“This is not a story of heroic feats, or merely the narrative of a cynic; at least I do not mean it to be.” Those are the opening words penned by Ernesto Guevara to his best selling memoir posthumously published in 2003. My story is not comparable in scale to his epic motorcycle journey along with his friend Granado, as they rode across South America. Mine is about my far more localised and urbane experiences as a passenger on motorcycle taxis over the past two decades in Bangkok. Even if you don’t own a motorcycle, even if you own a car, many people eventually end up on the back of one sooner or later in Bangkok.
Motorcycle taxis meet one vital travel need that exists as a result of Bangkok’s traffic congested streets — the gap between walking and taking a car that public transportation cannot always address — hundreds of thousands of individuals utilise them every single day. When you ride on one, you experience the city and grasp daily life from a very different perspective compared to walking — one that is in stark contrast to the cocooning isolation of cars. You feel, see, smell and hear the city in all its full intensity combined with the occasional adrenaline rush of close proximity to danger, the exhilaration of speed, and yes sometimes the less than romantic weariness and exhaustion that comes with being on the back of a motorcycle — in the worst of traffic, in a monsoon rain, when it’s flooding. Motorcycle taxis represent some of the most essential threads that weave their way in and around Bangkok’s streetscapes, helping to form the larger fabric of this city.
The first time I rode on the back of a motorcycle taxi in Bangkok was in 2001. I had only been on a motorcycle once before in my life, in Washington DC, as a passenger on a very high performance machine — and very briefly at that. So there I was one morning with a friend, we had gotten off the Skytrain at Soi Thonglor. We were on our way to his house to a family lunch further up the Soi. My nervous response to his suggestion that we take a motorcycle, was a very apprehensive “Really?”. He looked at me like any long time Bangkok resident looks at someone newly arrived and clueless — with a mixture of amusement, pity, and devilish delight in seeing someone squirm.
What made me more apprehensive was that he insisted on both of us getting on the one motorcycle, rather than taking two separately. Now in Thailand most motorcycle taxis are really more scooters than Harleys. Ducatis they are certainly not. I didn’t think three people could or should fit on one. He insisted it was perfectly normal and that we’d definitely be fine. So we got on and the only advice he gave me was to not overthink it and lean whichever way the motorcycle momentum tells my body to lean. Good and accurate instructions, but not exactly reassuring.
Before I had anytime to even ask if we needed helmets, we were off. Now as anyone who’s ever been on the back of a motorcycle knows, there is only one set of passenger foot pegs to position your feet — providing stability and balance. When there is a third person on the back, this person, i.e. me, has no such chance of leveraging their balance. So there I was speeding down the Soi weaving between cars and holding on to my friend like he was life support with my feet sticking out left and right like some semi spatchcocked chicken. Not an attractive sight.
Much to the amusement of my friend, any of my initial apprehensions quickly faded away. Despite my awkward form, my first ride remains a happy memory. It was one of those rare cooler December days in Bangkok where traffic was light and the motorcycle managed to gain some speed. When the conditions are right — like they were that morning — riding through the maze like back streets of Bangkok can be a revelation. Cool air becomes cooler. Your senses are naturally heightened on motorcycles, so you notice more. You become more aware of the streetscape, the shopfronts, the people in cars, the street vendors, the building facades and the often ornate gates of residences. You see all these things in a different light — in large part due to the fact that you’re not driving. On a good day, riding on a motorcycle in Bangkok can be a joy.
Of course there are also bad days. Let’s not pretend there aren’t any. Riding on a motorcycle is not a game. You have to have your wits about you and it can be downright deadly. But that is all part of life in Bangkok. It make you feel alive.
Motorcycle taxis, with their bright orange high visibility vests are usually the first things everyone notices on the corners of just about every major soi that connects with a primary thoroughfare, especially if the soi has a certain mix of residential or commercial occupancy. I live on one such soi. Although not lengthy, Ruamrudee is a soi that links two major traffic arteries in the heart of Bangkok’s embassy district and like any other soi, has its own localised quirks when it comes to motorcycle taxis. I live near the end of one of Ruamrudee’s sub-sois. Living on a dead-end street means less traffic as well as a different composition of motorcycle taxi drivers servicing it. In my soi they are older, fewer in number and they have an ease and indifference to them that is in contrast to the younger, more intense, mafia-like sort that gathers during the major traffic hours of the day at the motorcycle stand at the beginning of Soi Ruamrudee, off of Ploechit Road.
The motorcycle stand positioned at the right angle turn on my soi is a modest affair. There is one rather lonely tree that provides partial shade, until the annual city-wide tree branch pruning occurs, whereby the tree is then festooned with ropes that attempt to hold up a temporary and largely ineffectual tarpaulin roof. Sometimes a standing umbrella or two appears. There are a couple of eclectic chairs that have been donated by somebody in a nearby building. There are the reused PVC paint buckets with their lids (because they’re waterproof) serving as portable lockers for all manner of personal sundries in addition to standing in as makeshift alternate seating or foot rests. There are the large gallon-sized water bottles for the obvious reasons. On occasion, there are other people sitting there (women), who are obviously not motorcycle drivers who chat away, eat snacks and seem to just be there to keep the drivers company — most likely maids from some of the nearby residences that populate my soi.
