Everybody’s crying peace on earth / just as soon as we win this war

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
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.
Inside 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.

He did.

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.
The Driver
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.

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Anoth­er glimpse of the mad­man across the water — The Opin­ion­at­ed Diner
March 18, 2012 at 6:30 pm

[…] to find the ener­gy to run to dodge a mini-bus which clear­ly had no inten­tion of stop­ping – it may have been the same one. It was […]

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