Chiang Mai, Thailand • May 2017 • Length of Read: 8 Minutes
Checking into our hostel in Chiang Mai, Thailand’s most northern city, my travelling companion Wade and I found the other bed in our shared-dorm already occupied by a pasty-white, blonde-haired chap.
“How’s it going, lads?” he said to us as we entered, in one of the strongest Irish accents I’d ever heard. “That you just arrived?”
“Yeah,” I nodded, dumping my bag on the ground, securing my valuables in the corner locker, and stripping off my sweaty t-shirt. “My name’s Crobs,” I said, still a bit miffed as to his question. In what way could we be mistaken for anything but having just arrived?
“My name’s Connor,” he muttered, shaking my hand.
“And I’m Wade,” said my American companion. “Where about in Ireland are you from?”
“How did you know I was Irish?” he exclaimed, genuinely shocked as to how Wade had guessed his nationality.
“Because you couldn’t be more Irish unless you suddenly burst into a rendition of Riverdance whilst telling us that your dad was Paul O’Connell,” I laughed. “We’re thinking about renting some scooters for the day and going to see the Grand Temple. If you don’t have any plans, fancy joining us? It’s meant to be a really picturesque twenty-minute drive up the winding hillside.”
“That sounds just grand,” said Connor, clearly happy to have made some company. He was twenty-seven-years-old and this was his first time outside of Europe, having only ever previously been overseas to France and Portugal on short family holidays as a teenager. He was going to be in Thailand for one whole month, exploring the scenic north before heading down to the gulf and party islands.
“Top of the morning, chaps,” said the topless guy we passed on the staircase as we made our way down to reception and the scooter rental shop.
“You know what?” announced the man from Galway, looking back in surprise. “I think he might have been Irish?”
“No shit, Sherlock,” laughed Wade, as I put my head in my hands. It was already very clear that Connor wasn’t the sharpest knife in the picnic basket.
Having never even driven a scooter before, and not wanting my first time to be on the roads of a chaotic city (i.e. I was a shit scared pansy), Wade suggested that I just pay for a spare helmet and hold onto the back of his. A trusted friend, he had a full, valid motorbike licence, and on any sunny weekend loved cruising his behemoth of a Harley Davidson along the arrow-straight dustbowl roads of northern Texas. Wade had taken three weeks off from his job as a sheriff in the Dallas police force to join me for a short leg of my longer backpacking world tour, and as the rental dealer handed him the keys with zero paperwork to sign, he guffawed at the lack of red-tape, structure, and safety.
“Do they literally let anyone come in and rent these death machines?” he gasped, kicking the rusty undercarriage of the bike. “This thing could fall apart any minute.”
“Anyone,” I laughed, having just about acquainted myself with the absurdity of how things are done in Asia by then. “Look at Connor, for example. Would you let that guy near a bike back home? He couldn’t find water if he fell out of a boat.” Whilst we’d been chatting, the Irishman had nervously approached his little scooter in the same way one would a bucking rodeo bull that they were attempting to mount.
“Now, a word of warning, guys,” said the rental dealer, seemingly uninterested in Connor’s distinct lack of ability to sit on a bike even when stationary, never mind ride it. “The Thai police are known to frequently pull over foreigners on scooters and request to see their international driving permits. If you can’t supply them with this then they give you an on-the-spot fine of 400 Baht (£10).”
“We’ll worry about that if it comes to it,” said Wade, neither of us having applied for this permit. Pulling out of the shop and onto the road leading in the direction of the Grand Temple, Connor kangaroo-hopping his bike into gear behind us, we whizzed along about 500m before taking a sharp right-angled bend to our left. There, hidden from view and less than a minute’s drive from where we’d rented the bikes, was a police road block. It stung with irony and suspicion.
“Worried now?” I laughed as we obeyed the uniformed police officer waving us down, the gun strapped to his waist a key component as to why we didn’t decide to simply ignore him and whizz past.
“Can I see your international driving permit?” he asked Wade, mopping a line of sweat from his forehead. The temperature was pushing mid-thirties, and he looked to be baking like a jacket potato in the woollen suit of his.
