Going on any journey in Thailand can be an eye-opening experience and not just because of the more ‘relaxed’ attitude to safety compared to the West. Getting in a vehicle in Thailand also provides an intriguing insight into Thai superstitions with its mix of Buddhist, Brahmin and animist beliefs that help to define everyday life in Thailand.
Most visitors to Thailand will at some stage get into a taxi, tuk-tuk, bus or songthaew and the fronts of these vehicles are often adorned with all manner of good luck charms and blessings. Garlands hang from the rear-view mirror just as garlands hang from the bow of a longtail boat. These flowers are offerings to Mae Yanang the goddess of journeys and are a sort of Thai equivalent of carrying a St Christopher medallion. During rush-hour traffic, when vehicles are waiting at traffic lights or intersections, children walk in between the cars and buses to sell these garlands to drivers for around 20 Baht a time.
The dashboard of any Thai taxi will usually have at least one amulet or image of Buddha or a revered monk. There may also be lucky bank notes which bear the King of Thailand’s image or other small portraits of the present king or one of his most revered predecessors such as King Chulalongkorn (Rama V). If you look at the front ceiling of the vehicle you may notice a pattern in gold leaf and paste (pictured right). This is a sacred blessing hand-daubed by a monk at a special ceremony held when a new vehicle is purchased. The date and time of that ceremony is also carefully chosen to ensure that maximum protection is bestowed on the vehicle and its occupants. These protective blessings, or Yants, are also sometimes used in Thai tattoos. Despite the protective power of the Yant, accidents can still happen. As any Thai Buddhist will tell you, no matter what protection the owner may have bestowed on his vehicle, he isn’t just dealing with his own karma, but also the karma of all the passengers travelling in the vehicle.
Thailand is a land of contradictions which is part of the appeal of the country. The advice I usually give to nervous travellers going to Thailand for the first time is to just go with the flow and try not to worry too much. Relax and enjoy the cultural differences that make travel so interesting and rewarding. Even when you notice the driver of your bus or taxi has suddenly taken both hands off the steering wheel to wai an important shrine or temple, remember he’s got your best interests at heart. As the expats often say: T.I.T. (This is Thailand).