The Art of Walking in Thailand

As I exited the plane in Heathrow for a business trip I was immediately struck by something. I couldn’t put my finger on it at first but then it suddenly hit me. These people seemed in a hurry. Several even seemed like that had a purpose. I guess I had been in Thailand so long I forgot what it was like when the point of walking is to quickly and efficiently get from Point A to Point B.

In Thailand and especially in Bangkok, walking is a window into how many Thais live their lifestyle. You will never see the hustle and bustle of other major cities like London, New York, Hong Kong, or Paris. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. Instead of people pushing and shoving to get from one place to another as quickly as possible the Thai style lacks even a destination let alone a hurry to get there.

The first thing you have to learn about walking in Thailand is to slow down! The second thing you have to learn is that it is your duty to slow others down. You’re doing them a favor. How can one possibly expect to embrace the true Thai experience moving quickly?

What I will outline here are some simple rules for helping you get by in Thailand and how to share the laid back lifestyle with others.

The Mobile Telephone

If you don’t have one . . . scratch that. If you’re in Thailand you obviously have one. You were born with one.

Now that you have your mobile, you should be aware how it works. When you are on the device speaking with someone on the other end you are magically transported to a dimension where nothing else exists but you and the person on the other end of the phone. It’s sort of like reaching total enlightenment in that you are able to shut out all distractions and be at one with the other person.

The importance of understanding this is that in this other dimension you can pause on a crowded street, stand in a doorway or other narrow passageway, or slow your forward progress to a speed that can only be captured on time-lapse photography. In your dimension all of the people you are preventing from getting to where they need to go don’t exist.

Texting and Operating Your Mobile

The second best thing to being on the telephone is to be texting with it or in some other way be operating your mobile phone. This is usually best done in crowded areas where you can impede as many people as possible. For instance, during times of heavy traffic on the BTS or MRT immediately start texting your friends to tell them you’ve arrived at the station after only taking two steps off of the train.

The people that you are blocking getting onto and off the train will appreciate your reminder that they should slow down and not take life too seriously.

Arrows are for Followers, Not Leaders

Speaking of the BTS and MRT, those yellow and black arrows indicating the optimal flow of traffic for people getting off and boarding the trains are merely suggestions. Don’t ever feel the need to follow convention. If the arrow clearly shows that this is the path people will be exiting the train from and suggests that you stand to the side to allow this to happen, don’t assume it to be true. Maybe the train will miss its mark and everyone else will be wrong.

The same can be said for places like BTS walkways. Just because people on the right are moving in one direction and people on the left are going the opposite direction doesn’t mean it’s right. Challenge them to question the meaning of life by going against the direction of the traffic. They will thank you for this.

I’ll Make That Decision When I Come to it

If you ever find yourself about to go up a flight of stairs, enter a building, or take an escalator, now is the time to decide if that is really the best choice for your life. You don’t want to make a rash decision so give yourself time to think. It will also give the people behind you time to reflect on the meaning of life.

Oh, and speaking of escalators, when you are exiting them, always remember to stop and think if this is where you thought it would take you. The people behind you will appreciate the realization that sometimes we are not in control of our own destinies and life will take us where it wants to even if that means being forced to ram into you because the escalator is pushing them forward.

Straight Lines are Boring

One thing that is absolutely imperative about walking in Thailand is to never walk in a straight line. It’s so ingrained in the lifestyle that the police can’t even use it as a sobriety test since many people have grown unable to perform the task.

It’s much better to drift from one side of the sidewalk to the other. The narrower the sidewalk the better. You’re like a NASCAR pace car. You make sure that none of the people behind you can pass which reminds them to slow down and take things easy.

If your drifting becomes too predictable and someone threatens to pass, switch up mid-drift. Start to drift right and when you catch someone trying to pass you on the left simply start drifting left again.

The ultimate drift move though is the look and drift. Maybe you’re caught by surprise and you suddenly hear footsteps coming up behind you on your right. Simply look over your right shoulder and start drifting into their oncoming path. It’s so effective because when you stare someone in the eyes while blocking their path they will be shamed by the fact that they were violating the Thai walking etiquette.

The Carrot and the Stick

If people need extra convincing not to pass you, remember, when walking the proper arm movement is side to side, not back and forth. This way if someone tries to inappropriately pass you the threat of catching one of your flailing arms in the groin will dissuade them. It also helps if you randomly make wild sweeping gestures with your arms as those wearing athletic supporters (which they started wearing the last time they took a shot to the testicles) now have the fear of getting inadvertently whacked in the face.

This is also a very effective move if you’re carrying huge shopping bags of any sort. Sure, a flailing hand to the gonads hurts but taking a can of baked beans to this soft region will stop all but the most foolhardy.

Never Be Afraid to Correct a Mistake

Let’s face it, we all make mistakes. Sometimes you think you were going somewhere and then you remember that you were going somewhere else. It happens to all of us. Just the other day I was about to get on the train for Mo Chit but decided to go to On Nut. Whoops.

