How Not to Explore Thailand by Scooter

I haven't been on a scooter, moped, dirt bike, or other fuel-propelled two-wheeled machine since I ran into a tree at a friend’s birthday party in fifth grade, but no matter. My partner and her brother are confident I can learn as I go. We want to explore Koh Tao from one end of the island to another. Rural Thailand roads aren’t crowded. Rentals are cheap. How hard can it be?

I rent a basic automatic scooter – a Honda “Scoopy” on the menu of bikes – from the hostel I’m staying at. The woman at the desk asks for our passports. We’ve heard rental companies accept cash for deposits, so we ask if we can leave baht in lieu of our passports. The woman says no. We hand over our documentation. 

She gives us helmets and business cards with the name and number of the hostel.

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Clipboard in hand, the woman walks to a row of red and black mopeds parked outside, and Heidi, Everett, and I follow. She walks a circle around each bike, conducting a visual inspection. There’s one scratch on one bike, and she points at it. She shows us the levers for gas and breaks.

In my shorts, flip-flops, and tank top, I walk the bike to the nearest dirt road and get on. My left hand loosely holds the brake. I press the gas and lurch. My sandals drag in the dirt. Thirty or forty feet more and I find myself at the end of the road, toes scratched and dusty. I don’t know how to turn.

I fall to the right.

A screen door slams and I see a woman standing on a porch staring. I’m sandwiched under my bike in the middle of her street. She shakes a finger and says, “Not this bungalow. Other bungalow.”

Everett stands in the distance and yells, “You’re supposed to kick the bike away when you fall!

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I stand and see scrapes on my knees. My calf stings, and I realize I’ve been burned by the exhaust pipe. I flashback to Khao San Road in Bangkok, where I saw backpackers with bruises and bandages on their legs.

I get back on the bike and ride back and forth on the dirt road. By the next day I find myself zooming up and down hills and around corners, the wind catching my shorts and rippling through my tank top. I may not know how to U-turn on a gravel cul-de-sac, but I can pace Heidi and Everett on the left side of the road one lookout point to another, stopping for pictures with our bikes in front of turquoise vistas.

Later in the afternoon, hoping to find a secluded beach, we turn off the main arterial. Heidi and Everett zoom around a corner. I putter behind them.

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A red truck stops in front of me, and I stop a few feet back. The truck reverses. Before I know it, the truck runs into my scooter, crunching the plastic fender and plastic headlight into a hundred sparkling pieces. I yell and hit the bumper of the truck. The truck stops.

A Thai guy in skinny jeans wearing a brown leather wristwatch gets out.

Nearby, an old man with a big belly and blue pants under the eve of a porch stands to survey the commotion. The driver of the truck talks on his phone. The old man walks across his yard and with gray cataract eyes looks at the ground, the Thai guy, and at me. He kneels. He feels the back bumper of the truck with one hand and the pavement with the other. Other people from the community come out of their houses to watch the unfolding scene, including a girl in a pink tank top who has waited, no doubt, all summer for something like this to happen. She stands on the side of the road and claps.

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The old man picks up the biggest chunk of broken headlight and throws it into the bushes.

He stands, belly protruding, and asks, “Who is wrong here?

The girl in the pink shirt claps more and jumps. Two other people come out of their houses and stand in the road and talk. The group of us numbers eight or nine.

I don’t know what to say.

Every crazy scenario runs through my mind. The woman at the hostel will demand more money than I can afford. She’ll keep my passport. Heidi and Everett will ride off into the sunset. I’ll never see my family again. I’m angry with myself for my lack of research and practice.

I get my copy of “50 Shades of Gray” from my backpack and turn to a blank page in the back. I get the driver’s attention and hold my hand up like a phone. He looks at me and talks with a few of the people gathered around. He gives me his number.

 

Heidi and Everett return and ask what happened. I tell them the story.

The bike still runs, so I drive it, lopsided, to the rental place. The owner brings out a laminated sheet detailing prices for broken parts for scooters. Prices aren’t bad. The woman laughs good-naturedly as I tell her the details of what happened. She unlocks the drawer full of passports. 

I laugh too. 

Three Ways This Could Have Gone More Smoothly:

  1. I could have learned how to ride a scooter at home rather than in a foreign country. Maybe I would have avoided my “farang tattoo.” (“Farang” is a term for foreign visitors in Thailand. Farang tattoos are the burn marks tourists on scooters sport on their right calves and ankles.)
  2. I could have obtained an international driving permit. This site has some good information regarding the differences between “permits” and “licenses” and where to obtain them. (Hint: true international driving permits are grey and cardboard and valid for one year, no longer, and they aren’t made of plastic.)
  3. I could have worn real shoes.
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