Friday, August 6, 2010

Driving in Thailand

We write a lot about our travels (travails?) on the boat but in the past couple of months in Thailand we have really only pottered about in the relatively protected waters of PhangNga Bay or down the coast into Malaysia to renew our visas. Much of our daily life and travel is in fact on land and our preferred mode of land transport is a rented motorcycle. The rental transaction enjoys some sort of government oversight as the one page contract is a fairly standard document wherever you get the bike and it is mandatory to produce a valid driver’s license at this point. Fortunately for those who have no motorcycle license and no known expertise on such machines, a confusing looking foreign car license appears to suffice (or in my case a bad photocopy as my license is at the bottom of Ao Chalong Harbour). This obliging approach is a good early indicator of the pragmatism that is a feature of road traffic here.

The arterial traffic routes are dual carriageway with each carriageway accommodating two demarcated traffic lanes (carrying approximately three lanes of actual traffic) plus a motorcycle lane - which in addition to motorcycles accommodates also parked cars, stopped cars, moving cars, unwary pedestrians, wary dogs, and motorcycles that are travelling in the opposite direction.

This disconcerting phenomenon of motorcycles travelling against the flow of traffic is because in order to get to a destination on the other side of the road it is necessary to overshoot the destination until you get to a designated U-turn point through the centre median and then double back. The official U-turn points through the centre island are at intervals of about 3 – 5 km and this detour is understandably inconvenient and time consuming and therefore widely disregarded in favour of simply crossing over into the oncoming carriageway at a U-turn point before reaching the destination and then driving against the oncoming traffic directly to the destination by the shortest path.

The first time we tried this and were confronted by a three / four lane phalanx of advancing traffic at a combined approach (collision?) speed of 140 kph, there resulted a convulsion of several muscle groups – one of which caused the throttle twist grip to be advanced inadvertently and another that causes that unstable feeling in the bowels. Muscle functioning returned to normal before any major consequences but only after some local motorcyclists learned a couple of new moves.

One of the other interesting local customs is to sometimes disregard red traffic lights. It must be said however that this only occurs when there is little crossing traffic and not much evident danger. It took us a few days of enduring noisy exhortations from bikes stuck behind us to overcome our sensible reluctance to invite attention from the law. We are particularly sensitive to the presence of the police as the somewhat imperfect status of my drivers license will at best withstand only the most elastic interpretation and invite a modest spot fine. Unhappily a new law on 1 July requires passengers to wear helmets and this has motivated a sustained programme of police roadblocks to promote compliance. We are ever hopeful that the authorities will tire of the game.

Motorcycles entering the main traffic stream from a side street simply enter without the inconvenience of stopping, or even of pausing or looking; albeit usually slowly enough to allow the mainstream of traffic sufficient time to take avoiding action. Cars and trucks entering the main stream often wait for a gap in the traffic. When they do not, it does behoove motorcyclists to hold their line and slam on brakes. Fortunately the brakes are rarely good enough to induce wheel lock and uncontrollable skids, but ones instinct and anticipation necessarily develops to a high level.

This all works surprisingly well and all drivers / riders with equanimity simply slow down or swerve or stop in order to promote traffic flow. The goodwill and pragmatism displayed by everyone is a far cry from the common driving practice back home of extending ones ego with the aid of a fuel injected, one ton steel cocoon powered by testosterone and armed with a bouquet of gesticulations and invective.

Petite Thai girls in dresses sit side saddle on the pillion seat – with feet delicately pointed upwards to retain their shoes on their feet. There is evidence of the odd lapse in concentration with single shoes and slip-slops found lying in the motorcycle lane. The Thais appear born to these machines and display the nonchalance of long familiarity. It is a common sight to see three girls on a single bike with all three engaged in animated conversation, texting and/or talking on their mobile phones and admiring one another’s purchases of clothing and jewelry; the passengers with painted toenails in the air and the driver easily controlling the bike.

