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Day 145 – It’s The Little Things That Kill (Driving on the Left)

July 26, 2010

Dateline: Roads from Amphawa to Bangkok, Thailand – Monday, July 26, 2010

It’s been five months since I’ve driven a car. Today seemed just as good as any to break that streak, since Fon was willing to let me drive her car back to Bangkok from Amphawa. One complication: in Thailand they drive on the left (wrong) side of the road. How hard could it be?

As with all things, it’s both harder and easier than I thought. It’s surprisingly easy to get used to driving on the opposite side. It requires concentration, sure, but it’s not brain surgery. Right turns become a bit of a thrill because you have to cross over a lane and plow towards the unnatural side of the road. The thing is, since you expect driving on the left to be hard, you’re mentally prepared to tackle the problem. You visualize what you’re supposed to do. You make sure what you’re doing won’t get you killed. You focus.

The problem is that it’s not just which side of the road you drive on that’s reversed. Everything about driving is backwards.

The effect is that the hardest thing about driving on the left is the “easy” stuff. It’s the stuff that you don’t focus on. It’s the things that are automatic. Things like getting into the car.

Getting into the driver seat is so automatic, so routinized, that your brain isn’t even involved in the act. That means that every time brain dead me went to the car to start driving, I’d walk towards the left passenger seat even though I knew that the driver in left-driving countries sits on the right. This would result in me sheepishly walking around the car to the right (and correct) side to drive.

This comedy of errors repeated itself for everything—buckling my seatbelt, putting the car in gear, operating the turn signals, looking over my shoulder to back the car up, looking in the rearview mirror.

Every time I’d think I had a handle on the situation—when I’d start thinking, “Man, turns are getting easier, now.” Or “Driving is fun.”—I’d change lanes and (1) look out the right window instead of at the rear view mirror and (2) turn on the windshield wipers instead of turn signals. Or, I’d get into the car and (1) reach over my left shoulder and grab air instead of my seat belt and (2) try to put the car in gear by rolling down my window.

An unexpected benefit of the experience is now I know what a crazy person feels like. It’s like you’re disconnected from both your body and reality. You know what you’d want to do (roll down your window) and you watch your body do exactly the opposite (put your left hand on the gear shift). The world fights your every move. You slam your head into the right window because you want to look back to back up. Even when you do look over your left (correct) shoulder to reverse it feels wrong—like committing murder or thinking Lady Gaga is attractive.

I loved it. It was both thrilling and hilarious. My heart would race as I hurtled into a roundabout going the “wrong” way (clockwise), I’d flip my turn signal to merge, and then spend the next couple seconds fumbling to flip off the wipers while laughing my ass off. Thank God the one thing that’s the same is the gas pedal and brake, otherwise I’d be typing from Bangkok General’s ICU using a pencil clenched between my teeth.

In the evening, we visited Wat Arun in Bangkok for the Buddhist holiday. It was pouring rain so I couldn’t really appreciate the pageantry. Neither could anyone else, actually. People were supposed to walk around the temple three times as they chanted, but the few that braved the rain only went around once because of the downpour. I presume the devout who got completely soaked circling all three times upped their karma quite a bit. I couldn’t even take out my camera for more than one or two pictures.

I went to dinner with friends afterwards. I did not drive. Just as well. I’d probably have tried clearing the rain by turn signaling right.

GALLERY: No bonus pictures today. Just a slideshow of the pics you see above.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 10, 2010 11:01 pm

    I’ve driven over 10,000 miles in the U.K. now, and it takes constant concentration to keep from killing yourself and others!! Getting on and off the motorways is a big one, as is turning right, as you note. No listening to the radio, no “deep” conversations, nothing that uses significant brainpower – it’s needed for being sure that you don’t lose concentration and turn into traffic and precipitate a head-on.

    But, I loved it – almost every minute! Maybe three close calls in all that driving, and two were due to driving on the “wrong” side – the other was just going too fast for conditions…that’s the same regardless of where you’re sitting in the car!

    Sorry about the rain – I know exactly what that kind of downpour is like…we used to get them many afternoons in Merida, Venezuela – gutters running knee-deep after about three or four minutes!

    • August 16, 2010 4:31 pm

      Driving on the wrong side takes what is an otherwise mundane activity (which I still enjoy) and turns it into a rollicking adventure. I highly recommend it to everyone. Driving in a car is actually more difficult than driving on a motorbike because nothing on a motorbike is reversed other than the side of the road on which you drive.

      • August 16, 2010 4:35 pm

        I’ve never rented a motorcycle…or ridden one since I was a teenager.

        I was reminded why this weekend, when a couple about our age was riding a big old Honda on one of the (beautifully scenic) forest roads near Bend. A Subaru (Oregon’s state animal, in case you didn’t know) came around the corner too fast, lost control and hit them – man killed at the spot, wife in the hospital.

        All the way out from the Midwest to enjoy the mountain scenery, and “Boom!”


      • August 18, 2010 5:11 pm

        I think it’s all about what risk you’re willing to accept in order to enjoy an activity. Some people won’t risk eating new because any pleasure isn’t worth the risk of a stomach ache. Some people won’t try surfing because the one in a million chance of getting eaten by a shark is too great. Others won’t fly in airplanes because saving time and visiting new places isn’t worth the anxiety of being in jet powered metal tube.

        For me, I knowingly accept the risks of riding a motorcycle because I enjoy the activity. Same goes for snowboarding, swimming in the ocean, and eating street food.

        I assume that the couple you described knew the risks of riding and decided it was worth it.

        We all have to choose for ourselves and live with the outcomes. Me, I still can’t wait to get a bike.

      • August 18, 2010 6:06 pm

        You’re right – their choice, and I’m sure you’re correct that they weighed the risks. And motorcycle riders over 50 have much lower accident rates than the younger ones. But, there’s no way to protect against idiots armored in automobiles….sad.

        Anyhow, I rode when young. Didn’t feel the expense or the risk were justified when I had a young family, and now that I have grandchildren, those two factors come into play again.

        I LOVED riding my motorcycle (no helmets required in those days, and that requirement is part of the reason the temptation to do it again is so low), as I loved flying the Luscombe…which I gave up for the same reasons as the motorcycle.

        My life is full, and very good…and I still look at motorcycles and small airplanes with nostalgia…..


  2. August 15, 2010 4:43 pm

    Merv, this shit is hilarious. Of course the fact that driving on the right terrifies me by itself made this even more horrifying. But yeah, I never thought of all the little things. (BTW, in case you didn’t know, we’re moving to Portland)

    • August 16, 2010 4:32 pm

      Thanks for the kind words.

      I’d caught wind that you were headed to Portland. If I don’t catch you all before you leave, I can’t wait to have an excuse to visit. 🙂

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