Sunday, April 17, 2011

Living for the present

After a while in Chiang Mai, you begin to wonder if the people living there have a concept of the future, or are permanently located in the present. If you look at something in a shop and don't buy it immediately, the staff will instantly offer a discount. If you're ambling past a bar, drinking a beer, you'll be ushered in, before you've even finished your drink, because if you walk off, you might never be seen again. And the most persuasive evidence for this psychology is riding in a tuk-tuk, because nobody with any awareness of the remainder of their life would get into one. Less so one driven by anyone in Chiang Mai.

Tuk-tuks, if you don't know, are three wheeled vehicles, the confused children of a motorcycle, a wheelbarrow and a market stall. The driver sits up front and you cram as many people as you can on a bench seat, before roaring off in a cloud of hydrocarbons. Usually there's an awning covering you, but we had one ride in an open-top tuk-tuk this weekend, driven by a maniac.

What's basically a large moped has no right to overtake everything on the road: it's a slight against physics, common sense, self-preservation. As we tailgated cars or cut up motorcycles, I felt exhilarated, the wind blowing through my hair. Then I began to feel terrified as the driver pushed his machine ever harder. As the engine roared, I began to have sympathy for Messerschmidt pilots, sat next to a roaring, unreliable beast, sounding like it was on the verge of external combustion. When we arrived at the hotel and fell out of the tuk-tuk, my legs were wobbly and numb. But I had survived.

The people of Chiang Mai may have no sense of an impending, painful future, but clearly I have no sense of the past, because we rode in several more tuk-tuks last night. I suppose drinking all the beer did anaesthetise my terror somewhat, but there were still moments when I wondered why we were risking our lives in search of fake sunglasses and t-shirts with silly slogans on them. I suppose thousands of tourists do this without mishap every day, but if following the crowd was justification enough, we would have spent all weekend between seedy bars and rub-a-tug-tug massage joints. I'm glad we don't follow the herd, even if we are propelled through it on motorised deathtraps.


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