It takes a particular idiocy and lack of ability to fail something as simple as the Thai driving test.
But I managed it with flying colors.
This was back in 1998 and while I had been riding around on a motorbike for the previous eight years I had only recently purchased my first car – a dirt cheap but brand new Toyota Soluna. I took an experienced driver friend to the showroom with me. He drove me home as I had no idea what all those pedals meant. My prize new possession remained in the driveway for four days before I plucked up the courage to take it out; alone without the kids I thought was best.
Things did not augur well when, rather oblivious to the difference in size between a four wheeler and a two, I backed my silver beast straight into a tree in the first week.
Some local had planted it by the side of the road….
Mindful that I had recently become a dad and started a job at an international school I was beginning to feel the need to make things official and get something I heard others call a license to go with the “free” insurance that Toyota had given me when I bought the car a few months before. Prior to this I had always paid my bike fines in roadside arrangements with friendly members of the constabulary only too willing to help me on my way.
So it was that I went with a representative of the school and several other hopeful teachers to the Land Transport office in Sukhumvit Road. All the other teachers had UK licenses and it was just a rubber stamp exercise for them to exchange that for a Thai license but I was obliged to take the test.
Feeling confident that my driving skill had improved sufficiently in recent weeks I opted to take the test rather than just slap down a few hundred baht for what I had heard was the quicker and more certain route favored by most Thais.
So it was that I found myself driving round a course of humps and turns in the backlot of the government office. I had already made only four mistakes out of 20 in the written test and been assessed as not color blind. It all seemed a breeze on that hot midweek afternoon.
Now, nobody was paying me much attention on the test course as I did some hand signals that I thought I would probably never need to use again.
Then came the final bit before the prized license would be mine. Reversing. Here was where things went rather mango-shaped to quote a local saying as I backed straight into a cone, knocking it over.
I smiled, as one does for everything in Thailand but was aghast when not only could I not have another go but the officious official said I had failed. Surely he was joking – I struggled to find the word for cone in my Thai vocab and combine it with “may pen rai”.
No, he was not having it.
The ignominy! Having already lived in Thailand well over ten years I reached for my wallet but was stunned when the Thai school rep raised his eyebrows and warned me off paying a bribe with a series of hand gestures behind the department staffer.
The upshot was I would have to come back in seven days and do the practical test all over again. Everybody else had their license but this English chump was still illegal.
To cut a long story a bit shorter the following week was even hotter and all the examiners were fast asleep in their protective tent. I managed to go round the course in their car, then on my bike, and it all took about ten minutes. They forget about the car reversing this week, which was just as well as I had not put in any practice.
In no time I was the proud and legal owner of car and bike licenses and it had only cost a few hundred baht.
Now for the roads!
My many years of experience on motorbikes had given me a very good sense of where I should be on the road – and this had to be done with at least one eye out for the cops waiting to fine me in their usual spots. So I was well versed in some of the peculiarities of what the Thais refer to as “driving”.
Soon the extra size of the car seemed quite natural and the confidence and ability increased.
Anyone who has driven on Thai roads for any length of time will be familiar with the sight of dead bodies. These serve as reminders of the need to take care to avoid trips to the inside of coffins and temple chimneys.
If the bodies have been picked up by Por Teck Tung foundation the police will kindly spray paint an outline of the victim and, usually, his or her bike on the tarmac, so that a more permanent reminder is in place. It is all very useful a bit akin to those depictions of hell at some Thai temples.
It is now 2017 and I have completed 20 years in cars and nearly thirty on various bikes. My ex-wife has ensured that the Soluna has gone round the clock for just shy of a million kilometers though I noticed that after a trip to a garage it had mysteriously reverted to 600,000 for some magical reason. The ‘ex’ smiled at my “confusion”.
Apart from scrapes while parking I am yet to have an accident of any note in the cars I have owned. I say “yet” advisedly for driving every day is one of the most hazardous activities one could undertake (no pun intended).
I have always made it a habit to tell myself before getting behind the wheel that I would rather this not be the end of the current life if at all possible. Tell myself to take the greatest of care.
It is even more vital when getting behind the tank on a motorcycle. For years I had a skull on my key ring just to make sure I wouldn’t forget the peril I was about to put myself through.
I have now completed nearly 300,000 kilometers on bikes in Bangkok alone and the last time I came off was 1994 though two or three times in the intervening years I needed a slice of luck as well as some driving skill to escape the ultimate sanction.
Defensive driving has become my watchword, especially on two wheels. Epithets such as “never go through a green light without looking both ways” are engrained in my psyche. Somehow I manage to keep one eye on the actions of other road users, one eye on the road surface, one eye on the signs and lights and the remaining one on the police of course.
To survive on the Thai roads you have to have a few Cyclops genes and more than a little guile and perhaps that vital slice of luck thrown into the mix.
Or as a taxi driver who used to park outside my flat one remarked about driving: “Muang Thai -khap rot tong glaa noi”.
You have to show a bit of daring when driving in Thailand.