It had been practically impossible to fall asleep on the long distance coach from Chiang Mai to Bangkok. It was completely packed, almost entirely with locals, and the only obvious feature to justify its ‘luxury’ status was a small TV strapped to the luggage rack which bellowed out Thai soap operas all night.
And yet, I must have dozed off somehow, because I suddenly became aware that we had stopped driving and the bus was in pandemonium. Even in the dark I could see that there seemed to be more smoke than usual inside the bus and that passengers were grabbing bundles from racks and pushing and squeezing their way off. My companion was doing better than me at sleeping and took a few shoves to rouse. “We’ve got to get out” I urged. Sleep befuddled he frowned at me. “What? Why? Are you sure?”. I wasn’t prepared to get into explanations so just grabbed his hand and pulled him off the coach after me.
We had stopped by the side of a road in what seemed to be the middle of nowhere. To my horror everybody who was getting off the bus was standing in a patient crowd right next to it. I moved off purposefully along the side of the road but nobody followed my lead. “Come on!” I urged, pointing at the bus and miming explosions. They smiled at me in that kind way Thai people do towards demented foreigners, and started to sit down by what was by now very clearly a coach on fire. “What’s up?” came a friendly voice nearby. “Can we get a beer somewhere?” A stereotypical Australian traveller. Of course. I had realized by now that the locals weren’t going to respond to my leadership but I could probably get my companion and this Australia to do what they were told. Sure enough, once they caught on that they had to clear the area their maleness and height was enough to allow them to marshal everybody to a safe-ish distance further up the highway. Two tier leadership is better than nothing.
Years later, my next transport and fire episode was much easier to deal with. I was on my way home down the Old Kent Road, a busy road out of Central London on my small but perfectly formed scooter. As usual I was rushing, slightly late leaving work for closing time at the childcare place where my preschool children spent their days. I thought I had tucked my skirt in safely until a passing car tooted urgently and I looked round to see my long silk skirt flaring out behind me. Literally flaring in fact, as it had caught fire on the exhaust. I wish I had a photo for you, it must have been quite an impressive sight! But since I was the only person involved it only took seconds for me to pull over dismount and beat out the flames (that’s why you should always wear gloves on a motorbike!).
In that situation I could just bow to the mesmerized traffic jam, get back on my bike, and carry on my way. Not so in Thailand where after a few uncertain hours in the dark we were almost glad to see a school bus with wooden bench seats eventually turn up. By the time we had spent a few long hours bumping around in it on our way to Bangkok, the previous vehicle was indeed starting to feel like a distant memory of high luxury.