x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

Tuk-tuks and tattoos in Thailand

Feature With a top speed of around 50kph and a little 150cc engine, these noisy, smelly three-wheeled vehicles are, admittedly, one of the chief polluters of Asia.

The amusing advertising boards outside petrol stations are a regular site in rural Thailand.
The amusing advertising boards outside petrol stations are a regular site in rural Thailand.

There can surely only be one cure for redundancy. Apply for a few jobs and, when nothing works out immediately, buy a cheap rucksack, book a return flight to Bangkok and let the wave of adventure cleanse the system. And with airfares so cheap - Oman Air offers return tickets from Dubai for under Dh1,285 - my unemployed friend and I decided to substitute the term "gardening leave" for "adventure break" and head out into the great unknown.

More than 10 million people live in the metropolitan area of Bangkok. We intended to embrace the chaos and enjoy as much mayhem as possible for two days, before breathing again in the contrasting tranquility of the islands. The noisy tuk-tuk was therefore the ideal choice of transport for our stay in the city, before switching to calmer mopeds - the most common form of transport on the islands. Once we survived the initial taxi ride from the airport, without seat belts but soothed by the melodic sounds of Rod Stewart and Eric Clapton from the taxi's pop-up DVD player, we hired a tuk-tuk to see Bangkok by night. With a top speed of around 50kph and a little 150cc engine, these noisy, smelly three-wheeled vehicles are, admittedly, one of the chief polluters of Asia. But they do have a certain charm, and the colourful and elaborately painted exteriors contrast with the rough-sounding engine screeching away under the driver. The triangular form of the tuk-tuk means the front single wheel negotiates the available gap, with the rear two wheels forcing a larger space. Some of the manoeuvres required to move these things in and out of the frenetic traffic would make even the bravest Beirut taxi pilot seem more like a tame driving school instructor.

After using tuk-tuks to go between various tourist traps and nightspots, our driver, Ko Thai, took things too far. As soon as we climbed into the seat, he accelerated to top speed and attempted to beat all other competition before him, celebrating each victory with wheelies and whoops of joy. Sitting in the back, we were somewhere between excited and terrified as we tore down the street holding on for dear life at the mercy of a man clearly enjoying his job too much.

Later we were to witness a random act of human kindness from the back seat of another one of these tiny taxis. After agreeing to a fare of around Dh40, our driver weaved the triangular vehicle in and out of precariously small gaps, manufacturing his own space and then sitting for long intervals at traffic signals as we reached the most densely populated area of the city centre. The stressful trip, which included a torrential downpour, must have taken around 45 minutes and, when we arrived at our destination, we did not have the exact change for him. Instead of charging us, he turned, smiled and said, "It's OK - it is free."

Regardless of our protests and our offer to give him the change we had, which was about 80 per cent of the exact fare, he refused to take any cash from us. Slightly dazed, we thanked the driver and left the cab feeling slightly guilty for bartering the fee before we got in the tuk-tuk. After our tuk-tuk adventures in the capital, we headed to Thailand's islands via a quick flight to tourist hot-spot Koh Samui, then a short ferry ride to the less-populated island of Koh Phangan.

The aggressive tuk-tuk was replaced by the relaxing purr of the moped, a vehicle more able to take the rutted roads and dirt trails here easier than the urban tuk-tuk. The island's roads that rise and fall are covered with gaping holes and deep fissures, which have been carved out during the frequent tropical downpours. The mopeds had just enough power to take two people up a steep hill slowly, but it still takes a steady hand, some balance and real concentration to prevent the freedom-giving experience of the bike from turning into a hospital nightmare.

Unexpected heavy rain can see locals and farrangs (Thai parlance for "foreigners") alike duck for cover in the multipurpose shacks that dot the roads connecting the island's beaches and small towns. Some brave it and the amusing sight of shrieking schoolgirls, three to a moped and tearing down the hill on their way home, would strike horror into the heart of any protective parent. The number of moped casualties on the islands is alarming. What we witnessed seemed to back up the Global Road Safety Partnership statistic that half of Thailand's road accidents involve at least one motorcycle and only 15 per cent of riders wear helmets.

Bruised and cut ankles are prevalent to the extent that locals critique your scars, laughing and calling them "Koh Phangan tattoos". We even saw a young man on Koh Samui disembark the ferry from Koh Phangan and head straight into an ambulance with a cut head and scraped arms and legs. The two of us took on the tricky dirt track roads, sharing a moped. The heat dictated our decision to stick to flip-flops and no helmets, instead putting our faith in keeping each journey very slow and careful. It must surely be difficult to do much damage at 20kph, we reasoned.

Waterfalls, monuments and an elephant sanctuary are all within a day's moped ride as you explore the beautiful green island of Koh Phangan. Beaches and towns range from the larger area of Thong Sala to more secluded, quieter beaches, such as Bottle Beach and Koh Ma. Amusing handmade advertising boards promoting the wares of the roadside shops and shacks provide regular childish giggles, with claims such as: "Laundry - clothes clean and fresh for 10 years," and "Gasoline - makes your bike go fast."

Some of the island's beaches are separated by rocky, often impassable outcrops, so many beach dwellers can spend months on an island but never check out a beach only a few kilometres away. Having a moped parked at your hut or apartment provides the freedom to explore or pop over to another beach to enjoy a change of scenery, new shops or untried restaurants. Disaster, of course, struck as we rode home tandem during a downpour, when we hit one of the potholes and fell off the moped. Even though we were riding very slowly, the momentum ensured that we received some minor cuts and scratches, which all became infected in the damp, dirty, hot environment. The bike appeared to have escaped any major damage, apart from a few scratches to the headlight and wing mirror.

Having rented the moped at only Dh30 per day at Sandee Bungalows on Thong Nai Pan Noi beach, we were surprised by the low cost. However, when handing the uninsured and, by now, scratched moped back, we were provided with a repair bill of Dh1,370. Without a leg to stand on or insurance to turn to (no company would insure mopeds on such roads), we paid up after bargaining the fee down to Dh1,100 and left the shop feeling like victims of a tourist mugging.

Bangkok tuk-tuks and island mopeds are certainly not the safest or most comfortable way to enjoy a trip to the beautiful country of Thailand. But they give the freedom to explore and are certainly a lot of fun. Koh Phangan tattoos may not be permanent, but the memories of the sights and smells of Thailand, as seen from the tuk-tuk and moped, definitely are. motoring@thenational.ae