If you’re like most people, at some time in your life you’ve gotten a crazy idea, about going somewhere and doing something that doesn’t make sense. You keep hoping that reason and logic will prevail and you’ll drop the idea. But you don’t
You announce your plans to friends and loved ones, but they don’t try to talk you out of it. At first, you think they don’t understand the risks. Then you start to suspect that you’re not the beloved soul you always thought you were.
So, despite your fears and doubts, you find yourself At Tony’s Big Bikes in Chiang Mai, Thailand, negotiating a two-week rental of a Honda Phantom. You repress the fact that between 50 and 60 people a day are killed in motorbike accidents in Thailand, and you also ignore the fact that you haven’t spent time on a serious motorcycle since 1976 when you sold your Yamaha 650. You tell yourself the Phantom is no crotch-rocket, but truth is, it’s a powerful cruiser that’ll get you killed just as easy as a mad-dog Kawasaki.
To add juice to this experience, you’ll have to regain your skills in downtown Chiang Mai traffic, among people who believe that traffic laws are an evil vestige of colonialism. Thais are a gentle people, but they can be Hell on Wheels.
Anyway, you sign a contract that says you’re responsible for everything and the shop is responsible for nothing, pay with a credit card, then hand over your passport: no shop in Thailand, to your knowledge will rent a bike without keeping it.
Now it’s time to face up to your folly. You straddle the bike, (a black one with orange flames on the tank) , you lean and turn the key, push the starter button, and when it comes to life. you feel that primordial surge up your spine, the same feeling, no doubt, that the first man to ride a horse felt when he grabbed the animal’s mane and climbed on.
But this romantic stuff fades quick, because the owner and his lovely Thai assistant are staring at you, and all you care about now is getting out of there without killing the engine. You squeeze the clutch, kick the shifter into first, the bike squats, and, Buddha be praised!, you ease out like a pro, into the maelstrom of traffic.
You stop at the first intersection, waiting for an opening, trying to stave off panic. When traffic eases, you pull out, running the revs up too high for first gear. You shift, throttle up, shift again. Now you realize that Chiang Mai traffic is like a live video game, and the price of unwariness is… nevermind that – just stay on the left!
You’re soon overwhelmed with all this input. Your sphincter is puckered three inches off the seat, your neck muscles are clenched so tight you can’t turn your head, your eyes are burning from sweat and pollution, but you don’t notice the smell because you’re hardly breathing. You don’t really care about any of this, because, truth be told, you’re having too much fun.
To get the feel of the bike before you leave town, you follow the moat road around the Old City, and soon the old reflexes are coming back. You shift and brake smoothly, avoid three vehicles that pull straight out in front of you, getting used to Death being just a few inches away. But at a traffic jam, the bike won’t go into neutral. You fiddle and fuss, but no dice.
Back at the shop. the owner, an Englishman named Duncan, looks at the shifter, shakes his head, says here, try this bike. It’s a black one, good tires, no parts falling off, so away you go. You get to the street that leads to Route 107, and about two kilos up the road, you hear a whining sound and the engine dies. You pitch forward, instinctively push the starter button, the bike fires, then dies again. Can’t have this. Back to the shop.
The owner says sorry, try this other one. Hope springing eternal, you strap on your bag and ride away. At the intersection, you notice that the handlebars are at a twenty degree angle with the front wheel, and the tank has a huge dent in it.
By now, you think Lord Buddha’s trying to tell you something. Back at the shop, you tell the owner the deal’s off – you don’t want to get stranded out in rural Thailand on one of his junk bikes.
He tries to sell you on another Phantom, but by now, your doubts are getting the better if you. You refuse to deal. He points to a sign on the wall that says no refunds. You say you don’t care, give me back my passport.
The owner nods, goes to his desk, gets your passport and, just to be nice, gives back half your rental fee in cash. You stuff this in you pocket, pick up your bag, and head for the door.
