I used to have a friend who ran a very successful student travel agency down in Malaysia. He was British by birth, but had lived in Malaysia most of his life, and his extremely charming wife was Singaporean. Their business never took them into neighboring Thailand very often, but they always referred to Thailand as ‘The Lawless Land'.
The first time I heard them use this expression, I laughed out loud. Let's be honest - it's the most perfect and appropriate title for this country and hits the spot far better than ‘The Land of Smiles', which has now become such a tiresome motto. In fact I was so enthused by such a descriptive and accurate slogan that I contemplated contacting The Tourist Authority of Thailand and letting them in on it. But somehow I don't think they would have seen the funny side.
This ‘lawlessness in a lawless land' was brought painfully home to me in early December when I was involved in a motorcycle accident. I wasn't riding the motorcycle. I was just crossing the road opposite my house - a road I've crossed thousands of times without incident - and a motorcycle hit me at speed. The motorcyclist was illegally riding his bike against the traffic flow. Those who have lived in Thailand any length of time know exactly what I mean because we see it day in and day out. One way streets mean nothing here. If getting from A to B by motorcycle means riding headlong into oncoming traffic but hugging the curbside, then so be it.
I'm only assuming it's illegal to ride your motorcycle in such a way of course. In a country where it's actually legal to ride a motorcycle on the footpath, regardless of how many human lives you're endangering, then I guess anything's possible.
Anyway, I had let my guard down for a second, forgotten all about my green cross code - and the next thing I was flat on my back seeing stars.
It's funny but when you're involved in an accident of this magnitude, a strange something happens, well before the pain kicks in. I'm not saying that life passed in front of me or angels gathered to sing me all the way to Heaven (assuming that's where I will end up) but I definitely saw a few faces belonging to family and close friends. But this definitely wasn't the way I would have chosen to go - not right opposite my house as well.
Eventually I picked myself up off the concrete footpath and realized I was still alive. The brain then goes through a sort of automatic checklist. Are my arms and legs still attached? Is there any blood? How much blood? And then the pain starts. And my God what a pain - my right arm was literally hanging off.
Then of course there's the motorcyclist himself to deal with. He had by this time dismounted his motorcycle - or fallen off (I didn't really care) and now wore the worried expression of a man who had almost killed a foreigner (not something I'm sure was on his agenda) He was quite clearly beside himself with remorse and I was in an emotional dilemma. I didn't know whether to put a reassuring hand on his shoulder and tell him that no serious damage had been done - or grab him by the scruff of the neck and batter the stupid prick senseless. I opted for the easy way out and held up my hand to signify I was still in the land of the living. And with that, the motorcyclist offered one more heartfelt apology and rode off - the wrong way up the street.
I then staggered across the dual carriageway, fumbled for my keys with my remaining good arm and collapsed on the sofa in my mother-in-law's living room. It's times like this when you are truly thankful to have a mother-in-law who is a qualified nursing sister and once she had ascertained what happened, my arm was put in a makeshift sling and I was ordered to swallow the obligatory cure-all paracetamol tablets. She then phoned my wife at work to ask her to come home and take me to hospital.
It was now that I realized my spoken Thai is sometimes woefully inadequate. I so desperately wanted to say "please break the news gently. Tell my wife that her husband's had a little accident but he's OK. He should probably get checked out at the hospital though"
I just knew that my mother-in-law would break the news in the worst possible way. When my wife answered the phone, my mother-in-law shouted "Phil's been hit by a motorcycle" and left it at that. There wasn't even a but clause. I could hear my wife's phone hit the floor and I pictured her sprinting through the company reception area, perhaps knocking over a couple of security guards before sliding across the bonnet of her car the way they do in really bad cop shows. Whichever way she did it, she was home in minutes. We then drove to the nearest hospital in a manner the Dukes of Hazzard would have been proud of. Thankfully hospital x-rays showed there was no fracture and a kindly doctor told me the arm would heal in a month or two. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. This had definitely been a lucky escape.
