The Burma Visa Run and Defying Death on Thai Roads

10 baht, 10 baht! (click to see full-size photo)Burmese immigration on the bridge straddling the border at Mae Sai was as usual staffed by plump, well-preened officers that looked immeasurably better off than their compatriots milling listlessly around beyond the checkpoint. Passport retained, Myanmar ID card issued, 500 baht entrance visa charge banked, time for a brief visit to this sad country. No sooner into Myanmar than the hustling began. "Cigarettes? Taxi Sir? Girls, young girls Sir? Viagra? Saddam playing cards?"... The first time you visit it's fascinating, if shocking when you add in the limbless beggars, the obvious poverty of a country under the thumb of an uncompromising military junta for decades now. When on your umpteenth trip, no sooner have you arrived then you begin to feel the need to get the hell out.

Taking photos seems an intrusion somehow. I'm not about to win the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Photography - I hate feeling like some kind of voyeur. The street children chase you around, never taking no for an answer. Their pitiful appearance is tinged with toughness - underneath their practised helpless look, they are experts at survival. Some as young as four or five block my way, pleading desperation written on their faces. But I know from experience that no sooner do I put my hand in my pocket than dozens of sisters, brothers and cousins will materialise out of thin air and their shrill demands for "10 baht 10 baht!" will become even more insistent. If you need to salve your conscience, the trick is to wait until you are 50 metres away from the border on the way back into Thailand, hand over a pile of coins, then do a runner. A particularly tiny tot followed me further than all the rest today. I had no coins left, just a 20 baht note. I cracked. With streetwise dexterity she instinctively concealed it behind her back as a larger brother/cousin came running up. He looked at her suspiciously. Turning back to me she cried "10 baht, 10 baht!" Bigger relative was completely taken in. She can't have been more than five and already knew the tricks of the trade.

Monks stock up on life's essentials - click to see full-size photo
The market on the Burmese side of the border was pretty much devoid of farangs today. Lots of monks though, hungrily perusing the goodies on sale in the mobile phone shops. A street seller gave up on me and turned his attentions to a senior member of the Sangha. Forty-something-plus-plus farangs from Thailand who were completely uninterested in his stock of Cialis tabs? What's the world coming to? The monk seemed considerably more intrigued by his wares.

Viagra? Marlboro? Porn? Click on pic for full-size photo
I wandered around aimlessly for a few minutes, feeling the calculating eyes sizing me up from all directions. Smile at someone and they'll follow you a mile. I made the mistake of glancing vaguely sympathetically at an emaciated, sick-looking woman with a weakly crying bundle in her arms. Twenty baht only encouraged her relentless attentions for a further half hour.

hawkers ready to pounce at the entrance to the market across the Burmese border - click on pic to full-size photo
Early that morning 'North Wheels' in Chiang Mai had found me a car for the visa run. I only wanted a small motor, a Honda Jazz or equivalent, but they had none left. It's a sign of the economic times that they weren't about to let me move on to a neighbouring competitor without a fight. On previous occasions they had been totally unconcerned when I'd said no to a larger vehicle - but not this time. A CRV Sir? Same price, special offer Sir!". I was short on time, so I capitulated. The four hour drive from Chiang Mai to Mae Sai is a mix of super-highway and twisty narrow road through the jungle-cloaked hills, and the choice of car is important. The Thais have a predeliction for monster 4 x 4's that feel about as stable as a three wheel double-decker bus when taking bends at any sort of speed. A Honda CRV is ok. The keys were found, and I was taken to my motor. It had mutated into a 3 litre turbo diesel Isuzu. "But..." I started to complain. "Upgrade, Sir!" came the response. "Same price!" I gave up. The Isuzu comes in three main varieties at that size. The basic pick-up which isn't a bad machine to drive when unladen. The Mollusc - a pick-up which has sprouted sides and roof that hang over the left, right and tail edges of the bed in an effort to make it more spacious, but which together with the extra weight render it completely unstable. Finally, the Dog's Bollox - a 7-seater monster that looks prettily muscular but in its basic version has no roadholding ability whatsoever, terrible body roll, and pathetically inadequate ABS-free brakes. Mine was the latter.

True to expectations it was a hellish eight hours of driving to the border and back. Lulled into a false sense of security on the high speed straight sections, at the first sign of a bend the tyres emitted a warning squeal. Downhill the tyres complained at the lowest of speeds. The monster shuddered and shook even on bone-dry roads. I really do loathe these monstrous and ecologically redundant machines.

Driving in Thailand is a challenge. There are certain idiosyncracies to which new arrivals must rapidly adapt. Firstly the Thais apply the same sort of fatalistic logic to driving as they do to life in general, which results in a special kind of carelessness and risk-taking. Not the same gung-ho road rage version as in the West, just a general ignoring of the basic rules, such as proximity to other road-users, which side of the road to drive on, giving way at junctions... that kind of thing. In its place you have an unofficial code that centres on one key law. Give way to the bigger vehicle, irrespective of who has the right of way. I experimented a little on this trip. Clearly if you are driving an Isuzu Dog's Bollox, you must be a person of note, and therefore in true Thai style, someone to be deferred to. It really does work. Looking for somewhere to park in a narrow Mae Sai back street, oncoming vehicles slammed on the anchors and backed out of the way, drivers graciously smiling and nodding their heads as I cruised regally by. Pretty much the opposite sort of reaction to the one you would get back in the UK, which would be "who's that smug b*st*rd in the big motor, thinks he owns the road..."

Certain other idiosyncracies to watch out for on Thai roads.