But rather than cautiously looking around for an opportunity to right yourself, abruptly stopping and/or doing a blind u-turn is always the right answer regardless of how crowded things are. The other people will understand (we’ve all done it) and nobody will be annoyed or think lesser of you (save face).

Stop and Smell the Roses

Street vendors spend a lot of time and effort setting up their little stalls around Bangkok and it seems unfair for someone to simply walk by and not show the respect of admiring their work. After all, they’ve gone to all the work to narrow the sidewalk down to a single lane why can’t you be bothered to look at their goods?

It doesn’t matter if you walk this path every day and know exactly what they sell or if they have the same exact goods as thirty other vendors on the same street. A simple pause at each stall as you walk by lets the vendors know that people appreciate their hard work. It also reminds those behind you that they should show their gratitude as well.

Group Outings

Groups have a special duty to protect the art of walking in Thailand. Anytime one or more people are walking together they are obliged to create as large an obstacle as possible.

If only two people are together, holding hands and then walking as far apart from each other is the acceptable formation. Nobody can pass between or on the sides of you (remember to swing those arms).

Larger groups take more practice but it will soon become natural as everyone learns their part. First, you must learn to stagger your formation similar to a military patrol. Here’s a six person example.

|A  B           |
|         C  D  |
| E  F          |

This allows you to completely block off anyone coming from behind. The leader is usually in the A or B position and should from time to time need to communicate with C,D,E or F slowing down and tightening up the formation because it is easy to become spread out which would allow others to snake their way through the formation.

Street Vendors and Bystanders

Just because you’re not traveling anywhere doesn’t mean you don’t have an obligation to slow people down as well. Street vendors already have a good start since they’ve blocked off a good portion of the sidewalk with their stalls. But you can certainly do more.

One of the most effective ways to share the art of walking in Thailand is to randomly cross the footpath in such a way as to force people to either stop or ram into you.

For instance, if you’re a vendor on lower Sukhumvit where the stalls line both sides of the footpath, simply decide to go stand on the other side of the footpath as people are approaching. Pretend to adjust something or look at your merchandise and then cross back again.

A true master at this maneuver can do it with their eyes closed. In fact, that is part of the mastery. As you hear someone approaching – with your back to them – just shoot out in their way without bothering to look. I mean, it’s a crowded sidewalk with thousands of pedestrians passing daily; how can anyone blame you for just shooting out onto an active walkway? It’s your store!

Another variation on this is instead of shooting out into the on comer’s path simply gesture wildly with your arm to the other side of the pathway thus nearly decapitating anyone foolish enough to come within arms length of you.

Another effective method is grossly overstaffing your stall. If you’re making 4 or 5 sales a day you should at least have seven family members working for you. And the more unruly children you have around the better. There’s nothing like a small child landing his head in someone’s balls to remind them to take notice of the small things in life.

Conclusion

Walking around in Thailand is not something that should be done with the intention of getting anywhere. Life is too short for that. You should take the opportunity to meditate on life and if possible share this gift with others by showing them the benefits of slowing down, contemplating life, and living in the moment. Believe me, they’ll thank you for it.

16 thoughts on “The Art of Walking in Thailand

  • December 18, 2009 at 4:03 pm
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    Nail on head. I think only an advanced physicist could figure out how an old lady with 1/12 my body mass could completely block me from walking past her on the sidewalk.
    Don’t forget another post about how important it is that you jump into the elevator or subway or skytrain AS SOON as the door opens and before anyone else gets off, lest the door malfunction and cut you in half laterally.

  • December 18, 2009 at 5:12 pm
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    I’ve often been frust frustrated by the walking behaviors you describe – never could understand how a country that loves to pack the maximum amount of people into the tiniest amount of space – as a matter of choice because Thailand has tons of free space – somehow doesn’t manage to develop the etiquette to deal with such a crush of humanity. It’s incredible, but they dont.

  • December 18, 2009 at 6:38 pm
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    I was at Carrefour, Ratchada, on the second floor, when I realized that I had forgotten my mobile phone at the video-store, downstairs.

    It took me about 20 minutes to reach the first floor; nobody let me passed! I was expressing my hurry by shaking my head, making *shhhh shhhhh* sounds while rolling my eyes, jumping from left-to-right and right-to-left like a boxer warming up for a fight — but no, nobody moved.

    Turned out they were right; my mobile was in no hurry to go anywhere, after all.

    I should have know better!

  • December 21, 2009 at 12:15 pm
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    There is nothing like receiving the look and drift when trying to pass a slow walker to make you feel like a total creep. The key is that the “look” must be calibrated just right. Even though you’re walking down down Silom mid-afternoon and you know there are other walkers sharing the pavement with you, imaging the would-be passer just walked in on you in the shower seems to do the trick.

  • December 21, 2009 at 10:30 pm
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    I did not enjoy this article.

  • December 22, 2009 at 7:15 pm
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    Another one to add to the list: Never look ahead. Always look down at the sidewalk and never look more than 6 inches in front of your feet.

