"Alison, you're going to learn how to drive a stick shift", my dad told my 15-year-old self as I stared incredulously at him and motioned desperately toward the pale blue Mercury Villager, our family's van with automatic transmission. My dad shook his head, laughing silently as he shifted the Honda Civic into reverse and backed it down the driveway. I was not pleased. How was I expected to learn to drive stick shift at 15? None of my friends knew how to drive manual transmission, so why should I? Convinced that this was a cruel joke my parents had devised to prevent me from acquiring my Illinois driver's license, I sat in the passenger seat with my arms crossed and pouted the entire way to the middle school parking lot (I was, of course, 15). Once we arrived at the school, I switched positions with my dad, adjusting the driver's seat to accommodate my then 5'1" stature. After multiple attempts to shift into first gear without stalling, I eventually succeeded and began to maneuver the car around the parking lot at five miles per hour. Two months and an indeterminable number of stalls later, I was ready to apply for my driver's license. The initial unease and frustration I felt about learning to drive a stick were quelled in subsequent years as I grew to appreciate the versatility of my driving skills. And now, seven years later, I have discovered another benefit of learning to operate a manual transmission: driving a motorbike in Thailand.
Last spring, in a briefing about our Grinnell Corps in Thailand contract, Aki and I became aware of a new policy regarding transportation. Mairéad and Vicky, the two previous fellows, had relied primarily on song taos (Chiang Mai's version of a taxi) and their personal bicycles for getting around the city. While they were both ultimately satisfied with this method, they advocated strongly for the policy prohibiting motorbike travel to be reconsidered. Though the fellows' safety was the main concern in restricting the use of motorbikes, it became clear that riding bicycles from the university to the city center -- across several major highways, through city traffic, etc -- was not necessarily any safer, if not less so, than riding motorbikes. In the end, the policy was rewritten to allow fellows to drive motorbikes, though there were a few requirements including the obtainment of a license and insurance.
Naively expecting the Thai licensure procedure to be similar to my trip to the DMV as an eager American teenager (that is, relatively straight-forward), I arrived at Chiang Mai's Department of Land Transportation early on a Friday morning to discover that this was not the case. There are four parts to the motorbike licensure process in Thailand, three of which are conducted exclusively in Thai: a colorblind test, a reflex test, a written test, and a driving test. Since my comprehension of spoken Thai was still in its beginning stages, I decided my best option for the day would be to follow the other applicants' example, a decision which proved to be very effective. Unable to understand more than a few words of what the proctor was saying at any given time, I made myself be as visually observant as possible. Everyone's lining up and saying what color is flashed on the model stoplight. Got it. I was at the Department of Land Transportation for 8 hours that day, the majority of which I spent learning the rules of driving in Thailand, e.g. the meanings of various traffic signs. Upon successfully passing the four tests and providing the correct materials (copies of both my passport and work permit as well as a recent doctor's physical proving I'm in good health), I received my colorful Temporary Motorcycle License from the Kingdom of Thailand, complete with a trio of bamboo-clenching pandas on the bottom-right corner.
With the help of a close Thai friend, I bought a used motorbike from a shop in Chiang Mai which also provided me with the necessary insurance. Before I invested in my own bike, however, I had been practicing for a time on my friends', trying to determine my best option. There are two main types of motorbikes: automatic and semi-automatic. A semi-automatic bike, unlike a car with manual transmission, does not have a clutch. However, it does require one to shift gears to accelerate or travel at a faster speed, typically by pressing down on a "foot shifter". I practiced on both a semi-automatic and an automatic bike which, as its name suggests, does not necessitate any manual shifting. Immediately I knew which one to get: the semi-automatic. Having grown accustomed to "feeling" when to shift gears in a car, learning when to shift gears on a motorbike was fairly simple. Plus, I learned to drive a car in the States by first learning stick shift, so why not do the same in Thailand with a semi-automatic motorbike?
The majority of people living in and around Chiang Mai rely on motorbikes for transportation as they are significantly more efficient than driving cars. Cars and trucks take up a lot of space, which is particularly noticeable in a city like Chiang Mai wherein most places the roads are very narrow and/or have only two accessible lanes. Additionally, rush-hour traffic can be hectic, and it is common to see cars backed up for several kilometers, especially during the beginning and end of the work day. Motorbike drivers (and bicycles, for that matter) avoid this problem by maneuvering in-between and around cars, sometimes even down the center of the street. When I began driving a motorbike, I was concerned I wasn't going to be able to move through traffic effectively. Wait, you can do that?, I thought, watching as a succession of motorbikes casually weaved through a long row of stopped vehicles. I soon realized that once I am in "Thailand driving mode", any sense of uncertainty regarding my driving abilities completely vanishes. Safety is always a concern, so I wear a helmet (green with white stripes) religiously and trust my instincts when it comes to making decisions in traffic. I have learned to follow the example set by other motorbike drivers, which oftentimes goes against the rules of driving in the States. Indeed, I've found that there is definitely an "order within chaos" system in place.
Though Chiang Mai traffic appears, at times, to be chaotic, an aspect I find to be extremely interesting is the lack of horn noise. In major US cities, noise from car horns is constant; there are few moments when one doesn't hear it. Yet in metropolitan Chiang Mai, with a population of about 400,000, this type of noise is unbelievably sparse. Most, if not all, of the people I've conversed with agree that "honking" is, just, not a common occurrence in Thailand. Drivers are respectful of one another -- stopping to allow other cars in, waiting patiently in a queue for one car to turn, etc. I believe it is partly to do with the easy-going Thai nature of living, or sabai sabai. Car horns are usually only used to acknowledge one's presence (e.g. coming around a narrow bend) or to let another driver know if their vehicle is too close. Of course that's not to say there aren't inconsiderate drivers, but these seem to be few and far between.
Driving a motorbike has, unsurprisingly, added another dimension to my experience in Thailand. It was initially a challenge to balance the weight of a passenger, but I am now able to transport individuals who are larger and taller than I am (an entertaining sight) with relative ease. Winding my way through neighborhood sois and city streets, I am more conscious of my surroundings, becoming increasingly familiar with Chiang Mai's layout. I have learned the most efficient ways to get to certain locations, including alternate routes in the case of heavy traffic or street closures. Payap is located a significant distance from the city center, but the engagement driving a motorbike entails makes the trip much more enjoyable. Seven years ago when I was learning to drive a stick shift, I never thought that I'd one day be maneuvering a city in Thailand on a semi-automatic motorbike. Who knows what I'll be driving in another seven years, but I'm happy getting to know my Honda Dream in Chiang Mai for the time being.