stress. which I will rate on a 1-5 star scale.

First a preface. The streets in Bangkok are intimidating to an insane degree. My first ride from the airport to my hotel consisted mostly of driving up the shoulder of the highway while the driver leaned on the horn. There don't seem to be any apparent rules of the road either, so selfish driving is the norm. This means that if you are attempting to merge, well that's just too bad for you. The only way you can successfully merge is to sneak a part of your car in front of another and just go for it. It's basically one big game of life-threatening chicken. There are a ton of street bikes, totally unsafe 3 wheeled vehicles called tuk-tuks, sky trains, subways, longboats, and buses. While they each have their individual differences, each will give you the opportunity to question someone's sanity (your's or the driver's).

1. TAXI: Speed **--- Cost ****- Stress**---
The taxis in Thailand are all very pretty. They're brightly colored on the outside as well as the inside. This makes them noticeable from far away. Unfortunately, if you hop in to a pink taxi, all of the upholstery is the same color of neon pink. The oppressively bright pink is so overstimulating that it can cause irritability, disorientation, and in some cases euphoria. They seem to be the most commonly accepted form of transportation in Thailand, so they do have some things going for them.

Speed: Bangkok traffic SUCKS. I mentioned that the shoulder is an entirely different lane, but this is due to necessity. There are way too many cars here, and they are all driven by insane Thais who fear neither pain nor death. Depending on your taxi driver, you may be able to get some places quickly, but odds are that it is going to take forever for you to get where you want to go.

Cost: With an initial cost of 35 baht ($1.17) for the first KM and 4 Baht for each additional KM, the cost is actually fairly high compared to the other forms of transportation.

Stress: You will not be very stressed out by the actual driving experience. All taxis are air conditioned, and if you zone out into the neon upholstery, you may actually find it a pleasant experience. Unfortunately, not a single taxi driver knows where anything in the damn city is. They also don't understand English, so some stress starts to creep in when you're actually trying to communicate where you want to go. Initially, I tried writing out the address on a piece of paper in English. This had no effect on the taxi driver. Then I asked a Thai person to write out the address in Thai for the taxi driver. This time, the drivers were capable of understanding the words on the paper, but they couldn't do anything with it. Finally, I tried getting a map, marking down the location, and writing out the location in both English and Thai. Maps appear to be a foreign concept to taxi drivers, so the best chance you have is to get the phone number of the place where you want to go and have the driver call. They will spend the ENTIRE trip talking on the phone about who knows what, but you will eventually reach your destination.

The worst part is when they've pretended that they know where they're going, but they don't. Then they look at you and ask where to go (in Thai). I am the only person in Thailand worse with directions than the taxi drivers, so it's really a miracle I've gotten anywhere with taxis.

2. Skytrain/Subway Speed ***-- Cost ***-- Stress *----

The skytrain and subway are essentially the same thing. Mass transit trains. However, one is in the sky while the other is underground. Apparently the sky is only 30 feet off the ground (the skytrain was a huge disappointment after my imagination went crazy imagining trains in the sky). 

Speed: This is actually a pretty fast way to get from point A to point B. Provided you want to go to one of the predesignated point B's that the train stops at. After that, you're either walking or hopping on another form of transportation.

Cost: The cost is also pretty good. Never more than 40 baht to get you wherever the train goes. It's the trip after that could cause problems.

Stress: Pretty much stress free. Plus the trains have an added bonus. You can immediately find any other foreign people. All you have to do is look down your car. If you see any heads sticking out 6 inches above the others, you've found your foreigner! 

Quick side note, I'm not way taller than everyone else, like so many people said I would be. I'm just normal taller than everyone else.

3. Tuk-tuk. DO NOT RIDE
This abomination is called a tuk-tuk. It is about as safe as it looks. I believe the design process was just someone looking at a trike and saying "I could make a big one of those". When you ride one of these you will get poisoned by the other cars (which have no environmental standards, and shoot black death out of their tailpipes). Plus the guy driving will try to take you to some place to buy stuff instead of actually going where you want to go. Then he'll get lost and pull over 20 times, asking strangers for directions. Then he'll demand that you pay more at the end of the trip because it took him so long to find the place. Plus it's not even air conditioned.

Sorry, this is kind of a sore spot for me.

4. BUS Speed *---- Cost *---- Stress*----
Riding a bus in Thailand is essentially the same as walking somewhere. Traffic is SO SLOW, and buses don't have the ability to weave between cars. While they travel everywhere, it is constantly stop and go. Take a bus if you feel like traveling at the same rate as walking, but want to be crammed up against a bunch of Thai people

5. WALKING Speed *---- Cost FREE Stress **---
If you know where you're going, and it's fairly close by, you always have the option to walk. This can be a fun method for various reasons. You can get some tasty street food on the way, hop in to a store to see what's for sale, and only occasionally fear for your life

Speed: You probably know how fast you walk, but in case you don't it's somewhere between a saunter and a trot.

