I badly wanted that Triumph Bonneville 650. But I just couldn’t afford it.
Motorcycles were the only way to avoid spending hours in roht dit-dit, Bangkok’s permanent traffic jam. Motorcycles didn’t have to drive in lanes – bikers drove between lanes at 60 miles an hour, with speeding taxis rubbing one handlebar and Isuzu trucks scraping the other. Driving on the wrong side of the road – like they do in England – added to the fun. Upcountry Volunteers faced different dangers. Pete Coombs was assigned to the jungled island of Koh Samui, down south in Surat Thani province. He was riding his motorcycle home on a dirt road late one evening and ran over what he thought was a pipe that had fallen off a truck. He flew over the handlebars, got up cursing, and was walking back to get his bike when he noticed the ‘pipe’ slithering away. “It was a freaking boa constrictor,” he told me.
Peace Corps forbid Volunteers from owning bikes our first year in country, because of those risks. By the time they changed the rules, I already owned a Honda 175. But I continued to look for a bigger bike -- like Jurgen's. I was eating bratwurst one night at the Alt Heidelberg on Soi Nana when Jurgen, the German cook, pulled me aside.
“I haf to leave Thailand very soon,” he told me. “What vill you gif me for my bike?”
His old Triumph Bonneville 650 was a classic. He parked it in front of the restaurant each evening, and I had lusted after it for a long time. Just for kicks, I offered him $200, way below its real value.
“Do you haf zee money now?”
“Tonight. If you give me zee money tonight, I give you zee bike.” I was floored.
“You have the papers?”
“Yah. I meet you after I finish work.”
Jurgen needed to leave the country fast. It turned out he had been dealing drugs and the Thai police were closing in. The notorious Lard Yao prison wasn’t a pleasant place for farangs.
The bike was a bargain but had a quirky electrical system. I would be returning home after a night out, hit a bump, and the headlight would disappear, causing me slam on the brakes before I ran off the road or someone ran into me. It happened so often I finally had to fix it or die. I couldn’t afford the Triumph dealer. Instead, I took it to a Chinese mechanic near Wat Bovornives who repaired anything with a motor.
Squatting on the floor, he took the electrical system apart, substituted a few scraps of wire, and reassembled it. Total elapsed time: 10 minutes; total cost: 10 baht, fifty cents. I had a hard time believing it was fixed, but it was. I never had a problem with it after that.
I drove hard and fast because I wasn’t worried about the cops.
When I bought my first bike, I was tutoring the Bangkok North police chief and his daughter in English. The job only paid 20 baht -- a buck -- an hour but the perks were great. I told Colonel Samure I was going over to the motor vehicle office to apply for a motorcycle driver’s license. He had his driver deliver me there, where I found my permit already sitting on the counter – no waiting in line, no road tests, just sign my name.
Bangkok North was the Colonel’s personal fiefdom. He organized the motorcades when King Bhumibol traveled around city in his yellow Rolls-Royce, and made sure nobody looked down on the King from upper floor office windows when His Majesty sped by – a terrible faux pas Thais studiously avoided but uneducated farangs sometimes committed. When my tutoring job finally ended, Col. Samure gave me a bottle of Johnny Walker Black and his name card.
“If you ever have a banhaa with the police in Bangkok, please show them my card,” he winked. My problem would disappear, he assured me.
I was returning to the Municipality on my Triumph not long afterwards when I saw up ahead an old lady and a little girl stutter-stepping across the busy, six-lane Pahol Yothin Boulevard. They were trapped half-way across, unsure whether to go back or continue forward. I was riding in the gap, boxed in by cars on both sides, heading straight for them with nowhere to go.
I slammed on both brakes and tried to steer around them. I almost made it, but my back wheel clipped the little girl, the bike went down, I slid across the pavement and smashed against the curb, shattering the mirror and headlight. I got up and sprinted back to the girl, afraid I had injured her badly, or traffic behind me had run her over. I found them huddled on the curb, the little girl crying and clutching her bleeding leg. She was shaken up but could answer questions.
I flagged down a cab. They wanted to go to the Police Hospital, because her father was a Bangkok policeman. I ran back, got my bike, and followed the taxi to the hospital.
The little girl was sitting up and smiling when I arrived. Miraculously, she had only suffered cuts and bruises – not even a broken bone. The doctors assured me she would be fine and could go home. I apologized profusely to the old lady and her grand-daughter, telling them how happy I was that no one had gotten seriously hurt. The medical fees only totaled 46 baht, $2.30. I paid them, showed the doctor my Peace Corps ID card and asked them to call me if there were any additional charges. The nightmare seemed to be over. But before I could leave, her father rushed in. After confirming his daughter was not badly hurt, he pulled the Thai doctor over.
“Is this the farang whose motorcycle hit my daughter?” he demanded, pointing his finger at me.
“Chai, khrap,” Yes, I admitted, answering him in Thai which took him aback for a second.
“You are under arrest,” he announced.
I was stunned. I told him the doctors said his daughter would be fine, that I had paid the hospital bill, and that I had left my name and address with the hospital.
“No, no. You must come with me,” he insisted.
I attempted to reason with him. They tried to cross a six-lane boulevard, outside a pedestrian zebra crossing, against the light, and against oncoming traffic. Surely that was not wise or even legal? He went back and talked to the grandmother for a few minutes, then returned. She backed up my story, he said, but there was still the matter of my speeding.
“Nobody in Bangkok follows the speed limit,” I protested.
He shrugged. Perhaps there was some way to clear up the whole matter, to avoid going down to the police station. He paused, and looked at me expectantly. I realized we were in negotiations. I volunteered that I might be able to do something, you know, what could we think of. He gave me a sly smile.
“Song phan baht.”
My heart dropped. Two thousand baht. – $100. I was a farang, and everyone knew farangs were rich, but apparently he had never met a Peace Corps Volunteer. That was more than my whole month’s allowance.
I gulped and suggested $20. He smiled pleasantly but didn’t answer. Not enough. I tried $40. Silence, still smiling. I prayed Ernie or Sam was home; I would have to borrow money off them. Suddenly I remembered Col. Samure’s name card in my wallet. I removed the card and handed it to the policeman.
“I would like to telephone my friend, Col. Samure,” I said apologetically in my politest voice. “Perhaps he can tell me what to do.”
The policeman stared at the name card, then handed it back to me. No need to bother the Colonel, he assured me nervously. No one had been seriously hurt.
“Please drive more carefully,” he advised me.
I was free to go.