Later that evening, my wife and mother-in-law joined forces to quiz me intensely about the accident. I think my sister-in-law also stuck her oar in at one point. They all wanted to know why I had let the motorcyclist get away scot free. Why hadn't I performed a citizen's arrest and held him in an arm-lock until the police arrived? This was a guy who deserved to feel the full weight of the law. I just smiled. What fuckin' law is that? This is a lawless land. The guy was riding the wrong way up a one-way street. Not only that, he was on a main dual carriageway without a crash helmet. Was his bike insured? Was it taxed? Was it even his bike? I know where my betting money is going.
This is a country where I'm convinced you have to let these incidents go and chalk them up to experience. Pursuing things ‘legally' and going down what you feel are the appropriate channels will just lead to frustration and despair. This is Thailand. It's a lawless land.
Next door to the small compound on which I live is a single story shop-house which doubles as a car audio fitters. The business doesn't have a name but I refer to it as ‘car audio for morons'. The typical customer is a Thai male in his twenties with floppy hair and a knackered, rusty old car with go faster stripes and rear spoilers. Car Audio for Morons takes care of their ICE (their in-car entertainment) and this invariably involves fitting a cheap CD player and enormous stereo speakers with the acoustic output of a couple of Coke tins.
The most disagreeable part - at least for the people who live within a ten-mile radius - is when the business owner tests out his workmanship by playing Thai rap music so loud that it has on occasion, forced our house to shake at its very foundations. Eardrum-bursting Thai rap music is something I will begrudgingly tolerate in short bursts from Monday to Friday during working hours - but not on lazy Sunday afternoons when I'm enjoying quality time at home with my wife. Then I'm afraid something has to be done.
I've lost count of the number of times that my wife has been out to the owner and stood in front of the shop, arms akimbo, with a ‘what the hell do you think you are doing?' expression on her face, but let me tell you this - it's a lot. And every single time, the business owner just shrugs his shoulders and says "but it's my business" before turning the music down a couple of notches from earthquake-inducing to merely ear-splitting.
The noise got so bad at one stage a few years ago that we contacted a Thai lawyer to see what could be done. He explained that there was indeed a procedure one could go through if they suffered at the hands of noisy neighbors. It involved recording the noise levels on special equipment before eventually dragging the offender's ass through court. And how many years would it take and how much money would it cost before I could be photographed punching the air outside the courtroom as justice is finally served? Who knows? It's far easier to just appeal to the business owner's human side and hopefully make him appreciate that blasting out techno music at the weekend is not a very neighborly thing to do.
In more.....ahem.... civilized countries you might even consider reporting such matters to the police. And lo and behold, we've got a police control box situated just a hundred meters from our front gate. And that police box is manned 24/7. But I should point out that on the occasional Saturday night, the main road in front of our home becomes a race track for drunken motorcyclists and you won't guess where the starting grid is? That's right - directly opposite the police box. Doesn't fill you with much confidence in the local police force does it? They're sitting in the police box looking on as the motorcyclists rev up their engines. This is Thailand. It's a lawless land.
Who can I point the finger of accusation at next? Condominium developers - they'll do.
In front of our garden wall, between the wall and the public sidewalk, there is a small strip of land. It won't win any prizes in Gardening Weekly but I keep the grass well-trimmed and grow bougainvillea, which looks particularly nice at this time of year. It's obvious that the land is well-tended and furthermore, actually belongs to someone. But because that piece of land is on the main road and seen by thousands of motorists every day, it doesn't stop the evil condominium developers sending their gangs round in the dead of night to drive stakes into that private ground and affixing advertising hoardings to get some free advertising.
The first few times it happened, I would take down the advertising - basically a poster tacked onto a plywood frame - smash it into several pieces, and then drive to the condominium development (it's only a couple of kilometers away) and dump it on the ground outside their sales office. Then I would go into the sales office and go for their staff like a rabid Rottweiler. After they had soaked up enough abuse, I was assured it would never happen again.
It now happens virtually every week. There's hardly a Sunday morning I don't get up to find that a gang has come in the middle of the night and erected a new advertisement hoarding and trodden over my plants in the process. There ought to be a law against it right? Perhaps there is. But even my wife doesn't have the first clue about where to lodge a complaint. There is often no clearly defined system in terms of complaint procedure. And that applies to almost everything. It's all under wraps. It's like Thailand's little dark secret. It's a lawless land.