So You Wanna Ride?
Maybe it's just me, but I do distance myself from motorbikes here in Thailand. They are certainly useful vehicles but they do have their place in the overall scheme of things.
From a technical standpoint, one of the first things you will notice about bikes is that they have only two wheels. What's wrong with that, you say? Well, for starters, the minute you let go of the bike, it will fall down. It cannot balance by itself. Now I can hear people saying, use the stand, dummy! Ah! Now that's three..
It really comes down to balance. The only thing I know of that can actually balance by itself on two legs is a person. This is generally assuming the said person is awake, has two legs, and is not under the influence of any substance that may render to that person the condition of being totally legless. For instance, I have yet to see a two-legged stool, a two-legged table… Oh, wait! Yes, there is a form of transport called a Segway. It does have two wheels, and is computer-controlled to balance by itself. It would probably take quite an effort of will to fall off one. But I do believe that there has been at least one documented instance of this actually happening. However, other than this particular device, anything that is typically free-standing, and has a center of gravity that is higher than it's two outer supporting points, will eventually succumb to the forces generally known as gravity… and keel over.
Okay, maybe I'm being a bit harsh here. I used to ride a bicycle, and still enjoy a quiet ride in tranquil surroundings. There are many places in Thailand where you can do this. But to get to that point, there were quite a few no-starts and half-starts before I was actually able to wobble down the road, trying to co-ordinate the pedals with the handlebars and discover where the brakes were hiding at the same time.
Learning to ride a motorbike is a somewhat similar experience, trying to find a balance between all the controls and keeping your balance at the same time. I have a somewhat fond memory of a friend trying to learn how to ride one; in trying to find the correct balance between the throttle and the clutch, he did an un-coordinated wheelie and fell off the bike before he could find the brakes. Fortunately most of the damage was to his ego.
Another thing about bikes is that you're open to a lot of things. Open to the elements, for one. You also need to keep your eyes open for errant footballs, rabid dogs and other such distractions that could bring your ride to a screeching halt.
This is why I prefer four wheels over two. For starters, I can get in, sit down, and fall asleep in the seat without falling over. I control the environment I'm ensconced in, come rain or shine. The only worrisome thing that could happen would be the entire football team chasing after your car should you have had the unfortunate ill-chance to accidentally run over their football…
My preference for four wheels over two is clear. Basically, if I can't get to a particular place with four wheels, I'm not going. Your point of view may differ.
In Thailand, a very common form of transport is the motorcycle taxi. The drivers typically sport distinctive orange jackets emblazoned with a number and the area they service, though I have seen the odd green or purple jacket. In Bangkok, you'll find these queues at the entrance to most major sois (lanes) that are not covered by any regular public service. They differ from the 'songtaew' in that these converted pickup trucks run a regular route, whereas the motorcycle taxi will bring you exactly to where he thinks you wanted to go. They can also be flagged down if they don't have a passenger, much in the same way you flag down a regular taxi. You do, however, have to agree on a fare beforehand, similar to taking a tuk-tuk.
Once you've agreed to a fare, you're usually handed a plastic helmet (that has probably been worn by at least two hundred people before you) for the purpose of not being stopped and fined by the boys-in-brown. It does not offer even one iota of safety. Now, if you're lucky, he's going to set off at a sedate pace. More often than not, however, he'll be weaving in and out of traffic, with you trying your level best not to get your kneecaps knocked off.
It's a great way to beat traffic jams, but is an option I prefer not to exercise.
What came as an initial surprise is that the women who also use this service ride side-saddle. They still do, and can be a sight to behold. One of the secretaries at work told me of an incident she once had with one of these motorcycle taxis and a knee-length skirt. She started wearing much shorter skirts from then on, a habit she has fortunately continued even though she now drives.
Motorcycle taxi queues also exist in the provinces, usually found around the local bus station or main village road. Their services, however, tend to cost a lot more, probably because if you didn't have your own transport, you'd have no alternative anyway. Their local knowledge is not to be sniffed at, as many may not know the house numbers too well, but mention the name of the person you're looking for and you could be led right to their doorstep. It happens in Bangkok, too.
Just to touch a little more on the Segways. There used to be a conducted tour of the backroads around Sukhumvit road using these people carriers. This particular tour seems to have been discontinued, however, though I understand they are still around and have relocated elsewhere. If you give them a go, do try not to fall off.
Right. Back to the bikes and the people who use them. With most bikes I have seen, the exhaust pipe is exposed. The riders are usually careful to avoid contact with the hot surface. However spills are inevitable, and quite often it does happen.
Try this. Next time you go to a go-go bar, have a good look at the girls on the stage. From the knees down, not the navel. It may surprise you at the number of those who sport burn marks of this sort. Note that this sort of technical observation is usually frowned upon if carried out at street level.
Traffic accidents involving bikes and cars or trucks are common, many quite serious.
It doesn't matter who is at fault, but it is fairly plain to see who will suffer.
In one of the companies I worked for, the senior management staff were all provided with a company car and driver. In most cases, the driver would start and end his workday at the manager's house. One day a manager showed up driving his company car. His driver had been fatally injured the night before while riding his bike home.
In the same company, one of the machinists did not show up at work for two days. When he did show up, he was bandaged all over and was missing two teeth. He had ridden his bike into the klong to avoid an on-coming ten-wheeler. It probably saved his life.
My wife's nephew, and one of her work colleague's sons, both died in hit-and-run accidents. The drivers were never apprehended.
A guy who rented our townhouse was also the victim of a hit-and-run. He left behind his retired father, a distraught wife and one-year old son.
Two local workers were in the car park trying to fix a broken wing mirror and hammer out a big dent in the front wing of their pickup. A motorcyclist had come out of his oncoming lane on a two-way street into them and they had no way to avoid him. They didn't bother hanging around.
Many people complain that the motorcyclists are unfairly targeted by the boys-in-brown. To a certain extent I could agree with that, but not entirely. Motorcycle theft is a lot more rampant than is made out to be. It takes seconds to manhandle an unattended bike into the back of a waiting pickup truck. Many are stripped down for spare parts and the frame thrown away. This can happen a lot faster than you think it can.
Although many newer motorcycles have built-in anti-theft measures, it does not take the thieves very long to figure out how to defeat them. A colleague (whose father is a fairly high ranking police officer) was explaining how the easily the ignition could be overcome with just two screwdrivers, and how steering or chain locks were overcome. What the boys-in-brown are looking for are probably missing ignition keys or registrations that don't match. If you've had your bike stolen, you won't be complaining too much if they recover it, would you?
If you still insist on riding a bike in Thailand, remember this. You're smaller. You're more vulnerable. To the average Thai motorist, you don't exist. It is an attitude that will not change. The dice are loaded against you. Good luck.
Good luck indeed! That said, I do use motorcycle taxis more often than is healthy. But as for riding a motorbike in Bangkok – no way!