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Finding Bliss on a Bangkok Motorcycle Taxi

By Chris Schalkx

May 3, 2021

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Two Bangkok “motosai” who help keep the city moving.

Photos by Pavel V.Khon/Shutterstock

Two Bangkok “motosai” who help keep the city moving.

After calling Bangkok home for more than seven years, my happy place isn’t a hole-in-the-wall noodle joint or a tucked-away temple—it’s the pleather backseat of a motorcycle taxi.

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It’s six a.m. and I’m zipping through Bangkok on the back of a motorcycle taxi. The sky is still ablush, the streets lukewarm and not yet frenetic. We zoom past saffron-robed monks collecting morning alms from early risers. A blur of pushcarts hawking congee, skewered meat, garlands of jasmine and marigold. Around every corner a new smell: a potpourri of fresh garbage, charcoal smoke, and cloying wafts of Thai tea. My destination? Nowhere. 

In the Before Times, trips on a motorcycle taxi—locally referred to as motosai—were a daily occurrence. They’d take me to the office or the supermarket, whisking me through traffic-choked streets past tuk-tuks and taxis in gridlock. But lately, in lieu of physical meetings and with my groceries schedule reduced to a weekly mega haul, I’ve come to see these trips as a rare treat. I often take them in the early morning, mind still foggy, to start off my day on a good note. Sometimes I go late at night, ideally after a drink or two, when the ride feels like a Tron video game and I have to resist the urge to throw my hands in the air out of sheer exhilaration.

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Motosais are a ubiquity in Bangkok’s cityscape. Usually congregated in makeshift shelters at the top of a soi (Thai for “side street”) or around the entrance of metro stations, they connect all corners of town for a prenegotiated handful of bahttwo handfuls if you’re a farang (foreigner) like me. The drivers’ tattered nylon vests are instantly recognizable; flashes of neon orange hurtling through traffic, bearing the name of their win (a loosely defined pack of motosai drivers) in swirly Thai characters. To kill time between rides, they watch Thai soap operas on dashboard-mounted smartphones, play checkerboard games with bottle caps, and chug stubby bottles of Red Bull. Some manage a curbside snooze on their backseat.

They’re the unsung heroes of the city’s social fabric, saving students from sweat-drenched shirts and office workers from missed meetings. People call upon them (increasingly through handy smartphone apps) to fetch packages and paperwork; lunch and dinner deliveries dangle in bulging bags from their handlebars. They often double as traffic controllers or security guards, with eyes on the street like real-life CCTV. And for me, languished by lockdowns and financial stress, they’ve also become a therapist of sorts. 

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But they needn’t speak a word. My Thai—and in most cases, their English—is too rudimentary to explain to them what ails me, anyway. All I need is a ride to somewhere, anywhere, to let the therapeutic thrill of the city at full tilt work its soul-soothing magic. I name a spot on the other side of town and off we go. Once I have arrived, I stop for a coffee and take another ride back. With every rev, my mind drifts off further, the air slapping my cheeks with gusts of incense, lemongrass, and exhaust fumes as if it’s saying; get yourself together! Worries about work and well-being seem to escape through my ear canals. For a brief moment, they’re no longer mine, blown into the faces of the motorists driving behind me. Let them deal with it. 

Ironically, these trips are a flirt with danger. My only brushes with death have been on the back of motosais. Once, shooting over an unbusy road at cheek-flapping velocity when a car popped out of nowhere. Another time in a close call with the crushing wheels of a heavy hauler. Helmets, for passengers at least, are a rare sight (and I, admittedly, forget to bring my own more often than not). On the sporadic occasion of the driver carrying a spare, it usually has the endurance of a salad bowl. But as the Thai say: Arai ja kerd, kor tong kerd; whatever happens, happens—an attitude that has rubbed off on me after nearly a decade here. Besides, I tell myself that, surely, the tangle of Buddhist amulets clattering against the dashboard will prevent me from meeting my maker.

Now, whenever I’m in need of a mental pick-me-up, I hop on a motorbike for an instant hit. It’s more fun than visiting a therapist—and so much cheaper. 

>> Next: How to Make Sense of the Intense, Timeless, Thoroughly Modern Beauty of Bangkok

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