My latest piece for thREAD, The Hindu’s online segment. After two pieces based around Bollywood, consciously decided to write about something else. And what better new place to do so than with Bangkok, which I recently visited? Find the published piece at the mentioned link and the original piece (with different visualization than on thREAD) below.
When in Bangkok, take the tuk-tuk, I guess.
My friend and I had had a severe day in the sun. (Thailand is at the same coordinates as the southern half of India, and therefore, no less hot.) We had walked around Grand Palace, deciding eventually not to go in as it was swarming with tourists; it felt like a Noah’s ark of the world’s various nationalities, races and skin shades. We did walk all through Wat Pho complex though, which houses the famous Reclining Buddha, viewing almost all the pagodas and stepping into a few of them, and even caught a short documentary on respecting the iconography of the Buddha, mercifully in an AC stall. The iced tea, freezing lolly and cold fruits only offered so much respite. So, after finishing our excursion, we ambled to the nearby Tha Tien pier to cool down, with the water flowing by and the multitudes of boats (literally more Noah’s arks) coasting along. However, the waters too provided only so much comfort. So, clothes sticking and legs shrieking, we decided to call it a day and head to the hotel.
We tried to hail a taxi, in fact, many of them, but to little avail. It’s a very touristy area, and with that heat, all the farangs (Thai for ‘westerners’) had the same idea – be in the cold cocoon of an AC on wheels. Plus, for the same reasons, the few free drivers were refusing to ply by the meter. And then, in that heat-wave, my friend had a brainwave. “How about a tuk-tuk?”
I had thought this would be something I’d do on day four or five (it was only day two), but seized by spontaneity and perhaps a sense of mini-adventure, my eyes widened and my head nodded.
The tuk-tuk drivers though were no less non-compliant than the cab drivers (or Chennai’s in-famous autokaarans), and it took us a while to get one at our price. I think we finally managed only because both parties wanted desperately to get out of the heat and get moving.
As we sat down and the driver fired up the engine, my friend fired me up too, “Oh, this is going to be fun. We’re going to feel like Bond in that commercial.”
Well, it didn’t, as Bangkok’s roads are as congested as many Indian metros’ during peak hours, plus the City of Angels kind of lives up to its name: drivers are more disciplined – way more disciplined – than people back home, allowing pedestrians right of way/walk all the time. So, we moved along more like Brosnan post-Bond.
Which actually proved to be quite good. Thanks to the easy pace, we were able to catch several sights and scenes that we hadn’t paid much attention to in the confines of the cab to the Palace. Plus, with the tuk-tuk open at the back too, even as we were cooling off, our heads were rotating avian-like in the three open directions. Corner temples, street-food kiosks, Buddha statues and elephant figures in crafts’ stores, high-rise after high-rise, bikers zipping past, fishermen making their way back with their catch… It was a swift montage of Bangkok. And the tuk-tuk being open on three sides helped: you could catch a complete story, like multiple pics stitched together on your smartphone photo app to provide a panoramic view. Why, just when I was marveling how self-regulated the traffic was – compared with riders and drivers back in India plying across every motorable and creating new ones – a duo zipped past on the pavement… in the opposite direction. They were gone by the time I swiveled around to catch them through the back-view. Turning back, my friend and I exchanged smiles. So, it doesn’t happen only in India.
We returned to the hotel, happy with knocking several items off our Bangkok to-do list (including a vehicular one) in one day, and had a Bond moment after all. Not having the exact fare, we let the driver “keep the change”. He beamed back like the manic motorman at the end of the Bond spot. (Was he the same guy, now 20 years older?)
