Highway Mayhem – A View From Two Wheels

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

The roads in Thailand may be good, but sadly they are also lethal. With some of the highest accident statistics in the world, you don’t have to spend long riding them on two wheels, to realise that there is something seriously amiss.

When it comes to driving in Thailand it is time to ritually fling the rulebook from the rear window of a fast-moving Totoya Corolla whilst veering lazily between lanes and ignoring anything resembling traffic lights. Driving in Thailand requires not only new definitions, it also requires nerves of steel and healthy faith in the unalterable truth of karmic destiny. Often described as ‘exciting’, the exhilaration of Thailand’s bustling pavements can soon transform into something suicidal if you step off the curb, into your vehicle and head out onto the open highway.

It is no patronising condemnation of Thailand to point to the lunacy on the roads. Thai people do it themselves and the sad fact is that some of the worst offenders are farangs who having spent years in their own countries shackled by observation of the highway code and a very real fear of penury or arrest. They come to the land of similes seemingly determined to systematically break every rule of the road, not to mention contravening something as obviously idiotic as basic common sense. The likelihood is that, when in Chonburi or Chiang Mai, the guy who just cut you up in the pickup, drifted into your lane without indicating or simply went smack into the back of your vehicle, hails from Sweden, Germany or Wales. When being confronted with the fact that he is a child-murderer waiting to be, he will simply look gormless as he adjusts his grubby singlet, sinks into his acrylic, supermarket-socks and says, “Hey this is Thailand! Jah! Same-same free!”….. Same, same ‘tosser’ is what he actually meant.

The Thai Government is justifiably worried sick about road safety. With between 12,000 and 17,000 fatalities annually accidents cost Thailand a staggering 2.1% total of GDP. Road accidents are now the third leading cause of death after AIDS and heart attacks, according to the country’s Ministry of Public Health.

It is worth examining some of the more truly surreal habits of the highways. First of all tailgating. This is where drivers speed along winding mountain roads at 120mph leaving only 15cm of room between their front bumper and the boot of the car behind. It is as close to arriving at a mobile analogy for true stupidity as it is possible to find. What is the point? It is hardly an aid to overtaking on the straight. When taking the fast single lane highways between Tak and Mae Sot, up to Erewan Falls or south of Hua Hin one sees vast, pointless centipede formations of tailgating vehicles all proving once and for all everything that Peter Purves of Blue Peter fame told us in 1978, “Only a fool breaks the two second rule,”……. The fool quotient seems staggeringly high anywhere people are allowed to pick up speed. This is compounded by the fact that only 15% of road users actually bother to, “clunk click every trip.”  If Jimmy Savile had ever actually been a human being, it might have made him weep.

Pulling out from the left into oncoming traffic without bothering to look right or simply to make a point about the fact that my car is more expensive than your car is a nationwide pass time particularly prevalent in Bangkok where car-status rivalry has transformed from a smattering of average snobbery into a menacing, rabid and untamed cult sweeping through the Central Business District from Sathorn to Ekkamai. Motorcycles don’t even count.

All this applies even more to overtaking. Any driver of something German (especially if they are German) and excessively shiny will see it as nothing less than an affront to his manhood to see anything Japanese and slightly grubby attempting to take up lane space ahead. If the grubby Japanese thing has only two wheels the fury of the man with the fat bank account will explode into a crescendo of indignant horn honking. Wealth is no barrier to automotive idiocy.

Lane discipline itself is simply seen by drivers as a provocation not to indicate. And of course driving the wrong way up the highway with an assortment of bikes, trolleys and worn out trucks is actually considered an obligation of road use in certain rural areas.

Remember all these manouvres – and many more – are best accomplished whilst having an aimless chat on your mobile-phone about things far less trivial than annhilation by impact-injury, as you balletically drift across lanes and mow down the entire family on the knackered Honda wave going the wrong way up the bus lane beside you…. thereby killing them all instantly. Hurrah!… Don’t worry. None of them were wearing helmets in any case.

Of course this whole lethal dance comes to a head in a water-drenched blood-bath of mobile inanity during spring’s Songkran festival when people celebrate the coming new year by killing each other in vast numbers in the name of fun. It didn’t use to be like this. These days how could anyone spoil the party by thinking that flinging a bucket of water from a fast-moving pick-up at an oncoming drunken motorcyclist doing 90mph is anything other than ‘sanuk’? Silly me!… Fun! Fun!  Fun is Songkran! My how he will laugh as his head gets crushed by a passing truck!

