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Once Upon A Time

Once upon a time, I believed that riding motorcycles, dirtbikes, scooters and other motorized two wheeled vehicles was very, very dangerous and would likely result in death, dismemberment, and worse, being grounded.

Once upon a later time, I found myself hopping on the back of a the Honda Sonic driven by a barefoot Scotsman down Koh Tao’s windy dirt roads. He told me that he drove faster because then I held on tighter. No one wore helmets.

Driving in Koh Tao

Koh Tao drivingKoh Tao 2009

Once upon another time, I was living in Grand Cayman and the primary passenger on the back of a Daelim Roadwin that we bribed a drunk one-eyed inspection agent into passing. One day, Mark made me wear a swim cap to bamboozle the local authorities when when we forgot our helmets, a criminal offense.

Driving in Grand CaymanGrand Cayman 2010

Once upon a more recent time, I found myself back in Koh Tao, slamming into the pile of rocks we call a road beneath a shiny blue Yamaha automatic I had purchased for myself two days before.

Driving Lessons

Back in “the real world” I have a bit of a reputation for being, shall we say, a distracted driver. It took me two three four attempts to pass my drivers exam, I’ve gotten in a smattering of minor traffic accidents (including one that involved both my parents cars and inexplicably, our garage door), and I have perfected the art of getting away with speeding warnings. I will defend myself by saying if you have ever been in a moving vehicle with either of my parents you will know I never had a chance. Nonetheless, I loved the freedom of being behind the wheel. Being able to go wherever I wanted, listen to whatever music I felt like singing loudly along to. I loved the feeling of driving.

Needless to say, I’m the punch line of many a bad driver joke. It can get a bit old. But if there is one thing I hate worse than being reminded how bad I am at something, it’s being immobile. So when I walked by a shiny, beautiful automatic bike with a For Sale sign reading only 8,500 Baht  ($275USD) I walked myself straight to the ATM. No mind that despite two years of being a bike passenger in four different countries, I had never been behind the wheel. Driving in Thailand kind of made me nervous.

Driving in Thailand

Mark did his best to give me a few driving lessons, but when you’re talking about an automatic scooter, not much can help you other than experience. It didn’t take long for me to feel comfortable on the approximately seven feet of total flat paved road on the island. Unfortunately, the rest is dirt or poorly sealed and super hilly. On first attempt up and down the hill to our house I was successful and thought to myself, “See? It’s not so bad. Stupid tourists wearing dumb helmets do it all the time!”

Driving in Hondurasstupid tourist in dumb helmet posing for photo, Honduras 2010

Then came attempt number two up the hill. In one particularly bad stretch of road, which is actually a plateau between the two steep bits of hill, there is only about a 12 inch pass where the dirt hasn’t eroded completely to reveal sharp, slippery rock. As I rounded the corner leading up to it, someone else was coming in the other direction-on the same 12 inch pass. I swerved to avoid them, sending me bouncing hard down the rock covered stretch. The final bounce threw me hard off the bike, at least sparing me from being trapped beneath it, while my shiny new wheels went smashing into the rock.

Koh Tao roads

It hurt. I cried. The bike died. It only cost 150 baht ($5) to get the bike going again, but the once flawless front panels are now scarred beyond recognition. I was lucky to come away with only road rash on my arm leg and foot and a bruised rib that ached for weeks and especially after any exercise left me occasionally gasping to breathe. Physically, it could have been much worse. Mentally, I could not have taken it worse. I refused to even look at the bike for days. I would wake up in the morning sick to my stomach at the prospect of driving again. When I finally did go back up the hill, even thought I made it unscathed, I was shaking and hyperventilating so badly that it took me about an hour to calm myself down. Worst of all was watching people so effortlessly pick up driving and fly around the island without a care in the world, while the prospect of driving the paved road to the pier made me ill and gave me the shakes. I made any excuse not to drive, beating myself up the entire time for how pathetic and helpless I was. I started to think back to ads for hypnosis I had seen back in New York, promising to cure any phobia from flying to spiders. I wondered if I could arrange some sort of Skype-hypnosis situation with them. My dread did not seem to wane.

Accident injuriesInjuries self portrait

One day, we moved house to a place accessible by decently paved and semi-flat road. Soon, I found myself parking after a short drive and not having to wait for my hands to stop shaking. Later, I realized I would drive all the way home without even thinking much about the fact that I was driving. The fear was gone. About a month after the crash, I woke up and I offered to go get take-away for lunch. On the way back, the sun was shining, and I found myself smiling and came to the realization that I was enjoying myself. Not only was I no longer afraid, I liked driving again.

Feeling Good Again

Koh Tao is an interesting place to learn to drive. There are no speed limits or traffic laws, roads are in hellish condition where they even exist, helmets (and shoes) are worn only by tourists driving rental bikes, and you are quite frankly considered a bit of a square if you decide to walk rather than drive home after consuming enough alcohol to kill a water buffalo. But as Mark likes to remind me, if you can make it here, you can make it anywhere.

Koh Tao DrivingKoh Tao traffic jam

Monkey on Bike, Koh SamuiKoh Samui passengers

I still have a lot to learn. I haven’t yet tackled the island’s most treacherous roads, or carried anyone on the back of my bike. But every few days I find myself driving somewhere I once hesitated to go , or carrying something I wouldn’t once have been able to balance, and my comfort level rises. Learning to drive and mentally overcoming the trauma of my accident reminded me of a life lesson that I have a feeling I will learn over and over again: time heals all wounds.

