Scooters simply aren’t safe. As we found in Rarotonga, though, they are worth it.
When we were in the islands last year, I remember someone saying “Oh, yeah, well I would ride on here, but never in some crazy place like Thailand.” Little did I know.
The first day on a scooter in Thailand is simply terrifying. There are no two ways about it. The noise and exhaust and chaos is overwhelming. What is more, there is no way to ease into it. At every hour of the day and night there are people speeding and weaving around cars and pedestrians and you. You have to go for it with gusto, or you will cause an accident. If you are going to drive a scooter in Thailand, you have to be bold and keep up.
That goes no matter what lane you are in. Or even if the lane is not going the way you are. The centerline is sometimes an impromptu lane for the bold. Sidewalks are fair game if no one is walking on them and you can find a way up the massive curbs. The other side of the road is a giant turn lane when you catch the light … and at other times. And, when the roads get to narrow for cars, you just sneak through wherever and however you can.
You drive between lanes of traffic a lot. At a red light, all scooters are expected to move up between the cars and congregate in designated areas at the front of the column. This applies even if the traffic is backed up for a hundred yards or more, which can happen at rush hour. As the larger vehicles slow to a stop, the scooters form into snaking lines dodging side mirrors and wide trucks, all zooming toward the front.
When it gets too slow and narrow, you still inch ahead with your feet down until you are all bunched up at the front. Then the light turns green and you are all off in a roar in every direction like sparks shooting out from a fire. Some are turning left out of the right side of the pack. Others are going straight from the back at a blinding pace. You are turning right from somewhere in the middle. It is like a Shriner Parade on acid. You grit your teeth thinking everyone is going to hit the deck. Somehow, every time, light after light, it just works.
From extra passengers to improbably large loads of fruit and luggage, scooters are the main engine of commerce and transportation in much of Thailand. For the Thai people, the scooter seems as natural and as much a part of life as horses are to gauchos or Mongolian herdsmen. You are practically born on two wheels, and almost as soon as you can stand, you get to stand behind the handlebars. Nearly everyone rides or has ridden at some point in their lives.
Therein lies the secret to keeping it all working. Everyone knows that scooters are everywhere all the time. You look for them when you walk, and when driving a car you inch along slowly like an elephant, giving room and moving ponderously so you don’t crush someone. And that keeps it all going. Big things lumber along slowly, scooters zoom ahead to get out of the way.
And it could be no other way. Thailand simply could not function without scooters and motorcycles. There is simply no way to move the number of people you need to move on roads so small and traffic-choked. The density of urban development won’t allow for parking many cars. What is more, the scooter is so astoundingly cheap that it becomes a liberating, mobilizing and practical form of transportation for the masses.
And even if you could run Thailand without it’s bazillion scooters, it wouldn’t half as much fun. Thailand translates to “Free Land” in Thai, and there is no freedom quite like two wheels and an open road. Even if that open road is full of cars going the other way.