Going to any country for the first time brings with it a fair share of surprises and broken misconceptions. As a child, our imminent return to India after spending a few years in England had me mouth my worries to my father, “what about all the snakes and elephants we’ll run into…?” Looking back I am sure he must have found it extremely funny, but then that is the stuff that most misconceptions are born of – the first snake I saw in the wild was here in Muscat a few decades later.
A recent visit to Thailand was almost the same – apparently every second person you speak to here in Oman thinks that Thailand is equal parts affordable speciality medical care and equally affordable Thai massage parlours, with every connotation between enervating and ecstasy in between. Add that to your little book of misconceptions to avoid.
To an Indian the association between the two countries pushes the realms of incredulity. Right from the glass and steel expanse of Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi Airport, to the road network and even the countryside, you can see India mirrored in the landscape. The only catch is that it is the India that could have been, clean, green, friendly and clearly focussed on economic progress. Despite all the political turmoil that the Thais have been through, development is keeping pace and you only have to look at the global dimensions of its locally focussed automotive sector to understand the magic.
We were in the country to drive the latest generation of Chevrolet Colorado pick-up trucks. Pick-up trucks dominate the local auto space, with between 50 to 55% marketshare and this manufacturing base has been used by many major brands to produce pick-up trucks for the global market. To name a few – Toyota, Isuzu, Ford, Mazda, Mitsubishi and Nissan. But we weren’t visiting factories here – we were driving through the greenery of the golden triangle bordering Burma and Laos and as you can expect, the countryside is very different from any city. There were the obligatory visits to elephant camps as well as idyllic locations for rest stops along the rivers. The floods that had hit Thailand months ago were by now a fast fading bad memory and the roads and infrastructure seem to have survived.
Driving in convoy is never considered fun by auto journalists and here we were in a convoy that averaged around 15 trucks. I repeatedly found myself in a truck that was diesel-powered and with a manual gearbox. And of course they were all right-hand drive to suit Thailand’s roads. So between staying in convoy, minding your position on the road and remembering to shift to compensate for the turbo-diesel engine, I was rather glad to have the convoy escorts. Traffic cops on a rather odd combination of Honda cop bikes – with a 400 Bros and three CBs, a 400, 750 and 1300 between them, were shepherding us through the city and countryside. Now I understand how VIPs around the world feel about being able to run red lights, have lesser mortals pull over to the side to let them through and to take turns where none are allowed. It is the magic of having these helmeted Judge Dredds scooting ahead of the convoy and treating you as if you were somehow a higher being than the other road users.
In all of this the normal Thai we passed didn’t look the least bit fazed. They must be used to the convoys of their politicians rushing through roads filled with pick-ups and step through bikes. Oddly enough, the one form of transport we expected on the road was hardly visible in the countryside – the Tuk-tuk. Let’s put that down to another misconception that needs to be cleared. In the meantime, I am practising the age-old Indian joining of hands in a ‘namaste’ welcome that somehow seems altogether different when the Thais do it and planning another visit to the country to see what other ideas can be changed.