For The Working-Class Kids Of Bangkok's Public Transportation System
23.08.2012 - 23.08.2012
In 1861, Ernest Michaux invented the bicycle, and it has since been widely regarded as man's greatest invention to date. While i am certain that - given the time and resources to do so - i could surely do better, and that both Sainsburys' tiger bread (not Tesco's, it sucks) and my Mother's doughnut-shaped chocolate chip cake also give it stiff competition, i have to admit that the bike-lovers may well have a point. In recent times i had even become a bit of a bicycle enthusiast myself, after spending many of my days in Tasmania and New Zealand on Michaux's inspired invention.
After deciding against cycling around the sprawling island of Phuket (opting for a motorbike which had not yet learnt to turn left or right instead), i was yearning to cruise round the chaos of Bangkok, clipping the lazier tourists with my handlebars, waving ridiculous and confusing gestures to the locals and no doubt crash into one, or many, of the grotty fruit stalls that lined the dusty streets. What a triumphant day it could be! However, after inquiring at a couple of places for my vehicle of choice, it quickly became apparent that, while there were '12 Million bicycles in Beijing' (courtesy of Katie Melua's random lyrics), there were absolutely none in Bangkok. Instead, as it turns out, there is a method of transport found only in Thailand that was willing to redeem my adventurous, and slightly crazed, spirit; and even i, in my over-enthused state, was not prepared for the afternoon ahead.
As a recent tour guide of mine has pointed out, the 'Tuk-Tuk' gets it's name from the sound that it produces. While i question the true accuracy of that explanation, i actually like the name. It gives it a childish, fun quality that you don't get very often these days. The world is now so worried about health and safety, rules, documentation and the law that the idea of a baked-bean tin on wheels covered in ridiculous Lady Gaga-esque attire, named after what i'm pretty sure is a common phrase spoken only between 9-month old babies appears impossible. But let me tell you, it most certainly isn't.
After cramming into the back of our lime-green, 'VIP'-titled Tuk-Tuk of choice, Shenae and I get talking to our driver. He tells us his name and answers our basic questions that we often ask the strangers responsible for keeping us alive in the concrete jungles of Asia. Despite being in his 50's, his head barely rises above the modest roof of the Tuk Tuk, and his face and skin remains youthful and fresh, despite needing a hot shower or three. As our guide, he would take us to all the places we chose on our super-cool, super-touristy and super-confusing fold out map. Well, at least that's what we assumed would happen. As he strangely leans over to whisper in my ear, i learn the inevitable fate of our previously-optimistic city tour. "If you go to this place, i get gas coupon. Okay?", he says softly, with an expression of both optimism and the more realistic feelings of desperation and hope. It appears that the vehicle itself is not the only object of simplicity and youth; the drivers are just as impossibly and endlessly satisfied by what appears to be the Thai equivalent of a kid's goodie bag. Our ride is the party and his payment is the slice of chocolate cake or woopie cushion. It's ironic that we chose a Tuk-Tuk branded with the word 'V.I.P' really; must stand for 'very irritable passengers', or 'very impatient people', or maybe 'virtually irrelevant plan'. It's as if he knew!
Unfortunately for us, children always get their own way, and the party inevitably progressed on his terms. This was particularly hard to take at first because Shenae, my travel companion on this adventure, also has an incredible knack for getting what she wants, and also strongly resembles a child during the early parts of the day. But i guess that's just the way the world works. The harsh truth about childhood is that it can sometimes be a battlefield, and our driver truly was trained and well-armed. So we stop at a jewellery store for a 3-minute wander (the visiting time necessary to earn a gas coupon), before finally heading to our first destination; the golden buddha. To some extent, a buddha is a buddha, a temple is a temple, and overly-cautious 'good buddhist behaviour' is overly-stupid; so we stroll around, get told off, do some stupid poses, get told off again, take back the surprisingly fashionable scarf that we paid 20 baht to borrow for respectful access in to the temple, and leave. I do actually respect Buddhism, at least as far as religion goes anyhow, so i may have exaggerated the lack of respect shown by our behaviours... or maybe not.
Back in the Tuk-Tuk our driver is already preparing to leave and craving candy, so we jump back in as he wisks us off to our next unknown destination. I pray that the golden buddha will make my wish come true; that we will make it through Chinatown without stopping for gas coupons or any other delicacies he desires. I squint at every jewellery store we pass, every clothing shop or watchmakers. It's like trying to predict the lottery, except much more difficult; there are way more businesses in Bangkok than there are possible sequences of lottery numbers. There must be. How else could a journey that we have agreed to pay for, and in which we have clearly specified our chosen locations, feel so aimless. Perhaps the strangest thing of all is that we are smiling and laughing almost all the way through it. We are still chatting to the toddler who has kidnapped our afternoon and turned it into a children's treasure hunt; and chatting way more than is normal at even the most drunken of social events.
After getting through Chinatown unscathed (thank you Golden Buddha, i promise not to replicate a stupid meditation pose whilst humming right in front of you next time), we run through a number of potential places he'd like to take us. Surprisingly, he dismisses all of my suggestions as they are all "too far away" and there is "too much (traffic) jam" at this time of the day. "Fine! Just take us somewhere nice", i finally suggest, giving in to his obvious wishes and my own growing fatigue at trying to fight what was clearly a hopeless battle. So we lie back in our grotesquely-green chair and watch the muttering locals, roaring motor bikes and tuk-tuking tuk-tuks (apparently) pass us by, until the sun starts to set and we reach our hotel just in time for our next optimistic endeavour.
Yes, there was another coupon-stop during the afternoon; a jewellery store we had already been to the day before. At first i felt no sympathy towards him when his head dropped, realising he would not be rewarded for his outrageous detour towards the shop. But, obviously forgetting the most powerful tool at every child's disposal, i strangely started to wish him another of his beloved gas coupons (providing he wasn't secretly American of course). How do children always manage to foster forgiveness and love towards them and others? Perhaps this is why they live so happily and, yet, so selfishly at times. Maybe we should learn from the Tuk-Tuk, their drivers, and all that they represent, because we all have our own desires; whether it be money, success, a tour of Bangkok or a simple gas coupon. The key is to accept the intrinsic motives of others and allow them to play out alongside your own, for it's the happiness of others that often brings joy to ourselves. Just as my afternoon in Bangkok shows; you might even enjoy the wishes of others more than than your own. I pay him generously for the 'adventure' we had and wish that more things in life could remain as disjointed, unpredictable and, therefore, as truly appreciated as the child and the Tuk-Tuk.