Riding a motorbike in Thailand requires proper documentation. Without an international drivers license (for motorbikes specifically) or a Thai drivers license you can be fined by local police who make routine stops to check for documentation (and that you are wearing a helmet), held responsible at the scene of any vehicular accident/incident and more than likely your travel insurance will not cover any claim filed for treatment for bodily harm as a result of a motorbike (or car) related accident.
My mind is peaceful and on cloud nine as I fasten the buckle of my helmet preparing to pull out of the parking lot of the elephant rescue I’ve been volunteering with these last few weeks. Swinging my leg over the seat of my motorbike, lovingly named Mimi, I have an internal dialogue about how I’m getting the hang of life as a (potential) resident here in Thailand. I understand more Thai words every day and am becoming accustomed to navigating my motorbike on the often congested Hua Hin roadways. I’m even rocking a face mask like a local. It hides my gleaming smile as I approach the exit of the driveway, flip on my turning indicator and leave the establishment behind me with a gentle rev of the engine. It’s about a forty-minute drive (one way) to my rented home in the south, but it’s a stunning drive, especially when I do it mindfully; feeling the wind and dirt on my skin, attempting to name the spices that float into my olfactory or watching how sun rays dance on the passing treetops. Once I get through town the road narrows and the presence of human life decreases. Mentally, I chop up the journey in chunks using landmarks as geographical breadcrumbs to aid in making the travel time less of a threat.
It’s midday in Hua Hin as I’m approaching the first of two mall-related underpasses in town and notice the traffic beginning to slow. This is the main road in and out of town and, in my limited experience, was an unusual location for a slowdown of this magnitude. Pedestrians heading to the mall, typically to crowd the food courts, cross using the sky bridges, which in turn, doesn’t disrupt the flow of vehicular traffic below. I’m hyper aware on this motorbike all things considered having earned my Thai tattoo—the locals’ nickname for a scar as a result of a motorbike collision—at the beginning of the year down in Koh Samui. I’m in no hurry to have another and my amygdala has a morbid imagination so I brace myself to witness some sort of accident. Inching closer with the flow of traffic, neon orange cones with reflector tape and the presence of police vehicles come into view. My amygdala is on overdrive now. I crawl my bike passed the last opportunity to make a U-turn before I realize what the commotion ahead actually is, a police traffic stop.
I exhale slowly, grateful I do not have to see any guts or gore on the pavement. But then brace myself for this now unavoidable encounter. I’m not panicked in the slightest because I have my California driver’s license with me. The owner of the motorbike rental company explained to me when he delivered the bike to my home (a service offered and the top reason I went with his business aside from a brilliantly negotiated price) that if I am ever stopped by the police to show them respect, my driver’s license and the registration taped under the lid of the boot (trunk). Knowing this, I attempt to disarm him with my solo-female-travelers weapon of choice, my smile, as the officer slowly waves me forward forgetting he can’t see my mouth hidden by the face mask. I shuffle along behind the other motorbikes that are being directed to pull over to the side of the road and wait to be addressed.
A mid-aged Thai man in full police uniform approaches Mimi and I sucking his teeth before he launches some saliva over his shoulder, aiming at the curb. I try not to gag or show my disgust at the behavior; I despise spitting. Instead, I greet him respectfully in Thai (sawadee kaa) with my hands bent at the wrists and in front of my chest like I am praying, bow slightly and flash my best smile when I’m done; this one being visible having removed my mask when I parked the bike to wait. He nods back at me returning the greeting and knocking on his head with his knuckles. He speaks to me in broken English, “You wear helmet, very good, farang!” The last word I recognize and it immediately registers the tone of this encounter loud and clear. Farang means foreigner and he has elevated himself by utilizing it in this context and has indirectly tipped off my intuition, which is screaming that this is likely going to cost me, financially speaking.
I offer him my driver’s license and open the trunk section of the bike to allow him to view the valid registration taped there. The registration he appreciates as much as me having on a helmet, my license, he does not. He looks at it quickly before handing it back to me. He insists on seeing my other license, my Thai license. I blink blankly back at him in response, “Other license“, I ponder the notion out loud. Admittedly, I’ve not researched any of this considering I drove a motorbike around Koh Samui for two months earlier in the year without incident (save the wreck, which happened in the driveway of my accommodation) and without anything more than my California’s driver’s license. The cop asks me to follow him up the roadway to be issued a citation. I do as I am instructed remaining calm and quiet as I wheel the bike forward.
When he stops to face me, I delicately inquire after this “other license”. I’m sure it may be difficult for him to clearly explain to me in English, but I also figure if there’s anyone worth asking about this, it’s him. He does his best to explain to me what I need; either a valid international or Thai driver’s license. The blank stare is back, I can feel it. I’m thrown, however, when he grins and then chuckles in response to my face. I crumple my face further and cock my head to the left slightly at the realization that my ignorance and not my kindness warranted the response I was after with my perfectly executed Thai greeting; a smile and laughter, warmth. I press him to verify where, if anywhere, I can get either one of those in Hua Hin. He throws his hands in the air exclaiming “Oh, much papers, much papers!” I don’t understand and he can tell. It never ceases to amaze me how much can be communicated nonverbally or how easily I do so without a filter.
As he’s writing up my citation and squeezing me out of 500 THB (he originally asks for 1000THB—$31—but my body’s natural reaction to that request told him that wouldn’t fly and he dropped it by half) he does his best to explain that an international license has to be obtained in my home country and that to obtain a Thai driver’s license will require “much papers”. Handing over my last 500 THB in exchange for the citation wet with black ink, I offer my smile one last time and thank him for the information, which is somewhat helpful, but in no way useful. He snorts, wraps on his head as a means to remind me to wear my helmet and brushes past me eager to collect money from the next farang, I mean victim. I mount my bike, fasten the buckle of my helmet and attempt to put myself back into a state of mindfulness when a Thai family of five holding a lapdog with not a helmet in sight buzzes by both the traffic stop and me. Glancing behind me I can see I am the head of a tourist trap shaped, zig-zag line of prospects; a cash cow carefully crafted by the local police. I shake my head at this tangible display of the dark side of tourism. Almost sensing my spying eyes, the police officer turns on his heels, smiles widely at me and waves. I shake my head back at him as I face forward, kick over the engine, pull away from the curb 500 THB poorer, massively confused and a lot belittled.
To be continued…