Easing off in the hotel room, I looked back at the day, especially the scenes and sounds during the tuk-tuk ride. I was particularly fascinated by how the tuk-tuk is open on all but one side, and even on the sides, much more than autos back home. For the rains, it seems they do put on plastic sheets, but these are transparent, so you can still see the outside. Also, I did notice a safety cord rolled up on the embarkment side that could be fastened to prevent passengers from spilling out during a specially hefty swerve and becoming roadkill. I also recalled several tuk-tuks crammed with people, something like Chennai’s share autos. (These were all Thai folk; the farangs preferred to hire the tuk-tuks only for themselves, just as friend and I.) So, I guess being so open is a practical thing – to allow air for all the passengers when it’s packed. Or on similar lines, a geographical consideration – with so much heat around, you don’t want your commute to become hot too, so to allow criss-cross-ventilation. Or maybe even a tourism thing – enable visitors to catch a grand sweep of the surroundings, both horizontally (shops and stores) and vertically (skyscrapers), without the need to crick or crane their neck. Sweet.
I then started thinking of tuk-tuks, or autos, back in India. The way they are designed according to the geography and climate of the place.
In Chennai, autos are painted a bright orange-yellow (compared with all-black with just a band of yellow in Mumbai, where I’ve lived the longest and “lived in autos”), perhaps to reflect off the city’s immense heat and thus provide additional comfort to passengers. (For the same reason, why can’t they ply by the meter?)
I also find that the sides of the auto’s roofs in Chennai don’t come down as much as they do in Mumbai (in Mumbai, they come to a bit below the average Indian male’s eye-level), perhaps to allow more air to come in.
I continued exploring in my head. Goa’s autos have a door, possibly to keep out the sand and dust as, I guess, many of them ply to beaches and into village belts, which actually begin soon after city areas.
Delhi’s autos are yellow and green. Light colours, again I guess to not absorb the city’s torrid summer heat. The relatively recent e-autos in Delhi do look similar to the tuk-tuk, but are much smaller and slower. So, razzmatazzy Thai three-wheeler seems to be special in the fashion of being open on three sides. Wow, geography playing a role in product design. Interesting. Though when you think about it, not entirely surprising.
However, it was only when were at Chatuchak market, known to be the world’s biggest weekend market, that Sunday, after soaking in a bit more of Bangkok, when I sought to buy a model tuk-tuk as a souvenir for home, that it struck me, ‘What if the reason (for the tuk-tuk being so open) is not geographical but cultural?’ Maybe it’s open because… the city is a very open city.
The city, and the country, are known as the Sex Capital of the World. (The City of Angels and the City of Sex Angels?) The city that has “happy-ending” massage bars (straight as well as gay) right next to standard bars. The city where on returning from dinner, you see pleasure-girls sitting in the hotel lobby, chatting merrily with the staff while they wait for their customers, and the staff doesn’t snigger, neither at the pleasure-providers nor at the pleasure-seekers. A city where kathoey, or ladyboys (transgender folk), can be themselves openly and hold jobs not just in the flesh and ancillary trades, but even in “respectable” ones such as retail and airlines (the other places I noticed the country’s almost-ubiquitous ladyboys). A city where twenty-somethings walk around with hot-shorts so short they reveal butt-cheeks. Actually, just one. (Or was that because she had got out from the wrong side of a… tuk-tuk?) So, why would the tuk-tuk here not be open? After all, what’s to hide? And who’s judging? At least not, um, openly.
And maybe the same applies to three-wheelers back home. Maybe Mumbai’s autos are black and the sides of the roof come a little lower to shroud you a bit, like a burqa. The black outside (the burqa analogy again) also makes it a bit dark inside, so that fellow commuters can’t have a proper peer-in, in a city that is high on high-rises but low on privacy. For the same reason, perhaps the sides of the roof are just below eye-level so you avoid making eye-contact with other commuters.
Maybe Chennai’s autos are designed to be, or at least feel, as spacious as deeply-desired thani veedus (independent homes): there’s ample light and air coming through. And people looking in is perhaps not such an issue for a city that has middle-aged men walking around in those veedus in vests or even bare-chested and with veshtis hoicked up much of the time.
And what about Goa’s doored autos? That I’ll leave to uncover during my next holiday there, but it does bring me to this question. If privacy is so coveted in a place like Mumbai, how come the autos there are not Goa-style, with doors? Ah, in a city that never sleeps, one that’s ever on the run, in India’s Financial Capital, in time-strapped Mumbai, who has the time to open and close public-vehicle doors, that too when they are in rapid transit? See, it really seems to be a culture thing.