The first Chris vs. car near-incursion of the day occurred just before I crossed the second driveway south of my apartment complex. Half a step into the driveway, which leads into an office tower car park, I glanced over my right shoulder and caught a black Nissan signaling the intent to turn left. Sure enough, the driver pulled left into the very driveway that I was now two steps into. Having improved my reaction time significantly over the past four weeks, I halted in my tracks and the Nissan’s dusty fender whizzed by two feet from my kneecaps.
This daily ritual, repeated at countless intersections and driveways, provides a satisfying theory why Buddhism, with its underlying belief in reincarnation, is so prevalent in Thailand. With the threat of being hit by a car so very real, there is something comforting in the belief that you will be able to come back and do it all again. If you do not get it done this life, you can get to it the next time around.
The street I live on, Sukhumvit Soi 21 (also known as Thanon Asoke), is a major artery into and out of the financial district and the Sukhumvit entertainment area. There are four lanes: two inbound, one outbound, and another that alternates between inbound from 6:00 to 16:00 and outbound the remainder of the time. Or whenever market forces and nerves of steel dictate.
Picture 1: Asoke intersection – my apartment is the second building on the left of the picture. Interestingly, there is another 7-11 located directly across Asoke from the one in the picture. Too dangerous to cross the street for a Slurpee!
Unlike in the sprawling United States, traffic is so heavy most of the day that there are rarely any stretches of time when the lanes are free enough of traffic that you can cross without fear. Instead, you have to shift your mentality and use one of (or a combination of) three strategies to get across:
- Strategy 1: The “Frogger” Strategy – Like the video game of the same name, your objective is to focus on crossing just one lane at a time. Once your past the first lane, you wait patiently on the line between lanes, looking for an opening across the next lane. One thing to watch out for: the ubiquitous motorcycles that cut between lanes and slalom around pedestrians.
- Strategy 2: The Go for the Break Strategy – If there is a break in traffic that is even just a few cars long, you can step into the road and fill the break with your body. In some circumstances, the oncoming drivers will recognize your claim to the space, especially if the traffic to your left is stopped or backed up. You can continue across using a similar ploy ?if one lane stops, the next lane will likely stop, too. Again, watch out for motorcycles. This strategy is especially effective for the lane closest to the curb as stopping busses and taxis cause a break in the traffic flow.
- Strategy 3: Safety in Numbers – Usually if there are at least three or four people on the curb, you can step out together and your odds of getting hit drop dramatically. Drivers may be willing to risk hitting one pedestrian or even two, but once the numbers get large enough, they may concede a few moments’ worth of space for you to cross. Sometimes groups of pedestrians may even attract the attention of a police officer who is directing traffic and, on rare circumstances, the police officer may actually stop the traffic for them!
There is a special fourth strategy, but this only works for Thai people. It is known as “Cross Behind the Farang.” Farang is the Thai word for foreigner and it usually refers only to Western-looking foreigners. Foreigners who are Asian or look sufficiently Asian can use this strategy sometimes because a Thai automobile driver may not have the time to judge whether you are really Thai, or are Chinese, Filipino, Lao, etc.
In this strategy for crossing, you look for a farang who is waiting to cross the street and then go stand just behind and to the left of him or her. (Traffic comes from the right in Thailand.) Wait for the farang to start crossing the street and then walk across closely in his or her wake. You see, Thai drivers generally are less likely to hit a farang because if they do, they are legally obligated to stop and provide aid. And this will mean talking with him, knowing full well that the farang likely speaks no meaningful amount of Thai. Figuring this is just too much of a headache, most Thai drivers will come to a screeching halt just a few inches from your legs instead of endure an injured farang mumbling, or worse, yelling in English.
All this is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, of course. The only time that I have been close to being hit was a few weeks back over on Soi 19. The windows on the black SUV (very rare things here in Thailand) were rolled down and when I looked up at the driver, it was a farang behind the wheel. Probably some half-drunk ex-pat who thought he was being clever and scaring a tourist.