Bangkok Journal Chapter 4 - Bus-tle

I like wearing black slacks and shoes, a long-sleeved dress shirt (blue today) and a necktie (blue and white stripes today) in spite of the heat. I don’t feel like a tourist when I’m dressed so and I like having the tattoos hidden (I stand out enough here without them).

I’m walking down Soi Ramkhamhaeng to meet Noraseth at one of the bus stops, sweating, but I know we’ll be in air conditioning somehow before my interview and I’ll dry out (sound familiar, Floridians?) Ramkhamhaeng is a main thoroughfare, so it’s about 2-3 lanes wide in all places and congested with vehicle and pedestrian traffic 24/7. Sidewalks, always full of pedestrians, are often narrow enough only for one person but mostly about 2 metres (or about six feet). Ground floor businesses, especially in the older buildings, are often completely open and spilling out onto the sidewalk and street. Some have sliding glass doors which are kept closed if the place is air-conditioned. Sometimes it feels like the sidewalk cuts through the middle of a business or the other way around (i.e. you’ve got people standing on the sidewalk working or browsing as well as fast or slow pedestrians trying to move through). I’m walking balanced on the edge of the curb as if I’m on a circus tightrope or as if I’m dancing, arms raised above my head and over to the traffic side, a pirouette complete with shoulder briefcase. I sway now and then back towards the sidewalk to avoid getting nicked by buses – but I can’t escape their exhaust (sound familiar, New Yorkers?). I have to be extremely careful to look right (instead of left) when I cross a street.

The main streets also have a series of “fly-overs” in the middle. A ramp leading to an elevated traffic lane lets drivers more quickly navigate past 30 or more side streets without having to deal with buses discharging or accepting passengers or the local traffic exiting or entering those side streets. These fly-overs – I call them “crawl-overs” in rush-hour – can be practical or not. If your side street is a little behind or before where a fly-over begins or ends, then your taxi driver, if you’re using one (and we do often – they’re cheap and air-conditioned), will often leave a congested fly-over only to have to do a u-turn to take you back five blocks in the direction you just came from. Five blocks doesn’t sound like a lot, but remember, here it can take two hours to drive eight miles (and it has). If a taxi driver did such a manoeuvre, or tried to search the quickest route through winding side alleys, in NYC, I’d think he was trying to cheat out more time on the meter. Here the drivers are really just trying to get you where you want to go as quickly as possible. And, as I mentioned, it’s pretty cheap. We’ve spent an hour to ninety minutes in taxis and it doesn’t seem to cost much. Nori says it costs a little more to sit in a traffic jam for so long, but only a little.

But we’re not taking a taxi today; we’re taking a bus like we did yesterday and the day before. Two days ago when we did a trial-run to this same area (for the first job interview) it was raining and we left the house at 7.15 a.m. We took the number 113, which was quite crowded at the start, and stood (we didn’t get a seat until two-thirds of the trip was over) in traffic for two hours. We did the eight to nine miles in almost exactly two hours, arriving at 9.15. The interview for the next day was scheduled for 9.30. That would have still been on-time, but close. Knowing this, we left the house the next morning at 6.15 a.m. There was no rain and rush-hour hadn’t really kicked in yet. We arrived in just under one hour at 7.10. Hmmm. Good thing the restaurants were open! We had three hours to kill that morning, but there’s always something happening here in the city (and I always have an English language paperback in my bag for when those things are happening in Thai. Or when I don’t feel like listening to Thai. I can’t understand a word of it, but I listen carefully anyway sometimes. Part of learning the language is the constant exposure to it, even if it’s frustrating at first when nothing makes sense. I used to explain this to my German beginners, who often hesitated to watch CNN because they couldn’t understand it. My experience with German T.V., I used to tell them, was that I had to watch it a long time without understanding it before it all clicked. I expect that to be true with Thai, as well.)

