The Easter Bunny has been hopping up and down Bangkok's expressways this week. No, I haven't been partaking of any illegal substances other than that bottle of Australian Shiraz I smuggled into the country without paying extra sales tax. What could the Easter Bunny possibly have in common with the tangled web of tang-duans that strangle my beloved Bangkok?
The rabbit's name in Thailand is EASY PASS, a new system designed to alleviate traffic by allowing motorists to pass through toll booths without stopping. Only in Thailand does the new system end up adding to traffic woes, as revealed this week in the news.
I must start this pleasant Sunday morning rant by quoting a sage Thai man with whom I have worked for many years. His name is Kai and whenever a controversy such as EASY PASS hits the headlines, he just smiles and says: "In Thailand we have everything." Then he quickly raises his hands and eyebrows and interjects: "Almost!"
He's not mixing up his sentence structure. His English is impeccable thanks to a healthy education and a fondness for Anna Paquin in True Blood. I secretly wish I could make up such clever turns of phrase using only six words, instead of churning out weekly rants which, like my waist, could well do with a 25% reduction in size.
"We almost have everything in Thailand" does not mean the same as Kai's ingenious "We have everything. Almost", and I love that subtle difference. What Kai means is, here in Thailand we actually get things right. Nearly. See? Now I'm getting the hang of it!
Kai's theory is that Thais are resourceful, energetic people with a keen desire to move with the times. Look at all the phu-yai who want Thailand to be a "technology hub" (a hub which, in September 2010, is still 2G while the likes of Cambodia are setting up 4G but hey, slow and steady wins the race). But somewhere in the race to implement new things, half of the budget is required to end up in a pocket rather than a purchasing order, which is like knee-capping someone with an iron bar.
I've always had an uneasy relationship with the expressway authority. Remember Ronnachai, the expressway official at the Port entrance who scowled whenever I paid him in coins? The look he gave me when I asked for a receipt made me want to go wash my face with Asepso.
(Followed immediately by a pre-recorded voice from a loud speaker outside his toll booth in the most exquisite of feminine voices: Khop Khun Kha. Surely not Ronnachai's voice ... surely not.)
It wasn't always like this. When I first started driving in this country me and the Expressway Authority got along just fine, but those were simpler times. The expressway cost only 10 baht and it really only went from Din Daeng to Bang Na. There was another bit that went jettisoning off to Thonburi, but you'd have never caught me dead in that lower end of town; not during daylight hours anyway.
Then the authority started adding bits and pieces to the system in order to move with the times. Heaven forbid the same company would run each little part of the expressway jigsaw. Whack! There's that iron bar to the kneecaps! Fettucine was joined with tagliatelle and thus recently a trip from Srinakharin into Ekamai cost me 105 baht over four different toll booths, two of them only one kilometre apart. I have one word for you, Expressway Authority: Almost.
Bangkok's biggest problem is its traffic, and EXAT has been telling terrible lies over the years that the more expressways we build, the better the traffic will be. And the Easter Bunny still visits me on Easter Sunday. That's how it feels to us motorists; instead of a giant Easter bunny, we discover there's just some sweat shop in China full of underpaid kids wrapping chocolate eggs for spoiled Aussie kids.
The expressway lies have always been disappointing. We had coupons as a way to speed things up for a while. We had an automated system designed for exactly half the entrances - but not the other half. Whose idea was that? Has he retired yet? Can we help send him on his way?
About five years ago the authorities decided there should be 7% VAT attached to the toll. The tolls became a collection of gawky prime numbers as we fished around for one and two baht coins. Imagine Ronnachai's temper during that fiasco!
Six months later they decided that indeed, VAT wasn't required to be paid for tollways. But what of all the money that had been collected? There was talk of returning it to us motorists - hah! There goes the Easter Bunny hopping down the expressway again.
It was late in 2009 that two English words started appearing on expressway billboards. The Christians believe in Armageddon, and if you ask me, the signs proclaiming EASY PASS were surely the first signs of the apocalypse. "Innovative new toll system coming to Bangkok! Sign up now!"
I don't know what came over me. PT Barnum said there's a sucker born every minute, and that was me the day I pulled up at the Bang Na tollway building to purchase the electronic device that would enable me to say "bye bye Ronnachai". I walked into that building armed with my driver's license, passport, work permit, house registration papers, tax number, Emporium Gold Card and birth certificate.
"I've come to apply for an EASY PASS," I said, beaming with eyebrows raised and head slightly cocked to the right.
"Copy of passport and work permit," said an official, giving me a look that implied he wanted to harm my parents.
I handed them over, and for a brief second I saw Ronnachai in his visage as if we were in a Stephen King novel or something. "I said copies," he said. I pointed to the photocopy machine behind him, but he snarled: "We don't do photocopies."
No. Of course you don't.
"What did you expect?" Kai asked me when I told him this story. "In Thailand, we have an automated tollway system." Right hand and eyebrows suddenly up! "Almost!"
Kai's words ring in my ears now that a B-list Bangkok politician has been put in charge of studying the authority and coming up with a solution for the EASY PASS disaster within 10 days. It's been discovered that EASY PASS actually contributes to the traffic woes, thanks to its dinky technology and a hesitancy of drivers to part with 1,000 baht for the shady "deposit". I'd also suggest a third reason; the absence of photocopying machines in the back seats of Bangkok motor vehicles.
On some days it breaks down entirely, requiring an official to take the pass from the driver, read it out on a loud speaker so it is recorded by one of those officials inside who refuses to make photocopies. And get this - recently a friend was admonished by expressway officials for daring to complain. "You have to wind down your window and stick the machine out of the car," the expressway authority official instructed, as if it were my friend's fault for being so stupid not to have known this.
Ten days to fix it up?
My friend Kai says it's just too difficult for the expressway to purchase a modern, up-to-date system for the expressway.
I disagree. I have great faith in the Thai people. They can and will get it right. Eventually.
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