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That’s Not a Horse! (Absolute Phuket. 2007)

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

 

It’s amazing what raw eggs and beer can do to a man. What is more amazing is what they can do to a normally slow four legged beast that weighs as much as a truck whilst displaying a contrary nature.

Once a year in the small port town of Chonburi beasts that normally amble are inspired to hurtle as they race each other in a bonanza of rustic traditional prowess. Greyhounds, thorough bred horses and even Camels look like they are born to run. Buffaloes do not, but run they do. Whether it’s the raw eggs and alcohol that have been fed to them, the crack of the whip or a simple desire for it all to be over they pick up frightening speed over a 300 metre track under a burning hot sun under the gaze of hundreds of onlookers. This event has been happening for 136 years. By the beginning of the last century the races were well established. In 1912 King Rama V himself was a witness to the spectacle. It first started as a trade fair where farmers gathered to buy and sell buffaloes which were, and are, almost a form of currency in rural Thailand. Buffaloes are a status symbol even though their traditional role on the farm has been superseded by the tractor.   Many of the buffaloes taking part in the race never do farm work at all being trained and cherished for this event alone. The farmers raise them to be as lean and sleek as a buffalo can be.

Events start early in the morning as pick up trucks pull up to the ground disgorging reluctant seeming buffalo who are then led by their noses in single file into waiting pens. Before the serious business starts there is a parade of lavishly decorated carts drawn by equally lavishly decorated buffaloes preceded by a gaggle of elaborately dressed beauty queens smiling coquettishly as they pass, shimmering in gold and feathers. This being Thailand ‘sanuk’is the order of the day and following the procession is a brass band and streams of small children in fancy dress. As the buffalo count rises so does the smell of ordure and it is fast becoming imperative to watch your step if you want to keep your shoes clean. In the tents outside the spectator stands buffaloes take part in a beauty contest. With spectacularly long horns and tired eyes they are dressed in shiny blankets, tinsel and bunting. It is hard to tell the criteria by which the winner is chosen, buffalo beauty being an art only for enthusiastic connoisseurs. As the heat builds up the racing buffaloes are lined up in the sun beside huge metal tubs full of water. Farmers splash them constantly keeping them in shape for the big event. It is amazing in some ways that the races ever get underway as forcing these huge beasts into the starting gates against their will is no mean feat.  They buck and squirm as the scruffy race officials dance around them coaxing them into place. Often they break lose and make a run for it charging up the track solo and riderless to be corralled at the other end and returned to duty whether they like it or not.

Out of this chaos the riders get the nod and they are off out of the gates. Seeing a buffalo leap is an awesome if unlikely site, but at their first stride that’s just what they do. Mud flying everywhere they charge at full tilt up the track the jockeys perching precariously on their rear haunches hanging on for dear life whilst belting them with sticks. Some don’t hang on hard enough, tumbling into the dirt and buffalo waste. They do not come up smelling of roses although they are smiling in friendly embarrassment at having tumbled so publically. As one or other beast tares over the line the jockey dramatically leaps off its back running alongside it as it slows to a halt to be doused with water by the farmers waiting by the metal water drums. The races are short and intense after a seeming age spent getting the contestants into place. The signal is given with no warning and the race is over in seconds. Over the loudspeaker a laughing woman commentator gently mocks those who take a tumble.

Buffaloes are expensive in Thailand. They certainly cost more than motorbikes and so since these buffaloes don’t do any work they are quite a major investment in prestige. The prize money of 5000 baht to the winner seems small given the amount of time, work and trouble the owners put in. The truth, though, is that it is not about money. It is an event about culture tradition and that very Thai special ingredient that is all about fun. It is also an event that is very confusing to outsiders. One minute buffaloes are charging in all directions, the next it is all over and a farmer in a red arsenal strip is marching up the track with his thumbs in the air, apparently celebrating victory.

The event at an end the farmers load their charges back on to the trucks, ladies in useful scarves hose down the buffalo waste that now carpets the whole area and police direct the traffic  to the various corners of Thailand from where it first arrived. Within half an hour the place is deserted although still less than fragrant. Driving back through the countryside the road is lined with fields, water buffalo bathing languidly in ponds and ditches looking unconcerned as the sun beats down. Little do they know that with a small taste of beer and raw eggs and the crack of a whip they too could take a shot at being champions.

Bongos and Backpacks – Who Controls The Pajama People?

Dan White attempts to read the runes in a world where people drink from buckets and parade in pajamas.

