Sunday, August 7, 2011

A Broken Bus In Bangkok

Or Krungtep, it is more apt to say. “Bangkok” is so Farang. Foreigners christened it Bangkok long ago and the Thais, God bless their cheerful souls, tolerated the misnomer. Not like those stuck-up Chinese, with their “Beijing,” and their cranky insistence that we all get with the program. Who cares if foreigners call it Peking? The Chinese do, for one thing. Thais see it all differently. For them Bangkok will always be Krungtep; if foreigners want to call it Bangkok, well, who cares?

There are a thousand bus lines in Bangkok, it’s official. Last year for the first time I saw buses whose numbers were larger than one thousand. Then, there are the sub-lines, the 36 “gaw,” as in gaw-gai, the first letter in the Thai alphabet, and the undifferentiated lines where the usual “71” becomes the short-bus, different colored version, numbered also “71,” but which travels only a small portion of the route. So there’s a lot of buses in Bangkok, a city of twelve million people, almost all of whom work and must get there somehow.

And the buses all seem to work very well. I have very rarely seen one broken down on the side of the road, and until today I had never experienced a bus breakdown myself. Well maintained, I’d say, the buses that is. Some of these are Mercedes or Mitsubishi buses almost as old as I am, still chugging along. I would attribute this to the quality of Thai occupational education. Every province has multiple institutes of semi-higher learning, technical colleges, where one can spend the last three years of high-school, plus one year for good luck, mastering one occupational skill or another, including auto/bus/truck mechanics. These schools must do their work well, because Thailand is full of not only old buses, but also, even more so, of ancient motorcycles that still run like fine timepieces.

But today something went wrong. I was engaged in a longish bus ride on the number 545, a line now served by buses of three colors. This may be a feature unique to Bangkok. There are 545’s that are blue (the older ones, not so many anymore), orange (the even newer ones), and yellow. The yellow ones are the most numerous, and that’s what I was riding today. They are newish buses from China, the manufacturer is Hino.

They are nice buses. Today we made it most of the way to my destination, some twenty kilometers away and yet only half-way through the route, with no trouble at all, nor any hint of trouble. But yet, half a mile or so from my destination, the bus, then at idle in stopped traffic, suddenly gave a kind of death-rattle accompanied by a gasp and died. Subsequent attempts to start it would certainly turn the motor, but there was nothing like a spark or an explosion anywhere in the effort.

I recalled that I had discussed these new Chinese Hino buses with a Thai friend of mine. “They look very nice,” I said, “and they seem to work well.” He gave a knowing look, and said, “they’re only good for one year.” After that, he said, it all went terribly wrong. Maybe he was right.

For me, the story ends happily. Thailand is a wonderfully well organized place. All of these bus lines are, across smaller portions of their arcs, served by smaller vehicles called “song-taow’s.” These are the pick-up trucks with two rows of benches in their covered beds, and with shorter trips and lesser accommodations they cost less than half of the price of a bus trip, making them quite popular. The drivers are very astute, they can spot a dead-in-the-water bus from a mile away. As soon as one pulled to the curb in front of our bus, everyone got up and the bus ticket-seller, the woman that I usually refer to as the “Bus Hostess,” announced that we’d better jump on the song-taow because the bus wasn’t going anywhere soon. So it all worked out.

Add to this the good fortune of the day being overcast, and quite-relatively-cool, yet no rain fell. Sometimes it is a wonderful world after all.

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