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 psyche stirs in the early hours of the morning, right around the same time the Myna birds begin their vocal standoffs in the tree branches surrounding this house. This jungle paradise seeping into my ear canal suits my soul—not a bad way to start each morning; surrounded by the Thai jungle. I blink the sleep out of my eyes and sit up slowly in my too big of a bed. The room has curtains, but they allow the natural light in so, naturally, my day begins closer to when the sun’s rays do. I note that I am not in the same direction I fell asleep in and chuckle to (nay, applaud) myself; if I can’t laugh at my own strange quirks, who will? It isn’t until I’m mindfully brushing my teeth (using my left hand vs my right) that the intrusive thoughts of the previous afternoon resurface; my first experience being stopped and ultimately fined by local Thai police. I push the feelings of anger and belittlement out of my mind. I don’t wish to relive those awkward emotions again if I can help it, so after I rinse my mouth I crack open my laptop to begin researching what it takes to secure a Thai driver’s license.
As my fingers peck away at the keyboard commanding the machine to reboot, the memory I dismissed earlier replays in full. I recall asking how often they stop people at this underpass and the egotistical giggle it was met with. I pivot on my bamboo stool, grabbing my cell I begin to type up a message to one of my network groups for the area. I’m curious to know whether or not any of them have experienced the same scenario, how much they were ripped off for and, of course, any helpful tidbits anyone may have on how to go about securing a license. The familiar chimes of the Windows software coming to life on my laptop crescendos behind me. I hit send on my typed message and place the phone face down on the bed and swivel back to my PC, queue up the internet and shift into research mode.
According to the good old net, I’m in for quite the bureaucratic mess. Lucky for me, I’m organized AF and supercharged to avoid another costly and physically uncomfortable run-in with the local cops. It’s double-lucky (blessing really) that I’ve technically got all day to tackle this goal until its completion. Now, all that’s left for me to do is calculate the cost and guesstimate the length of time needed to get her done and to try and handle all of this with grace, a friendly smile, and patience.
I’ll need the basics: my passport, the departure card I received at passport control upon arrival (customs card), two passport-style photos, and proof of my address. I’ll also need to obtain a medical certificate stating I am in good physical health to operate a moving vehicle as well as a residential certificate from the immigration office a town over. I sit back from the laptop to ponder all of this information. I know I have extra passport photos on me (a necessity when traveling through Asia, which I have been the last year), I regularly pass by the Bangkok Hospital on my way into town maybe I can inquire about this medical certificate there. The immigration office though is off-putting, especially since I am here on a tourist visa. The phone buzzes on the surface of my bed breaking my train of thought. I lunge for it, desperate to see a helpful message of sorts. Instead, I see this:
This information sets me on edge until I remembered that the majority of my contacts are retirees and are here in Thailand on different visas than myself, quite possibly making this information mute in my case. I take note of the info, thank the sender and continue to perform my own due diligence. As helpful as networking can be the influx of information from sources who coin themselves as “experienced” in this field can leave me with more questions than answers at times. I concede for the day after a handful of hours and consent to putting in motion what I can control, getting these certificates, while allowing the next steps to unfold organically as information presents itself. I do, however, research the location of the immigration office I’ll need to collect the residential certificate and the documentary requirements therein. I plan to make it my first priority tomorrow morning as I deduce it’s best to arrive as early as possible to establishments like this. I note the time, 7:25a. I’ve got an engagement in town beginning in a few hours; it’s possible that I can swing by the hospital on my way.
My efficiency paid off. I was able to go in, make an appointment for the afternoon as not to disrupt my scheduled class, and walk out with my medical certificate. The meeting with the doctor was more of a brief conversation and lasted about five minutes. A small chunk of time in the crowded, but surprisingly calm waiting room and a quick snack later my name was called. The efficiency of this first experience has elevated my confidence. My inner goddess is beaming with pride in my execution and strategic use of time management skills as a make my way to the parking lot. These tiny successes amount to a lot, proving to myself that I am capable of expat living. I’m taking the back roads now to avoid the traffic stop (which I have come to learn happens for four hours, four to five times per week). I relax into my ride to the locals market, overly confident that tomorrow’s efficiency will have the same result.
