I’ve heard it said that driving around Chiang Mai is like playing a video game. My friend Denali compared traffic to a river, and all you needed to do was just gently flow into the river. I equate driving a motorbike to the 5 d’s of dodgeball: dodge, duck, dip, dive and dodge.

I feel like learning to drive a motorbike here is one of the important steps you take as an expat. Whether or not to drive a motorbike is the first first step but after you decide to do so, whoa, partner, it’s hammer time.

Not unlike your first time successfully ordering food in pasa Thai, or finding your way back home or doing anything successfully, really, driving a bike here is a big deal and if you’ve figured it out, you should do more than pat yourself on the back, you should treat yourself to a massage.

As I was driving home with a white board under my butt and a dish rack in my basket, I realized I was undergoing another motorbike initiation. You know, first you learn how to drive, maneuver through traffic, go on a long drive, and then you drive with a passenger. Or you’ll be three on a bike, learn to sit side saddle…

Next, you’ll drive with lots of stuff on your bike, you know, bags of stuff hanging from the handlebars, or with heavy objects that pull the weight of the bike to the left or to the right.

My friend Jess drove home with a laundry basket between her legs, and then a garbage bin! Very common! When I had to take Romeo to the vet, I felt very Thai because I was carrying an animal. You see so many people carrying ridiculous things like a TV or styrofoam boxes piled so high you wonder how it’s all staying up there. I thought it was insane to carry a bicycle upside down (the passenger is holding it between the driver and them on the seat) until I decided to try it. Yes, it was insane, we hit another car.

The craziest thing I’ve seen is not someone carrying an awkward or large item but laying on the motorbike while speeding down Canal Road. A gang of young boys zipped by me and one of them was lying down, with his belly on the seat and his legs behind him like he was Superman, flying along, taking a turn and I thought, Holy Basil, Batman.

You see that kind of stuff on TV, watching the X Games, not in the next lane over as you are returning from a walk. And I thought sitting on a white board, with my feet barely touching the road when I stopped, was insane. Oh, wait a minute, it is. But folks here do this kind of thing all the time. So are we Westerners insane with our safety society, or are we insane for trying to be more Thai?

I think I’ll walk to work today.

4 replies on “Motorbike initiations, Becoming an expat

  1. I drove a motorbike for a few years when I lived in Tland and loved the experience. Then one day I got clipped by another motorbike right in the foot, and I was wearing sandals. Ouch! Broke two toes in that one, not a very pleasant experience.I do think that one of the reasons why the western expat experience in Tland (and other places) is “exciting” is because we are removed from our safe, antiseptic surroundings back home and placed in environments that, to be blunt, aren't that physically safe (relative to back home) – and that risk appeals to our sense of “adventure”. Basically, its an adrenaline thrill for us.


  2. Yeah, if everyone in Ecuador had a mugging experience, then I think it's safe to say, everyone in Thailand has a motorbike story.Antiseptic is a good word and a great way to put it. I often feel like I've stepped onto a Stepford Wives set when I'm in Western neighborhoods.I used to be fascinated by such places and now I feel they lack a certain character. I'm not sure why that is important to me.Thailand is an adventure, or another planet and I guess I'm enjoying the exploring šŸ˜€


  3. Lani, I hear you. Also, pray you never DO get in that bad motorcycle accident. After my accident I spent about a week in a provincial hospital in the rural northeast, and the conditions were pretty appalling (I don't mean that in a “oh look how horrible the natives are” sort of way, but just as a general observation about hospital standards there). It was pretty dismal. On the other hand, I've also been in some of the private hospitals in Bangkok, and they were fabulous!


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