On the four-laned highways:
  • The hard shoulder. This exists to enable vehicles to drive along against the flow of traffic.
  • The often barrier-free central reservation on highways. The Thais believe in economising on fuel and won't travel on to the nearest official crossing point if they can avoid it. At any moment pushbikes, scooters, tri-shaws can materialise in the fast lane from invisible home-made slip roads across the central reservation, right under your nose.
  • Roadworks. There is rarely any warning. Suddenly you come across a gang of rice straw-hatted workers battling against the encroaching jungle, wandering along the fast lane, completely unconcerned by the vehicles racing by them inches away. No part of the highway is coned off for their protection.
  • U-turns. There are official U-turn points everywhere on dual carriageways. While in Europe you can feel reasonably safe in the fast lane, only having to keep an eye on what's happening in front, behind and on your inside, here you have to watch all points of the compass simultaneously.
  • Police check points. Without any warning as you speed round a bend at 70 mph, suddenly the lanes are reduced to one and you have to slam on the anchors. Running over a Thai policeman is definitely not a good idea.
  • The inside lane. Usually full of bone-shaking pot-holes, rarely if ever repaired. As a result many vehicles, including ancient vans with a top speed of 40 mph, will stick to the overtaking lane for their entire journey along the highway. It is therefore acceptable - well there's no choice really - to overtake on the inside.
On standard two- and three lane roads away from town:
  • Continuous single- and double-white lines in the centre of the road. In Thailand this does not mean no overtaking under any circumstances. While in the likes of France just touching one of these lines with a tyre can earn you a 3 point penalty on your licence and crossing it is a 9 pointer no-no on the way to your 12 point driving ban, here these lines are virtually meaningless. So I found out when in a convoy of three cars travelling along at a similarly nippy speed on this Burma trip. After twenty minutes or so completely ignoring these lines in order to overtake slow-moving vehicles, the car behind me eventually decided I was dawdling a little. It was a police car - except for POLICE stencilled on the rear window, it was otherwise unmarked. The driver didn't so much as look at me before speeding off into the distance.
  • Lane discipline. Drivers will meander across all the lanes to make negotiation of approaching bends more comfortable, irrespective of whether you are speeding up from behind correctly placed in the overtaking lane with indicator lights flashing. You may therefore have to complete the overtaking manoeuvre with two wheels in the ditch on the wrong side of the road.
General stuff:
  • The use of the horn. The horn has two purposes. Firstly, for respectfully tooting when driving past a wat (Buddhist temple) or a roadside shrine. Secondly, for respectfully warning smaller vehicles in front to move aside. Which they do - as explained above, because if you own/drive a big car, you must be a big person, and have done something impressively good in your previous life/lives, thereby gaining much merit allowing you to be rich this time around. The horn is NEVER used to express anger or impatience.
  • Overloaded vehicles. Your life can come to an end for many unexpected reasons on Thai roads, but being taken out by a giant jackfruit rolling off the load in front and bouncing through your windscreen is considerably more probable than your plane crashing next time you fly Air Rangoon.
  • click to see full-size photo
  • Priority. You may be driving along a main road in town with full priority, but drivers of all vehicles arriving from side roads to your left will join the flow on the main road without stopping, and without so much as a glance in your direction.
  • Sudden changes of direction. Do not make any sudden movements left or right when driving in heavy traffic in town. If you do you will take out half a dozen scooters blissfully motoring along a couple of inches from your chassis.
  • Stray dogs. These do NOT, repeat NOT represent a hazard. There has been all manner of controversy over suggestions that the Caucasian race is inherently superior in some ways, but little comment made on the theory that the Asians have the highest IQs of all. I've no quarrel with that whatsoever. I think that the same applies to their dogs. They have the inerring ability to walk about Thai roads without ever being hit, inches from speeding vehicles whose drivers ignore them completely. Your average British Mastiff or Bulldog wouldn't last a day.
  • Pubescent kids on motorcycles. Yes, you're not imagining it. You really have just been overtaken on the inside by four helmetless schoolboys who all look about 12 on a Honda Wave doing 65 mph.
Bound to have missed a few others, but the above were just the hazards I negotiated in yesterday's trip. Fortunately I've got another three months before the next death-defying visa run...

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Martyn said...

Perhaps the continual snaking from highway lane to lane is a proven method of shaking the Burmese beggars off the tailgate.Try it in 3 months time. Congratulations on your new born baby and I hope the missus is feeling fine.

Dave said...

I enjoyed looking through your blog which I happened across the other day. Some great pictures.
Congrats on the new baby...

Non, Je ne regrette rien said...

wow, that's a lot of hazards to notice in one day's drive!

interesting color from your day, thanks...

FrogBlogger said...

Thanks all. Edith Piaf - I won't comment on the colours I've been seeing most of these past two days... except to say they're quite 'autumnal'...

Camille Lemmens said...

Excellent post about Thai driving and raod conditions.

It's unbelievable how Thais loose all common sense as soon as they enter the road system on a vehcile and truely believe that besides their motorbike or car, there hardly can't be any other road user around! Ignorance is bliss.

A point that you forgot to mention, entering the traffic, coming creepingly slow out of a secondary road, whilst they see you coming at high speed!

Nicole said...

The market is worse than Kuwait & Korea put together.
At least in Kuwait they stop bugging you as soon as you either say "No" or go away.

No beggars either.

And the roads, shudder.....I don't think I want to drive in Thailand!

Julong said...

I'm riders,congratulion for your new baby and go to the hope way.