The next morning when I pull up to the immigration office in Prachuap Khiri Khan (thirty-minute ride) just before opening hours my confidence is still riding high. I had an early start to beat the crowds and the sun making the ride pleasant as the cool air flirted with my exposed skin. It’s 08:20, ten minutes before opening time and there’s already a line forming at the copy machine and a group of locals in a semi-circle puffing their cigarettes waiting at the opposite edge of the building. I dismount and make my way to the copy machine line, which doubles as a makeshift check-in station, to get this process started. The Thai sun is harsh and when driving a motorbike there’s zero protection from its rays. The warmest part of the days I’ve found to be from about mid-morning to late afternoon when the sun falls out of view before setting over the Andaman Sea.
It’s close to 09:35 when I’m asked to take a seat to wait. Having gotten all the copies necessary and submitted my documents and the fee (500THB) all I can do is hope this won’t take too long to process. I’d like to make my way to the Land and Transportation office (think DMV) in Cha Am, an additional thirty minutes away putting me an hour away from home on the return trip (depending on traffic). My understanding is that with these documents I can submit the licensing fee and walk out with my Thai motorbike driver’s license. I use the time to chat with loved ones on the cell phone considering my geographical location places me fifteen hours ahead making this an ideal time of day to catch a handful of them. It’s not long before a smiling, young Thai lady hands me my certified documents. Before I head out I check the map, take a long drink of water and splash a bit on my bare shoulders. The sun is getting ready to heat up and I’m praying traffic is at a bare minimum considering the time.
When I arrive at the Land and Transportation office I’m in a full sweat. It’s just past 11:00 in the morning and the sun is already blaring. My helmet and face mask work against me in long distances in such heat. The building is relatively small and I can see a practice course for drivers in the distance—I’m hoping to avoid that part; being a farang can have its pluses in that regard. I approach the window in full observation mode, my eyes searching for signs in English explaining rules, expectations, anything. When I get to the window I hand over my documents, which are thankfully certified in Thai, and the woman motions for me to sit down. I watch as she hands my documents over to a man wearing all black standing near the back of the secured area. As I begin to distract myself with my phone I notice a small jumping spider on the ground not too far from my feet. I watch as the tiny creature jumps around going nowhere, but determined to get somewhere and I can relate.
The man in black opens the door to the secured area and waves me over to a desk stationed right outside. He begins to ask me questions in Thai, I smile and shake my head. He smiles back and explains that I must watch the mandated video on safety and pass the reaction time test, but that it will not happen until this afternoon. I’d just missed the morning session for these activities that took place at 10:00. Nothing to be done about it, I have to wait. And wait I do, impatiently at first, but then calmly after some food and a walk in the forested area around the property. My logic fought my urges to leave and come back a minimum of a dozen times until finally I was waved over to the table by the solitary man in black. He hands me my paperwork and ushers me toward a stairway.
Following the crowd, I take a seat in a room with a television set up ready to play us the safety video (completely in Thai). After the video concluded the small group was ushered out the room to perform the time response test, which consisted of pressing down on a pedal with your foot. The pedal is linked to a machine that triggers a visual sign to the driver (me) to hit the break. When each participant has had their turn we are sent back downstairs for photographs.
Waiting to collect my license I daydream of being pulled over the next time. How I would be sure to stop completely, remove my mask and smile too big while flashing this baby. One point for farangs everywhere, I celebrated. Glancing over at the clock it was nearly 15:00. I have completely earned that large Singha beer waiting at home for me in the fridge. When my name is called my demeanor melts, I am like a teenager winning a beauty pageant accepting this white envelope. At that moment, no singular triumph had ever tasted so sweet. I thank the man in black and the photography lady, almost wave to the crowd of people behind me before exiting the building but thankfully do not. Because when I get to my motorbike and put on my helmet in a hurry, I pause to take the license from the envelope to put it into my wallet when I marvel at my prize. I’m still smiling, my inner goddess rehearsing her acceptance speech when I realize the license isn’t to operate a motorbike, it’s to operate a car. Epic fail.