musings on music, travel, books, and life from Southeast Asia

The Motorcycle Dialogues

I ride motorcycles every day of the week. No, I don’t drive the darn things; I’ve never driven a motorcycle in my life and I don’t think the traffic-clogged streets of Bangkok are the ideal venue to initiate such an experience. For now, I’m content to be a passenger on the back of one, letting a motosai taxi driver takes me to my destination. The beauty of taking a motorcycle in Bangkok is that they are nimble enough to weave through the lanes of idling cars, stalled in traffic, getting you to your destination in a fraction of the time it would take by conventional auto options. The downside, of course, is that the distinct odor of exhaust fumes clings to your clothing long after you have reached the end of the journey.


Earlier this week, I took a motosai from Thonglor to the Foodland on New Petchburi Road. Virtually the whole way there, the driver engaged me in conversation. Taxi drivers can be very chatty, but I rarely get a motosai driver who strikes up quite such an extended conversation, and indeed, I felt like I was in the back of a regular taxi, the way this guy bombarded me with so many questions. All the way down the street, other motorcycles are whizzing by us, we’re passing buses and cars, the wind is blowing through my hair, and in general it’s pretty damn noisy, but I’m leaning closer, straining to hear the guy, and trying not to fall off the damn motorcycle. All in all, not exactly conducive to smooth conversation. But still, it was a memorable experience, and this guy was very polite and inquisitive. When he dropped me off at Foodland, I paid him the normal fare, smiled and waved goodbye, wishing him good luck. Who knows, I may run into him again next week.

I’ve become pretty good friends with a couple of motosai drivers from my neighborhood in the past year. I always go to the same motorcycle stand near my apartment, where about ten drivers (a lot fewer than the throng who work at the busy end of Thonglor) sit and wait for passengers. Two of the drivers, May and Team, will drop by my apartment, maybe two or three times each month, after they get off work. For an hour or two we’ll sit around drinking beer, chatting, watching videos on YouTube (football/soccer tricks and drag racing seem to be their favorites), and listening to music. Pongsit Kampee, a popular Thai folk singer-guitarist in the Pleng Puea Cheewit style, is always the music of choice. But I especially enjoy the conversations. It helps me practice my Thai, but I also learn more about the lives and work routine of these drivers. Most of them come from provinces in the north or northeast of the country; May and Team are both from Nakhon Ratchasima. They often work long days in the heat and sun, or nights in the driving rain; no air conditioned lounges or comfy sofas for these guys to sit and relax. If they stay fairly busy, and don’t have too many debts to pay (motorcycle payments, “taxes” to neighborhood “bosses” who regulate the taxi services, petrol costs, etc.), they might clear 10,000 baht per month (about $330). And of course they always have to worry about the possibility of accidents, or being stopped by the police and forced to pay fines for sometimes non-existent violations. It may be a nice, independent lifestyle, but these motosai drivers aren’t getting rich in the process.


May and his other friend, Ben, came by my apartment one night last week. I asked May if he was free the following day. I needed to leave work early, drop by my doctor to pick up a prescription, and then go to the Air Asia booth at the Tesco Lotus store on Onnut to change a ticket. Having a single motosai driver to take me to those places, and wait for me, would be much easier than having to arrange transport at each point. May was pretty sure that he could do it, but asked me to call him the following afternoon to make sure he was free, which is what I did. After calling him shortly after four o’clock, he was parked outside my bookshop and waiting less than ten minutes later. He took me on my appointed rounds and when it was all over, as I reached in my pocket to pay him, he waved off the money. “Not necessary,” he said. I tried again, but he still refused to take the money, leaving with a big smile on his face. Maybe that’s payment for all the beer that he and his buddies have been drinking, but I’d like to think it’s also because that he and the other Thai motosai drivers are simply nice people, kind folks just looking to survive the rat race in this crazy concrete jungle.

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