Another common sight is entire families on a single scooter, including babes in arms and often with the driver carrying the baby – and then on top of this, the days shopping or laundry or whatever. And ‘whatever’ encompasses a remarkable range of building materials, furniture and appliances, pets. In our case we tried to emulate the locals with Irene on the back wearing a rucksack bulging with newly purchased provisions and equipment, complete with two folding stools that had legs protruding above her head like space antennae; another bag of stuff between us on the seat and a further bag between my feet. Did I use my feet to keep the bag on the scooter or to keep the bike on its wheels? …. I am getting so good at multi-tasking!

Motorcycling along city roads proves exciting on a different level. Multitasking is taken to new heights what with indicators, throttle, brakes, etc. plus keeping the bike on two wheels and remembering to put out a useful foot to steady the bike when stationary (and keeping slip-slop on said foot). Taking off from rest while turning sharp right at intersections (and remembering about the foot still on the ground); all while having a civilized discussion with my navigator about the relative merits of reversing a bike that cannot easily go in reverse compared with the simple expedient of making a u-turn and driving against the flow of traffic, in order to reach the destination we just passed. Thai script is entirely different from our Roman alphabet and most street names and other landmarks therefore remain tauntingly elusive. (In tourist Phuket, major street signs helpfully have English subtitles)

The navigator in question (aka crew/shark-bait) in the meantime is juggling a road map (in the breeze, and often the rain); wearing a huge backpack with purchases; balancing a couple of bags / packets of stuff on the seat between us; operating a camera (all photos in this blog taken by the navigator at speed; forgive some lack of focus….); remembering to point her feet upwards so as not to lose her slip-slops; providing commentary on passing sights, smells, sounds and my driving; remembering to not sway the bike unduly; making pleasant interactions with other road-users in passing; and directing us unerringly to the desired destination. Every time. Remarkable.

On the more rural, narrow roads or where there are road-works, one encounters gravel (treacherous mud!!) and potholes filled with water (sinister bike traps!!). Bikes don’t naturally stay up well in these conditions and we have had the odd heart stopping moment that requires a steadying foot on the ground (which is thereafter covered in mud and brands you for the day). However we have not (yet) had to display the true badge of the travelling tourist, which is a seeping bandage around an arm and a leg and a decidedly stiff and painful way of moving, and which can only be earned the hard way that draws expressions ranging from ‘ha ha - that must have hurt’ to ‘there but for the grace ..’

Initially, sight of the numerous dogs on the road caused some anxiety and persistent images of an unpleasant tangle of bike parts, body parts and extract of dog. However, the trick is, from a distance, to distinguish between young dogs and scarred old veterans. The gimpy old warriors are no problem – they have in their younger days obviously had some altercation with traffic and discovered its hazards; and the fact that they are old is the clincher. You do not become an old dog by going walk-about in traffic. So we confidently careened past the old fleabags at speed and fortunately did not see many youngsters – it’s obviously a hard school.

We are loving our travels in Thailand. Their pragmatic approach strikes a chord with the moderately robust treatment of most matters that we know from South Africa and being somewhat scarred old veterans already, we will hopefully become locally street smart with only a gentle learning curve.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

Travellers in Thailand

Well, this is all wonderfully interesting!

In our past, we have had the good fortune to enjoy the most glorious holidays (restful or active; indulgent or economical) and taken home memories and photographs to return to at will, but there will be none that form as much a part of us as these travels that we have experienced in environments that are radically different from our usual milieu. Our travelling has given us opportunities to become generally more aware in circumstances and environments other than those that we are used to… which we mistakenly call “normal”.

There can be few places that give a western tourist more chance to do this than Thailand. Travelling in Thailand gives new experiences to every one of our senses by the minute: this is a country of glorious abundance in sensory stimulation! Simply moving between two villages offers an overload: the buildings, people, vegetation and modes of transport all a feast for the eyes; food stalls and markets are feasts for eyes, noses and taste buds; the beautiful written language looks poetic and musical while the sounds of the language have the lilt of an exotic song… and, as a feast for the ears of older travellers like us… curiously the pop music sounds of the 60s play everywhere! The frequent sounds of firecrackers being set off to chase away bad spirits may sometimes, however, be a burden on sensitive western ears.

