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PRIVATE LIVES

Trains, Planes and Tuk-Tuks : Exotic Forms of Travel Don't Faze Her, but Don't Ask Her to Get on a Bus

March 03, 1991|MARGO KAUFMAN

I LOVE TO travel, but I don't like getting from place to place. My idea of a fun form of transit is The Transporter from "Star Trek." Occasionally, my particles might get scrambled and I'd wind up in a time warp. But it would be easier than a lot of other things.

Recently, before the war, when tourism was still in flower, my husband and I were in Thailand. "Honey," Duke said, looking up from his guidebook, "there's a lot of places we could see if you'd take the bus."

I rolled my eyes. Unlike my mate, who hops aboard anything that moves, I have certain prejudices regarding, for example, buses, which I detest. From Switzerland to Santa Monica, to ride a bus is to wonder how you're going to die. Will a show-off driver attempt a fancy passing maneuver on a one-lane mountain highway? Will you be dropped at a mugger-friendly stop? Or will you catch a virulent strain of flu?

"You'll take the bus when they have staterooms," said Duke, who has bused around Mexico and who occasionally takes the RTD to work even when his car is running. I tried not to feel guilty. I've gone on lots of disagreeable conveyances.

Take the 20-hour trip from Los Angeles to Bangkok in the coach section of a sold-out 747. It was a little disconcerting when we discovered that the ground crew hadn't vacuumed since the last transpacific haul and that my vegetarian meal had disappeared. Still, I didn't flinch, not even when I found out that the woman in front of me was wildly susceptible to airsickness.

I was prepared. I've been flying since I was a child and I know how to cope. I take food, I take books, and most important, on intercontinental trips, I take a sleeping pill. I see no advantage to remaining conscious. I live for the day my doctor agrees to put me in a temporary state of hibernation like a black bear so that I can be checked through.

I also wouldn't mind a mini-version to get me over a ride in a Bangkok tuk-tuk --a flimsy, lead-spewing golf cart type of vehicle that zips around in traffic that makes rush hour on the 405 seem light.

My blood froze the first time my husband let an air-conditioned taxi go by and flagged down a tuk-tuk instead. Following a spirited negotiation in Thai, Duke agreed to a fare of 80 cents, and a moment later we were sitting at tailpipe level breathing sweet-smelling carbon monoxide fumes while our driver performed a 360-degree spin into oncoming traffic.

"Every street is a one-way street, his way," Duke said with growing respect. He added that if it really bothered me, we could always take the bus.

Well, at least the tuk-tuk was quick, unlike the songthaew , a small pickup truck with three benches that is favored in rural areas. We shared it with 30 or 40 people, livestock and the catch of the day. In Thailand there's no such thing as too crowded. On one memorable expedition, I sat downwind from a basket of eels. "I like trains and boats best; you can walk around," Duke admitted later.

I'd like them too if he was talking about the bullet train or the kind of ship where the main thing to remember is that you don't dress for dinner on the first night out. But my husband can't resist a Third World transportation bargain.

Another day, we took a train from Bangkok to Ayutthaya, the capital of old Siam. It wasn't the air-conditioned second-class express with assigned seats that I'd been promised but rather a sweltering fourth-class commuter with little elbow room and lots of stops.

Vendors swarmed aboard and forged through the aisles peddling the usual snacks: Chicken-on-a-stick and dried squids, fastened en famille with their tentacles dangling from a curious point-of-purchase display. It cost us each 60 cents to go 53 miles. We got what we paid for.

"Maybe we should have taken the three-hour boat ride," Duke said. But I hadn't forgotten the five-hour junket to Ko Phi Phi on a ferry with 150 travelers, four life jackets and a squat toilet.

For the record, there are many forms of transit I remember fondly: the long-tailed boat down the Pai River to the Burmese border, the bikes we rode around the ruins of Sukothai. The oxcart, the river raft, even the elephant, which is another story.

But it always came back to the bus. Finally, Duke suggested a day trip from Bangkok. I reluctantly agreed to take a "motor coach," provided that it was air-conditioned and I wasn't stuck on it for more than two hours. We went to Bang Saen, a beach 65 miles away.

To my immense relief, the bus was clean and not too crowded. Granted, a guy in the seat behind us was sniffing furniture polish, a child howled for half an hour and the scenery highlights included billboards that said "Development Coming Soon." But it was tolerable. Possibly too tolerable, because when we got to Bang Saen terminal--a cardboard sign surrounded by dried-banana vendors--Duke was in a vile mood. "Enjoy the ride?" I asked brightly.

"I hate buses," he replied.

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