Thailand: Tuktuks

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“If just for the heck of it, take a tuk-tuk ride. It’s like traveling around town on a convertible.” –A Thailand Culture Guide

On our first full day in Thailand we decided to navigate our way from our TESOL course lodging (way far out) to some of the Bangkok sights. This required utilizing not one, not two, but three modes of transportation: two river ferries and the BTS Skytrain. After exploring around the Grand Palace, we realized that we were shortly due back to the lodging for a TESOL class meeting. How best to get there? As we stood on the street corner debating, a tuktuk zoomed up. Would we like a ride? Only twenty baht, wherever we were going. Cross city? Fine, fine.

Tuktuks look like gaily painted toys when you see from the sidewalk. They are adorably compact, brightly colored, and make a put-put sound like a child’s plaything. This, combined with the fact that sitting in the back are all manners of people—business folks in suits and skirts, women with groceries, crowds of uniformed school children, sweating tourists with flashing cameras, convinced us it was safe to ride the tuktuk. We’d just be very aware of what the driver was telling us.

So we jumped in.

As soon as we were seated our driver swiveled to us and said, “Okay, for the twenty baht price, I must take you to one store. Otherwise, 100 baht to cross the city.” Whoa, red light. But he assured us we didn’t have to buy anything. We just had to go in, look around, come back out, and he’d get us on our way again. David looked at me and shrugged. Relatively painless. We agreed.

Then we set off on Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. No, literally. For a brief second I had both hands clenching the bar at what would be a window if there was glass. Then I realized that this meant that at least an inch of me was outside of the vehicle. Not that being inside of the vehicle meant that you were safe either. Definitely not—at least half of the journey was spent in the lane of oncoming traffic, only to dart back into the correct lane at the last possible second. I clutched David’s leg as we narrowly missed scooters, delivery trucks, people on bicycles, and taxis—the formerly adorable put-put sound roaring in my ears.

I monologued three stages of terror and reassurance:

The first: Oncoming traffic will kill us! Reassuring: No, everyone has to be used to tuktuks on the road, this is the way everyone drives. You’ll be fine.

I was fine.

Then! Our driver will kill us! Reassuring: No, Gabrielle. Your driver has probably been driving his entire life. He knows what he’s doing, he’s experienced, just trust him.

Okay. Okay.

Then! We’re turning! I’ll fall out! Other cars will smash into me! Grind me into a pulp! I’ll sizzle on the hot Bangkok blacktop and tourists will take my picture and the guidebooks will write about the travesty that was my passing with all the apology they can muster for ever having insinuated that hopping into one of these things was a fine idea. Reassuring: Gabrielle! Pull yourself together! Just hold on tight and you won’t fall out!

Okay! Okay! ARE WE THERE YET? I was terrified still, but the exhilaration of having survived was setting in. I was good. I was golden. I had reached a new level of life—it was like graduating, it was like achieving some sort of Nirvana, a new plane of existence—silly worries about perishing in a foreign city swept away, long gone, I was grooving, I was relaxed, I was smiling at David, thinking about taking a picture…but the tuktuk was going faster all of the sudden. Up an incline. We were whizzing past shopkeepers and passersby. We were keeping pace with the taxis. We were going at least forty-five miles an hour in a rinky-dink little automobile with no seatbelts, no definable sides, and no health insurance. And that’s when the fourth stage of terror hit me like a tuktuk running into a concrete wall:

MECHANICAL FAILURE.

This tuktuk was built almost fifty years ago. It was a Japanese delivery vehicle. It was deemed unsuitable for deliveries and then brought to Thailand to use as a taxi. What state of repair (or disrepair!!) could such a vehicle possibly be in. We were racing downhill. I could see our driver fumbling with the gear shift, could smell the scent of burning rubber as we screamed down the grade, and then our driver was mashing the brake. We were drifting Tokyo-style into a turn, we puttered for a second, leapt into a drive way, and slammed to a halt. …In front of a gem store?

Our driver leapt nimbly out and said to us, “Okay, ten minute. Go shop.” David and I exchanged glances. We’re living on about 200 baht a day here (about six dollars). We’re currently not making any money. I try to avoid going inside, but the driver follows us, frowning. He says something in Thai, and, worried that we’ll be stranded, we allow ourselves to be shooed inside. What ensues is an awkward five minutes of negotiating with the gem store staff—no, we cannot buy anything. Please please please do not say we have to. As we let ourselves out David notices a sign:

IF YOU HAVE BEEN BROUGHT HERE AGAINST YOUR WILL PLEASE LET US KNOW AND WE WILL ARRANGE TRANSPORT TO YOUR HOTEL

Well, now we know. And just so you know, traveling around town in a tuktuk is only comparable to traveling in a convertible if that convertible was actually possessed by demon spirits smoking heroin.

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