The colours.... a roadside orchid nursery (selling growing plants at 50Baht: about US$1,60); beautiful shrines outside every home and retail venue; colourful scarves on every fisherman’s long-tail boat to flutter and chase away bad spirits; the vibrantly hued fruit and vegetables at the travelling fresh produce market in the field (while the fish and meats at the same market are so fresh as to offer no offence.... unlike the fish at the Phuket town market, after 11am!); magnificent old Sino-Portuguese buildings may appear unkempt until you see attention being paid to the front edifice at ground level and the contrast makes the picture; and the bright fresh paintwork of the lone old petrol station where the mode of petrol dispensing comes from another era.

The smells (apart from the fish above)... there are food-stalls and hawkers around every corner, giving rise to unfamiliar but stimulating smells at every turn that make one endlessly hungry! The huge variety of foodstuffs will tempt every palate and it is all tasty: you just need to be prepared to try something new, even if you cannot understand the person explaining the dish to you nor read a single word on the rough menu. It often occurs that you and a whole group of people nearby will start sneezing and coughing simultaneously…. Chilli is being fried nearby! You can always control the heat or bite of the dish when you put in your order… unless you want to challenge your senses extraordinarily!

The sights of people leading their lives in this, their (normal) home environment, are endlessly fascinating.... and none more so than how they get around. Driving scooters on these roads has been a real eye-opener as we generally succumb to local practice and take the locally-adopted pragmatic stance on which side of the road to drive and other small issues..... but that is the subject of another blog!

The variety of Thailand’s abundant natural beauty (incredible soaring island structures, beaches, overflowing vegetation, mysterious caves and hongs) is matched in its populated environs, but this exotic culture has an attraction and beauty so different from that of typical western towns. In Thailand, there is something to hold the interest and stimulate tourists on sea and land and around every corner: nothing is like “home” and therefore everything becomes imprinted in the memory, even if travelling here is not always comfortable or easy. Here, Erik and Cliff carefully negotiate the canoe through a pitch-dark narrow tunnel to take them through to a hong (cave where the roof has collapsed and the beautiful “room” thus formed has developed its own eco-system).
Part of the fun of being here is the foreign language; although this obviously has its drawbacks and frustrations, it contributes wonderful experiences to our memory banks…. and hopefully our improving non-verbal communication skills will stand us in good stead for games of Charades in our dotage! Recently Rolf and I were in different situations asking for two products: soda water and battery water. Saying those words in our flat South African way resulted in no glimmer of understanding from the listeners; however we eventually found that using a higher tone on the last letter assisted everyone: so say …. Sod-aaaah and batte-leeeeh to great happy smiles, comradely nods and a scurry off to help you. Another lesson learned: Thai people cannot put two consonants together; saying sipoon, pilate and tewenty will ease understanding.

Listening to conversations between Thai people is fascinating: huge tracts of information are conveyed between them without our understanding a single word, syllable, letter, and there is so much communication in the language that relies on tonal inflection that it sounds melodious. For different reasons, listening to the radio (with English-speaking Thai presenters) gives another glimpse into this world, and particularly so when listening to “Thailand in perspective”, a news programme that is “… live from the PR department of the Royal Thai Government”.
On land, we get around on scooters and sometimes in a Tuk Tuk (above, with the family), while travelling using Ketoro as our home base is proving exceptionally rewarding as we get access to beautiful islands that the day trippers do not go to (view through a port-light hatch below).

The two most recent sets of visitors (friends John and Wendy from NZ then family Erik, Diana, Karl and Cliff from Aus) explored islands with us, enjoying the beaches, villages, caves, sunset drinks (John’s driftwood photo from a sundown beach) and sometimes on-land resorts as well as being taken through their paces with normal life on Phuket Island. Sometimes the input of different experiences may have been overwhelming!

