Nothing Profound   drive-by writing by bkkRon

Thursday, May 27, 2004

The Thai Way Part I

It’s so easy to criticize, to point out perceived flaws in systems, cultures, processes or ideas, and then to mock or jokingly compare these deficiencies to what our own standards and communities have labeled as “normal.”

And it’s even easier to do this when one leaves a familiar place of residence and takes up a new one, especially if the change is to a new country, continent and culture. And then easier again when the chosen, fresh abode is Bangkok. (OK, “fresh” is not wholly appropriate when describing Bangkok. Oops. Was that a criticism?) Over the next few months, readers will discover some of my specific complaints that are already bubbling below the surface. (Those who pay attention to Thai news will wonder why I haven’t spewed vile commentary on Prime Minister Thaksin already. Just letting it simmer. A lot has already been said, by fellow-Bangkokians getting political in their complaints about the CEO’s Liverpool bid. Read more on The Nation’s web board.)

More difficult, but often more entertaining, is not to denounce a society’s customs and traditions, but to remark on the differences between the new, chosen home and the old, comfortable and well-known one. This type of observation and humour-mongering is done very well by one of the best shows on American TV, Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Of course the show does not compare living in different cultures, but it does effectively satirize U.S. government policy and make fun of small-town mentality without merely complaining about all of the various shortcomings. If you don’t watch this show, you should be mocked and jokingly compared to your much-more-intelligent neighbour who is normal, and does.

“Beentheredonethat” was the common refrain from my traveling days of yore. To a twenty-something, it is enjoyable to mention to just-met fellow backpackers in Cairo that, “Yes, I did SCUBA dive while staying at the Red Sea last week, and did you know that the locale happened to be one of Jacques Cousteau’s favourites? Oh, you rode a camel into the Sahara today? I did that the week before.”

As a resident of Bangkok (albeit recent), I get a weekly laugh from just such a flippant comment from a two-week-tourist that I happen to overhear. In the U.S. I’ve heard a Texan say, “Yep, aaah’ve been te Mexico,” and I know he spent a week by his hotel pool in Cancun. (That was a Bush II quote there, by the way.)

Well, I’ve been trying to lead into some observations that I’ve now had time to analyze and describe after eight months of residency in Thailand. I’ve also been a tourist here many times over the last decade and a half, each time having spent at least a couple of months. Some of my opinions and elucidations have been brewing for years.

Crossing The Street

Surprise Bulletin: Living in Bangkok is good for your health! Mostly, of course, the opposite is true. You’ve heard the horror stories of the traffic and pollution nightmare; these are all true, as rumours tend to be. But if you’re a tourist or ex-pat resident, you will inevitably use your legs more than the middle-class locals who make every effort to drive everywhere (see Must Own A Car below). If you choose to “go anywhere” while staying in Bangkok, you will inevitably have to “cross the street.” This will entail a hike up many, uneven (see Sidewalks Are For Motorcycles) steps to a pedestrian overpass and then a descent down a different number of steps on the other side. By the time you reach your destination, you’ve walked two or three hundred stairs. Forget the Stairmaster and the “Unseen Thailand” official tourism slogan. Replace both: “Come To Thailand To Build Your Quadriceps And Firm Up Those Buns Once And For All.”

Must Own A Car

Thai minimum wage: 120 baht per day (equals about USD 3)
Thai import duties on luxury cars: up to 300%
Price of a mid-level Mercedes: 5,000,000 baht (roughly USD 125,000)
Second largest market for Germany’s Mercedes automobiles: Thailand
Most popular car on the road: Toyota
Average price of a Toyota in Thailand: 1,000,000 baht (roughly USD 25,000)
Number of new cars on the streets of Bangkok per day: 600

No logic in those numbers. But Thais forego other luxuries, such as suitable living quarters or lunch, to be able to keep making their car payments and to suffer their daily parking costs. It is common for a person’s monthly car payment to outweigh his rent by 2:1. And then he spends ฿120 every weekend to have someone wash it for him. Never mind that driving the thing entails sitting in it for two and half hours to cover six kilometres in distance. The Thais never mind that at all. The Thais don’t walk (see Thais Don’t Walk).

Sidewalks Are For Motorcycles

Assuming there is a sidewalk, that is.

They used to be for camels, as a friend remarked years ago upon the then sad observation that the step up to get onto the sidewalk from the street was often nearly a metre (over three feet) high. But in the last ten years, construction of roadways and sidewalks in Bangkok has moved into the 20th century (like maybe around 1972). Now there have been ramps added, or indeed built into the construction of new sidewalks that slope to an even level with the road at pedestrian crossings. These ramps make walking much easier but ultimately decrease the fitness gains from having to tackle very large steps.

It was a Thai acquaintance of mine, a teacher, who informed me that these new and convenient ramps were not for pedestrians. They are for motorcycles, or more specifically, motorcycle taxis (see Thais Don’t Walk). Motorcycles, it seems, also had a hard time maneuvering the metre-high steps required to get onto a sidewalk. And of course motorcycles belong on the sidewalk. That’s the cultural difference I wanted to point out in this section. I’m not complaining about it (any longer), just pointing it out. This is normal. Here.

Thais Don’t Walk

Related to Must Own A Car above, this taps into the commonly held position that Thais, by their very nature, are lazy. Not walking is not what makes them lazy. The lengths they go and the complex processes they put in place to avoid walking is what shows that they are lazy. I acknowledge the contradiction there. In this case, their laziness actually makes them more efficient. Efficiency in Thailand is a rare commodity.

What do they do if they don’t walk? Well, they drive their cars, take buses and taxis and the Skytrain, soon take the subway that should open within a couple of weeks, ride their motorcycles, and—this is the one that proves their languorous nature—take motorcycle taxis.

Reflecting on the standard minimum wage in Bangkok (mentioned above), the fact that Thais choose to pay for motorcycle taxis indicates the extent to which they don’t want to walk. If a person doesn’t have a car or live near a bus stop or Skytrain station, his or her home might be 200 to 1,000 metres from the nearest mode of public transportation. In developed, civilized, richer and more efficient countries, the downtrodden masses have no alternative but to walk to the nearest mass transit access point. Suckers. In Bangkok, a Thai hops on the back of a licenced motorcycle taxi (sidesaddle, if female—that's an entire article in itself) and zooms through the tiniest of lanes (soi in Thai) at twice the speed of, well, walking. Actually, they do seem to achieve the speed of sound, what with their sound being mosquito-like, but deafening, if you can imagine. Pedestrians (i.e. expatriate residents or tourists) beware: sois and sidewalks are for motorcycles (see Sidewalks Are For Motorcycles above).

And then at the other end of their journey to work or play, Thais take another motorcycle taxi from the bus stop or street corner to their final destination another few hundred metres away. Helmets optional. Just for sissies.

Sometimes Thais take motorcycle taxis to the gym, wherein, after paying their expensive membership fees, they use nothing but the treadmill for 30 minutes, three times a week. I don’t know. Is that lazy?

I'm not criticizing.


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