This Thing They Call “Traffic” in Chiang Mai

10 01 2014

We had only been in Thailand for 14 hours, and had a whirlwind morning in Bangkok before we got on the puddle hopper, just across the street from the hotel we had landed in. We arrived in Chiang Mai early in the afternoon. The airport was small, and we were outside within 10 minutes, trying to decipher the transportation options. We waited behind a large group of tourists, all awaiting taxis. Nobody was having any luck. It seemed like we could be there for an hour if we wanted a ride in a car or van. Around the corner was the departure drop off, and we wandered over there to try to catch an entry taxi. “Taxi” is a generous term. What we discovered, after trial and error, was that we could pay much less by hiring a “Tuk-tuk.”

tuktuk bethany

Although we had heard stories about how terrifying and dangerous these vehicles are, we were weary travelers, and willing to take a chance just this once. We negotiated what we thought was a fair price, and loaded our packs at our feet, before climbing onto the bench of the tuk-tuk. It was basically a small motorcycle with a hitch on the back, carrying an open-air, two-wheeled rickshaw. I was shocked to see just how nimble this vehicle is. Although the roads have lines on them,  demarcating what one might think are lanes of travel, the tuk-tuk is seemingly immune to such restrictions. Alongside mopeds and bicycles, tuk-tuks can scoot between lanes of cars, or alongside curbs, to get up to the front of traffic. They fly through rush hour traffic, only to get passed again once the light has changed.

  tuktuk trafficWhile this sounds like a recipe for disaster, I was surprisingly comfortable on our harrowing journey across Chiang Mai on the back of an unstable trike. In the U.S., cars would be honking, and swerving over to block other vehicles from attempting to pass, endangering all involved. But here, this is perfectly normal and acceptable. Car drivers are always aware, and expecting to be cut off or passed in a 3 foot shoulder by a dozen smaller vehicles. Instead of honking, they move over. This behavior would be considered reckless where we come from, but here it seemed perfectly safe. As a sister of someone who is permanently disabled because of reckless driving, I would be the last one to endorse risky behavior on the streets, and yet, here I was, feeling remarkably okay with the situation. Who knew?tuktuk kelly

185739_408084849274145_854844882_nAfter checking into our room at the ‘Eco-Resort,’ we explored the shared bathrooms, built in a beautifully open-air grass hut, with cast concrete counters and bamboo columns. We were excited to walk, to get to know our surroundings, and we sat down at the dining hall to inquire about directions back to town. The woman there looked appalled, “Walk to town?! No, I never walk. It take 20 minutes. You hire tuk-tuk.” We looked at her expression, looked again at our map, and decided to ignore her advice. Maybe in the hot, rainy season this would make sense, but we were hearty stock, ready for a little hike. Besides, it was a mere 78 degrees, without a cloud in the sky. We would much rather walk!

motorbike loadedOur path was clearly not common, as we strode past a young man fishing into what looked like a sewer ditch. Then our sidewalk abruptly disappeared and we walked in the road. We wandered past auto shops, convenience stores, and banks, all while being passed by a flurry of mopeds and tuk-tuks, and small trucks. We didn’t mind, since traffic was so slow and respectful here. Nobody buzzed past us within 12 inches at 35 mph, as might happen in the US if you walked in the gutter. That would not be okay. Instead, we walked in peace, feeling safe, although still wishing there was some sort of differentiation between us and traffic. When we turned and crossed the large river into town, we saw traffic slow down even more, caught in the congestion of the Old Town. As traffic yielded, smog thickened, and we were wishing for a pedestrian only zone.

Dogs and roosters ran free, causing more havoc than tourists. The animals, you see, have no fear of crossing the road in front of this traffic. It’s only Europeans and Australians who paused timidly at the curb, waiting endlessly for traffic that will never yield. We quickly learned that in order to cross, you must simply find enough space- and courage- to step off the curb. The rest of your path will emerge as the steady stream of sputtering vehicles bends gracefully around the paths of the individuals.

Crossing the street in Thailand is an act of faith. While the thought of leaving the safe haven of the concrete curb seems scary, I never once felt endangered as I found my way across the tides of traffic. You just have to believe in the cultural norm, and hope there are no tourists on the roads. I lived to tell about it, didn’t I?

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