The first time I saw motorbikes weaving in and out of traffic was in Rome. I thought to myself, “crazy, crazy, crazy, could not pay me to ride on one of those things” . . . “can’t fix stupid” also came to mind. Little did I know that a couple years later I would find myself visiting an old friend, D., in Chiang Mai and be riding around on the back of a (drum roll please) motorbike.
Living in Chiang Mai it was his best option for easy and affordable transportation. At first hesitant to ride (no thank you I will walk), I realized that riding around on a motorbike in a smaller city was not the same as weaving in and around cars in a traffic circle in Rome. In a few days, I was even confident enough to wear a skirt and ride side saddle as I had seen lots of local women doing. What I was not willing to do, and will never be willing to do (although I was very impressed with the feat) is take part in a small family of four crowding onto a motorbike. It seems impossible, but countless times I saw the father driving, the mother riding behind with two small children on either leg. She was hanging onto her husband and the children were clinging onto her and there was normally a grocery bag somewhere in there too. I have never been so appreciative of the four-door family sedan or mini-vans of my childhood.
One weekend, D. and I flew up to Mae Hong Son, a rural area right on the Thai border with Burma (Myanmar) to visit with friends and allow me to see a different part of the country. I was not quite prepared for the flight experience . . . the landing strip at the Mae Hong Son airport is set deep within a valley, thus the angle that tiny little plan had to assume to make the landing was ridiculous. The turbulence that day did nothing to improve the experience either. The locals, used to the unique landing experience, were quite amused at the expressions of horror on D. and I’s faces during the last ten minutes of the flight. But all was well in the end, safe and sound and ready to explore a new place.
The next morning our friends suggested a road trip up into the mountains to visit a Karen village. The Karen are many times referred to as the “long-neck” people in documentaries and western media because of their practice of women wearing brass rings on their necks, which they add to as women age. In order to get up to the Karen villages, we had to ride, you guessed it, none other than a motorbike.
Our trip began with a ride through the countryside, nothing in sight, but beautiful rice paddies to either side of the road for as far as you could see. As we started to wind up the twisty roads of the mountain I could tell D. was tense, driving slower than normal and especially careful as we went through the rainy season creeks that were taking over the roadways. After mingling with the Karen women, buying some beautiful handwoven scarves, and a short hike we were ready to head back down the mountain.
This time, D. emboldened by the successful ride up the mountain, was not as cautious and picking up speed. As we crossed some standing water we spun out, I landed in elephant dung, D. landed on me, and the bike landed on him. If you were going to have an accident that was the way to do it, barely 5-10 mph, short fall of 3-4 feet. All we had to show for it was stinky clothes and a small gash on D.’s leg – our friends helped us get the bike out of the water and D. was demoted to passenger. Even though he insisted he could make the ride back to our friend’s home, they found an elephant farm a couple of miles down the road where a farmer helped us out with some first aid. Skeptical at first, D. allowed the farmer to treat his leg with what turned out to be elephant strength anti-septic. No harm done.
Lessons learned: (1) motorbikes are ok as long as you are not in a busy urban area (safety first!: always wear a helmet) and (2) not a bad idea to carry a small first aid kit so if the worst happens you are prepared and don’t have to second guess the hospitality of an elephant farmer.