March 21, 2012—Twenty hours later, Wide Open touched down on a bright Thursday night to a thermometer that read 92 degrees Fahrenheit and a relative humidity of about eighty percent at Sukhumvit Airport. Even without the humidity we desperately needed a shower. A few miles away, about fifteen million people were trying to stay cool and hoping for a late night downpour to refresh the air, if only for a while.
It was a trip to Bangkok, Thailand to visit a friend but hoping that we could also sample car-culture in one of the largest cities in the world. While Bangkok isn’t quite a mecca of motoring, the hope was that we could capture a taste of “Fast ‘n Furious: Tokyo Drift” in the Far East. As it turns out, Tokyo and Bangkok are vastly different cities (shocker!). While some people in Bangkok are immeasurably wealthy, the majority of people do not have the disposable income more abundant in Tokyo. And while Thailand is home to a fair bit of automotive and motorcycle manufacturing (Honda and Toyota have factories there, for instance), it lacks Japan’s established tuning houses.
This is not to say that every car in Thailand is a Toyota Corolla. But even in this city of fifteen million, seeing any car that could qualify as “built” takes some effort and a lot of patience. However, the enthusiast’s experience in Bangkok might actually be better than in Tokyo. Rather than attempting to find some obscure street racing location in the middle of the night to watch local boneheads make a run or two, you have your choice of increasingly terrifying modes of transportation.
First is the Metro or SkyTrain. These are your common, everyday subway (or elevated) trains. They’re nothing special except that they play super-annoying commercials on the TVs installed in every car. For some reason Thai marketers seem to favor screechy, yelling women in their ads. One ad in particular, which features a screaming cow and shrieking orange flying off of a roller coaster and colliding in mid-air to form some sort of creamsicle drink, was especially intolerable. But the trains are safe, mundane, quick and efficient.
Next is the generic taxi. These are usually painted hot pink or bright yellow and may or may not decide to take you where you want to go. For some reason, if the destination is too far (we’re talking about more than three miles, not “driver, take me to Shanghai and step on it”), the driver may simply refuse to take you. If anyone knows why, please explain it to us. We were dumbfounded. As the cabs are metered, the driver will make more money if the trip is longer. Sometimes we had to wait, sweat dripping, after asking several cabbies for one to take mercy. This makes no sense to us.
The local bus is next in the safety hierarchy. Pretty much like any city bus, only without air conditioning and filled with smelly, sweaty people. The city bus isn’t so much scary as it is uncomfortable. I’d rather spend a couple more baht and take a cab.
Walking is also an option and you obviously see much more this way, but when it’s over ninety-five degrees every day with tropical humidity, the appeal of this option fades quickly. Also, while on foot, this writer was clipped by a scooter in Chinatown after looking the wrong way and attempting to cross (they drive on the left side, British-style in Thailand). My bad.
Then there is the ubiquitous tuk-tuk. This is a covered three-wheeler with two or four passenger seats. Before even describing the experience, we should point out the type of courage required to pilot one. You see the driver straddles the shift knob—so in the event of a collision, his delicate bits are going to meet the shift knob very, very quickly and painfully. Sitting in the back isn’t far better though, because they’re open on both sides and very noisy (they’re frequently powered by two-strokes). Also, tuk-tuks aren’t metered so the driver is free to name his price. This is why native Thais don’t take tuk-tuks.
The tuk-tuk was probably a design which evolved from bicycle-powered rickshaws and to this day maintains the original layout with one wheel in front and the two drive wheels in back. While this may be charming and old-timey, it’s also inherently unstable. We saw a couple of tuk-tuks lying on their sides.
The last rung on the ladder of scary is the scooter taxi. The rides are virtually free (when converted from baht to dollars), they move through traffic efficiently, can flow through the gridlock of Bangkok and the wind provides a nice cooling effect. Do you get a helmet? No, don’t be silly. By the way, do you know what happens when a scooter is hit by a car? The riders get to do a Superman impression.
Each option has its merits and drawbacks. There are also water taxis in the form of long boats. On these boats the engine, transmission, prop shaft and controls are mounted on a two-dimensional pivot and manipulated by the driver as needed, rather than using a rudder. Take a moment to think about that—the engine, usually a car's four-cylinder, and transmission are moved along with the rest of the drivetrain!
But aside from the different transportation experience possibilities are also the customization options. You see, people in Bangkok love their shopping. There are six- and seven-story shopping malls. And not just one or two, rather there are several next door to one another in a few places in Bangkok. Well, one of the shopping malls we discovered was dedicated to car accessories and parts. Looking for a ‘DOHC’ sticker? It’s there. How about a Greddy intake and turbo kit? It’s there. Rims? Check. Lights? Horns? Exhausts? Turbo timers? Check. Check. Check. And check. It doesn’t matter what parts you might be looking for, they could be found there or ordered from one of the many stores.
In Chinatown, there were a multitude of scooter and motorcycle repair shops. Guys were working on bikes on the sidewalk and in makeshift garages. So while we didn’t see Vin Diesel taking on the Yakuza, it is a vehicular wonderland. We just wish we could have fit some Thai Domestic Market goodies in our suitcases for the flight home. [kiWO]