Like when I started diving, or got on a plane to Asia by myself, or any of the other things that once terrified me and like the many things I’m sure I will fear again someday, learning to drive a bike taught me I need to slow down and be a bit easier on myself. That I need to look myself in the mirror, and tell myself that someday I will not be afraid anymore. Time will be kind. And until then, I need to live in a country where it only costs $5 to repair a bike.

Koh Tao driving

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22 Comments...
  • That last shot is priceless!!! My god I killed my leg in Ibiza with one of those. Had a bruise for AGES. Your injuries look awfully painful love.
    Andi of My Beautiful Adventures recently posted..My Wedding & Honeymoon: Day 6-10 (Part 13)

    • Alex
      October 14 2011

      We drove one in Ibiza too! It was Mark behind the wheel though. I’m too terrified to rent a bike- here in Thailand its a total scam and they charge you about the price of a new bike for a tiny scratch. So I’m glad I bought one!

  • Dad
    October 13 2011

    …and what about driving with me or mom was so traumatic that you ‘never had a chance”???

    • Alex
      October 14 2011

      Mom: Left car in neutral and watched as it rolled backwards into tennis house. Once got into fender bender trying to see what time a pumpkin patch was open until. You: Enough speeding ticket fines that we could have bought a house in Thailand

  • Jen
    October 13 2011

    My one experience trying to drive a scooter almost resulted in me and the scooter taking a dip in a marina in Bermuda! I’m all set with the driving but all for the riding!
    Jen recently posted..Peeking into Houses

    • Alex
      October 14 2011

      Whoa! I’d love to hear the story behind that one! My bike won’t start after a bit of rain, so I can only imagine what state yours would have been in had that happened 🙂

  • alexis
    October 21 2011

    Wow! You’re brave! I remember renting a scooter in Barcelona. I made my bf drive it! He was nervous, and we had to go through a multiple lane roundabout (which we don’t have in AZ). We almost hit a bus! Driving in other countries is definitely an adventure. Thanks for sharing!

    • Alex
      October 21 2011

      Well I don’t think I’m that brave because I would never drive in a big city like Barcelona! I’m in Siem Reap now and even renting a bicycle the other day was slightly traumatic, no way I’m getting on anything motorized! But back on my little island it feels safe 🙂

  • Dani
    February 28 2012

    This post gives me hope that one day I’ll be able to ride on a scooter again (although looking at your wounds just freaked me out even more!) When I lived on Ibiza, I rode around the entire island on a scooter the whole time, and even got back on after a bad accident in which ‘I killed my leg’ there to say it with Andi’s words, but since I had my accident in Thailand I feel like you did after yours – I don’t even want to look at a scooter 😀

    • Alex
      February 28 2012

      Yeah, like I said I’m kind of back to feeling that way after another minor tumble. Ugh. Not a convenient phobia to have in Southeast Asia!

  • noei
    July 2 2013

    I’m Thai so I first learned to ride a motorbike when I was about 12. While I never have a major crash (Thanks Lord Buddha for that!), I have a fair share of my foolish accidents. One being I was, like you, distracted when I was driving a rental bike in Koh Samui with my gigantic English boyfriend in the back. I unconsciously went straight through a red onto the pavement which was about six inches higher than the road and narrowly escaped an uncovered gut. With someone so heavy behind, it was impossible for me to balance the bike and fell off the pavement into many fast moving cars. We miraculously survived but I felt a bit put off after that.

    I think the cure is to never ride a motorcycle on exotic islands!

    Ps. I lied a little bit. He’s a regular size but compared to me he’s a giant! 😉

    • Alex
      July 6 2013

      Wow! What a story. I never let anyone bigger than me ride on the back of my bike… only my size or smaller 🙂

  • Nicole
    December 28 2014

    I took a tumble down the wet road by Pinnacle Resort yesterday. Thankfully I got away with only road rash and big cut under my foot, but I’m absolutely terrified of riding up or down any steep hills now 🙁 I’m hoping it’ll pass as I’d love to see places here in Koh Tao where walking to would take hours

    • Alex
      December 29 2014

      I know how you feel, Nicole! For me the fear has never gone away entirely (see my most recent post on where I chose to live… no hills was a big factor!). Have you considered getting a group together and hiring a longtail for a day? It’s the best way to see the island!

  • Alexa Albanese
    May 10 2015

    Oh man, I just had my first (and hopefully last) motorbike accident on the superhighway in Chiang Rai. I made an absolutely stupid decision to do a U-turn over the meridian and accidentally gunned it into oncoming traffic. Got hit by a truck, with tons of other cars whizzing by. Somehow only escaped with a scraped knee and bruised shin, could not have been more lucky. That day (2 days ago) I got back on the bike and rode the 4 hours back to Chiang Mai. I got over it quickly because I had no other way of getting home but I totally get your terror, nothing worse than seeing your life flash before your eyes and imagining a random Thai policeman calling your mom to tell her you’re road kill. Yikes. Glad you’re okay!
    Alexa Albanese recently posted..10 Amazing Travel Instagram Accounts

    • Alex
      May 16 2015

      Wow that’s so scary Alexa! I’m glad you’re okay! I can imagine how scary it would be to get back on your bike after that. Jeez.

  • Julia Nix
    September 15 2016

    Was chain reading your blog (starting from your recent cooking class) and here i am. I guess for any new travellers to Thailand, u haven’t been to Thailand until you have some sort of little injury. I once fell down from the steps at my beach hut in koh phangan. (Not drunk, i swear) Had a gash on my knee, and had plaster for days. Stayed dry. No swimming.

    • Alex
      September 17 2016

      That’s smart! Travelers often end up with little infections from swimming with cuts and gashes in Thailand. Best to keep it dry for sure.

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