Imagine a fairly wide two lane road. Two way traffic. On the left side (they drive on the left in Thailand) there is a ‘fluid’ lane for scooters that is generally regarded as being on the left side of the single car lane. In other words, in normal traffic the lane is wide enough for both a scooter and a car to travel. NOT safely but ‘safe enough’.
The ‘fluid lane’ is sometimes even marked like a bike-path might be but it is not marked on most roads, only the three-lane highways.
Because most roads in Thailand are divided by medians and barriers, that means that any scooter wishing to go the other way (legally) has to travel in the wrong direction for usually half a km and then cross lanes of traffic after making a u-turn and then, maybe having to do it all again to get back to the other side. Expedience and blind faith long ago suggested ‘cheating’ for short return trips instead and there is a steady counterflow on the far, far left side of your lane for ‘cheaters’ going counter to you. In the scooter lane, you go by them (they are in counterflow) but it is their job to give you room. Most of them do. NOT all.
So you have a truck or SUV a smidge too close on your one side as you beetle along at 50 kms and you encounter scooters going the wrong way on your left side doing about 30kms. They are to the left of your usually unmarked and fluid scooter lane. Adding to the mix is a the occasional three-wheeled, 4+ foot wide, ‘working scooter’ used to carry materials and so the counter flow can require extra space now and then. Put another way, the single-but-generous lane you thought you shared with the car is now shared by scooters going the opposite way.
And Thais will park anywhere they want to stop. Even on freeways. So the ‘parked vehicle’ is always in the scooter lane and the imaginary scooter counterflow path. Parked vehicles are like venturis. They constrict the traffic flow even further.
Of course, some scooters are slower than others and so the quicker ones will pass the slower ones and so the counter flow may have two scooters-abreast or a 3-wheeler coming at you while, at the same time, a scooter from behind decides to pass you (between you and the cement truck). That means the generous single lane is often occupied by four scooters and a vehicle. Sometimes a parked vehicle, too. That can get a bit nerve-wracking.
I confess that I have managed to adjust to it all and the above melee is something we navigate all the time. We are acclimating. Sal screams rarely now and has even stopped holding on real tight. My ribs have lost the grip-marks.
Two nights ago was the exception. That night was sheer lunacy-on-wheels, mobile-madness, death-by-Honda. It was chaos at maximum kms. OMG!
It was Cha am market night. They do the Hua Hin night market-thing on a smaller scale but only on Wednesdays. And, of course, they locate the market in a smaller, tighter space with only one way in and the same way out. Traffic is unbelievable chaos.
And then they added something new to the mix.
We, of course, were deep in the 4-vehicle flow-lanes-in-one mode of driving when lo and behold, scooters started coming at us in the opposite direction from the opposite direction car-side of the lane as well. It seems that scooter traffic going the other way, when thwarted by traffic jams will resort to simply driving in the opposite traffic lane.
That means our fellow SUV or cement truck has a pack of scooters coming right at him.
He’s not stupid nor does he have any moral qualms about crushing the fools but, of course, instinctively he encroaches a bit on our limited space. And we squeeze the counterflowers on our left. We all have to tighten up so the maddest of scooter drivers can drive down the middle of the road.
Of course, our lane has mad scooter drivers too and so some of our guys do the same thing to their guys. Now we have the most death defying phenomena ever: a flow and counter flow of death-seeking lemmings in the middle of the road where there is simply NO ROOM WHATSOEVER even if everyone on both sides tightens up. Worst case: FIVE lanes of scooters and a vehicle vs FIVE lanes of scooters and yet another vehicle passing in opposite directions, at speed, at night with some counterflowing on your left and your right but all in your lane. All this in two official lanes.
And then they make it MORE interesting.
No one ever stays in their ‘fluid’ lane. Even the SUV/truck has to turn now and then. So the scooters are always moving and flowing between lanes jockeying for a quicker route to the night market’s BBQ chicken and hot sauce.
Thai traffic abhors an unfilled space. If you are five cars back from the light but there is a crack of room for your scooter, you are obliged to take it and wend your way through and past other scooters and cars until you are at the front. If you don’t, you will get beeped to move up by the scooter behind you.
At the light, the vanguard is a ten or so wide scooter pack all ready to scream off handle-bars to handle-bars across the intersection. By a silent agreement, the mothers with tiny babies and/or three children (not uncommon for four or so people on a scooter) move off rather slowly (even tho they went to the front of the pack). The single guys are moving fast before the light even changes and those, like us, who are two up in the middle are supposed to move en masse and in unison.
“Can it get worse?”
Absolutely. On market night the nearby shops and stalls spill out and occupy the sidewalk so pedestrians are always stepping off into traffic. They do not look first. Stray dogs are everywhere, too. And they don’t look either. Scooters stop for no reason as do the cars. Sometimes a truck stops and the driver gets out to unload stuff. A massive swirling blob of traffic-jam results instantly from the unexpected lane-blocking.
And there is the inevitable, old Farang on a bike, too. They are from Europe. Usually Dutch, it seems. That syndrome is weird. “A bike is safer” goes the thinking but I don’t see it. I just see bikes as slower moving targets. The Thais feel the same way.
And on it goes. Stalls of hanging BBQ being hand-wheeled into place but using the traffic lanes to do so. The odd Harley or big bike without a muffler roaring by and scaring the hell out of you. A couple of times even the narrow counter flow lanes occupied by a truck going the wrong way. Vehicle door openings. At anytime and anywhere.
Last night was a bit much. I admit that. There were more than a few times traffic showed up when I least expected it. When that kind of thing happens, my instincts are to go faster and find the open spaces if I can. I break for the open field like a scared rabbit flushed from the bushes. I know the pack of rabid hounds is behind me but if I go faster, at least they won’t run over me. It’s an instinct, not a plan.
We got up to the market, bought dinner and got home in record time. Fast. Way, way too fast. But we made it. Some of the guests at the place we are staying walk on Wednesday nights. “Too scary to be out there on Wednesday night. Too slow if you take a cab. We just go somewhere nearby on Wednesday.”
Next Wednesday, so will we.