But you feel sick. Now, it’s either the same process at another shop or scuttle the plan. Just as you get to the door, Duncan says, “Wait, try this one,” pointing to a bike in the corner. “I was gonna take it out this weekend, but you can have it. It’s all gassed up and ready.”
It’s a blue one. It looks clean, with gleaming chrome and new tires. It beckons. Your heart leaps.
You get on, ease her out, and oh my, she’s a true sweetheart, behaving like the perfect woman, responding to your every command. You pull back into the shop. The owner’s way back in the corner gabbing. Quick as you can, you strap on your bag, wave to him and shout, “See you in two weeks.”
He smiles and waves, and now you’re the only guy in all of Thailand who has rented a motorcycle and still his passport, plus half his rental fee, which’ll come in handy if the bike breaks.
Now you’re really on your way. You get to route 107, glide along, singing songs, can’t believe how great your voice sounds as it reverbs against the helmet’s visor. Then just outside of Mae Rim, you hit an unavoidable pothole and the gas tank lid flips off and slides down the tank into your crotch. You squeeze your thighs, look down and see gas in the full tank gurgling like boiling water. If any of that spills out and hits something hot on the bike…
You pull over, shut down and fuss with the cap. It won’t lock. But you stick it back on and say that’s too bad, ’cause you’re not going back to Chaing Mai.
Things go fine till you get to Doi Wiang National Park and it starts to rain. This tropical rain is so heavy it’s like being under water. The road winds through steep jungle-covered hills. Trucks pass and throw waves of water that make you swerve. Under the fogged-up visor, you see the road drop off into a place they’ll never find you, if they ever bother to look.
The rain lets up, and you realize that you have to urinate immediately. You find a bus-rider’s shelter and pull over. You stand shivering, waiting for the flow to start, then you feel stings on the back of your leg. This is Dengue Fever country, and you don’t fancy three weeks in bed with a temp of 104. After you slather your skin with Deet, you breathe deep, finish your business, and get back on the road.
Darkness falls, but you don’t notice, because you’re focused on Thais on motorbikes coming at you head-on. Driving on the wrong side is considered normal, but what’s even more annoying are the countless stray dogs that dart in front of you.
When you reach the village of Tha Ton, up near the Burmese border, you’re cold, tired and hungry. You get fed, find a bed, and fall into an eight-hour coma.
You wake to the sound of gongs that are far away but seem very near. You pull on yesterday’s clothes and step out of your room, stunned by what you see – steep jungle-covered hills shrouded in heavy mist, a few houses here and there, set amongst a riot of tropical flowers backed by a thousand shades of green. A wide muddy river, the Mae Kok, rustles at your feet.
You’re planning to leave that day, with an agenda of places to see. You sip coffee and consult your written plans. but despite the caffeine, you now feel like you’re hooked to a morphine drip. You breathe slow and deep. You gaze at the lushness around you. Your body sags. The agenda slips from your fingers. You aint’ goin’ nowhere.
You stay for days, enchanted by this village and its friendly people Twice you try to leave town, but you can’t do it.
Then one morning, you tell yourself you’ve had enough of this inner peace business. You’re an American – you’re not built for Nirvana. You settle your bill, say your goodbyes, and top up the Phantom’s tank. But before you leave, you gotta do something about this gas cap.
You pull up at the local repair shop. The shop owner says the cap’s locking mechanism is shot, but he fusses with it for ten minutes and it seems to be down tight. You pull out money. He says no charge, but you hand him twenty Baht. He smiles and takes the bill. You won’t know till a few hours later how important this offer of payment turns out to be.
Slowly you cross the bridge, easing away from a place you don’t want to leave. Three kilos out of town, you’re still going slow, which is very fortunate, because a Thai woman on a motorbike with a young girl on board, paying absolutely no attention, turns directly in front of you. You see the terrified looks on their faces as you slam on the brakes, but there’s no way to avoid the crash.
To be continued.
Source for statistics on Thai motorbike deaths; The Nation, nationmedia.com, May 16, 2013