Riding Scooters around Chiang Mai with the Thai Police

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.

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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’.

Taking a Shitty Two-Day Slow Boat down the Mekong River from Thailand into Laos

Chiang Rai Bus Terminal is more the type of parking lot that you’d expect to find in a scrap yard than at a station supposedly equipped to deal with Thailand’s national transport system. With the rain pouring down in torrents, and my Lonely Planet guidebook doubling as a hood, Twiggy and I took our bags from the hold of our coach which had just pulled in, hopscotched around the meteor crater-sized potholes, strolled out onto the depressing main street, passed a lonely looking cat café, and took cover inside a dainty corner bar. Ordering some chicken and rice, as is standard across Asia, we looked at one another and nodded in agreement. Chiang Rai was a town with absolutely zero redeeming qualities. We needed to get ourselves out of there pronto.

The food was hotter than the Devil’s Hell, and taking an accidental bite right into a rogue chilli that had made its way into my dish the taste buds in my mouth were sent overboard. I bent over the table and began flicking my tongue in and out like a lizard hunting flies in an attempt to cool myself down; sweat pouring down my forehead and catching on my brow. Twiggy found this the funniest thing in the world, and rather than helping a brother out by fetching a pot of yoghurt or a glass of milk, he instead burst into fits of hysterics. Karma soon struck, though, and in his laughter, he began to choke on the lump of sticky rice that he was chewing on, sending him into a coughing fit that turned his face an unhealthy hue of purple. As I continued to act like I was trying to lick my way through a litre tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream without a spoon, the pair of us must have looked like special needs patients to any onlookers. Onlookers such as the Aussie couple sat at the other side of the bar.

Like the owner of the bar, they also made no attempt to aid us, and instead sniggered away until we both managed to get ourselves back to normal. Well, I’ll never be normal, but back to usual let’s say. After tentatively finishing our meals, being careful to avoid any repeat incidents, we politely accepted their request to join them for a drink. No sooner had we shuffled over to their table, however, did I realise that the guy was a complete prick. Bald, tanned by the Western Australia sun, and covered in your standard sleeve tattoos that many fifty-year-old bikers tend to rock, all he wanted to do was blow his own trumpet. I read somewhere once that Marilyn Manson had undergone surgery to get his lower two ribs removed so that he could self-fellate his own penis, but though that, if I'd told the Hell’s Angel beside me this, he may have taken it as a revelation as opposed to the likely fictitious story it is. Either way, he was so crazy about straddling motorbikes that I got the impression he’d rather stick his knob inside the exhaust pipe of his Harley Davidson than his rather attractive hippie wife. She told us that they had a friend who owned a hostel in Cambodia called Lazy Gecko and that if we name-dropped them to the proprietor upon arrival he’d sort us out with some high-quality marijuana. I lied and said that we would.

The couple were also planning to escape Chiang Rai by taking a slow boat down the Mekong River from the Thai-Laos border to the colonial French settlement of Luang Prabang. It was for this purpose that we’d initially come to the tumbleweed town, as I’d been told by a few fellow travellers whilst dotting around the rest of Asia that this two-day, one night, trip was a bit of a booze cruise, and the perfect way to chew up the miles. With nothing to do in Chiang Rai, and running the risk of being stuck with the Aussie couple if we stayed an extra night, Twiggy and I booked tickets costing 1,800 Baht for the boat that departed the following morning. Unfortunately, our excitement wouldn’t last long.

“Have you got your accommodation booked for tonight?” asked a plump, camp man as we shared a tuk-tuk from the border town of Huay Xai to the pier. He was travelling with his boyfriend and the couple from Leeds had donned themselves in full travel wanker gear.

“We sleep on the boat,” I laughed, correcting him. “Booze cruise here we come.”

“No we don’t,” he said, looking confused. “It’s not the bloody QE2 we’re taking. What on Earth made you think that there would be enough room on the boat for all of us to sleep?”

“Don’t joke with me right now,” I said, starting to panic. I’d dragged Twiggy all the way from Glasgow to a corner of nowhere in Western Laos with the promise of a party boat, and now the wind was being taken right out of our sails by a dude who looked like Gru from Despicable Me wearing a Clint Eastwood poncho

“Seriously,” he said, thinking that I was the one joking. “This is no booze cruise either. Most of the people on the boat will be locals who use the river to commute back and forth between their sporadic riverside settlements. We all disembark at dusk to spend the evening in a one horse shoreline hamlet called Pak Beng.”

“I think you might be right,” I admitted in deflation as the pier came into view. A wooden raft of a boat sat docked, looking as depressed as I felt. Even Huckleberry Finn would have scoffed at how primative it was. My supposed booze cruise liner turned out to have car seats that had been seemingly ripped from the same dilapidated and haggard minivan than had shakenly escorted us to the Thai border, and a toilet that looked like it had been cleaned by a blind person suffering from chronic diarrhoea. As we boarded, an American dude from Houston, Texas, sat down across the makeshift aisle from me and immediately collapsed the seat with his fat ass. Typical. They weren’t even screwed down. I opened my book and started to read. This was going to be a long, long excursion.

As we set off, a sixty-nine-year-old woman that bore a striking resemblance to Noddy Holder from Slade came over for a chat. She had been travelling the world with her Icelandic husband called Magnus for eight whole years in full retirement, but despite having more stamps in her passport than almost anybody I’ve ever met seemed to lack any form of geographical knowledge. Whilst retelling us a frightfully long story about confronting homeless people on Big Island Hawaii when there for her eldest daughter’s wedding, Noddy informed us that Honolulu was America’s 56th State. I looked at the perm of white hair atop her head and started humming Merry Christmas Everybody. She soon left.

An Israeli girl wearing Harry Potter specs and a pair of skin tight leggings that bore a colourful pattern of the solar system on them then sat down behind us. Bored of the typical backpacker questioning of ‘how long are you travelling for?’ I asked her what she thought about humanity’s strive to colonise Mars in an attempt to become a multi-planetary species, but only got a grunt in response and a complaint about the packed lunches that we had been given.

Unperturbed, I then asked her what she thought the greatest man-made construction of all time was, but again she just shrugged and replied that she felt that nothing man-made has ever been of benefit to the life on our planet. I told her that I thought the International Space Station was a pretty neat project and that, were it not for irrigation networks and modern advancements in medicine, the likelihood of her having survived long enough through childhood and getting on a plane to the other side of the planet so as to annoy me with her wishy washy Earthly philosophies would be somewhat drastically reduced. She told me in response that I should read a book called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by an Israeli author she couldn’t remember. I told her that it had been written by a gentleman going by the name of Yuval Noah Harari and that I’d finished it only a few months ago.

Changing her tune, said she that she was genuinely impressed, and expressed her delight at how excellent and beautiful the view from the river was. I told her that the only way I would consider the view to be excellent was if I’d spent the previous twenty years looking at the four concrete walls of a prison cell. She told me I was being a bit grumpy and morbid. I told her that the boat did have many similarities to a prison cell in the sense of the poor amenities and that we couldn’t leave it. She soon moved to a seat at the back.

‘Perhaps I should make a conscious effort to be a bit nicer to people,’ I thought to myself, putting my earphones in and directing my gaze down the murky and muddy Mekong. We did have another 500km to cover which would take approximately fourteen hours. How I wished that we’d just booked a flight. Now that’s a man-made invention everyone can get on board with. Here’s a toast to the Wright Brothers and Lucky Charles Lindbergh.