There I was, at the side of the road under a massive underpass, bang in the middle of sweaty, gritty, buzzing, throbbing, and humid Bangkok. I was foreign, a bit lost, uncomfortably sticky in my bike gear, and looking at a pistol packing motorcycle cop who was holding my driving licence in his trigger-finger hand.
The noise of a constant stream of heavy trucks overhead meant we both had to shout.
“You made an offence. You have to pay fine.”
“But all the other bikes are going that way — I was just following!”
I’d recently arrived in Thailand from Cambodia, where I had made the acquaintance of several men in uniform who, I suspected, were a generally a bit pissed off that I had a better bike than they did. Several demanded a sit on my gleaming, multi-cylinder, border-hopping Yamaha Fazer as a change from their single cylinder, battered, smoky, officially-issued poop-bombs.
I acquiesced, every time. You don’t argue with a Glock.
I’d ridden up to Bangkok from Cambodia, through the amusingly perverted Sri Racha. Sri Racha had the region’s most famous night market, complete with nuns, schoolgirls, army majorettes and nurses lounging invitingly on every corner. I was told that groups of Korean and Japanese salarymen loved visiting the town.
I assume it wasn’t because of the nice beaches, although some of those were staggeringly beautiful, replete with palm trees, talc-like sand and with barely another tourist in sight as the blue waters of the Bay of Thailand lapped over my hot and swollen feet. But I had an appointment (not with a nurse or drum-majorette) in Bangkok and needed to keep moving.
Socks on, boots on, back into the motorised melee heading for Thailand’s capital, I looked at my map and became instantly depressed.
Bangkok traffic, for those who haven’t driven or ridden there, is mad. Unlike Vietnam, where an incredibly dense river of vehicles flows smoothly and unimaginably efficiently in every direction at once, Bangkok is a seething mass of stop-start, ram-raid, blast-honk and jerk-swerve polluted insanity.
Delicate young women sit side-saddle on motorbike taxis, risking instant kneecap removal several times each minute. Filthy, smoky, belching trucks force riders to veer onto pavements to avoid being crushed to death. Thick black fumes spew out from every mechanical orifice within sight, making it essential for all riders to ride with a bandanna tied over their face, Lone Ranger-style. This also helps the riders remain unidentifiable if they decide to swerve alongside and swipe your camera or luggage. Bangkok is mad indeed.
Another madness (from my perspective, anyway) is that motorbikes are banned from motorways and highway overpasses.
Even though my bike was big and powerful enough to run happily alongside anything on the highway, I was forbidden to use the best, quickest and most direct roads available. I had to creep along narrow, bumpy, twisty ground-level backstreets running parallel to the elevated highways, looping round street markets, traffic lights, random truck-dismantling teams, apparently blind pedestrians and doomed chickens. And past that cop holding my licence.
I’d realised some time before that the best way to navigate those highway-tracking side streets was to follow local moped riders. They knew the neighbourhood, they threaded this way and that, they waved at stallholders, they made good progress. So I followed them and in almost every case they got me a bit further in the direction I wanted to go — West.
But then the road suddenly became a dead end blocked by massive support pillars for the roaring highway above. The locals all hung a sharp right, bounced across a narrow pavement, then shot off up a side street towards the next rat run. I followed.
That was when the motorbike policeman, wearing natty jodphurs and long shiny boots, jumped out from behind a pillar and stopped me, pointing to a grubby road sign indicating No Right Turn. I argued that I had simply been following the locals (who continued to stream past us in hordes as the man of the law told me it was highly illegal, and would surely result in an immediate fine). I pleaded that it was a simple mistake.
Sniffing a bulging wallet, the constable intimated that because I had a big, expensive and highly covetable bike that I had not yet let him sit on, I should compensate him in some way for not paying more attention to the road sign. He asked to check my licence; I foolishly handed it to him. With a cry of triumph he waved it at me and informed me the only way to get it back now was to pay an on-the-spot fine of about $25.
He knew (and I knew) that if I was stopped by any other police on the road, my lack of licence would weigh heavily on my wallet. He knew that most foreign riders would be desperate to get it back. He knew that most riders would also cave in and cough up, as he flashed teasing glimpses of my permit to ride. But he didn’t know a couple of things that I did.
First, as a seasoned local rider, I knew it made good sense to always carry at least two driving licences, in different pockets. I actually had UK, Singapore and Australian ones with me at the time, all of which I could replace without too much trouble. The loss of any of them was no big deal.
The second thing I knew that he didn’t was that my Yamaha went like shit off a shovel if you caned it. Certainly way faster than the little two-stroke police crapheap leaning against the side of his tin and cardboard shelter under the highway.
I made a pretence of being flustered, looking for cash while at the same time edging closer to my bike, away from the little hut where he presumably stored all his “fines” in the box sitting under a plastic chair. He followed, berating me for being a horrid foreigner who had blatantly flouted the rules and deserved to go to jail at the very least — although he was willing, in just this one case, to take a penalty payment instead.
Still talking to him so it didn’t look too obvious, I sat on my bike, pressed the starter and just sped off — down the (illegal right turn) street all the other riders had taken, just to rub it in.
He was too gobsmacked to do anything, but I buzzed off sharpish anyway in case he was smart enough to get my number and radio his mates that a dangerous bandit was on the loose in the backstreets of Bangkok.
Within about ten minutes of what the magazines call ‘spirited riding’ avoiding multiple mobile and static obstacles, I was feeling free and clear. No sirens, no gunshots, no chasing plod. The happy mood was reinforced by the feeling of my other licences as I patted my jacket pocket to check they were still there.
I carried on riding west, following the locals as before, and was eventually spat out of the Bangkok mayhem with wallet, cash and (just two, now) licences intact. I stopped and treated myself to a plate of tasty chili fish and Singha as a reward for my successful escape from the slippery-grip of the law.
I sometimes wonder what he did with my licence. Probably sold it to one of his mates for $25. Win-win.