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It’s All Fun and Games Until Someone Hits an Elephant
Despite not having much material wealth, the people of Thailand are some of the happiest and nicest I’ve come across in my travels. There are probably a number of studies hypothesizing as to why this might be the case. I just think they are overjoyed that they’ve survived their most recent ride on their motorized scooter.
In Thailand, it seems like everyone rides some kind of motorbike, usually it’s a scooter from one of the last three decades. Usually. Most Thai roads are designed for the enormous amount of motorbike traffic they see, with one main lane in each direction and a kind of outside half-lane where two-wheeled vehicles and the occasional Indiana Jones-looking sidecar fly along passing whatever they encounter at 50-70 m.p.h.
An island destination with spectacular beaches and countless bars and massage parlors, Phuket lies on the west coast of Thailand on the Andaman Sea and attracts a parade of tourists. Many of them are overweight, unhappy looking Russian men wearing speedos. They are often accompanied by their much younger, prettier and thinner, yet equally unhappy looking wives or girlfriends. Perhaps the overworked Speedos have something to do with that. Because they are plentiful and cheap to rent—motorbikes, not the Russian wives—and can skirt traffic jams, scooters are an ideal way to get around. The catch is this: there’s a fairly good chance you’ll crash and an only slightly smaller chance you won’t wake up when you do. According to one statistic I found online (so it must be true), there have been single months in which 220 motorbike accidents and 18 fatalities were recorded in Phuket alone. As you might have guessed, most of those involve tourists.
On a recent trip to Phuket, I rented a scooter for 24 hours—though I’m not quite sure why—and lived to tell about it, though I’m not sure how. Below are a few tips from yours truly in case you find yourself behind the wheel of a motorbike in Thailand.
BE MINDFUL OF LOCAL HAZARDS
I had been on my scooter for less than 10 minutes and was cresting a steep hill that took me out of the craziness of Patong Beach toward the less crowded beaches of Karon and Kata to the south when a man walked across the street followed closely by a full-grown elephant. With no fanfare at all, he waved at the oncoming traffic to stop, as if they had a choice. And you thought a deer could damage your front end. For a split second, I wondered why he wasn’t using a leash of any kind before it donned on me that unless your elephant leash is attached to a redwood at the other end, no one but Dumbo has a say in where he goes. The point of the story is this: the “Scooter Hits Elephant” headline is on par with “Ant Meets Sneaker.” Heed the signs: break for elephants.
BEWARE OF ROUNDABOUTS
Despite a hair-raising taxi ride from the airport (more on that later), it took all of two days for me to cave in and rent a scooter from the stand in my hotel parking lot. There were beautiful coastlines to explore, quaint Thai neighborhoods to experience and a giant Buddha to see. Places my sandals weren’t going to take me. And, besides, how bad could a Thai emergency room really be? The scooter cost just 400 Thai Baht for a 24-hour rental, less than $13 USD. I filled the tank for $8 and on that I could have driven to Vietnam and back, though I’m quite certain it would be safer to swim across the Gulf of Thailand to get there. Upon handing over my passport as collateral, I received a three-minute tutorial in broken English from a 30-something man with an permanent grin that did nothing to set me at ease.
All I needed to do was skirt the congestion of Patong unscathed and I’d be out on the open roads, driving my scooter as coolly as Thomas Magnum on the Hawaiian coastline…except for the obvious scooter/Ferrari disparity. The biggest obstacle to this adventure was a roundabout at the end of the street that made a TSA airport security area seem like a well organized machine. Motorbikes, cars and giant industrial trucks merged with no rhyme or reason. It was every man for himself. Women and children, too. No one was spared. There was no waiting for a gap in traffic or giving way to the car already in the traffic circle. If you sat and waited, you were overrun from behind. I dove in, avoided several near collisions and was on my way. My confidence skyrocketed, a feeling that lasted all of five minutes. Driving up on an elephant will do that to you.
REMEMBER, YOU’RE AN AMATEUR, NOT A LOCAL
Shortly after arriving in Phuket, I took a late-night taxi ride from the airport. On dark, winding roads we flew past motorbikes with no taillights at 70 m.p.h. Nearly every motorcyclist was in shorts and a tank top, with no helmet. As cars and other bikes overtook them at close range, they peered over their shoulders grinning from ear to ear. The excitement of their near-death commute was too much to disguise, I suppose. They were either masking fear or laughing at the absurdity with which they were careening between cars while flying up and down steep hills and around blind corners. It was as if they had resigned themselves to the fact that they could die at any moment and wanted to be sure they were wearing a smile in their final moments.
I felt unsafe even in the taxi, probably because my driver was overtaking slower vehicles by crossing the double centerline on a curve, sometimes passing a car and a motorbike at the same time. I pulled out my notepad to record the absurdity of it all and to scribble a last will and testament, but was being jostled so harshly in the backseat that I gave up. Later, while out on my scooter, I saw a guy on a 25-year-old motorcycle attempt to squeeze past a giant cement mixer truck on the inside of a tight turn going down a steep hill. The daylight between the road’s edge and the truck was closing fast, but he was undeterred. Only when he was inches from the truck’s huge back wheel and the room to overtake was gone did he back off the gas. They are maniacs. But they are well-practiced maniacs, so don’t try to what they try.
Armed with the pertinent crash statistics I mentioned earlier, anyone who can spell the words TRAUMATIC BRAIN INJURY—or at least “brain” and “injury”—would tell you that it’s a good idea to wear a helmet on any kind of motorbike in Thailand, or anywhere really. Someone with just a little more common sense would tell you it’s good idea to take a taxi or walk. I’m not that smart, evidently. The locals seem to laugh at any helmet logic. Entire families of four pile onto motorbikes, with dad at the helm and two children sandwiched between he and mom, who is on the back. On the rare occasion in which any protective dome-wear is in use, it’s the father sporting it, which seemed strange to me. My rental came with a helmet, so I wore it. In fact, while a number of tourists seem to go shirtless with sandals, I went with a helmet and sneakers, figuring they would give me the best chance of retaining my toes in the event of a mishap. Call me what you will, but I can still count to ten using both feet.
Now, about those massage parlors.
Here are a few more photos from my gentle cruise around Phuket. And check out the video below of my cruise around Patong at night.