On Two Wheels in Thailand

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Bike Culture in Thailand
The Thais are a two-wheeled culture.
As a full-time rider back in “my real life”, this thrills me to no end.

Motorcycles and scooters are everywhere — everything from new, brightly-colored and chromed scooters to ancient, rusty beaters held together by nothing but bailing wire and hope. Few families can afford a car, but most have a scooter and can usually be seen with the entire family in the saddle.

The highest person count I’ve seen yet was a family of five — the husband, followed by the wife, followed by a teenage son. Their 3-year old child stood in the floorboard, while Mom clutched a newborn to her shoulder. The previous record holder was India, where I once saw a family of four on a scooter carrying three live goats. True story.

In Bangkok, scooters and motorbikes mingle without complaint alongside taxis, trucks, and hand-pulled carts. Watching traffic here is like watching a massive, multi-colored school of fish, where each individual reads secret cues off each other and shifts or slows slightly to make it all work. Instead of just one school, however, here two or three meet head-on — going different directions and passing to and fro with nary a scratch or even a honk of the horn. Impossible to my mind, but it happens without fail, day after day. At first glance, you’d think there would be endless blood in the streets, but the truth is that Thais are damn good drivers. They have to be.

If the space shuttle launched from Thailand, they’d drag it to the pad using nothing but scooters and a shitload of bungee cords.

And they’re so damn practical about it — bikes are tricked out with baskets and side-cars, or equipped with stays where cargo can be strapped down. They pass by, piled high with propane tanks, stacks of newspapers, crates of food, and things I can’t recognize and certainly could not lift. I doubt there is anything that can’t be carried on a scooter here. If the space shuttle launched from Thailand, they’d drag it to the pad using nothing but scooters and a shitload of bungee cords.

I see people texting while riding, smoking cigarettes, or holding umbrellas to keep the sun at bay. They often wear a light jacket backwards to keep the exhaust soot from their clothes while still allowing their back to receive much-needed airflow. On my first day in Bangkok, I saw a woman riding a motorbike taxi in heavy rush hour traffic — she was at least 70 years old, riding side-saddle, and had this incredible look of peace on her face. As she drew closer, I saw that she had her eyes closed.

I dream of buying a used scooter in the north and riding it south to the border.

I dream of buying a used scooter in the north and riding it south to the border, then selling it for whatever I can. I’ve done some internet sleuthing and have come to the conclusion that it really can’t be done in my time frame and on my budget. But, I can’t seem to let the vision go.

I can picture myself with a helmet three sizes too small duct-taped to my head and my absurdly-large pack strapped in a half-assed fashion to some poor, wheezing 100cc moped. I tear across the landscape at a blistering 30kph, rattling my way up and down hills, and looking all the while like a Shriner who’s lost his parade but picked up a hoarding disorder.

It would be glorious.

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Dustin Main - Skinny Backpacker March 30, 2010 at 9:44 am

I’m planning on motorcycling across Vietnam / Cambodia in the next couple of months if you’re interested!

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wes March 30, 2010 at 10:20 am

oh hell yeah!

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Anna March 30, 2010 at 1:16 pm

Your last paragraph LOL’d me. :)

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Poi March 30, 2010 at 1:42 pm

I say do it! Get the most scary looking moped you can find and head south, you clearly want to!

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John March 30, 2010 at 2:10 pm

“…looking all the while like a Shriner who’s lost his parade but picked up a hoarding disorder.”

Love it!!

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TR March 30, 2010 at 5:13 pm

See, you should’ve bought a fez instead of a cowboy hat . . .

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Jason of Two Backpackers March 31, 2010 at 12:35 am

Wes, great writing again. I have read so much about the chaos surrounding streets in Southeast Asia. I will see it someday. Thanks for the descriptions.

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Ahimsa March 31, 2010 at 5:10 am

Really looking forward to SE Asia next month. I am hoping to at least ride from Chaing Mai to Pai.

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wes March 31, 2010 at 5:46 am

I’m hoping to do the same. It’s brutally hot up there right now, but at least you’ll be moving ;)

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Nomadic Chick April 17, 2010 at 12:26 pm

Do it Wes.. that would be fab. And the stories. Damn, gotta get my fracken motorcycle license already.
.-= Nomadic Chick´s last blog ..Second Day of Layoff =-.

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Touring Biker June 7, 2010 at 11:24 pm

Motorbikes are awesome, I love the anecdotes you have! I share your passion for biking where ever I can in the world – off to tour Africa soon!

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wes June 8, 2010 at 10:52 am

wow, Africa will be an amazing ride. Congrats!

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Jake January 1, 2012 at 1:19 am

In bkk right now, looking around for used scoots. Amazing to me how hard it is to find, considering how abundant scooters are here.

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Jenny July 29, 2014 at 11:56 am

You want to be safe riding a morotcycle in Thailand, you must be alert of other road users 100% of the time. So often I see people riding overloaded on poorly maintained motorcycles. No lights at night time and no helmet. Try to stay safe and you will certainly become a good rider dodging all the bad practices you see in Thailand.

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