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

What is it that getting on a plane and travelling to Asian countries does to the young of Europe, Australia and America? They climb into their economy seats on their cut price flights looking, sounding and talking as normal as anyone else. Within hours of arriving something transforms them and they appear from their rabbit-hutch guest house cubicles decked out in infant’s pajamas whilst eating a strict diet of peculiar pancakes and suffering from a compulsive aversion to footwear. The formerly average become the strangely shaped, flocking from all over the world to wear clothing that would have them arrested in their home country. Most alarmingly of all, they appear to have any sense of humour they might have previously possessed surgically removed on arrival whilst simultaneously acquiring a deep knowledge of all things and an almost messianic need to spread the infinity of their wisdom. It may be only a sinister coincidence that they are all reading from exactly the same book.

Who is doing these terrible things to our kids? What drives the newly anointed pajama people? No one is perfectly sure.  What is known is that for the pajama people money and the not spending of it has been elevated virtually to the status of a religion. They huddle in cafes exercising the virtue of thrift to an almost devotional degree. What is also known is that they enter into a parallel existence through certain portals. The three major ones being Khao San Road in Bangkok and the island of Koh Phangan in Southern Thailand whilst the small mountain town of Pai is now, undoubtedly, the pajama bastion of the north. All these places, like a Hadrian’s wall of cheap unreality, have become hives of the po-of-face and the baby-smooth-of-skin. They exchange tales of hair braiding, bad tattoos and all else that is not too costly. Suddenly perfectly healthy teenagers who in their real lives stacked shelves at Safeway’s, worked in the local pub just near Leatherhead or just completed their A-levels in grammer school in Tonbridge start speaking in a retro hippy patois that they can only be way too young to comprehend. All this whilst looking fashionably disinterested in the sure confidence that they have recently acquired a supreme knowledge. They are of the Book. With solemn appreciation they talk misty eyed of sunrise over the Taj Mahal or the latest Full Moon party… Something that they fail to grasp resembles nothing less than Aya Nappa or summer in Hove at its most naff.

Ominously, some of them start to juggle.

Traditionally it has been a cardinal rule for the pajama people to only collect together where other pajama people have been before them. Like worker ants they tread well-worn and defined paths labeled ‘authentic’ and ‘unspoiled’. Once a suitable spot is found the necessary hive support is constructed; banana pancake stalls, cafes run by a man who looks a little bit like Bob Marley, guest houses designed for the efficient breeding of mosquitoes and three internet cafes for each pajama person. In this way the collective assimilates the authentic and makes it suitable for pajama habitation. All this at an incredibly reasonable price.

What makes the pajama collective different from average tourists? The only way we know is to is to ask them. Like programmed drones they intone “We are not tourists, we are travellers.”  They prove this by bullying hard working, poverty-stricken rice farmers to sell them coconuts at an authentically cheap rate….  all the while jealously fumbling 400 dollar iPods.

Entering through any of the allotted portals to pajama planet is a disconcerting experience for the unwary. The first thing that will strike you is the largeness of their bags. For kids who wear so little clothing or footwear they carry an awful lot about with them. The untested theory amongst pajama experts is that the largeness of the bag carried on the back denotes the importance of status. So next time you are floored getting out of a taxi by the swinging, laden arc of an alarmingly perfumed backpack you can be sure that the person wielding it is surely a big cheese on Koh Phangan.

The second thing that will strike you whilst touring pajama planet is the very controlled and hierarchical nature of the conversations you might over hear. Like ancient shamans on a spiritual quest the mind of the collective is highly focused. Pajama people make the world’s finest accountants and conversations rarely stray far from the word ‘cost’. The second characteristic of pajama interaction is the highly evolved jockeying for status based on the ‘coolness’ of the places they have visited. Although they never stray far from the collective hives pajama people increase their status by talking of visiting places that other pajama people have never been to. Some of them even wildly claim to have eaten in restaurants that are not mentioned in the Lonely Planet. All pajama people know that this is just plain crazy talk. If it’s not ‘in the Book’ then it is not worth going to. Om.

The overriding tragedy of the pajama collective, is that it is held to ransom by a regional mafia for whom the manufacturing of plastic buckets drives a scandalous brutality. In a cruel and outrageous travesty of otherwise naive but slightly pompous fair play, innocent pajama people are forced to drink their dainty shots of sangsom mixed with battery acid and Farley’s rusks out of garishly coloured buckets forced on them by suspicious looking men in ripped jeans with greasy pony tails.  Some of them genuinely don’t understand that they are being humiliated by this brutal application of pastel shades. They guzzle away like cheery, maladjusted piglets before passing out on the sand or each other.

