Mueang Chiang Mai, Thailand 16 Nov 11
Odometer 71,523 m 115,105 km

Jetting into Thailand, typical tourists are magically whisked away from the airport by shuttle, tour guide, cab or bus. One minute they’re flying at 30,000 feet, the next minute, safely ensconced in a resort. There’s no need to jump behind a wheel. No need to negotiate arcane city streets. No need to interpret the local language. No need to register anything, obtain special permits or bribe the powers that be. No need to refuel, carry spare parts or bother with messy maintenance. Uh-uh, unlike myself, they’re on holiday.

Fun isn’t the first word that comes to mind when traveling the world by motorcycle. The logistics alone can be daunting. In my case, I chose to purchase a new bike in Thailand, rather than ship El Viento overseas from Colorado, because I thought it would be cheaper and easier. But as costs mount and the Byzantine ways of the Thai bureaucracy eat further and further into my travel-time, the wisdom of that decision wanes.

Getting to and about my various destinations as I seek a stamp for this, a photocopy of that, and triplicate verification of something else, I’m continually reminded of just how different this culture is from my own. I’m the foreigner. And wending my way through the whys and wherefores of obtaining a Thai license requires an advanced degree in patience.
thai license plate
Jeremiah affixes his hard-won Thai license plate to the new bike, in Chiang Mai.
First off, they drive on the “wrong” side of the road. So, everything in my right brain must be switched to the left. This might seem straightforward, especially since a motorcycle has no left or right driver’s side, like an automobile. But try telling that to my DNA, which at this point is hardwired to instinctively pass people on my right, even as I walk down the sidewalk! Believe me, this is not an easy adaptation to make, especially when under duress.

That duress can take many forms. There’s traffic*, lots of it. There’s chaos, even more of it. There’s rule of law, well, not so much. And, of course, there's that minor detail of not yet having a map by which to navigate.

To mitigate the latter, I did what at first seemed reasonable: I solicited a knowledgeable guide. Doing so, however, only succeeded in turning a mapless route into a hell-bent-for-leather-white-knuckle-damn-the-torpedos-race-to-the-finish, mapless route.

Life’s too short to wait in traffic.

My good friend Jan Marc, an adept fellow motorcyclist who rides quite sanely when visiting me stateside, conjures his inner Mr. Hyde when unleashed on the streets of Chiang Mai, which he's plied for the past seven years. He, like nearly everyone else here, believes in the well-worn and thoroughly discredited axiom: he with the most bravado wins.

“Life’s too short to wait in traffic,” Marc flatly proclaims while begrudgingly stopped at a red light, then bolts ahead to beat everyone out of the gate.

“Keep this up and life's gonna get a whole lot
shorter,” I mumble in hot pursuit.

And there’s no rest for the weary once finally reaching the next-in-line government office in charge of motor vehicles. There, I’m invariably faced with a complete inability to decipher the inscrutable Thai text found in page after page of form after form, all necessary to register the bike in my name and legally operate it both in and out of the country. Every
i must be dotted, every t must be crossed, or in this case, every squiggle must be scrawled, every scrawl must be squiggled.
* I happened to arrive in Mueang Chiang Mai during Loi Krathong, a popular, annual Thai holiday when villagers from all over the provinces flock to the city. So, admittedly, my initiation to the city's traffic was during an especially heavy period.
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Initially, it’s difficult to discern any method in the madness. But over time, a certain logic or flow creeps faintly into view. There are patterns here. Society manages to function. Life goes on in spite of itself.

It’s just that the Thai version of
order is different than our own. It’s less finely tuned machine and more hodgepodge of loosely federated stones. Parts don’t fit neatly together and work in well-lubricated unison; they tumble down the mountainside in fits and starts.

It’s noisy. It’s topsy-turvy. Some ricochet off others en route. But eventually--perhaps miraculously--they all wind up at the bottom.
Jeab kindly translates a Thai form into English
Those jet-setters, enjoying a bowl of lightly spiced curry after a cool dip in the pool and a soothing Thai massage, rarely if ever experience this tumultuous side of local culture, first-hand. They either venture out in the relative safety of an experienced cabbie or simply hole up within their walled compound.

But each day, just out of view if not out of earshot, an
ad hoc symphony forms just beyond the gate. Members of the band pour onto the stage sans cue. They join a growing throng of motorists; each playing a part, each hoping nobody else screws up. And from countless discordant tailpipes, as they belch, backfire, sputter and purr, the cacophony of life in Thailand arises.

It’s a chorus I’ll have to join if I’m ever allowed to leave. It’s a tune I’ll have to practice from the
left side of the road.

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