So there I was, bottle of Singha in hand, strolling along the street through On Nut (a suburb of Bangkok) towards the Skytrain station to go meet friends, when this car brushed past me – a matter of millimetres from connecting – angled off the road, and crumpled itself into first the lamppost and then the wall directly in front of me. Had he been an inch further over, or had I been one second further ahead, I would’ve been squashed very much between a car and a hard place.
This was one of those typical roads which make up the capillary system of suburban Bangkok; not the wide thoroughfares which compose the major arteries, not the alleys of central Bangkok with their houses and shop fronts opening to the street (and, accordingly, high foot traffic and – one would hope – therefore more careful driving), but a narrow road between the high outer walls of housing developments, very much for the favour of suburban drivers rather than those on foot.
Fact is, like pretty much all major SE Asian cities, most of Bangkok outside the downtown core just isn’t a very walker-friendly place; but I am very much a walker, someone who likes walking here, there, and everywhere, and started out trying to do so when I first moved to Bangkok. This was in the winter months, when the relatively cooler and drier weather makes walking (just about) bearable – in the months of the hot season (March to May) and wet season (June to October), the idea of walking any real distance in Bangkok is mental!
But living there in the cooler months, I fancied I could try walking a bit – at least for the couple of miles to the Skytrain station, instead of taking a songthaew or a sketchy motorbike ride. The songthaews get horribly packed, they get snarled up in traffic, and they leave you breathing all the fumes; the bikes are way faster and more comfortable (and more expensive), but I just don’t like getting on bikes in SE Asia… the drivers all have helmets, but you don’t get one as a passenger… and I’ve seen an accident in Vietnam and an accident’s aftermath in Cambodia, and you ain’t getting me on a bike.
Anyway, much as I may love Bangkok, I quickly learned that even with decent weather walking can be pretty unpleasant in the Thai capital; the roving packs of soi dogs can be outright dangerous (and the guard dogs in peoples’ gardens are also thoroughly obnoxious as you pass), the waterways you cross smell utterly foul, the suburban bushes are overflowing with garbage, and, as I experienced that evening, walking puts you in the line of fire of some of the shittiest driving on the planet.
As I walked along that narrow road with no sidewalk I kept myself between the drain and the wall, as you do, the small space which serves somewhat as a pedestrian walkway. As you walk along there, the cars are passing perhaps two feet from you, so it’s pretty close already; all it takes is for someone to fall asleep at the wheel, be a drunk-driving piece of shit, or somehow or other lose control and drift over slightly, and you could find yourself directly in their path.
I guess this guy who missed me by a whisker in his shiny sports car (not so shiny any more, dickhead – ha!) had dozed off perhaps fifty metres behind me as he drove along this straight stretch of road, and drifted over to his left; thus he angled off the road, just missed me, and wrecked his car right in front of me, right where I would’ve been walking a second later.
“Holy. fucking. shit!” pretty much sums up my immediate thoughts, followed by, roughly, “well, shit, this car just nearly killed me but now I’m the closest person to the scene of an accident and I guess it’s on me to help the occupants, if I can.”
I didn’t yet have a Thai SIM card in my phone so I couldn’t make an emergency call, but I could see a few people looking on from the 7-Eleven at the corner of a side street up ahead, and some were on their phones; so I just went to check on the car’s occupants, ready to (at least attempt to) recall and finally use some long-since-forgotten first aid training, if necessary.
But I wasn’t even sure who was in there, never mind their condition. If you spend some time in Thailand, you’ll notice that many cars drive around with blacked-out windows. This seems especially true of the cashed-up ‘high-so’ (high society) rich kids who drive around drunk in their daddy’s flash cars, and I now found myself looking at such a car, all smashed up and with steam venting profusely from the engine.
I couldn’t see in through the windows to check how may people were inside, so I just hurried round to the driver’s door, which was still operable – unlike the passenger side which was utterly mangled, as would have been any poor soul sat on that side.
Opening the door, I found the driver was thankfully the sole occupant, a local lad of perhaps 18; he appeared to be uninjured, so I asked him if he was ok… and the smell of hard liquor hit me square in the face. This fucking little dipshit smelled like a goddamn motherfucking whisky distillery, was clearly in no fit state to be behind the wheel, and had just only very narrowly not killed me. He looked blearily up at me through glazed and bloodshot eyes and mumbled something unintelligible; disgusted, I let rip with a torrent of the most colourful expletives I’ve possibly ever unleashed, which I doubt he comprehended a word of – even if the guy did speak English he was too shitfaced drunk to do so at that point in time.
