Mopeds, Motorbikes, Motorcycles, oh my!
Thailand is one of those places littered with two wheeled motorized vehicles. In the United States I have had limited experience with motorcycles. I may have done one cruise around town on the back of one once, and while it was kind of fun I was really concerned about potential fender-benders, where I would have been the fender. We hear all sorts of stories about accidents involving motorcycles and how awful and devastating they can be. In Thailand….eh…it’s the main mode of transportation! Everyone there drives motorbikes. Everyone knows how to drive one. And they will carry just about anything on one.
Technically there is an age limit for driving and being allowed to operate a motorbike. This rule, like many traffic laws, is largely ignored. I caught my one of my smallest twelve year old students speeding through town on a motorbike. When he saw me his face lit up in a ridiculously large, toothy smile, and he waved exuberantly. This boy probably weighed all of fifty pounds and was completely dwarfed by the bike. My shock and disbelief must have showed on my face because he proceeded to laugh quite joyfully as he jetted off behind his friends. Another time while walking to or from school, a motorbike full of students yelling and laughing flew by me. I remember watching them pull into the school, and counted not three, or even four, but FIVE of my students crammed onto this one motorbike. FIVE! Now, three students or even three Thai adults to one bike was pretty standard. I had seen four people crammed onto one bike a time or two. Usually that included small children, though. But these kids had orchestrated a fifth body onto a standard motorbike. The largest, and a little overweight, kid drove the bike. Then two slightly smaller kids lined up on the rest of the seat behind him, as was normal. Then, they crammed two more even smaller kids onto the front of the motorbike, in between the front of the seat and the handles, where normally the driver’s feet go. The boys on the bike thought it was just the greatest thing ever. They loved it. I just stared at them in disbelief and exclaimed that those kids were going to kill themselves! Like a totally lame old lady. Compared to the way the locals drove, though, both I and the other foreign English teacher were definitely lame old ladies. In fact, we didn’t drive at all.
For one, the Thai people drive on the left side of the road. Two, we had never driven a motorbike before, let alone a manual or semi-manual one. So the other teacher, H, and I ended up walking everywhere in town. Our town was so small, though, it wasn’t a big deal. Yes it was hot and we always ended up sweating profusely if we walked anywhere, but we broke out in a sweat just leaving our apartments in the morning anyway. Walking to all of the locals, though, was really strange. Thai people don’t walk, one Thai teacher told us. Teachers that saw us walking to school or around town always tried to pick us up and give us a ride, even if it was just twenty yards to the building. They wouldn’t listen to us if we tried to politely refuse, saying it was ok we could walk the rest of the short way. We don’t mind walking; just chalk it up to another weird Farang thing.
Many of the other teachers I knew in other cities rented motorbikes and got around that way. Sometimes I wished I’d done that too, so I could take myself to the city and not worry about bus times or missing the last ride in or out of town. Then again, the way they drove around town could be a bit terrifying to a wimpy Western driver, used to four wheels, a lot of metal around them, turn signals and traffic laws. I managed just fine without a bike, regardless. Our teachers were always offering to drive us places. When I met up with other teachers we could usually work out ride sharing. After being intimidated and a little leery of motorbikes most of my life, I grew to actually really like riding on them while in Thailand. It’s impractical not to use them. They’re everywhere, and in crowded cities with terrible traffic, like Bangkok, they’re the best way to get around. When H and I visited Buriram and the ruins at Phnom Rung we rented motorbike taxis for the day, and they ferried us around to the different monuments and parks. While I often felt like a giant riding on these little things behind a lithe little Thai driver, it was thrilling. I loved the wind in my hair and face (as long as I had sunglasses). After walking around in the heat and working up a sweat, it felt good to ride around with the open air rushing around me. Had to make sure to wear something long sleeved while riding around on them, however, for the sunburn potential alone. I had a wicked burn on my shoulders the one day that I did not. It was fun, too, to be riding on one with a Thai driver, who grew up driving bikes and to whom in was almost second nature.
There were a few days I ended up riding on the back of a bike another western English teacher rented. I generally didn’t worry about safety, for we didn’t usually drive where there was much traffic. We even rolled three deep on a trip to a waterfall one weekend. That one was a little rougher, as we were a bit bigger than the average people who rode three per bike. I did have one negative motorbike run-in, however, toward the end of my time there. I was riding with an English friend of mine, and we unfortunately hit a rock in the middle of the road that caused us to swerve pretty badly. We ended up going off the road into a ditch. I landed on my friend, and the bike landed on me. Without a helmet, this could have been really bad for me. As it turned out the bike probably got the worst of it, though my friend was a little banged up. I was scratched and scraped in several places, but I was ok. We were both mobile and in one piece, just with a little extra blood. The bike was suffering from its own kind of bleeding, and we were dreading the encounter with the people we rented from. It would be costly. Luckily we knew some people on the island, who talked to the bike owners, and the cost of the bike repairs weren’t as bad as we feared.
Accidents, apparently, were frequent occurrences. Not surprising, really, given the way most of them drove. No signaling, flying as fast as they wanted, weaving in and out of traffic, frequently without a helmet even though it was technically law to wear one (“Thai people love to break the law” – Thai Teacher). Several teachers had stories of students that stopped coming to class because they were in a motorbike accident. I had plenty of my own kids that came to class with scratches or road burns on their legs or casts on their arms from an accident. I only ever witnessed one in person. Someone was going too fast as they turned into the school and the bike whipped out from underneath them. The traffic cops rushed over, helped the student up, and everything went back to normal. No big deal.
I am surprised I didn’t see more motorbike mishaps, given some of the ridiculous things I did see. Other than the five kids to one bike, locals often rode with their very small children in the front or on the back, or in between the parents on a bike. Toddlers, even infants, were motorbike passengers. Once I even saw a dog riding down the country highway on the back of a man’s bike. The dog had some amazing balancing skills. There was a man in our town we saw carrying a rooster under one arm as he drove around. People carried groceries, large packages, planks of wood or other building materials. Really large items, even. Sometimes, they so loaded their bikes that I couldn’t understand how they were even driving the thing. Some women rode on the backs of them sideways, like women used to ride horses side saddle. I had to do this once, and it was terrifying. I was not good at that sort of balancing. Luckily it wasn’t very far, and the second time I was much better.
So, motorbikes, a Southeast Asian adventure! Wear a helmet! And watch out for other motorists carrying infants or household pets.