Have you ever seen a man steering a motorcycle in heavy traffic with one hand and holding a baby that couldn’t be more than 4 months old in the other hand? If you’ve spent a decent amount of time in any Southeast Asian city, it’s highly possible that this sight wouldn’t warrant a second glance anymore.
I noticed that utility is a concept taken quite literally in Thailand. I saw it in buildings, transportation units, clothing, and many other facets of life. People did things that yielded practical results and they created things that worked, even if it looked tacky or didn’t always live up to a certain level of safety. But utility wasn’t the only driving concept behind some of the creations that I bore witness to. Craning my neck back to fully absorb the architectural splendour that was the Buddhist Temple, I’ve never seen the colour gold on the scale that I did in the cities and towns of Thailand. There’s certainly something to be said about the idea of taking the most revered, important structures, designing them elaborately with a high level of detail and then splashing them in the colour of a glistening precious metal. The Thais certainly have nothing to hide, but you probably already figured that out when I mentioned that there’s no shame in driving around on motorcycles carrying unsecured babies.
When I first stepped foot in Asia, I had never ridden a motorbike before and for some reason, it never previously crossed my mind that I would or should learn. Bangkok was definitely not the place for practical education in that regard with its nearly 15 million metropolitan inhabitants and at least as many motorcycles, cars, mopeds, and tuk-tuks crammed into the busy streets. But the second stop on our journey was a small town a couple of hours west called Kanchanaburi, a place that saw some of the horrors and injustices that took place during World War II (ever see The Bridge On the River Kwai?).
The Banks of Khwae Yai River (River Kwai), view from the bridge
I learned pretty damn fast that the rules of the road are not quite the same as they are in North America. A stereotypical viewpoint exists where I come from (in what I’d like to believe are a dwindling few) regarding Asian drivers. To those few I say: try mastering the rules of the road in a place where your intuitions may very well fail you and you must rapidly adapt to avoid trouble. It’s not always an easy transition, regardless of where you came from and where you’ve wound up. I will say that driving in Thailand and the subsequent countries that we would visit was one of the most exciting, and liberating, experiences I’ve ever had. On a blistering hot day, only a few lateral degrees from the equator, there’s nothing better than the wind flowing over your body as you whizz past aromatic food stalls, shacked businesses, lush flora, and curious locals. And, of course, golden temples. Even some of the monks utilize mopeds these days, somehow managing to look no less humble than they are when strolling on the streets, barefoot and donning orange or red kasayas of varying degrees of brightness.
The moped, a quick, easy, and cheap form of transportation, was a godsend for us. The possibilities for adventure exploded exponentially. We could go almost anywhere we wanted, a 3 litre tank sometimes taking us close to 100km from our starting point. Yeah, I fell off a couple of times on my first attempt; it wasn’t exactly like riding a bike as Teresa assured me. I can just imagine the thoughts running through the head of the woman who rented it out to me as I awkwardly drove away from her shop, rocking from side to side, an utter lack of balance which took some time to correct. But by the time I pulled up to return it, I was a pro (so I maintain). And from that point on, the maps we were looking at, the destinations that we knew we wanted to hit, they all became so much more accessible. We didn’t need to rely on unpunctual bus systems or shady tuk-tuk drivers…not as much, at least. We now possessed a level of control that elevated our mentalities to a whole new level: nothing was unreachable and anything could be accomplished. It’s funny to think a little moped, something I used to smirk at when I’d see or hear about it in Canada, was the vessel that brought us to that point, but there you go. Cities, towns, villages, farms, mountains, forests, jungles, beaches, rivers, lakes, oceans, caves, islands, volcanos, even deserts…we got to see them all, and we got to see them on our own terms. Let me tell you all about it.