Travelling on a boat does occasionally also elicit understandable anxieties and prove challenging to our visitors: few people would request, before departure on their holiday, storms whilst on board, nor cramped quarters or having to be endlessly mindful about water, gas and power usage, (let alone everyone’s fears about the usage of the heads / toilet…. not to be discussed here!) but they have all rallied round magnificently. Hopefully, after the travels with Ketoro are done and they recall their photos and memories, the range of experience enjoyed in such an incredibly diverse land will leave them with imprinted fond memories of a real adventure vacation!

Of course, there are times when the hosts may question their own invitation of these guests; for example our very good friends from New Zealand who boast a pretty good rugby team (at present). We are South African, a nation equally passionate about its rugby, and the gods saw fit to schedule a game between the two nations while they were on board. Being the good-natured and fair-minded Springbok supporters that we are, we resolved to generously keep feeding them beer and snacks during the game, no matter what. Imagine our surprise when we awoke to find an All Black flag flying from our masthead! You cannot imagine the shock, horror and outrage felt by the hosts, nor the speed with which the ancestry and general character of the guests was denounced as a South African flag was hoisted above the (rather large) Kiwi flag. We needed our beer and snacks after this…. particularly as our team was soundly thumped.

Our Australian family was less forward (and also less disparaging when their adopted team also thrashed ours the following week). They, in fact, took a different approach to our mast-head as we made a pre-emptive strike by hoisting them up the mast. This (below) is a birds-eye view of us on the trampoline, taken by Erik half-way up the mast … happily the boat was very still at anchor that evening!
In the privileged situation of having done so much travelling in a short time, we often forget momentarily where we are (and in fact the Kothes, who travelled to Malaysia and back with us, had the same experience)… is this a syndrome common to all travellers? (Or just old ones!?). Well, an experience with a lost traveller was an eye opener… anchored off Ko Hong with the family on board, we saw a man approaching at pace (but without skill) on his canoe. Invited on board to catch his breath, he told us his story (well, what little he knew of his own story….). In a nutshell, he was part of a canoe- day-trip group and the big boat had left without him. Having been told they all had an hour to explore on their own, he returned late to find the boat gone. No problem, we had a phone… what was the boat’s name and to what company did it belong? “Don’t know”. Ah…. So we produced several brochures and asked him to identify the boat from the pictures. He was unsure. Ah…. So we phoned one of them and dealt with a concerned and patient person at the other end of the line, describing the canoe (was it perhaps one of theirs?) and asking if their boat was possibly missing a client, by the name of Raymond (surname withheld …. Wilson!) Well, they don’t know their clients by name (!) as they just know how many to collect at each hotel …. “Raymond, at what hotel are you staying?” He was unsure. Ah….

Turns out our very nice confused Raymond was an Argentinian from Australia (he was unsure if he would be allowed back as he thought his visa had expired… not a lot of clarity of thought there…. No wonder he did not know from what hotel or boat he had come!) Our (or, rather, Raymond’s) story has a happy ending: a big boat came round the corner… it was doing laps of the islands looking for the fellow. Raymond was unsure (still) if it was his boat so he and Rolf popped off in the dinghy while Erik gallantly paddled the canoe across. The rest of the very large group on the boat clapped and cheered joyfully and the tour operators were undoubtedly glad to have their canoe back (oh, and Raymond too….).

With many smiles and waves at Rolf and Erik returning on the dinghy, Raymond took off into his future… you are sure to bump into him sometime, looking lost; send him home to Australia…. um Argentina…. um Thailand…

Interestingly, various dictionaries put tourists as persons who travel or visit a place for pleasure, some referring to the word “tour” originating from Latin or Greek words meaning “circle” and “return”, i.e. going home at the end. Wikipedia also offers “One who visits a place or attends a social event out of curiosity, wanting to watch without commitment or involvement.” Travellers, meanwhile, are said to be Gypsies or other nomadic persons, with Wikipedia also offering caravan dwellers and tinkers as travellers.

Well, we all wish for everything: travelling nomad-like to see as much as we can of our world and its peoples, simultaneously with a wish for fun and with a desire to return home. Here on Ketoro, we take our home (caravan?) with us, such is the beauty of cruising, and when friends and family come to spend time with us we love to show them something of our nomadic travelling tourist lifestyle.