The first time I stepped off a plane in Thailand and was greeted by the one and only Denali Barron I was whisked into town on the back of her motorbike, harrowingly clutching my bag and her as we swerved in and out of traffic thinking: "Go Denali, but man will I never do this myself!"
Six months later I found myself back in Thailand and already the (proud or possible more fittingly trepidatious) owner of my own motorbike! Yes I realized it was probably a smart idea to get one so I could navigate around my new city and discover hidden Wats (temples) but still I would take my sweet time about getting on it ...maybe a month...maybe three...maybe I would buy a regular bike and drive that around the city first...maybe I would just end up selling the motorbike...This of course is the girl who waited to get her drivers license till she was 21.5 years old and who even then barely drives preferring horse or camel back (when available).
One and a half weeks in and thoroughly tiered of attempting to catch red trucks every morning, noon and night, and of being ripped off because I am a farang, I was already fervently waiting for Denali to get back from her trip to Vietnam so she could give me my first driving lesson.
Three weeks in and we finally got around to taking my bike to the CMU campus where I wobbled my way in small jerky patterns through the parking lot and then after a overly nervous half hour on to the main road for all of ten minutes, a trip that left me reaffirm my love of solid ground. By the end of the lesson I had made a number of resolutions to myself: I could do this, but I wouldn't: drive in the right lane (fast lane), and weave between the cars to get to the front of the line. I would use my bike just to get to and from work for a while and maybe after a week or two try going into the old city: requiring you to go on a four lane road, cross those four lanes of traffic, get on to the moat road in the old city and drive at a relatively fast but constant speed around the city with lots of other cars and bikes merging and tuning and parking and leaving parking spaces. The super highway, I assured myself, would not even cross my mind for a month.
Fourth week my bike sat squarely in a parking spot in front of my apartment and my building's cleaning lady shook her head and pondered why the silly farang was still walking and catching red trucks when she had this nice bike.
Friday of the Forth week, after some cajoling by Lauren I ventured out after her on my own bike to go search out dinner on Huay Kaew road where all the CMU students eat. The drive was all of seven minutes on one road, grant it, it was at night, but I made it, though still with a lot of nerves spent.
Monday of the Fifth week. I finally decided that this was absurd that I needed to get on the bike and ride it and so I did just that, leaving a whole hour for what is normally a 10-minute drive just in case I wanted to go turtle speed. And guess what...I made it! I even made it with many minutes to spare.
Tuesday of the Fifth week. Driving to school felt like a breeze, a rather frisky one at that…only one day on the bike and I found myself already impatiently waiting for lights and cars to move along…what did that mean…well of course take the right lane (fast lane), possibly even do a little bit of moving between lanes to bypass slower vehicles (of course always safely) and then there is those pesky lights where you have to wait in traffic with tons of exhaust blowing at you (the worst part about driving a bike for sure), so to speed that process along I of course found myself inching up between cars riding in all that space they leave between them and feeling much like the night bus in Harry Potter!
Wednesday of the Fifth week. Well after class I really wanted to go climbing and by this point really didn’t want to pay another 20 baht for a red truck…so that meant of course only one thing…brave the old city. Of course first I needed to get more gas – an interesting adventure in itself with a few illegal u turns to get to the gas station. Some how I made it through the four lanes of traffic – not exactly taking it slowly but calmly and then on to the moat road that runs along the old crumbling yet beautiful wall of the city and…well of course…the moat. Denali has described the moat road like a river of its own – you drive like the flow of water calmly reacting to the bikes carrying entire families side-saddle that swerve in front of you or the SUV’s that voom past you on your right. It is best to have eyes in a circumference around your head – you need them all at times! But I did make it and when I pulled into the climbing wall to park – everyone cheered! Then of course there was the after dinner night market dinner – a shared feast of goodies – rice and noodles, meats, chilies, mango shakes, etc…and then of course driving back to my room…only of course it being the monsoon season, the sky chose the same ten minutes to pour buckets on my helmeted head. First drive in monsoon – check!
Thursday of the Fifth week – more driving! Drove out to a lovely set of food stalls right outside CMU on Suthep road that I had been meaning to try since week one – they were delicious and we ended up getting a ton – lots of random fried foods that we are not really sure what they all were. The only aggravating thing as (also slightly hilarious) was that I got my first parking ticket! Actually my first ticket ever – in any country (I guess it at least makes for a good story…right?) It would of course be helpful to read the Thai sign that says I can’t park certain places, but it’s a learning experience…I guess…
Friday of the Fifth week - I spent almost the entire day on the bike. After classes in the morning I drove over to the other side of town in search of a particular road – which I failed to find for 30 minutes due to a lot of one way streets – but I treated it as just extra bike practice – driving through markets, stalls mounded with yellow mangoes and hairy rambutan, street vendors, empty caged stalls that would be festooned with clothes come night time when the night bazaar is in full swing. Then after lunch it was back into the old city to stop by an organic market before tutoring. My night was supposedly going to end with a relaxing warm down and hangout session with all my friends at the climbing wall, but or course what would the fifth day or driving be with out conquering that one last great trial – the super highway! Yes that is what I did, though unknowingly at first. 8:30 I found myself hoping back on my bike in the wake of Denali off to a funeral (the mother of one of the climbers) and low and behold it is out past the highway…
To top the week off I drove Denali into the city on Sunday after a wonderful weekend with her host family (a story of its own and worthy of its own post soon) which is a whole other challenge in itself – bikes become much more interesting to balance with multiple people astride them.
So with a week of biking under me, a couple of notes on the driving situation in Chiang Mai (if it was not already evident): Traffic lights are for the majority of the time abided by, but if the other lane has turned red and yours has yet to, still feel free to gun your engine and ride through the intersection. Driving lanes are more like decorations on the asphalt, yes they sort of give you a sense to where you should and shouldn’t drive, but these are suggestions only. If you need to get to the front of a line of traffic it is perfectly practical for you to ride the yellow line to the front, or even ride to the right of the line if its necessary (driving is on the opposite side of the road than the US). And while on the subject of lanes and directions – if it happens that the place you want to go is a ways down the opposite side of the road you are welcome to cross the road and drive in the wrong direction along the side until you reach your turn off – this applies to small city roads as well as the highway.
Monday of the Sixth week: I love my bike, I love the freedom, the wind on my shoulders (if not in my hair as I am wearing my helmet), the speed, the flexibility, and of course the fact that I went from hating the idea, to pronouncing over and over how I would not to do this, not do that and then promptly running over them all at 40 mph.
The only thing left is for me to name it…suggestions are welcome!