With hair matted and shirt half buttoned, the man waits patiently in the middle of the road. He sits on a homemade skateboard fashioned out of plywood and castor wheels, one of his legs stricken by disease and the hanging over the contraption to steady his body.
Oncoming taxis give him a wide berth. Motorcycle riders zip by within inches of his body as they race to beat the lights at one of Bangkok’s busiest junctions.
Eventually, though, all of them come to a halt as they join queue of vehicles waiting to inch their way forward in a city with legendary traffic jams. That’s when the Skateboard Man goes to work.
Propelling himself from car to car, he pats the driver’s door of each vehicle lined up at the junction, pleading for a spare baht or two.
He can take his time. Bangkok’s jams are not expected to get better in the next year. In fact, despite 370 billion baht (S$14.7 billion) worth of skytrain extension projects lined up in the coming years, the authorities expect jams to worsen.
In October, Thailand’s Office of Transport and Traffic Policy and Planning reported that morning rush hour traffic speeds had dropped from 19 kmh in 2011 to 18 kmh in 2012. This is expected to slow further as Thais recently snapped up thousands of new cars to join a 15-month old subsidy scheme that gives first-time buyers a tax rebate of up to 100,000 baht.
So far, more than 1 million buyers have submitted claims for tax rebates, which is expected to cost a cool 85 billion baht. Environmentalists, however, are groaning at the prospect of even more idle engines and noxious fumes.
And the taxi drivers are certainly dreading it as their meters tick at a measly 1.5 baht a minute while waiting. Impatient tourists often abandon the ride halfway and leg it to their destinations, leaving them stuck in traffic AND without a fare.
The jam is as formidable as it gets: One Bangkok resident I spoke to recently spent a butt-numbing half an hour trying to get to the street level from a shopping centre’s third floor carpark.
But irrepressible Bangkok has mastered the art of adapting to such inconveniences. Street vendors in the Pom Prap Sattru Phai district, famous for its deep fried battered banana snack called kluai kaek, send runners out on the streets to tempt drivers with bags of the piping hot goodies. They weave in and out of waiting vehicles, playing hide and seek with district authorities who claim they are holding up traffic and threaten to fine them 2,000 baht.
The gridlock is a godsend for evangelists. Standing for hours on road dividers in 35 deg C afternoons, they clutch tall signs bearing messages like “Jesus Died For Your Sins” in Thai. On top of each sign is a loudspeaker which blasts even more words of God for all who deign to strain their ears over the roar of engines.
The Bangkok Post, meanwhile, ran a tongue-in-cheek piece recently suggesting activities to try when stuck in traffic. One of them was yoga. The other was putting your dog behind the wheel, taking a picture of it, and sticking it online on Instagram to show that your dog can drive.
Bangkok’s eight million residents may spend a lot of time waiting in traffic, but they have a thing or two to teach the world on how to make light of your troubles.