Obviously, if this had been the UK or Canada or Japan, I would’ve stuck around to give the police a statement and tell them that this stupid little prick just almost killed me. But it occurred to me that if I did so that evening, in that city, I might just be making things worse for myself; you can’t exactly trust the police when you’re in a military dictatorship (even one like Thailand which at least outwardly looks somewhat functional), and if this kid was indeed the son of a rich and powerful family he could very likely wriggle his way out of any real consequences anyway – as have so many of Thailand’s ‘deadly rich kids‘.
So did I really want to go through any ballache dealing with the police and the bureaucratic nightmare that might result? I decided not, and hastened away from the scene, leaving this drunk-driving douchebag still sat in the driver’s seat of his expensive wreckage; a short time later I heard the wail of sirens, and hopefully the police found him still sat there and he was appropriately punished. Even if not, he’d just written off an expensive vehicle and I like to think he at least learned a lesson from the resulting financial consequences, or preferably from being ripped a new one by his old man.
So I continued on my way to meet friends in Asok, and told them over beers about my lucky escape; they shared their own stories of the many accidents they’d witnessed in Thailand, mostly involving bikes and scooters. And in the mere four months I lived in Bangkok, I went on to see another three accidents (all involving bikes), but thankfully nothing too serious.
Looking the stats up, Thailand has the 2nd-highest per capita road fatality rate in the world, behind only Libya. It’s actually quite odd – Thailand is wealthier and more developed than the neighbouring countries of Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, and has far better infrastructure, but yet manages to have a much worse road safety record. Surely this is something their government should be trying harder to rectify, but sadly it doesn’t seem to be a priority. Have a read of this sobering BBC report, and check out this amazing video about Bangkok volunteers who spend their time taking care of deceased traffic victims, with the utmost respect and dignity; truly, truly, very impressive people, but why are volunteers even required to do that? Sort your shit out Thailand (if you’re not too busy jailing people for writing Facebook posts and the like)
So anyway, what does this mean for a traveller to Thailand, and SE Asia as a whole? Well, personally I’ll always take a metered taxi instead of a tuk tuk or moto (air conditioning, windows, and metered fare vs rip-off with traffic fumes in your face – already no contest before you even consider which one comes out worse in a collision), and you will never, ever catch me renting a motorbike or scooter in Thailand or anywhere else in SE Asia. Or in fact anywhere else at all, for that matter, because I don’t have a scooter licence and I know that means my insurance wouldn’t cover me in the event of an accident.
The best way to not be in a bike accident is, of course, to simply not rent a bike; but if you do, make sure you’re actually insured to do so – something which requires you to have a proper licence. If you’re not, and you have an accident, and it’s serious, you’re basically fucked.
You also won’t catch me taking any (more) night buses in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Indonesia, etc – I have done so on a number of occasions, especially in Indonesia where distances can be huge (think one driver for two days straight, sleeping only at meal stops – as I experienced during a pretty terrifying journey on the Trans-Sumatra Highway, though at least it led to me learning to appreciate Led Zeppelin), but you know, it just isn’t worth it. Crashes do happen, and the night buses can be pretty shitty experiences even when they arrive safely.
And of course you may very well be in an accident through no fault whatsoever of your own – so again, make sure you have decent insurance. Check out World Nomads as they offer flexible travel insurance which you can purchase even after you’ve already left your home country – I once found out how important that bit of small print can be when my camera got pickpocketed (which was, in fact, another lesson I learned in Bangkok!)
Just a week or so after my near-miss with a drunk-driver, I got bitten by a dog… at that point it seemed like Bangkok was trying to tell me something, and though I stuck around a while longer I stopped walking to the Skytrain and I was already making plans to move back to my beloved Taipei. Bangkok remains one of my favourite cities to visit, but I doubt I’ll go back to live there again!
Any stories or questions about Thailand’s roads? Leave me a comment below!
For more Thailand posts, click here
Check out my Thailand overland travel guide
Photo credits 1:Pedro Alonso 2:Walter Lim (both via Flickr and used under Creative Commons Licence)
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