Cost: FREE. Did you not read this earlier?! I just said it...

Stress: Walking presents new challenges to transportation. You are at your most vulnerable because you have little to no metal protecting your flesh. This is a problem because it will seem like all other forms of transportation are actively trying to murder you. I don't think they are, but the evidence suggest otherwise. As you know, cars have expanded their territory to the shoulder. Normally this wouldn't be a problem for pedestrians, but the shoulder is where the scooters and bikes like to be. Since they have been displaced, they have decided to take more territory from pedestrians. When walking, make sure you keep your ears open for a motor bike barreling down on you. If you hear a honk from behind, it might actually be for you.

Watching out for bikes on the sidewalk isn't too much of a problem. The true stresses of walking come with crossing the street. There are pedestrian overpasses in a lot of places around Bangkok. They provide you with the safety of being 20 feet above any cars. If you want to cross a street without an overpass, you have a dilemma. Crosswalks exist, but only in the realm of theory. In practice, they are just lines of paint to be ignored by drivers. Cars will not stop to let you cross. You know when you're in the states and a car decides to wait for you to cross, but you have decided to wait and let the car go. So you both wait, but no one is moving, then both decide to go at the same time. Then you stop again because you don't want to hit/be hit. Then finally one of you decides to just go, but cautiously? The idea of that happening in Thailand is utterly laughable and absurd.

When you cross the street alone, you must run. It's basically like trying to cross on a highway. There's also a struggle of wills between you and oncoming traffic. You must decide if you fear death more than a driver fears killing. That's your only chance, good luck. If there's traffic, you'll at least be able to weave between slow moving cars, but then you have to watch out for bikes between the cars. 

I mentioned earlier that crosswalks are worthless strips of paint on the ground for drivers, but for pedestrians they serve as beacons of community. To cross, you wait until at least 5 people have gathered nearby. At that point, the most upstream person must take charge. He is in the most danger of immediately being stricken down, so his leadership comes from the fact that his self-preservation ensures everyone else's. When the leader sees that a car will possibly be able to stop before running him over, he takes a step (leap of faith) into the street. The rest of the group must mirror the leader's actions as closely as possible to ensure safety for all. Apparently Buddhism frowns on mowing down 5 people in your car, which is a blessing for you and your street crossing dreams.  At this point, one lane of traffic will be completely stopped, and there will a small mob of people huddled closely for protection. The leader continues to take charge, slowly advancing one lane at a time until everyone is safely across.

Needless to say, my first few weeks here it took FOREVER for me to cross streets alone. 

STREET BIKES: Speed ***** Cost **--- Terror *****

There are small collections of people in orange vests who drive scooters around, with you on the back. You tell them where to go, hop on back, and you're off. This means you're riding bitch on a scooter, which is being driven by a tiny Asian man. In case you can't figure out what this may look like, I've drawn a picture to help you out.

Speed: These dudes don't necessarily go fast, but they maintain a fairly constant speed by going through shortcuts and weaving between cars. Sometimes they drive on the wrong side of the street, which I find unnecessary and horrifying. The good news is, they're very familiar with local areas, they know all the shortcuts, and they don't have to wait for traffic.

Cost: Relatively cheap. Most of my rides are about 30 baht, or a dollar. 

Terror: I changed the rating system from stress to terror for this example. Bikes couldn't be a more dreadful proposition. Particularly since you have NO control. Well, let me rephrase that. When you're 100 pounds heavier than the driver of the bike, you have too much control. Any shifting of your weight will turn the bike against the driver's will. Try to maintain an upright position.

My first couple times riding one of these bad boys, I did my best not to come in to contact with the little man in front of me. The whole squeezing up closely against a strange man between my legs thing made me feel a bit uncomfortable. My outlook changed for a few reasons. When you avoid contact with the driver of a motor bike, you greatly increase your chances of falling off the motor bike. Falling off of a bike is near the bottom on my list of things to do. The other reason is because once you've spooned 10 men on motor bikes, you've spooned all men on motor bikes. I'm totally desensitized to it now. I even have a preferred body type for the drivers. I like a tiny driver. The tinier the better. If they're short, you can see completely over them, which is always nice. And if they have tiny waists, you have more leverage for grabbing on to them with you legs. Unfortunately, my knees are very often right behind their elbows, making it difficult for them to turn. Whatever, not my problem.

There's also the each time on the bike is probably your last thing. I feel this is well evidenced by the following pictures.

This is one of those shortcuts I was talking about. These are pictures of some of the nicer parts. Others have holes in the concrete patched by wooden planks an a section where half of the road is inexplicably 8 inches higher than the other half.

All of this being said, bikes are my favorite form of transportation because a) They're the fastest b) they're pretty cheap c) I no longer fear death

I'll talk about the boats next time. This post is getting a little long. As a reward for making it to the end, here is a cool image I found while looking for river boats.