This Wheel's on Fire

This Wheel's on Fire 

by Bob Dylan

You knew that we would meet again
If your mem’ry served you well
This wheel’s on fire
Rolling down the road
Best notify my next of kin
This wheel shall explode!

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This is the first photograph I ever took in Thailand, one of nearly 1,600. It is a picture of  a songthaew, in Thai: สองแถว, meaning literally "two rows." The two rows are two long benches that run the length of the back of the converted pickup truck on which the passengers in this shared bus sit. This one was picking up people at the Chiang Mai airport, so it was also outfitted to carry luggage on the top to the hotels of the travelers in the back of the bus. These red buses were everywhere in Chiang Mai, a type of vehicle I had never seen in my life, but I never had a need, nor the pleasure, of riding in one. Next time I return to Thailand, I will make a point of going somewhere in a songthaew.

I got to my hotel just before midnight in this familiar looking taxi. The woman in the dark suit had collected my taxi fare, hailed the taxi for me and was about to open the door to let me inside. I told the driver the name of my hotel, which he recognized, and we were soon off to my first night's sleep in a new country. The fare was 120 Baht, about $4 US. 

The next afternoon, I saw the vehicle that I would ride all over Thailand, a six month old Isuzu D-Max pickup truck with a four door extended cab. The front had two comfortable and roomy seats, with a long bench seat running across the back. The truck had plenty of power, an air conditioning system that worked great in the hot weather and a stereo that sounded fine. The back seat held all of our luggage, easily accessible through its separate doors. These trucks are seen a lot in Thailand, perhaps because they are assembled in Rayong, Thailand. How fortunate I was to be able to see Thailand with such great transportation!

This was not a rental vehicle. It belongs to my friend, a supervisor of marketing and surveys, and a nineteen year veteran at Thainamthip [ ], the company that bottles and distributes Coke, Sprite and other American soft drinks in Thailand. As part of her job, she travels all over her territory in Thailand, surveying the outlets that sell their product, supervising the others on her team, and regularly meeting with the supervisors of other territories at the company office in Krung Thep. I was going to have the pleasure of riding along with her as she went from town to town as part of her work duties. This was not going to be a tour of Thailand designed for thirty tourists to hit all the hot spots where they could buy souvenirs for all their friends back home. I was going to get a personalized close-up look at Thailand, many of the great tourist spots, but a lot of other places as well, that are more off the beaten path, but just as exciting, or more at times.

On the day I first saw the truck, I knew I was about to start an amazing adventure in a land very different from my native America. But I didn't yet grasp what an amazing opportunity this would be to discover Thailand, to get to know my friend better, and to get to know many other Thai people, most of them also affiliated with Thainamthip.

The truck was practically new, but we still stopped at the Isuzu dealer in Singburi to get a routine servicing. We never had any trouble of any kind with the truck, a very wise purchase by my friend. 

When we were in Bangkok (Thai people don't say that name, they use the Thai name, pronounced About this sound Krung Thep ) four of us had a ride in this tuk-tuk, a three wheel vehicle with a small two-cycle engine that is very common in the congested urban areas of Thailand, as it can fit through tight spots where a regular taxi cannot pass. As we sped around a corner to the right, I was feeling like we were cartoon characters, chasing or being chased, with the tuk-tuk tipped up on two of its three wheels, the small engine screaming at the top of its power curve, as we all shouted, "Wheeeee, wheeeee!"

After reaching our destination, the driver was very willing to pose for pictures with the pleased American, who was feeling like he had just completed a roller coaster ride at the county fair. The three Thai women stood nearby and watched, pleased that their visitor seemed to be enjoying himself in their land.

Here is another Thai taxi, that can fit in even tighter spots than the tuk-tuk, a motorcyle taxi.
Take a good look at this image. A young Thai woman dressed impeccably in a skirt, sitting side saddle with no helmet, one foot on the cycle, the other dangling free, her hands holding her shopping bag, rather than gripping the bike itself. To a Californian this is an unusual sight, as in California a woman on the back of a cycle is more likely to be wearing jeans, a leather jacket and a helmet, holding on tight and certainly not sitting side saddle. In Thailand this is a very common sight. Near the DPU Place Hotel, I watched many young ladies arriving for classes at the university on motorcycle taxis, sliding off the back from their side saddle positions, handing the driver some money and off to campus on foot, no relief showing from surviving a harrowing experience, just an impassive look of routine and no worries.

As in California, helmets are required on motorcycles by law, but more than half the time I saw people on motorcycles with no helmets on their heads. Taxi drivers always wear an orange or red vest with their taxi number on the back.

Motorcycles are everywhere in Thailand. In this posting I'll just discuss their use as public transportation. No, I never hopped on a motorcycle taxi for a ride anywhere. The idea crossed my mind very briefly one day, but I quickly decided to just keep walking. No regrets!

When my visit was nearly over, I got to take a long ride in this horse and buggy in Lampang, the only town in Thailand that still offers this as a routine mode of transportation, though probably for tourists in most cases. It doesn't careen around any corners like the tuk-tuk, but it's a great way to see the business district of this lovely town in Northern Thailand, as you trot along at a comfortable speed very close to the fronts of all the shops and businesses. We negotiated a 200 Baht trip (under $7 US) in which the driver took us to visit a centuries old teak home/museum, parked and waited while we explored it at our leisure, and then drove us around the main business district of Lampang, about a forty-five minute ride. Our parked truck can be seen near the very end of this video. 

Finally, one will get the closest view of Thailand by walking. I did that about ten times, walking about twenty miles total. You never know what you might see when you're on the ground in this amazing, colorful country.

Pagoda in reflecting pool, campus of  Dhurakij Pundit University  
Statue in front of the DPU Cultural Center at Dhurakij Pundit University
Cell tower in a neighborhood in U-Thong, Thailand
Old pole house on a country road in Mae Moh, Thailand