My first weekend at site my counterpart took me on a tour of my new province in her little red Mazda. I only have a bicycle and so am reliant on others for these types of trips. The Peace Corps forbids its volunteers from driving any motorized vehicles while in service, remembering that we are in service for 27 months, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. We can’t drive a car or a pick up truck or ride on a motorcycle or scooter. If we do and get caught, we will be expelled from the country, our Peace Corps service abruptly terminated. Fortunately Peace Corps Thailand provides us with a bicycle and for the most part I can live with that. The policy preventing us from operating said vehicles is in place for our safety. However, it cannot stop us from being backseat drivers.
I live in a mountain village and we have to head downhill to access the main road that wends through the province. I buckled myself into that little red Mazda not really knowing where we were going. As we slowly made our way down through the twists and blind turns we were often being passed by scooters, pick up trucks, even fully loaded song-taews (local buses). My counterpart approached each bend that turned even slightly to the left with such extreme trepidation and caution, as if there was some delicate porcelain and crystal chandelier balanced in the back seat. With her foot off the gas she couldn’t simply grip the wheel and make one bold revolution, hand over hand, to the left. Instead, with both hands she rotated the wheel a few inches at a time. She’d then slide her hands slowly back to the 10 and 2 positions and pivot the wheel left a few more inches, repeating this until the turn was finally complete. Each turn seemed to take an eternity. And then once out of the turn it would take her a good kilometer before her foot found the accelerator again. All the while I wanted to reach across the front seat and yank the steering wheel out of her grip, yelling at her to apply some pressure to the gas pedal so that we could get to where we were going, not that I had anywhere I needed to be.
As I was biting my lip while rounding the curves, I slipped back to the early 1980s. I was in my twenties, a naive small-town boy in the big city and someone I worked with took a broad brush and in one sloppy stroke proclaimed that Asian women are the worst drivers in the world. My counterpart was not helping me disprove this stereotype that had somehow wedged itself into my subconscious.
Overall Thais drive pretty much like we do. I’ve observed that some folks drive slowly, cautiously, others drive aggressively. Thais tailgate and pass sometimes when they shouldn’t, they cut each other off and try to maneuver to the head of the line. I’ve noticed that men, in particular, use their horns a lot. But the horns are used as a warning not as a threat. When a car or scooter is spotted coming out of a side road or driveway ahead, mainline traffic gives a little toot, “Careful, I’m here.” They honk to encourage slower scooters out of the travel lane and onto the shoulder. I have not witnessed Thais blasting their horns in anger at those who cut them off. They don’t flash their lights at the slow moving truck or bus ahead of them, they don’t yell or give people the finger, or whatever the Thai version might be. They simply take their foot off the accelerator and slow down, they accept the slowness or hurriedness or bad actions of others and do not take those actions personally. They fall into line and reconcile themselves to their new place, without anger, without gesture, without blame.
Unlike in the States, Thais drive on the left. Intersections can be free-for-alls, even those that have traffic signals. At 3-way and 4-way junctions, left on red without stopping, without looking, without regard to what the other 3 legs are up to is a given. There’s aggression and passivity throughout but I have not witnessed the arrogance or anger or road rage often seen back home in similar situations. Thais make it work. They avoid confrontation and to show such anger would be losing face and that’s not the Thai way. I, on the other hand, still bite my lip, but I’m slower in doing so. I’m learning.