Due to the quieter nature of the soi I live on, not that many people use motorcycle taxis. Most of my neighbours drive their own cars, in addition almost as many seem to have drivers, and with taxi hailing services being what they are now few people walk up and down the soi. Except me that is, as well as a handful of other people, more often than not, they are foreigners. We form an unintentional cadre of sorts. We regularly acknowledge at each other and say hello. All the guards and building maids on the soi seem to recognise me and my fellow pedestrian residents and being that there is an embassy, a couple of dining establishments, a boutique budget hotel on the corner and several high profile residences, my soi is a particularly safe one. Despite the obvious affluence of the area, there is a village-like atmosphere to the streetscape made more apparent on foot. This is particularly felt in the early mornings when people of all walks of life emerge from their houses and apartment buildings to offer alms to the solitary monk and his disciple who make their way to my soi every morning. There are no stray dogs and while my soi lacks a raised footpath, it is remarkably well maintained, free from the less desirable elements commonly seen in other parts of the city. In addition to recognising each other, my fellow pedestrians and I also know our motorcycle taxi drivers well, and they in turn know us.
Anyone who lives in Bangkok and uses motorcycle taxis learns quickly that there exists an unwritten but commonly understood code of conduct.
First, there is always a queue and order to how a motorcycle taxi is hailed. You can wave, thinking you got one until he drives right past you because you didn’t realise someone further down the soi hailed first. You will realise your faux pas when either the motorcycle won’t stop for you or the person you didn’t notice further down the soi will object vocally, and loudly. If you are at the beginning of the soi you get in line and you need to be aware of people on the other side of street also in need a taxi. My building has a very quirky but highly effective way of hailing a taxi. Rather than having my guardsman wave a big red flag in the middle of the street — like most other buildings — to get the attention of the motorcycle drivers, my building utilises a red traffic light on a stick that juts out from the guardhouse. I’ve never seen this anywhere else in Bangkok.
Second, always remind the motorcycle driver that you’re approaching your stop ahead of time because despite working the sois day in and day out, or perhaps because if that, they can have a glazed, almost autopilot state of being and can forget to stop — you probably would too working in the conditions they do everyday. You never want to be on the back of a motorcycle that has to stop suddenly. It is not a pleasant thing. Your already fragile sense of balance completely goes out the window and all sorts of things can happen. The driver will be fine, he has a steering column to brace himself with. You do not.
Third — unlike my first motorcycle taxi ride experience where I grasped on to my friend like there was no tomorrow — in Thailand, unless you’re on very friendly terms with the motorcycle driver you do not hold on to them. In fact most passengers don’t even touch the drivers here in this country. You use your feet to balance against the foot pegs and use your hands to hold on to the rear handle bar behind you at the end of motorcycle seat. To do otherwise, is not recommended — I think I don’t need to explain why.
Fourth, before you get on a motorcycle you better have a good understanding of your centre of gravity in relation to the things you’re holding (if any), and how that changes when your feet are off the ground. If you’re carrying anything that is not strapped to your back, you quickly realise that on a motorcycle in motion and at speed, those things suddenly take on a life of their own.
Fifth, although some motorcycle stands in central Bangkok now have signage indicating set prices displayed to frequently requested destinations, you should otherwise agree on the price before you get on one if you are not familiar with the area or how far you’re going, it just makes for a better experience at the end. Never assume you know what the price should be unless it is clearly obvious or stated somewhere.
Sixth, helmets. What helmets?
In a smaller soi like mine there is a more easily noticeable rhythm to street life that reveals itself more clearly when seen from the back of a motorcycle. I see the same faces working the buildings in my soi — people walking, talking, living their lives street-side and it all adds to my sense of where I live. Because I’m me, I often smile at other people in the street (unlike in New York or Paris this does not make people think I’m crazy) and because this is Thailand they will smile back, occasionally I get a wave. I see the same street vendors — one set in the mornings and another set in the evenings — I see the same street cleaners, trash collectors, even the same customers frequenting some of the restaurants on my street. You notice a lot from the back of a motorcycle. If you ever want to know information about anything on the soi, you ask the motorcycle drivers. They are the unofficial eyes and ears of the neighbourhood and more often then not, they know who comes and goes, at what time, and with who — at least on a soi like mine. They just know. Finally, from the back of a motorcycle you also have a clearer sense of the haves and the have-nots.
Motorcycle taxis are a ubiquitous aspect of everyday life for many people in Bangkok. They certainly form a pillar of mine and I am continually fascinated by the ad hoc customs that have emerged on their own by way of supply and demand and the occasional regulations imposed by City Hall. While I do not see sweeping countrysides or epic mountain ranges the way Guevara and his friend Granado saw on their South American motorcycle journey — memorably detailed in The Motorcycle Diaries — I do manage to observe many socio-economic aspects of life around me from the back of mine. And on good days, I am pleasantly reminded of my first motorcycle taxi ride in Bangkok, again and again.
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