Last month we moved to Thailand, and one of the first things we did was buy a car to get around Chiangmai. The Chiangmai area has something over 1 million people. The middle of the city is a tourist hub organized within the crooked streets of “the old city,” many of which are one-way. These are surrounded by an actual moat which forms a square. Outside the moat are massive “ring roads” near one of which I know live. Ring roads of course go in circles. So it is crooked one-way streets, symmetrical moat, and rings of streets all in one. The point I guess is that irrespective of whether it is crooked inner city streets hemmed in by a moat, or massive superhighways that go in circles, Chiangmai does not fit my mental map of northern California where streets tend to be straight and go in two directions, on both of which you drive on the right side, not on the left!
Chiangmai has a rudimentary public transport system, but it make up for it there is a large population of motorcycles and automobiles to clog up the streets with non-stop traffic (actually it does stop during rush hours, I guess). The local roads department has done much to try to keep up with what I guess is the burgeoning prosperity that large number of vehicles reflect—after all who wants to walk across a city of 1 million when you can drive? Out of this has emerged a vigorous driving culture on the local roads which has developed local norms to deal with the vehicles, the heat, and the needs of a large number of people to get around. Much of this driving culture is unwritten—it exists between the cars, motorcycles, and other vehicles who dance around each other somehow, bustling off in different directions, rarely hitting each other. It seems to work for them, I guess, since I see a lot of bored drivers darting about, looking for openings through which they can legitimately squeeze. The operative term for them is bored. It must be nice to be bored and accustomed to Chiangmai traffic patterns, meaning a condition in which reflexes are reflexive and automatic, as you are acknowledged through all those unspoken communicative signals that flash back and for between vehicles which share the road.
But bored is not the operative term for me, though. I am instead on edge all the time while driving in Chiangmai. To Chiangmai, I bring my northern California driving habits. These do not work! I normally drive in California bored—I know the culture, highway design is predictable for me, and every auto I’ve driven in California is organized like the others. Meaning that turn signals are with the left hand, windows are clear . Not so in Thailand, and auto design is only part of it.
First days were dominated by the fact that Thailand drives on the left side of the road. Thus my reactions start out being backwards. Some of this results in predictable buffoonery. Walking to the driver’s side rather than the passenger side. Using my left hand to turn on the signal indicator—which instead turns on the windshield wiper on a perfectly dry day. Looking over the wrong should for traffic comes up too. Not a good situation. Fortunately though in about two weeks my hands, feet, and heads are beginning to adjust.
More confusing is the external engineering, though. By my California sensibilities, on ramps are short, and street signs in strange places—they are both too early for me to plan a turn, and too late. Parking habits are odd, too, and then there are all the motorcycles. Motorcycles on my right, on my left, and in-between. Stop signs do not seem to work the accustomed way, too—particularly the ones at the end of the short on ramps which seem to work more like “Yield signs” in California. Then there are the merging lanes themselves which are just—different.
How do I know all this? The dent in my car from a tree growing in the parking lot of the Thai Department of Motor Vehicles reminds me that things are different, really different, here. My door has a new creak as a result to remind me of this every time I get in the driver’s side.
What is becoming the most amusing thing though is the art of the U-turn in Thailand. The Thai road engineers have developed the U-Turn to an elevated art. There are special U-Turn lanes in the most unexpected places, like just before you make a right turn to cross traffic (i.e. like a left turn works in right-hand drive countries).
Less amusing is all the window tinting used in Thailand. Ostensibly to control heat, it blocks me from making eye contact with my fellow drivers—something I suddenly realize I do regularly in the United States where such dark tinting is not allowed. Replacing this some type of language between cars which seems gracious. People let people merge in and out fairly easily, even if you do not make eye contact. Such is the nature of much of culture, i.e. what E. T. Hall called “The Dance of Life.” Dancing is what I do in northern California, I guess. As for Thailand for now I am a very awkward and timid dancer, as the dent always reminds me.
So, as the psychologists say, my “fight or flight” instinct is always on when driving in Thailand, which makes me jumpy and “hyper-vigilant.” So, I do indeed look forward to the day when I too can be bored in Chiangmai traffic, like all the other bored driver zipping around me on roads, even if I do occasionally still drive on the wrong side!