I’ve been to the borders of hell and back: I’ve been driven (many times) in rural Java. I’ve gone around a corner and seen a bus — countless people hanging off the doors and hugging the roof — being overtaken by a grossly overloaded — and I mean grossly, with the load twice the height of the vehicle — truck swaying from side to side on a two lane road which is better described as one step up from a quarry — on my side of the road.
Without a moment’s pause, Ali (the driver) careered into the grass verge, which I could see somewhere had a ditch beginning in it, and we missed the truck — which seemed to be doing a similar 120km/h to us — by centimetres.
Peering up from the space I was now cowering in near the floor (none of the seat-belts worked), I noted that Ali was calmly tugging on his kretek and txting whilst projecting the clattering, shaking early 90s vintage Toyota van — which in most lands would’ve been long assigned to the junkyard but in Indonesia is seen as a state of the art SUV, complete with welded in seating, long collapsed but still in use — back onto one of the dusty road-behemoth battered tracks that Indonesia likes to call roads.
Another day in Jawa Tengah. We drove on and repeated variations of the same scenario over and over again.
Those days, however, having moved trans-SEA, seemed to be in the hazy past. The endless endorphins that driving in Indonesia pump into your body perhaps blur the long term memory.
Bangkok has heavy, heavy traffic — nothing outside of Jakarta that I’ve seen comes close. Aucklanders talk of traffic issues. I smile and mostly keep quiet. However, more or less the driving verges on the sane and almost rational in the royal city, and, aside from the odd feisty cab driver — a global phenomenon surely — it never suggests rural Indonesia.
It’s funny how complacent time and space makes one. I’d forgotten most of this until earlier this week.
We went on holiday.
It was a brief one to be sure, but last Sunday four of us — Brigid, our friends Blake and Sandra, and myself — went to Hua Hin.
A couple of hundred kms south of Bangkok, I’d never been before but long wanted to. We tossed up how to best get there. Rent a car (seemed like a hassle for two days)? Fly (the trip to the airport and the etc. bits would take longer than the flight)? Train (five hours — it may have a romantic charm on a longer trip away, but not for two days)?
We settled on the bus down. The public bus system in Thailand is, as I’ve said before, quick, cheap and very efficient.
So off we went.
Uneventful and easy.
Hua Hin is absolutely lovely — perhaps best described as a Thai twist on Brighton — a small (-ish: some 90,000 people) seaside town with cute winding lanes, a pier (albeit not quite Brighton’s) and truckloads of character. It is, we were told, partially melded by the fact that it’s the town where the royals holiday, and there a large palace — open to the public when the king or his whanau is not in residence.
It was fun. We ate lots of food, swam, ate more food, found a bar which served pints of beer in frozen mugs, and then ate more.
On the Tuesday we checked out, called the cab and dragged ourselves reluctantly back to the bus station. On the way there the driver pointed at a big blue vehicle coming in the other direction.
‘Bus to Bangkok’, he said.
That’s cool, thought I, they go every half an hour or so.
We were dropped at the office and the woman outside in the clean white shirt with a badge on the front and blue epaulettes said: ‘Two hours.’
We let out a uniform groan.
She offered a mini-bus. We went inside. ‘Two hours’ said the small man in the clean white shirt with a badge on the front and blue epaulettes. He offered us a mini-bus. A choice of two mini buses: one to Mo Chit, or one to Victory Monument.
We nodded and suppressed more groans. The big blue buses are comfy and relaxing. The mini-buses on offer looked too small and cramped.
Two hours is two hours, though, so we paid our 180B each and clambered in.
Aside from the huge crack across the left side of the front windscreen, it seemed fine — newish and clean. I grabbed the seat at the very back — a little higher than the rest of the seats and next to the bags. It seemed roomy and suited to a large farang.
That was my first mistake.
I noted the sign on the window that warned against assault rifles, sex or goats in the van.
As we headed out onto the highway — Thailand has good roading — unlike Indonesia — with four-lane divided highways transversing the nation, I began to think that the road was rather uneven. I was being bumped into the air every few seconds and couldn’t see a bloody thing.