    Oh, and one I just saw about 20 min ago walking back from Pratunam . . . if you have a baby in a stroller and you’re walking down a crowded footpath (you know, like the one around the bridge opposite Central World) always take your baby out of the stroller and attempt to walk the baby and push the stroller at the same time. Bonus points if you just came from Big C holding groceries.

  • January 1, 2010 at 6:35 am
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    I live around Sukhumvit soi 24. Every morning I sit down to drink my coffee in the morning at this cafe’. I almost always see this older Farang lady, about 75+, very thin, very healthy but looks very frigile. She walks slowly but surely and she seems to know how to avoid all the traps and mines that are built into the Thai walkways….She looks like she has lived here for a while and I ask my self: she must be tough to have survived Bangkok’s streets and side walks…It is always a pleasure spending a couple of hours looking at passers by here…

    BTW, I almost killed my self a hundred times over before I got used to the Thai way of walking!!

  • January 1, 2010 at 6:36 am
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    BTW, Happy new year to all….I hope we can have even more fun in the L.O.S!!!!

  • January 1, 2010 at 10:40 am
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    Thais don’t walk, they dawdle. One of the things that used to drive me nuts was when I’d be walking towards a Thai person, or a group of Thai people, and I’d move to the left, or right, thinking I was being polite and almost one hundred percent of the time, they’d move in the same direction. We’d then get into this stop, start, left and right dodging and weaving game and which would inevitably lead to me either stopping, and letting the little buggers dodge around me, or just barging through. It used to be bloody infuriating until a mate gave me some helpful advice.

    1. Walk at half pace
    2. Walk straight ahead and if you’re big bodied (I’m about 108 kg) they’ll dodge around you.

    Tried it out at MBK and it works like a charm.

  • January 2, 2010 at 7:05 am
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    @MEGA: I use a bit of a similar strategy at times. One of the things I hate is when they – for no obvious reason – decide to begin veering in your direction. If I’m walking down the far right hand of the sidewalk and the other person comes from the far left and crosses all the way over so that we’re on an intercept path, I’ll just square up and let them bump into me. I’m bigger than they are.

    I’m not a complete jerk about it. I mean, I don’t go out of my way bumping into people or anything like that. I would say the situation only comes up every couple of weeks or so. But if they look like they’ve made an effort to be on a collision course with me then so be it. I’m not going to try avoid you if you’re making no effort to avoid me.

  • April 24, 2010 at 8:25 am
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    My wife (who is Thai of course) walks incredibly slowly. I find it hard work to walk as slowly as she does. When we are walking together sometimes I speed up to a dawdle which causes her to lag behind. I have to stop and wait for her but even worse, she walks with varying degrees of slowness. One time we were crossing a busy intersection when I felt her pace slow halfway across the road. I took her gently but firmly by the elbow and guided her to the opposite kerb before eighteen lanes of angry Bangkok traffic came bearing down on us. She growled at me and sulked for the next couple of hours.

  • April 25, 2010 at 1:31 pm
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    Every Thai person I’ve even hung out with has asked me why I walk so fast. I don’t really consider myself a fast walker unless I’m late for something so my response is always “I don’t walk fast. You walk slow.”

    I said that to a very good friend of mine and she said “Why do you say I walk slow?” I said it was because all Thais walk slow. That kicked off into a bit of a heated debate so I told her I would prove it to her.

    We got off the BTS at Siam Square and started walking down the street. A group of three university students was meandering and stopping to look at every vendor cart while staying three abreast so nobody could pass.

    I looked to her and said “See?” She responded “It’s just one group.”

    We kept walking.

    Soon we were held up by two university students yapping away on their mobiles not paying the world any attention. We got caught behind them.

    I look over at my friend “See?” She shoots back “Okay, two.”

    We keep walking.

    We barely pass the university students when a gaggle of Thai university students block the entire sidewalk. They’re walking at a pace that requires them to shuffle their feet rather than actually walk.

    I turn and I don’t even get to open my mouth before my friend says “Okay! Yes, Thais walk slow. You win!”

    On a related note:

    I was out with my girlfriend the other day and we were going up an escalator to the BTS. I said to her, “You know, I’ve never seen a Thai walk up an escalator. Even if they can see the train and know they’ll miss it if they don’t hurry, they still wait until the escalator reaches the top before they start running.”

    She turned at looked at me like I was retarded and said “Of course. If you are on something that is moving why waste your energy?”

  • May 7, 2010 at 1:32 am
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    This was great! Got a great laugh out of it and responses! Sooooo true!!!!!!

  • March 28, 2011 at 12:49 pm
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    LOL I loved the opening. My husband and I are forever moaning about the Thai snail stroll. Jai yen yen mantras help 🙂

  • December 13, 2015 at 8:45 pm
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    This has not changed and it is now 2015

  • May 26, 2017 at 7:40 pm
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    2017 and I am laughing so hard right now. This is my everyday agony in a nutshell!

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