The Traffic Stop
Cover Image for The Traffic Stop

The Traffic Stop

There is something beautiful that happens when you put aside your fears and simply embrace looking ridiculous.

Though I might not want to admit it, there are few things that look more ridiculous than a very tall man trying to ride a very small scooter. If you can imagine a giraffe on a tricycle, you can picture what it looked like as I puttered out from my apartment block and into the mad traffic of Chiang Mai Thailand.

I had been in Chiang Mai for several weeks now. The term Digital Nomad was still new to many in 2015, but this bustling city in the north of Thailand had already become a hotbed of digital revolutionaries fleeing the desk-job despots of corporate America. A few of us had come to join them, or at least see what all the fuss was about.

It turned out the hype could not have prepared us for the real-life wonder of being immersed in an endless sea of incredible coffee and miraculous food. It was, of course, a luxury for us as westerners to never feel a pinch in the wallet from our endless dining out, but the food and coffee and mango smoothies were so good we would have paid any price for them.

After a short time in Chiang Mai, we quickly began to feel like we had a handle on the areas of town, and times of day that were best for wandering around as obvious foreigners. We had a growing list of restaurants and food carts that hadn’t laid any of us low either. We were becoming more adventurous by the day, wanting to see more and more of our new world. One aspect of Thai life seemed prohibitively dangerous, though, was transportation. Thai traffic is legendary for both its insanity and danger, and what we had seen from the sidewalks and backs of taxis had done nothing to dispel this notion. For weeks, we stuck to the songthaew truck taxis or slightly maniacal rides in tuk-tuks. Still, another idea kept popping up. Despite this danger, the idea of renting scooters came up again and again.

I ride mountain bikes, and do so with abandon. After almost two decades, I feel as at home on two wheels as I do on my feet in the woods. On pavement, things are very different. Knowing next to nothing about motorcycles, and owing to a couple scooter crashes in my youth, I had a healthy respect for anything small and motorized. This respect had grown into an outright fear after a few weeks in Thailand. Seeing the crazed masses of riders jet away from traffic lights or split lanes in gridlock made throwing a leg over a bike seem like lunacy. Hearing the shocking statistics of death on Thai roads made renting a scooter seem like suicide.

Some dumb ideas, though, are too fun to resist.

One by one, our friends started showing up at the coffee shop with helmets dangling from the straps of their laptop bags. The would either enter with a jaunty strut or a weak-kneed wobble depending on whether or not their lives had just flashed before their eyes. I was hesitant, though, because I had at least one extra disadvantage. My height.

Snaking your way through traffic is one of the great advantages of being on a scooter. This advantage, however, is severely restricted when your knees have nowhere to go but out to the sides. It was nearly impossible to fold my lanky frame into a small enough pretzel shape to fit on the little Honda Click 125 like a normal person. Instead, I hurtled along through Thai traffic on the back of friends’ scooters, constantly bracing myself for the painful moment when I would shear off someone’s side mirror with my patella.

Despite my hesitations, and my ill-suited height, I finally decided it was time to get a scooter of my own. Our adventures were taking us further from home, and the tuk-tuks and songthaew taxis could sometimes be impractical in the gridlocked traffic. I had all but made up my mind, but needed one test ride to be sure. Borrowing my friend’s tiny ride, I took a wobbly, puttery spin around the parking lot. Then it was time to hit the open road.

Hurtling out of the trendy Nimman neighborhood in the afternoon sun, I felt the rush of fresh air that only speed and no windshield can provide. The angry bee of my engine screamed along between gigantic Chinese tour busses and trucks pouring out choking clouds of unfiltered diesel. The flock of other scooters seemed to ease away from me no matter how hard I squeezed the throttle. To be fair, I put up quite the wind break.

Scooter life, Chiang Mai style

For weeks, we stuck to the songthaew truck taxis or slightly maniacal rides in tuk-tuks. Still, another idea kept popping up.

I turned onto a wide main road and was excited to find it inexplicably free of traffic. Taking advantage of this unexpected freedom from the worry of being squashed, I opened up the throttle. Soon I pulled alongside a local, his bike laden down with a pile of boxes that would never have been seen on a motorcycle back home. I glowed with satisfaction that my sense of adventure had brought me so far out of the tourist bubble.

As I pulled up next to him, the older Thai man on the motorcycle shot me a look over his shoulder. He looked again, then, putting his hand to his helmet in a military salute, looked back at me and vanished in a sudden turn down an alley. It was an odd gesture, but maybe it was just an overly martial way of welcoming me to the club. I barreled along down the street, which now had a concrete wall down the middle. There was only one more scooter ahead of me, and then blissful open road.

