The following blog/article was published in The Nation newspaper last Saturday. Here below, however, is the originally un-edited submission)
Anyone who has spent much time in the Land of Smiles and especially the concrete jungle of the capital, will have been completely dumbfounded at some of the amazing public transport on offer. Let me start today with the meanest of the mean and that is the one and only non-air-conditioned Bangkok bus.
Just how many times over the years have we heard some enlightened government official lecturing Bangkokians something along the lines of “Don’t take your car, take a bus!”. All very easier said than done, especially when the buses at peak hours are already more crammed with passengers than a rickety Indian train. Should the capital’s car riding population suddenly decide to adhere to this wordly government advice, then it is certainly advised that ladders be attached to the rear end of buses, so commuters will be able to climb up and sit on the roofs.
How can the government seriously expect motor-owners to honestly give up their auto-mobiles, take a bus, be as squashed as a canned pilchard and even put their lives at risk. Just how many times have you picked up your morning paper and read some dreaded headlines about some lunatic bus driver on dreaming about the likes of Michael Schumacher, driven his cranky vehicle into a sign pole, did a somersault, killed 5 and maimed another two dozen? Never mind though, the bus company owner soon rushes to the rescue opening his wallet dishing out not-so delicious sums of compensation to the bereaved families – unfortunately, not even enough to purchase a second-hand car.
Other quite awful fatal incidents we often read about are when someone has slipped off a bus and been run over by the thing’s back wheel. The driver’s usual alibi is to simply blame the passenger for not having more sense and been more careful in wretched wet conditions. Such a brilliant excuse! The passenger ought to have realized that it is not a Bangkok bus driver’s policy to sit mindlessly at a bus stop waiting for all the bus passengers to get securely on and off when he is in a rush. The deceased should have known that one of the objectives of a Bangkok bus ride is to jump on and off at ones own peril. I mean, just how is the poor bus driver gonna earn enough commission to feed his kids without whizzing from A – B and back, as frequently as possible?
(A not so amazing bus-driver. On arrest, he was described by the police as “Completely intoxicated”)
When foreign tourists first arrive in Bangkok, the first thing they are often mesmerized by, on leaving their hotels, is not the humongous size of the capital’s flimsy billboards or cowboy-style electrical over-head wiring, but instead the truly magnificent feat of squeezing a hundred people on to a single non-air-conditioned bus with no doors. Open-mouthed in total amazement, the tourists can next photograph panic-stricken passengers standing up, holding on for dear life’s sake as the driver accelerates around the bend.
Besides just the remarkable ‘Big Bangkok Bus Squeeze and Speed Feats’, passengers at the front of buses can also, besides just inhaling the air-pollution, feast on second-hand cigarette smoke – free compliments of the driver. Next, the passengers may be dazzled at how the driver manages to steer the vehicle in a straight line while swigging an energy drink and staring out his side-window at every nearby lady pedestrian kitted out in a mini-skirt. Should the driver get pulled over by a traffic law-enforcer for breaking any regulations, the passengers will soon be clearly hearing the driver bellowing injustice and incompetence at the top of his voice.
Another safety hazard on the average Bangkok bus is the lovely conductress. For some mystical reason known only to the latter, besides just shouting “Shift up, shift up” and endlessly counting her banknotes, the conductress loves nothing more than waving her tin baton in the air, frantically rattling the coins inside. Should any passenger be on the shortish side, she will have to take caution that she isn’t systematically bashed on the top of the head and knocked unconscious. As for the little green bus companies, they enjoy hiring inspiring young hoodlums who can be witnessed hanging out the door with a foot and arm in mid-air. One of the conductor’s favourite pastimes to make plenty of extra commission in the late evenings, is to hold the bus up at some shopping mall bus stop, while he runs off the thing trying to coax as many passengers on to the vehicle as possible. As for the infuriated passengers already sat on the bus waiting to get home quick – well, they can just hold their horses.
(Besides just the pick-pockets, stay clear of those touts too!)
Whenever there is a bus tragedy, the first person to get the blame is of course the reckless driver (who has usually fled the scene). There are times though, that after he is arrested by the cops and paraded in front of our TV screens, he claims “Well, the brakes didn’t darned work”. Often his alibi is deemed quite plausible and the police are next out hunting for the bus company owner, who is usually found shortly after relaxed in his office with a huge cigar hanging from his lips. While the bus driver is sentenced to a lengthy time behind bars courtesy of the Corrections Department, the bus owner is fined and informed that his company is to radically improve the quality of buses within the spate of 30 days. Alas….
Besides the not-so-groovy state of the capital’s buses and their shoddy captains, there is also the unforgettable death-defying inter-provincial bus. Again, we have read countless stories over the years of some upcountry bus that has somehow miraculously ended-up on its side in some canal located 10 or so meters from the main road. After the law-enforcers arrive on the scene and arrest the driver (if he is still there like) he if often found to be in such an intoxicated state that he is reeking to the heavens giving the cops a Cheshire-cat grin and a welcoming thumbs-up sign. On contacting the bus company owner, the usual flimsy excuse is ‘Well, how was I supposed to know that the geezer was a complete drunkard?”
Besides just the local Thais moaning about the quality of the inter-provincial buses both air-con and non-air-con, foreigners too are an angry voice to be heard. One of the two most popular complaints voiced by the moany ex-pat and tourist alike, is the supposedly awful taste in music which the driver has and the amount of times he plays the same darned cassette over and over again. Next complaint up and the most popular of all, is the scenario of when the driver decides to simply play his loud squeaky music well past midnight and into the early hours. The Farang, oblivious to how the Thais can manage to sleep through such a horrendous racket, spends his sleepless night dreaming up some plot of rattling the driver’s throat.
Another grievance voiced by both locals and especially foreigners is the ‘crooked’ nature of some certain bus station touts. Unaware of the location of the direct speedy bus ticket booth, naïve passengers are approached by some tout (who perhaps gets 10 baht commission) to follow him to his bus which is going in the desired passengers’ direction. What the tout intentionally forgets to inform the passengers however, is that his beloved bus route first takes a detour passing through every single village on the way and stopping every 30 minutes for the conductor and driver to get off, have a smoke and talk with friends. The usual journey of a hundred kilometers which ought to take an hour and a half, ends up taking the entire afternoon.
Thai buses are though, if you are willing to tolerate them, great value for money which offer a roller-coaster adventure unavailable in the West. The government though, if they are really gonna be taken seriously in their effort to encourage more folk to ride the four-wheeled machines, needs to honestly prove first that they have some decent well thought-over plans to severely improve the service and especially the safety.