There have been many people I've met during my years in Thailand who have advised me to learn to read Thai. As yet I'm still battling with the spoken language and I'm a great believer in taking things one step at a time. Learning to read can wait. However, there are times when you wish you could distinguish all those funny squiggles that pass themselves off as the Thai script. Never more so than when you find yourself on a non air-conditioned red bus hurtling down the expressway at 90 mph instead of crawling up Sukhumwit Rd at barely walking pace.
This happened to me just the other week and all because I failed to read the battered cardboard sign that the driver had placed in the window informing passengers that this was a special bus. Alarm bells had rung when the conducter asked me for 5 baht instead of the usual 3 and a half baht fare, and now as housing estates, office buildings and districts with unpronounceable names whizzed by, it became obvious that I'd dropped an almighty bollock. I found my palms becoming sweaty and wondered if I'd ever see home again. And the brain makes you do stupid things in these moments of blind panic - I actually got up and rang the bell much to the delight of the driver and conductor, not to mention a few of the passengers who were by now stifling giggles. I stood there for what seemed an age - the last man standing - the only bloody man standing. "Look at that farang who wants to get off in the middle of an expressway" Eventually the bus got off the expressway and drove into a suburb that I knew not by name but only that it was f***ing miles from home. I was finally able to get off.
The sensible thing to do at that point would have been to ask for directions, but if you're anything like me, you feel a gross embarrassment at having lived here 12 years and still be hopelessly lost. I can picture a scene where I walk up to a Thai businessman and ask him directions to Ramkhamhaeng. "You want where?" he cries incredulously, immediately drawing a crowd of curious onlookers. "Hey farang - tell everyone where you're l ooking for" and I slide away defeated as a bunch of Thais wipe away tears of mirth and stuff handkerchiefs into their mouths.
This altogether forgettable incident made me think of some of the other perils that the farang faces when travelling by public bus. To you they may seem trivial but they kill me man. Why is it that the ticket inspector only ever gets on when you've mutilated your bus ticket beyond recognition? It never happens to the Thai passengers. They always put their bus ticket in a special bus ticket shaped compartment of their purse or they tuck it inside a gold ring or wedge it in the crack of the seatback in front of them. Not me. I've spent the whole journey rolling the bus ticket between sweaty thumb and sweaty forefinger and rubbed all the numbers off. And now I've got the ordeal of a ticket inspector who looks like a cross between Oddjob from Goldfinger and a Slovakian hammer thrower.
Windows never open for me on non-aircon buses. They never ever open. Other passengers are sliding their windows up and down like its an Everest double-glazed storm window - but mine won't budge. That's usually when the tiny Thai female sitting behind me comes to my rescue and raises the window with a simple flick of the wrist. All that remains is for me to give her a weak smile rather reminiscent of an old man who's just had soup wiped off his chin by the matron.
One of my absolute bus-travel terrors is a male conductor on air-con buses - the number 8 route along Sukhumwit seems to be the worst. I'm not sure what the exact qualifications are to be a male bus conductor but terminal deafness is certainly one of them. It matters not one jot how easy your destination is to pronounce - Siam Square - you can't get any bloody easier than that - you still have to repeat it four times. And that's if you're lucky. Usually the conductor will see a farang holding a 20 baht note and take 2 visible steps back. This sub-consciously always makes you lower your voice. And then he knows he's got you. "Aray na khap?" "Siam Square" Blank looks all round. Let's have another go. "Sa-yam Sa-kware" More blank looks. Bollocks, I'll get off here and get a taxi.
And it's funny how when you're a farang sitting on a bus, you're always the last person to be sat next to. Do the passengers draw straws at the bus stop? But of course even the most xenophobic Thai would rather sit next to a foreigner than stand up. So you get the office worker who keeps nodding off on your shoulder, the market vendor whose personal hygiene falls way short of scrupulous, and the old Thai-Chinese geezer who still remembers the good old days before farangs invaded his country.
There are always those times when there's no choice but to take a crowded bus in the Bangkok rush hour. Is it just me but does a farang suddenly take on the size and shape of Marlon Brando on a crowded bus? Your arse is sticking in an old woman's face and your elbow is wedged in a businessman's ear and is that the fifth or sixth time that you've trod on that young girl's foot? I don't know what it is but you start to resemble a giant Toblerone - every time you move, you knock someone's wig off.
And getting off a crowded bus. Don't talk to me about getting off a crowded bus. It's an art form. A skill they just don't teach you at school. The Thais can get from the back of a crowded bus to the front in seconds - like liquid mercury, but as a farang you have to plan your getting off strategy about six bus stops ahead - and you still end up man-handling half the bus.
Q: Had fun on the bus?
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