Friday, July 1, 2011

Zen and the Art of Bangkok Motorcycle Taxi Rides

Hey mister, need a ride.  One hundred baht for you, foreigner.

This motorcycle taxi driver is far too cheery and animated about the forty baht  fare ($1.10) he's going to get for driving me 10 blocks through this night of  hot, greasy Bangkok rain.  He's wasted on local Thai crystal meth (Yah Bah, as its called here.  Literally translated as Crazy Drug).  He's twitchy and wide-eyed.  Still, he seems competent so no protests from me. I just want to go home. We have a short conversation first.  It goes like this:

Twitchy driver:  Ow muak, mai kopp?  Fon tok! (do you want to wear a useless piece of shit plastic helmet that I'm required to carry?  Its pissing rain)
Me:  Mai Ow, kopp.  Hua biak leew! (No thanks.  My heads already wet)

His friend has been monitoring our exchange--he has nothing else to do.  He tells my tweaky driver that Farang (foreigners), like many farm animals, don't care if their heads get wet.  We all share a laugh at my expense and we're off into the pissing night rain.  I'm sure at this point that the sensible reader is wondering why an educated man like myself doesn't know enough to step into one of the hundred pink, yellow, red and green taxis littering Sukhumvit road at any given hour and get out of the rain.  Bangkok taxis are plentiful, air-conditioned, metered and, unless a group of Indian tourists and their prostitutes have just exited, fairly clean and fresh.  Is Erik Travels all about the ride?

No.  Erik Travels has  enough sense regarding time efficiency  to know that a five minute motorcycle road through this flooded Bangkok street trumps a 2 hour parking lot traffic experience every time.  I'll be home and toweling off before these poor bastards even make it to the next light.  Furthermore, the mercenary experience you'll get on price gouging from a Bangkok taxi driver in the rain rivals that of an arms dealer selling  pistols to angry Afghani rebels.  I've gotten into my share of nearly come-to-blows arguments with these pirates. Not today, pal.  I'm wet, tired and jetlagged.  I want to be home.

I'm sitting on the back of Crystal Meth-boy's  churning Suzuki-50 and firmly clutching the wet back support bar with both hands. It would be safe and practical to hold the driver's waist, but I'd end up looking like a total pussy.  Coolness has its risks.  He's weaving in and out of the magically appearing and disappearing spaces between cars in this three lane road.  I have to stay with him or his zig will zag me straight into the side-view mirror of the car on either side of me.  This happens a lot and they are not as sturdy as they appear.  If this happens to you don't look back.  Push forward.  Although you are the passenger, your deeper pockets will leave you as the responsible offender and instant settlement will be expected if the broken mirror's owner catches up with you.  Also, keep those apendages in so as not to crack a kneecap on a bumper.

As is usually the case when i'm in the midst of a "cultural" experience, I find myself thinking about the counter American experience.  Driving down Venice Boulevard in a new BMW Z4, top down and arm resting out the window.  I'd be fiddling with a GPS embedded sound system that does everything including read  email to me in Jessica Alba's voice.  Damn, that's the good life.  In control of my own destiny, not leaving it up to a drugged-up Bangkok youth's addled sense of direction and depth perception.  How far I've gone and how close I just came to the rusty fender of that haul truck.  Good time to quit dreaming and get back into character.

In truth, this guy is driving reasonably safe if hanging on the back of a Suzuki-50 with bald tires through a flooded Bangkok road can be regarded as even remotely reasonable or safe (from a Western viewpoint).  Some of these jokers drive like they are trying leave the country via high speed chase (and not the OJ kind).  And much in the same way as not complaining about a waiter until after your meal has been served, its best not to chastise your motorcycle driver until you've reached your destination.  A slap to the helmet while he's driving has been done, but to be honest its  in no one's best interest.  Better to hold on, suck it up and keep quietly mouthing the word "asshole" under your breath.  He's not going to stop.  One acquaintance of mine badly needed to stop and pee, but couldn't successfully convey this to his driver.  He ended up just pissing all over the seat and the back of the motorcycle driver who was pretty angry when he stopped the bike. That one commanded a one hundred baht tip to square things away.  Negotiation is a key skill in Bangkok. One learns survival by surviving.

As we make it to a clear space in the road I loosen my grip on the bike and tilt my face up to the rain.  Something momentary and magical happens.  All that is Bangkok becomes clear for a moment.  A street vendor wears a small plastic 7-11 bag  on his head to keep it dry.  Four young girls squat patiently under a small overhang  waiting for the storm to stop, no matter how long it takes.  They chat and smile.  Korean tourists step out of restaurants and squint up into the sky looking for some clue that will calculate how long this storm will last.  The girls working the massage joints look bored and disinterested knowing that customers will not be on the street if the rain lasts much longer.  They all wear traditional Thai ankle length skirts and turquoise knock-off polo shirts.  A shoe-less street vendor pushes his rattling fruit cart up the pot-holed sidewalk, uphill and against the crowd.  He's looking for a better spot to sell.  The cart is four times his size and he never acknowledges the rain. I take both hands off the support bar and blink off the rain.  And in that moment I realize one thing of which Bangkok will always remind me:  It is all about the ride.


  1. Mine motorcycle ride in Pattaya was lamed compare to yours! But wait you were with me and as I recalled I was crushed between the driver and Erik's Travels UGH!

  2. I just blinked and I'm still sitting at my desk.... Thanx for the ride:)

  3. A fine piece, Erik. It's full of piss, vinegar, logic, loathing and loving (there's some, right?). You have great 'voice' and great pacing, and...better you than me on that bike, brother.

    Glad to have read it; look forward to more.

  4. I felt like I was right there with you. Don't burn yourself out like most bloggers, this is a gem!

  5. I enjoy traveling vicariously. Your descriptions take me there.

  6. When I said don't burn yourself out, I certainly wasn't looking for months between posts. Crank one out, your puclic waits.