Who knows how long it will take today. The trick is to give yourself enough time and to plan to arrive very early with something else to do in the area you’re going to. We plan to have lunch near where today’s appointment will take place. It’s 12.10 p.m. now and traffic doesn’t seem so bad. We’re taking the 113 bus again. Ah, there’s Noraseth, a.k.a. “Man” to his Thai friends (all Thais have short, one-syllable nicknames since their real names are usually long and complicated. I’ve never been able to call Noraseth “Man”, here or in Germany, although his family and friends do.) Whatever you call him, there he is waiting to tell me I look nice and sharp in my business clothes (I clean up nice and, besides, he picked them out!) and waiting to mop my brow with a Kleenex (he calls me “Scheingesicht” – Shiny Face). After we’re through greeting one another, we turn our attention to the street and … the buses.

The buses are older and sometimes smaller than the buses in the U.S. or Germany. Some are air-conditioned, some not. On most of them there is a radio near the driver, including BIG built in stereo-speakers out of which play the latest soft-rock Thai country and pop hits (think: Asian melodies with drum machine and light guitars – kind of like Katie Melua’s “9 Billion Bicycles in Beijing”). This is played at reasonable volume (i.e. loud enough to be heard over the rumbling engine and the grinding gears) and seems to have a calming effect. Not that we need something to keep us calm. The Thais don’t get agitated about the traffic. It’s a Buddhist thing – what is is, what isn’t isn’t and the traffic is how it is and that’s just the way it is. (Funny, it doesn’t bother me either. I used to get really worked up in traffic in NYC or Florida. But here it just seems to be part of the environment. Perhaps it helps that no one else is worked up about it. Maybe it’s the blaring of the horns that puts everyone on edge. People don’t blare their horns here – even though they seemingly have every right to. It’s like they get what the New Yorkers don’t: blaring the horn is going to upset no one other than you yourself and it’s not going to help anyway so why bother? I wonder if I’ll still feel this way after living here a longer period of time.)

The small green Mercedes buses are never air-conditioned, Noraseth says, and the drivers are crazy so we should avoid those at all costs and at all times. Sure enough, one of them weaves tipsily past, people hanging out the windows looking grimy, panting and stoned from the fumes. Not an experience I want to have. I don’t mind sitting in traffic, but I need a little something between me and the gases. That something is called air-conditioning. Sure, it helps that, in my dress clothes, I need to get dry and arrive cool, calm and collected. But, dressed up or not, I need air-conditioning in traffic more as an air-filter than for climate. We’ll use a non air-cooled bus for short distances (but never the green ones!) Smaller buses or open air taxis (converted Toyota pick-ups, with a roof and seats in the back, or the famous “tuk-tuks”) are not practical for long distances. The “tuk-tuks” are not practical at all and are mostly a tourist thing (I, he said proudly, have never been in one. Although I did go on an elephant ride in Chiang Rai once, but I was with Thai tourists – Man and his family – at the time, so it doesn’t count as tourist activity in that case. Are you following that logic? Me neither.). There are also motorcycle taxis but they are extremely dangerous, even though they do provide an extra passenger helmet – one size fits all (which means it’s been on a lot of heads before yours). We’ll wait for a bus – the correct bus.

Hey, Noraseth, there’s a 113! I’m proud of myself for noticing (not a real feat since the number is written in English. Most bus, taxi and traffic signs here are bi-lingual. Some taxis have bi-lingual drivers.) Forget it, he says, it’s not air-cooled. Yes, I can see now that passengers are again hanging out the windows, panting. One of them seems to be passed out and is possibly dead.

Here comes another 113 and this one is air-conditioned! But it stays in the middle lane and the driver smiles and waves as he passes by. Was that some kind of special express version, I ask. Who knows, Noraseth says. There are no fixed rules.

The next two 113’s also lack air and we let them roll by. Finally we get one that fulfils our requirements (air-conditioned, the doors actually open and close, crowded but not enough so that we can’t get on) and we embark, officially, on our cross town journey (should one count the half-hour we just spent waiting for the right bus as part of the time? Should I even try to find some logic about this? Logic and Bangkok traffic don’t seem to go together, so I’ll let that one lie … for now.)

Our next challenge – well, my next challenge – is to get on the bus without getting killed. The buses often don’t come to a complete stop. The double doors – located in the middle of the side of the bus and each one the size of a single door on a U.S. bus – start opening as the bus begins to slow down. People hop on and off as the bus gets closer to the curb (IF it gets closer to the curb – sometimes this little dance is done in the second lane and we all run through a lane of half-stalled but still moving traffic to reach the vehicle) and the driver grinds down into first gear as the bus continues along its way. (Since I’m writing this a day or two after the event, I obviously survived getting on – and more importantly off – the moving bus without losing life, limb or dignity.)