A young Thai came rocketing up on my left, and just like the old man, looked me in the eye before a hurried gesture toward an alley. He too disappeared with no more warning than the flick of his hand. A tiny cloud of uncertainty started to intrude on my sunny state of mind. Had he told me to turn as well? It didn’t matter now. A long fence now ran as far as the eye could see along the side of the road. There was no way off the road even if I wanted to leave. And who would? I now had enough tarmac in front of me to land a plane on, with not so much as a wandering bicycle in sight to hit me.

It was then that I saw the police blockade.

Cresting a slight hill, my faith in the hospitality of the residents of Chiang Mai increased 100-fold. The two gesturing motorists had gone out of their way to warm me, an obvious and unsuspecting farang, of what was coming. That salute had been a gesture of a kind of brotherhood after all, though I had been too stupid to understand it. Like flashing your headlights on lonely Midwestern highways to tell others “a cop is around the corner” in Chiang Mai, people tried to tell you when you were about to run afoul of officers prowling the roads.

For a second, I tightened up and tried to convince myself that looking straight past the cops would make me invisible. They had blocked one lane, and I moved purposefully into the other as I approached. One of the officers stepped toward the gap and made the unmistakable gesture all humans use to tell someone to slow down. I was not invisible after all. The officer motioned for me to pull to the side of the road.

Traffic stops the world over start the same. First there are questions. Then comes the berating. Why didn’t I have the international driver’s permit? Didn’t I know I needed it? He flipped a page on his ticket pad and there was a badly xeroxed sample of the document he rightfully expected me to present. It would have cost me $20 to get back in America. Back there, I had never intended to ride a scooter. Now, all I could do was play dumb.

The berating continued. As I apologized profusely, an idea started to form in my mind. It was a salacious thought to any rule-abiding American, but I had heard stories of how these stops sometimes ended. The officer was now telling me repeatedly I would have to pay a fine and appear at a court date at the station downtown.

“How much is the fine?” I asked.

$400 baht!” The cop spat back angrily, quoting me the fee in local currency. “You pay downtown.” So, I was going to be out $12 dollars for this.

“Oh,” I said, pausing. “Can I just pay here?”

The world stopped.

The officer looked me straight in the eye. “Are you trying to bribe me??” He asked, squaring on me and pulling himself up. He inhaled to start what was going to be a threat or a rant. I wasn’t sure which.

“NO, no!” I said plaintively. “I don’t know where the police station is, and I wondered if I could pay here instead.”

“NO! Not here.”

What followed was a long circuitous discussion about the seriousness of my offence, and the need to pay ¬ downtown. It became a little dance, as I asked over and over how much I had to pay and where to pay. Every time it was the same. 400 baht, you must pay downtown. Finally there was a pause, and I sensed my moment. I asked once more, “And I pay at the court?”

The officer’s face changed. “400 baht. You pay downtown … or here.”

By now other scooters had been lined up next to mine, and were being given the same treatment. There were several civilians and officers now milling around the side of the road.

“Or here?” I asked, as though the last few minutes of our conversation had never happened. Reaching carefully into my pocket, I pulled the portion of walking-around money I kept isolated there next to my phone.

“Well, I only have 300 baht here”, I said, slowly lifting three bright pink bills into the warm sunshine. “But that’s not enough. You said …”

The officer made a noise like someone had hit him in the crotch with a tennis ball. He jerked forward and in one smooth motion turned a page of his ticket pad over, slapping my 300 baht out of sight under the overturned page.

“Ok, you go!” he said sternly. I pointed hesitantly down the road, finishing the last steps of our little dance. “GO!” he shouted. Waving his free hand.

I strapped on my helmet and started my engine. So that was it. Had I bribed a cop in Thailand? Or just paid a fine? It wasn’t clear, and it didn’t matter. What happened to me now was clearly of no concern to the cop, and what happened to my $12 was of no concern to me. I was in a country where I was only coming to understand how little I really understood.

Some things are universally understandable, though. What had been a unique moment for me was clearly all in a day’s work for the cop. As my 300 baht vanished out of sight, I had seen the next page on his ticket pad. Rather than some official document, I t showed the tally of the officer’s busy day recorded in tidy hash marks, of which I to be the next little angled line across four straight ones.

Want to see more?

Digging through the archives, I found a photo of the actual coffee shop I visited! You can find it over on Patreon.