The Perils of Koh Samui Driving: To Flow or Not To Flow?

In a very Thai way that was quite generous and blind to dangers and the possibility of disaster, the proprietor of our bungalow (The Sundays, highly recommended) gave my wife and I use of a little jeep for a day of sightseeing. The exquisite tropical island of Koh Samui sits in the Gulf of Thailand. A main road rings the island and more traffic fatalities per capita occur there than anywhere in Thailand. They handed me the keys with warm Thai smiles — no signed papers, no talk of insurance, no drivers licenses, and no charge.

Keep to the left side of the road, I chanted. Keep left. Though the left right distinction is more a suggestion. The steering wheel of the jeep was also on the left, giving me a close view of the left shoulder, where ancient mopeds, motorcycles, crusty dirt bikes, bicycles, ATV’s and sandaled pedestrians were traveling both with and against my lane. Vehicle traffic is organic and highly creative on Koh Samui — the chaos of random actors and circumstances involving potholes, wild chickens, trash fires and a lack of street signs. A moped may pass a car on the left shoulder, or on the right going around the center line. A moped going against traffic on the left may also swerve into traffic to avoid a trash heap on the shoulder, a pack of wild dogs, or a woman carrying heaps of bananas. Likewise, a moped going against traffic on the right shoulder, perhaps with a sidecar wooden platform, perhaps containing grandma sitting on a milk crate and shelling shrimp, may go across the center line to pass, or go all the way to the left shoulder should room exist. So, a godlike and exhaustive awareness is recommended to the farang (i.e. Western) driver. Driving was a shock and it put me on edge.

The only rule is to keep hurtling down the road as fast as your contraption can go. Stopping is at a minimum — movement is the thing. If a jungle short cut around an intersection can pop you onto a shoulder faster, then by God take it.

Then there’s The Wicker Chair. Just below the handlebars of a moped, affixed to the frame is where you find them. A tiny chair with arm rests, lashed on with string or wicker. A small child sits there, with nothing to prevent a diapered baby from pitching off at low speed. The wicker chair puts a chill up the spine of most farangs: something about our Western anal retention about safety, our obsession with prevention (OSHA inspectors would have convulsions). Though baby just buzzes along at 20 or 30 mph, relaxed and well-behaved, wind in it’s wispy hair.

A lack of signs made it impossible to find a supposedly spectacular east coast lookout. And death wish motorcycles careening over a blind hill prevented me from turning around. Loss of this objective ticked me off. The constant small engine buzz around the car got on my nerves. What if I clipped a moped and killed someone? The what ifs don’t register with Koh Samuans. Helmets? Who needs them? The thinnest, cheapest Chinese knockoff sandals are all the foot protection you need. “Mai pen rai” the Thai say, translated as “It doesn’t matter,” or “No worries.” And they sputter along on duct taped seats, wind flapping their Thai fisherman pants and faded Nike t-shirts, with beatific grins.

We took a harrowing drive up into the mountains on an undivided road wide enough for only one and a half cars — it’s all about the sharing. Meeting another car was like two people trying to enter a doorway, one person waving the other through. Driving was a test of nerves, yes, but also the challenge of mastering a different type of flow. My Western demand for logic and instinct to blame had to be disarmed. My rigid conceptions of space, of rules… I had to let them go. The roads there are less organized and more dangerous, but also somehow more humane, more understanding. Nobody gets upset. Nobody gives you the finger. It’s all smiles. After all, a moped has to swerve around a muddy hole. A confused farang in a jeep can’t be blamed for slow driving. And dogs crossing the road…well, they’re dogs.

On the northern end around Bang Por the road hugs turquoise waters and mud flats, and long tail boats dry in the breeze. I couldn’t stare long at the scenery because traffic got thicker in late afternoon. Our journey was almost complete. But I had stopped worrying. I now embraced the drive, and could laugh about it. Look, wild dogs barking at a water buffalo on the left shoulder — an interesting twist! Two video game playing kids on the back of Mama’s moped and a baby in the wicker chair — nothing bad could happen there! Oncoming tour bus half in my lane — easily handled with a swerve!

It is Western dogma that more rigidity and control equals more happiness and less things to worry about. In fact, the Thais seem to prove the opposite may be true. It occurred to me that Thais were doing fine with their edgy system of transportation. It’s the farangs that have problems. Something about the equatorial heat, or the smell of monkey pod trees, or that taste of Thai lack of restriction — it inspires farang risk-taking. “Road rash” is common: Europeans and Americans with a leg or foot heavily wrapped in crusty white gauze, or limping on crutches. They wipe out on mopeds, fall off ATV’s, and swim over shallow coral and scrape themselves silly.

With pride I gave back the keys to the jeep. It was whole and so was I. I had no desire to do it again, but for a time I flowed with true freedom, and found a happy edge.

**KNOWN THING NO. 19: If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him. If you meet an old man on a moped, swerve to avoid.

**KNOWN THING NO.20: If a teen passing on a rusty dirt bike squeezes you into a trash fire, do not curse him, but send him on with your blessing.

**KNOWN THING NO. 21: When there is chaos around you, allowing some chaos into yourself is the way to flow.



By robbskidmore

Robb Skidmore writes upmarket literary fiction. He is the author of “The Pursuit of Cool”, a critically acclaimed coming-of-age novel about love, music, and the 80s, and the novella “The Surfer.” His short stories have appeared in many publications.

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