Transportation Thai Style

November 18, 2002

People frequently ask me what are some of the more interesting things to do while in Thailand. My answers generally include a visit to the southern beach town of Krabi complete with sea-canoe ride, a journey to the splendid temples of Sukhothai, a tour of the teak home in Bangkok formerly owned by Jim Thompson and a ride along any available khlong (canal) or river. But what about finding a spot (be it sitting on a shaded section of curb or in a pub with a good view) and spending a good while simply watching the traffic go by? In my opinion, this could potentially provide more insight into Thailand and more photo opportunities than any organised tour in the country.

Think of a pick-up truck. In the United States, pick-up truck owners might occasionally have the need to haul some wood or help a friend move but usually most of the pick-up beds you see are empty. This would certainly be a point of confusion for Thais visiting the country. In Thailand, a pick-up truck is the181102k1.jpg ultimate modern workhorse and is only seen empty shortly after it has dropped off the load of whatever it was carrying in the first place.

If you put a high-roofed cap on the back and stick two long benches along the side, you have a ‘sawng taew’ or two-bench public transportation pick-up truck. You can proceed to drive around town and pick up passengers for 10-40 baht a head (US$.25-1.00) and bring them to their destinations. Or better yet, you can fit towering side gates and a roof rack and proceed to stack rice, hay, wood, vegetables, fruit, crates of chickens, propane tanks or anything else you can think of sky high. The load that your truck can carry when properly outfitted with side gates can be four times higher than your roof. Occasionally you can see truck beds snapped in half or axles that have bitten the dust but the general rule-of-thumb is ‘the higher the pile, the better.’ A pick-up truck can also be used to transport 40 people to and from work each181102k2.jpg day.

Think of a motorcycle. In the United States, owners enjoy riding down sunny scenic roads on their choppers. Motorcycles are for enjoyment. “How odd that there isn’t an ice cream cooler, charcoal grill, bubbling pot of hot broth for cooking noodles or a glass case displaying various sausages attached to the side!” most Thais would think.

A motorcycle in Thailand is the ultimate symbol of diversity. It can be used to bring the kids to school in the morning and return with all the kids plus a week’s worth of groceries in the evening. It also can be used to sell almost any kind of food you can think of. Metal vending stalls with wheels (somewhat similar to the hollow shell of a hotdog stand) are strapped on as sidecars to become mobile restaurants and bars. Another option is to use your motorcycle as you would a pick-up truck by having an empty metal cart-like sidecar. This empty sidecar can carry anything a pick-up truck can - just in smaller quantities. Dogs181102k3.jpg seem to truly enjoy riding in them, too.

Now on to perhaps the most famous of Thai vehicles: the tuk-tuk. These noisy little things can be found all over Thailand. If one were to suddenly appear on any street in the United States, heads would turn while mouths declared, “What the heck is that?!” Tuk-tuks are basically motorcycles with a two-wheeled passenger cage attached to the back, another fine example of the diversity of motorcycle use in Thailand. Tuk-tuks are unique and annoying but lovable. This makes them a popular form of transport with tourists (a favourite tuk-tuk driver event being the ‘one set of wheels off the ground while taking a sharp curve in order to terrify the passengers’ routine). The author recently road home in a tuk-tuk that had nine people inside of it, so it is best to never underestimate what these machines are capable of.

All vehicles listed in this article can also be easily used as a bed. It is common to find people sleeping on top of that huge pile on the pick-up truck, with their heads down on the handlebars while sitting on the seat of the motorcycle, or curled up on the back seat of a tuk-tuk.

Sure, there are vehicles that are used only for enjoyment in Thailand, but they are the minority and have none of the colour or finesse found in their hard-working counterparts. In Thailand, if it has wheels, it generally gets put to work in any way possible. A vehicle has to earn its keep, pure and simple.

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