Saturday, January 27, 2007

Oozing in Bangkok

Traffic East on SukhumvitLongtime readers of this BLOG know that we have had some difficulty with our driver here in Thailand. For those of you who are new readers, or who want a refresher on this issue, you can go to the archives for October 05, 2006 to see my post that day.

"Fred" is no longer with us. The consensus of opinion regarding his voluntary departure was that he did not appreciate being watched so carefully. He enjoyed his "freedom" to use his employer's vehicle for his own purposes and the fact that we clamped that down on his second day of employment stuck a bit in his craw. Does anyone know what a "craw" is? I don't, but the cliché works well for now.

Anyway, we have a new driver.... let's see... we'll call him Jack (not his real name.) So far Jack has been a good driver. He shows up on time, is courteous and has not even once disappeared with our car. That's good. So we have decided that even though we pay Jack about the same amount of money that we paid Fred for the same level of service (24 x 7) we would try to make Jack's working life a little more bearable than we made Fred's.

Sky Train CommuteThe first thing we did was to install Brenda into the Bangkok public transportation system for roughly half her commute. Brenda works long hours leaving our apartment at 6:30 AM every day and returning between 6 and 9 PM with most days hitting the magical 12 hour work day. For our driver who has to commute to our apartment and back, a 12 hour work day for Brenda translates into a 14 to 16 hour day depending on traffic. So to provide Jack with a more reasonable schedule, Brenda takes the car to work and then sends Jack back to check with me to see if I need to go anywhere. Usually I don't and Jack gets to go home after about 4 hours.

The second thing we did was to give Jack most weekend days off. We rarely go anywhere on Saturday that we can't get to on the Sky Train, and on Sunday we mostly just go to church and then relax around the house. So on Sunday's I have begun driving to church myself. Today was my first day.

Now, I know that you folks in the US are saying to yourself "So what, he drives a car... big deal" or something like that. I admit that it is going to be hard to explain exactly why that is a big deal, but trust me for a bit.... it is.

trafficDriving in Bangkok is sometimes described as "oozing." A few years ago, before the BTS (sky train) was operational, the average car in rush hour traffic moved 600 meters per hour. Do you remember your high school track that encircled the football field. That was 200 meters. Another way to think about 600 meters per hour is that it is about 4/10 of a mile PER HOUR. You can walk at 3 to 4 miles per hour so BKK traffic was ten times slower than walking.

It's not quite that bad these days.... not quite. But it is still crowded and the driving habits from those days persist. Specifically, if there is room for a car to squeeze into a gap in traffic, there will be two cars trying to do the squeezing. And in between the cars there will be motorcycles splitting the lanes of moving and non-moving traffic every instant of every trip. The only place were motorcycles can't split lanes is on the expressway (toll way) where they are not allowed at all - ever.

So driving in Bangkok requires a deft foot on both gas and break pedals. It requires really excellent rear view mirrors and absolute diligence on turn signals both the ones you give, and the ones you really must notice that others are giving. And most of all, it often resembles oozing like the cars are molecules of lava moving slowly toward the sea more than the 70 mph nominal speeds that we are used to in Houston.

Street signTo make matters somewhat more challenging, at different times of day, and days of week an East bound lane may become West bound. And what is normally a two way street can become a one way street, and an overpass may be off-limits to the type of vehicle you are driving or to a vehicle with fewer than three passengers in it. And the signs that announce these changes are well… not there. Or if they are there, they are in Thai, or symbols that are not meaningful to a foreigner. And the Royal Thai Police are ever diligent to write traffic citations because the standard practice here is to pay your "fine" on the spot... in cash. Hmmmmmm. The good thing is that the "fine" is usually negotiable. The bad thing is that if you are a foreigner, they assume that you are rich and can afford the maximum "fine." One friend tells a story that he got stopped for going over an overpass that was restricted at that time of day to vehicles carrying at least three passengers. He was on his way to play golf with two sets of clubs in the car and somehow convinced the Police that he couldn’t pay the fine. “You are speaking to a poor man my friend” was his shtick and somehow it worked. He got out for only 100 Baht. Most foreigners pay 1000.Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

So with the stage set, I headed out this morning for our drive to church, my lovely wife safely ensconced in the passenger seat with a steely determination not to kibitz my driving evident on her face. She did well too. Not until we got all the way home did she say "Did you see how close your passenger side mirror was to that truck and that other car?" Yes, I saw it. Maybe a one inch clearance I reckon and I was pretty proud of it.

trafficAfter safely making it to church, I decided to ask some advice on the route back home since the signage is not always clear to me. I asked some of my friends at church "Can I make a U-turn on Sukhumvit to get back home." Laughter erupted and snickering continued as the men gathered to give advice that ran the gamut from taking back roads and parking lot shortcuts to paying a toll and driving 20 miles out of the way just to avoid making a right hand turn (left turns are the easy ones here because they drive on the wrong side of the road.) After five minutes listening to road names that made no sense to me, I decided to just go home the route I had seen Fred use dozens of times before he quit.

I did have a little side excursion in mind for the trip home and broached the topic while heading back. I didn't quite get the idea completely stated when Brenda interrupted saying "NO LET'S JUST GO HOME NOW." She may say she didn’t speak in all CAPS, but it sounded that way to me.

Photobucket - Video and Image HostingAll told, our little drive was 15 kilometers round trip, about 9 miles. And it took twenty minutes per leg to do it. We got no traffic tickets, had no wrecks and even parked in the same spot at our apartment where Jack left the car on Friday.

I can’t wait until next Sunday.


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