SIAM: The Bus to NKP: Ride at your own risk

Back in 1972-74, I rode a Thai bus from the Thai air force base to Nakhon Phanom (NKP) and back. Riding this bus required your attention and sometimes your participation. Ralph Nader would have had a heart attack after a trip in one of these resurrected rolling hazards.

I was told that these buses, painted white and red, with wood parts, came from a yard in Bangkok where old buses went to die. The owner of the company bought the buses and did the minimum fixes before putting them back into action. The drivers had no training but could drive a large vehicle and they got the job. I think the owner wasn’t concerned because I never saw a police car once while I was there. There wasn’t that much traffic and a driver could go as fast as he wanted. We were lucky that about 45 mph was as fast as they could move. The NKP bus had a front door and a rear door.( The bus illustrated was from NKP, an older version but basically the same.) Click on image.

The first thing I learned was to pick a seat by a working window. That included makeshift windows of plastic with two pieces of metal on each end that rested on the lips of the window opening. This was important during the monsoon season and a few times in the winter.

The buses were always crowded, with standing room only and there wasn’t much of that. If you were 6 feet tall, you had to look down at the floor because of a low ceiling. People going to or from the market sometimes brought chickens or ducks tied up, along with vegetables and cooked foods. They usually sat at the back.

Buddhist monks also like to sit in the back of the bus. I was told that if you were in a seat at the rear and a monk got on and walked to the back, etiquette requires that you rise up and offer your place to him.

As I mentioned, the buses were crowded and people have to stand close to each other. The Thai men like this and get as close as possible while pretending to look at something out the window. And there are some outstandingly beautiful women riding the bus.  But I stand up and behave myself and if a woman accidentally brushes up against me, I won’t say anything. I don’t feel offended at all. There was a popular song out on the Thai top forty about that time and the male singer was addressing this social phenomenon. I’ve got a recording of it somewhere. It has a great exotic sound. Reminds me of Buddy Holly.

The Thai bus to NKP was certifiably dangerous. Once I was sitting near the rear and I put my legs back under the seat and hit an unmovable object. I leaned under the seat and saw a giant battery with two huge cables protruding out.

On another trip we were heading for NKP and the driver had just picked someone up. I was sitting on the front seat across from the driver and he was shifting gears with one of those long gear shifters. He hit third and the shifter came off in his hands. The driver just looked around and grinned while still holding the steel rod.

I was about to get up and put the shifter back in but a little boy, about ten, jumped up and grabbed the shifter and fumbled around till he got it in place. The driver said something to the boy and he nodded. For the next eight miles the boy held the gear stick in place while the driver shifted, all the way to NKP.

Once we were coming to the base from NKP. The bus was cruising along and as we approached the main gate, the driver looked back, grinned and said “No breaks.” we zipped on past the gate and the driver finally started to downshift and we wound up about 300 yards past our destination.

Early one still dark, cool morning, the bus was enroute to the airbase and began heading up a hill just outside of town and the bus driver put on the breaks and stopped right on the highway. He left the bus and walked toward an object lying on the pavement. He picked it up. It was only some trash.

Meanwhile, the bus started to roll backwards down the hill. The driver had that look of horror on his face. I decided to get to the driver’s seat and put on the breaks but the driver beat me to it, smiled and held his hands up, meaning sorry.

One winter morning a cold front from China moved over Northeastern Thailand. It was dark and I walked to the bus stop at the turnaround two blocks away. The temperature was 32 degrees and I dressed in my winter fatigues and thermal underwear, my head gear and boots. I found a seat near the rear and next to the isle. Most of  the Thais were dressed in threadbare clothing and flip flops.

I looked around. A lot of windows were missing. I felt uneasy. But I was dressed for the occasion. The bus pulled out and picked up speed. He had to be going 45 at least. That meant the wind chill was about 10 below zero. I began to shake and my teeth started to chatter. I looked around. An older lady, weighing about 65 pounds, wearing a thin shirt , a wrap around skirt and flip flops, looked serene as she stared straight ahead into the wind.  And I, in my winter clothes, was freezing to death. I was the only one feeling the absolute frigid air.  That was an experience I’ll never forget. The mind can do some amazing things.

These are just a few of the incidents that the ride to NKP provided for riders. And now they’re just a memory. And that’s a good thing.

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