What happens to the pajama people when the pennies run out? One of two things. The best result is a flight home, a job back in Safeway’s or a well earned career as a real accountant with proper shoes and the same kind of hefty mortgage that brings a pleasant frisson of reality into the lives of others. The most horrific scenario is that they actually do learn to juggle. Once you can juggle there is no turning back. There is nothing for you but a life of bongos.

(c) Dan White.

Karaoke – Man’s Inhumanity to Man

©Dan White. No repro of words or pictures without authorisation.

It’s a little known fact that Daisuke Inoue, the supposed inventor of Karaoke failed to patent his invention and never received a dime for his creation even though, since it first appeared in the early seventies, it has taken over the world.

Good. He should be locked up for crimes against humanity. From Delhi to Dili the monstrous caterwauling of the supremely untalented, yet supremely unaware blights lives and provokes all the wrong kind of passions.

In the Philippines singing “My Way” is justifiably against the law as it provokes gangfights with guns. Just the opening chords are enough for sinister mustachioed men to head into a trance of aggression and reach for the pump action.

In Florida a demented 21-year-old woman attacked a man singing ‘Yellow’ by Coldplay. The reason for this violent outburst was precisely explained. He “sucked.”

She screamed, “You suck!” before she punched him in the mouth very hard. Clarity is good. We should understand her pain.

“It took three or four of us to hold her down,” recalled bartender Robert Willmette. When she was escorted outside, she “went absolutely crazy,” throwing punches at anyone who came in reach. Terrified patrolmen then blocked off the street, which inflamed the woman’s fury even further. Before they could handcuff her, she charged the improvised police barricade, head-butted an off-duty officer, drawing blood and knocking him out cold…….. All this might appear extreme. Extreme perhaps, unless you were actually privy to the rendition of ‘Yellow’ that set her off. Who is anyone to judge?
In fact the horror of this viral noise pollution is unlikely to be the work of Daisuke, an unassuming man whose main line of work to this day is selling cockroach repellant.

Most likely, this aural abomination was created as some kind of Nipponese revenge for having lost the Second World War. As the Imperial Japanese army was pushed back across the Pacific and the generals knew it was all over, some demonic psycho deep in the heart of the black-ops division of the Tokyo military machine conceived a revenge so evil and so perfect that ever after the rest of the world would regret ever having won the battle of Midway let alone having bragged about it. For those in the know revenge is sweet. There are inscrutable old men smirking in Okinawa rice paddies to this day.

And now look what they’ve done? You might be in the misty, scenic foothills of Mount Fansipan In North Vietnam. Perhaps enjoying a Pina Calada as the sun sets over the mystical sheen of the idyllic paradise that is Boracay in the Philippines…. As you gently drift off into a reverie of peace, tranquility and calm, you might think that the meaning of life itself could emerge from the softly lit calm gently permeating your soul.

Forget it. In one brutal instant the air is rent by that appalling mid-tonal wailing as some deluded and half drunk stranger manages to hit notes so painfully just off key that even Ornette Coleman would be scratching his head at the split 5ths. It is supposed to be ‘Moon River’ but actually sounds like the last stand of a pig being dragged out of a pick up and into the waiting abattoir.

Perhaps the cruelest horror of Karaoke is the effect it has on those who might otherwise be quite shy and unassuming.  Mousy secretaries suddenly turn into wild and savage sex pests as the strains of Tata Young’s “Sexy, Sexy, Sexy. Bitchy, Bitchy, Bitchy” consume their being and let loose an alter ego that no one could have guessed existed.

Maybe even more terrifying than the warped flowering of the sexually repressed is the smug chest thumping of the truly in love.

It is a depressing thought that some people must actually practice this at home.

One daren’t contemplate what is going through the mind of the cheery couple that get on stage and try to perform an authentically synchronized rendition of ‘Summer Nights’ from Grease. These people know all the moves! Olivia Newton John’s coy semi-virginal come-ons….. John Travolta’s vacant, high-pitched screech as the song is eventually drawn to an excruciating close leaving sane men weeping.

When threatened mankind is capable of swift collective action to defend the species. Governments step in and nationalise banks to defend our savings. Troops are dispatched to far away countries to shoot all kinds of poor people for reasons that no one can quite remember…  One can only hope that common sense will prevail and people do the right thing before its too late.

The time for action is now! Pull the plug! Yank out the fuse!…

Open the doors of the rehab center… Envy the deaf.

(c) Dan White.