Recently I was on vacation with the family at the island of Phuket, Thailand. We were there for ten days and I noticed some things which left me with several unanswered questions.
When you go to western countries or advanced Asian nations, you expect the drivers to be disciplined and traffic to be organised. Thailand is a country that joined forces with the Japanese in WWII and fought against the Allies. After the war, its economy was in shambles. Ever since, it has faced political turmoil and several coups, the most recent being in May 2014. In fact after Haiti, Thailand has possibly seen the highest number of coups in the world. Though the economy has done well in periods of stability, Thailand is far from being an advanced nation. Despite this, the drivers are very disciplined and traffic moves in a systematic manner. For those ten days I did not see anyone sounding the horn. Not only was there no honking, but everyone was very accommodating on the road and ever ready to make room. Not once did I see any motorist break any traffic rule or drive rashly.
You would imagine this is because of heavy presence of traffic police on the streets and highways. Believe me, I never saw a single traffic policeman. In fact, the only police patrol car I saw was in Bangla Street, which is where all the Go-Go bars with scantily-clad girls are located. The girls also perform all sorts of naughty shows. This street is rocking through the night and gets really crowded. But even here, though traffic moves slowly, nobody honks or drives aggressively.
The vehicles are mainly Japanese and Korean. I did not see a single premium brand. And they still use mopeds, unlike India where only TVS makes them and their sale is restricted to specific areas. But while the vehicles in Phuket, and even the roads, may not be anything to write home about, the way its people drive and follow traffic rules is certainly very impressive. They also respect pedestrians and stop the moment you step off the pavement. Yes, they actually have pavements where you can walk. Most of our cities have few pavements and even the ones that exist are either taken up by hawkers or are in no state to walk on comfortably.
What I fail to fathom is why such a difference - why is honking a way of life in India? Why is it that we drive so badly? Why are we so undisciplined? Why do we turn without looking? Why do we overtake in the face of oncoming vehicles? Questions about our driving habits are endless. And I just cannot stop wondering why. Is it a cultural thing? Are we really 'like that only'? Thailand is also a nation influenced by the Hindu religion. They have temples where Hindu gods like Ganesha, Hanuman, Rama etc are worshipped. Given this, how come the Indian culture of being a complete idiot behind the wheel is not seen there? If you have any answers please do write in.
Another thing which left me befuddled was the honesty of people, especially that of taxi drivers. Most of the local taxis are rickshaws or small vans known as Tuk-Tuks. They have no meters. So you ask for a price and fix one. Almost everyone quotes the same price. Then you can negotiate and get 10 to 15 per cent off. The Thai people like to negotiate. But they are not cheats. Let me give you an example. We needed to go to the airport and wanted a van as we had lots of luggage. The hotel quoted Thai Baht 1200 (1 Baht is about Rs1.9). I asked a van driver on the street and he said 800 Baht. On the appointed day and time another driver turned up with a van. When I asked him about this he said, The driver you fixed with is my friend. As he got another booking he sent me." In India, the driver would have just not shown up and left you high and dry at the last minute. The new driver who had come, took us to the airport in great comfort. When I enquired how much I needed to pay, he replied, Why you asking? You fixed with my friend for 800 Baht, so give me that." In our country, I can bet you that the driver would have wanted more and said this is my rate - not the one quoted by the other driver.
Before I end, I must tell you what happened on our return. At Mumbai's Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, there are counters where you can book a prepaid private cab. I booked a Toyota Innova and paid Rs1,400 for it. After we loaded the luggage and got into the Innova, the driver disappeared and left us in the sweltering heat. He returned after 10 minutes and when asked said, I went to say bye to some friends." On reaching my residence, the driver confidently said, That will be Rs1,400." I told him I had already paid in advance. He asked to see the receipt. After I showed it to him he smiled in a sly manner and said, Try marna to banta hai na saab (I was just giving it a shot, sir)." Oh darling, yeh hai India!
This column appeared in the July 2015 issue of OVERDRIVE.