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.
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.
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.