He’s a little gaunt, maybe even severe. And he salutes me—and I don’t get saluted often. Hardly ever. I guess that’s not surprising. So on my first jet-lagged day in Bangkok I was a bit caught off guard to find myself saluted by a very serious man dressed suspiciously like a police officer.
What was it? Maybe my shaved head, suggesting military? Maybe It’s the two-toned, collared shirt that I’m wearing. If you are somewhat color blind and squint at it a bit, you might think it was one of the military shirts worn by the guards at the US Embassy, which is just down the road from my hotel. Head, shirt, both, neither. I couldn’t tell.
I figure out that this guy, named Ampoin, is part security guard and part traffic guard. There is one of them at every property entrance on the street my hotel is located on. But they aren’t really security guards, they don’t keep the riffraff out. I can attest to this by the fact that I’ve wandered onto the properties they are standing in front of on several occasions. What they are is private traffic cops. And as I have discovered, they are really, really useful to have around.
The thing you have to understand about Bangkok traffic is that it makes New York City traffic look timid; Los Angeles traffic genteel. It is an unruly mix of bicycles, hand-pushed carts, scooters, motorcycles, tuk-tuks, cars, pink taxis, and delivery trucks. All interwoven, all weaving, all shuttling toward their destinations. Stop signs are really just suggestions. Lines on the street? Yeah, consider them guidelines, not hard and fast demarcations of where one lane ends and one starts. So, you just have to pay close attention. Thailand is mostly a Buddhist country, and that makes sense. If you aren’t thoroughly in the moment, you get run over.
It took five full days for it to dawn on me what was truly different between traffic here and in NYC: Thais don’t honk as if it’s a fundamental part of the operation of their vehicle. Or if they do tap the horn, it’s a message to the recipient that there is a vehicle about to pass within a hair’s breadth of them. NYC drivers on the other hand, would be completely paralyzed if their horns didn’t work. Literally: they would get in their cars with key in hand and stare at the controls and not know what to do. The Thais are just honest with themselves and know that the horn isn’t going to make traffic move faster, just more unpleasant to be in.
Back to the salute. I discovered that Ampoin does that because he takes his job seriously. He gets vehicles in and out of the hotel parking lot, get’s the hotel’s clientele cabs, and helps people get across the street without getting plastered. I go to a grocery store across the street and I don’t even bother crossing until I get down to where Ampoin and his counterpart on the other side of the road are stationed. I don’t have to dodge cars or bolt around motorcycles. They both wait till they can see a small break in traffic and move into the street flagging cars to stop. I cross all the time this way.
When I realized he really takes his job seriously and does it well, I decided to engage him in it. Whenever I walk past, I bark the greeting sawasdee khrap! with authority, which I’m sure he finds amusing. He did snap me out of my complacency one day after I’d been walking by for a couple of weeks. I barked the usual Thai greeting, but then out slipped How are ya? He responds: I’m doing well sir, and you? in as best as I can tell, perfect English. I stuttered out I’m well, thank you. I just wrongly assumed he didn’t speak any English. Yes, lame, I know. People always surprise me, and I, for the most part, like it. I don’t know the extent of his English, but I’ll find out. Just like I didn’t want to get him in trouble for standing around doing glamour shots (why there is only one picture of him in this post) instead of working, I don’t stop to chat.
I think next time traffic is slow, I’ll risk it and stop and chat. I might learn something interesting.