“Unfortunately, I didn’t know that we were required to have one of them,” said Wade, calmly taking out his wallet from his back pocket. “I do have this, though,” he offered, flashing his diving licence which just so happened to have been nicely positioned in the slot next to his Dallas police force badge. “Oh, look. We’re the same,” continued Wade, first pointing to the traffic officer’s badge and then to his own. The Thai policeman immediately burst into a huge grin.
“Ah,” he exclaimed, grabbing Wade’s hand and shaking it vigorously. “Police friend. So good to meet you. Don’t worry about a permit. Have a good day. Chiang Mai is a beautiful place, yes?”
“Absolutely,” nodded Wade, eventually managing to wrestle his hand free from the policeman’s vice grip.
“And your friend is police too?” he said, pointing towards Connor who had pulled in behind us.
“No, I don’t even have an actual driving license,” replied the Irishman, confused. I groaned. If there was any time to tone down the honesty, then this was it.
“He must pay the fine then,” demanded the policeman in a tone which made us unwilling to push our luck any further. Very willingly, Connor got out some scrunched-up notes and handed them over to the police officer who had now started to fill out a form. “This receipt shows that you have paid the fine and acts as a temporary driving permit,” he explained, handing it to Connor. “You can now drive for the next seventy-two hours and if you get stopped again then you just have to show the police officer this.” Wade turned to me, a perplexed look on his face. I simply grinned and shrugged. This, for sure, wasn’t exactly the type of procedures he was used to following. “You are now free to continue,” concluded the policeman, waving us off.
“Eh, excuse me, Sir,” said Connor, sheepishly. “Would you perhaps be able to show me how I turn my engine back on, please? I’ve forgotten how it works.”
I began laughing behind the safety of my helmet as the policeman gave him a brief tutorial of how the brakes, accelerator and key worked. The same man who had just fined him was now teaching him how to operate the vehicle he was illegally riding. “Only in Asia,” I whispered to Wade as we set off again from our false start.
Miraculously, Connor managed to stay put in our wing mirrors the entire way up the gloriously scenic route, and with no further unnecessary stops we parked up outside of the temple without a hitch. As Connor wrestled with his padlock, I bought a coconut from a nearby street vendor and sat down on the kerb to take in the spectacle. It was like having an untrained puppy following us around for the day. A puppy who then proceeded to get really angry at me when I couldn’t get a photo of him at the steps to Chiang Mai’s most famous tourist attraction without other people in the background. It was like he expected me to use X-Men mutant abilities to rid the entire place of the hundreds of other visitors who so rudely happened to be wandering around and taking in the grandiose sights and temples for themselves.
And on that note, fuck temples. I simply cannot understand people’s obsessions with them. The same goes for churches in Europe, but whereas churches in Europe are usually located near the main square that also has cafes, bars, and restaurants, temples are always in the middle of bloody nowhere. They never have any tourist information saying when they were built, why they were built, who built them, or their inherent purpose. And once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all. Call me an uncultured and ignorant agnostic, but I’d die a happy man if I never had to trudge up another endless flight of stairs to visit one again. Half-an-hour after we arrived, Wade and I were itching to get back on the road. Despite having received police tuition, however, Connor again couldn’t seem to get his bike moving.
“You’ve forgotten to take the padlock off you dafty,” I shouted at him as he revved the engine at a complete standstill. Had it been Wade’s Harley Davidson chopper he was riding, this act of bravado may well have looked pretty cool, but because he was on a crappy little Vespa, it did not. Despite this blunder, however, this didn’t stop him immediately overtaking us on the first blind bend after exiting the car park, one hand on the handlebars and the other stretched out and taking a video of himself. The boy evidently had a death wish, and how he managed to make it back to the hostel in one piece is still a mystery to me.
What is not now a mystery to me, though, is why Connor chose Thailand of all places to spend a month in the spring of 2017. That night the three of us went out to a popular backpacker area for a few drinks, and within minutes of taking a seat at the bar, I looked across the dance floor to see our Irish friend grinding on two fat local Thai girls. ‘Well, today has certainly been far from ordinary,’ I thought to myself, taking a long gulp of Chang beer. ‘Nothing that boy does from now on is going to surprise me one bit. He better not try to bring one of them back to our hostel dorm, however, otherwise we’ll most definitely be having some words’.