The doors on some of the buses, especially those without air-conditioning, don’t work, which means that you ride along with the doors open. This can be daunting if you’re standing anywhere near them. It is also a lot of fun – I feel like a kid on an amusement ride when we get on one of those buses (better for short distances). It’s actually illegal for the doors to remain open, Noraseth tells me, but the Bangkok police have more important things occupying their time – like directing rush-hour traffic while wearing those surgical face masks pulled up enough so that they can stick a whistle in their maws and toot endlessly, loudly.

I’m aware that, on the street, there’s so much happening in the way of traffic that you must pay attention and be alert every moment of your journey. In Germany, too, you have to pay closer attention to what’s happening when you’re driving, especially on the autobahn since the roads there are smaller – and faster – than in America. I guess it’s only in the U.S.A. where you can put the car on cruise control and then hop in the back seat and watch a movie for two hours. I never used to pay attention there either on public transport. I used to fall asleep in the subway or on buses. And people do here as well. But not me. Not yet, anyway. You have to be alert here and you can’t hesitate, regardless of which form of transport.

Speaking of subways, there is one. And an elevated train called the SkyTrain. The service is limited in both systems but they plan to expand it in the future. And it’s a bit expensive for most Thais. That combination – expense and limited service – means it hasn’t caught on as a really good alternative yet. But it will. We’ve used it once or twice. Often we’ve taken a bus or taxi to the subway station in order to use it to get to a congested downtown area. If I find a job that’s reachable by subway, we’ll plan a more permanent apartment somewhere along the subway line in a place that’s also convenient for Noraseth. The traffic here also influences decisions here as to where to live. Is that true in other places I’ve lived? Southern California, perhaps. But not to the degree that is it here.

As I mentioned, you can hesitate here in traffic, even if you’re walking you have to know what you’re doing (especially when walking with Noraseth, who zips along faster than any New Yorker I’ve ever seen. And I thought I was a fast walker!). Everyone weaves, noses their way in and out of other traffic, and others allow you in or you allow others to cut in, with no question. Motorcycles (often with young kids sitting on the driver’s lap and holding on to the handlebars) dip so close to passing cars and the big, lurching buses that the drivers or riders brush the other vehicles with their knees – or push off the neighbouring car with their hands so that they don’t tip. The traffic moves along in its very zen way (i.e. somehow it all works and we get where we’re going).

I can’t wait to drive here. It’s probably going to be more of a challenge than learning the language (more on the language in another chapter). Driving is on the left here, like in England or Australia (British influence, rather than colonization. Thailand has never been colonized.) It is a big priority of mine to always have a valid driver license wherever I live, even if I don’t own a car, and Bangkok is no exception. But for now we stand (and later sit) on the 113. I get a seat first, after standing for about fifteen minutes. (We take turns as to who sits first when we ride the bus. I have a job interview today so I got dibs!) We are sitting towards the front of the bus near the driver and the engine mount that the conductor sits on when he or she is not winding through the passengers collecting fares. I’m in a good position for hearing the stereo and in a great position to look over the driver’s shoulder as he grinds his gears and fusses through the street chaos. I’m looking out the front window, seeing what he’s seeing, driving along with him in my mind. Motorcycles whiz up the right side, up the left side, dart in front of the bus, cross each other and continue up opposite sides in between cars that are crossing slowly back and forth, right and left; buses are moving to and away from the curbs. I look up at Noraseth, nod in the direction of the driver’s window, and say, in German, “we need to create a video game called Bangkok. We’d make a million.” Na ja, someone’s probably already done that – or is in the process. I’ll settle for the real thing, as soon as possible. But first I have to find a job and that’s what this bus ride is about, after all.

And I get the job – or at least one class, one student, twice a week for seven weeks, as a trial – with RMIT, an Australian school that prepares Thai students to go to go to college in Melbourne on an exchange program. It must have been the tie – or the confidence I’ve picked up while navigating the traffic on the bus. Or could be the simple fact that I arrived on time! Anyway, it’s a start, and it means more buses in the very near future.

Bangkok, 31 August 2007