I realised I was sitting over the wheels. And our driver had no understanding of various concepts. These seemed to include passenger comfort, easing into corners, and slowing for bumps or road works. As he accelerated I found myself dividing my time between the roof and the seat. I was being flung vertically every few seconds and my head was more familiar with the roof than my headphones which simply refused to stay on.
The driver was a bloody maniac.
One word came back to me.
Fucking Ali and his fucking kretek flashed before my eyes — as I bashed my crown on the roof yet again. I clenched the handrail to steady myself but it was pointless.
We passed the bus. The 12 pm bus to Bangkok — about twenty minutes after we’d left. Between blows to my head, I worked out we were travelling at an average speed of three times the bus.
Drive safely the big cream road sign said, in both Thai and English.
The van swerved, at some speed and without the usual touch on the brakes to smooth the manoeuvre, off one highway onto another, inches behind the car in front, and we swung into a big gas station and stopped.
I twisted my back into a rough approximation of what I thought it was supposed to look like and crawled forward to a spare seat ahead. My head throbbed from the blows. I sat. I hopefully mused, ‘this seat must be better’.
Blake stepped out for some air. When he returned he was pale. ‘They’re filling the CNG tank — it’s in the front of the van, behind the radiator.’
I felt confused by it all — the blows to the head, my twisted back, and now the cheerless information that we had an IED positioned at the front of a van being driven by a lunatic.
‘At least it will be quick,’ he finished.
The driver, his fag hanging from his lips, pumped the last of the CNG, and then we were off — back to the main highway.
The break and the now-full tank seemed to have added zest and vigour to our driver, who was now snorting out of one of those small plastic bottles that, I’m told by Thai folk, contain something that ‘make you go faster’. Joy.
We were soon hurtling along the motorway at speeds of 140km/h. My understanding has always been that mini-buses like the one we were in would top out at about 100. I was wrong. I’m loath to use the words: dead wrong.
Our speeding — perhaps speed induced — driver was now repeatedly accelerating up to the vehicles blocking his way ahead. When he reached a point a few centimetres from the back of the car or truck in front, he would hit the brakes hard. Our radiator — with the potentially lethal CNG tank just behind it, would be so close to the next car that we could sometimes see what the passengers in the rear seat were reading.
The driver would then drop back and repeat the process over and over again, until either the guy ahead pulled aside, or a narrow gap appeared somewhere — sometimes between two lumbering trucks, whereupon he’d grit his teeth, lean forward, pump the pedal, and — pushing the groaning people-mover far beyond it’s intended maximum velocity — roar through.
Everyone in the van — aside from the Thai girl behind Blake, who was wisely sound asleep for the whole trip — would audibly take a relieved breath and release their white-knuckled grips on the seat in front.
Until the driver, a few moments later, repeated the same procedure, and we all sucked in air and held our breath, grasping quickly again at whatever attached handle or seat edge our hands reached first.
As we hit the outskirts of Bangkok, we passed another bus from Hua Hin. ‘The ten o’clock’, Blake opined. I guess it must have been.
The highway into the city offered no respite — it got worse. We stormed, after a crawling up its back trunk for a kilometre or two, past a grey Toyota sedan. The speedometer said 145. The car took it as a challenge and blatted past us at what must have been at least 150. We then overtook the car and the two of us went back and forth as we bulleted precariously along the multi-lane elevated highway into the central city, swerving from lane to lane, pausing only to stop — from 140 to nought in a flash (we all tumbled forward and my head reacquainted itself with the car body) at the toll gate.
Eventually, we pulled into the garage off Victory Monument and crawled out. The driver stood, smiling, with a thumb raised high.
Last night — in one of those awful throwaway rags that celebrate the horrible world where fat ugly old white men hang out with young wee Thai girls and call it true love — I saw a story about the vans. The writer called these vehicles ‘godsends’. I concur — meeting our various makers — be they Thor, Ik Onka, Allah, Yahweh or the vagaries of Buddhist nirvana seemed like a very real possibility in those two hours.
Ali, you are forgiven.