Sunday, February 28, 2010

What I Talk About When I Talk About Death

I knew from Lonely Planet and chatting with other travelers that it would be all but impossible to escape South East Asia without putting my life in the hands of a motorscooter. The vehicles are ubiquitous on city streets, country roads, and even the 6 foot wide sidewalk that served as the main drag in Koh Tao. Tuktuks and expensive rides in the back of pickup truck taxis can only get one so far. So when the easiest option for visiting some of Koh Phangan's waterfalls was to rent a scooter and tool around on your own, I was apprehensive and disappointed but not surprised.

Let's be honest, all motorized vehicles are deathtraps and motorscooters are the deathi-est and trapi-est of the lot. But the Thai people are daredevils. We spotted at least one 85 year-old woman scooting around at top speed and more than one closely knit family of 5 ready to die together on the road. The car to motorscooter ratio in the country is something like 1:70. I don't know what the life expectancy rate is in Thailand, but I am near positive that the main cause of death is complications from acute scooter crashing.

Despite serving primarily as transportation for the first leg of the journey across the River Styx there is one positive thing to say about scooters: they are cheap. The shop we rented our green monster from had 2 signs outside -- one offering a snorkel and fins for 150 Baht (~$5) and another offering daily scooter rentals for 200 Baht. We rented just one scooter so Geoff could drive and I could devote all of my attention to alternately freaking out and really freaking out.

Riding on the scooter was less scary than I expected. The roads on Koh Phangan outside of the main town of Thong Sala were wide, evenly paved and mostly empty. We didn't go much faster than 40km/hour because I'm not sure the scooter could go any faster than 40km/hour. I also insisted on wearing the matching purple helmets because I like my head, and because I wanted to warn everyone on the road that people with absolutely no experience at all we're driving around town trying to kill themselves and anyone in their immediate vicinity. Also, they had a sort of mod British vibe that I enjoyed.

Our first stop was the Phaeng Falls which was actually a series of four waterfalls each higher up a sweltering mountain than the last. We found each waterfall by picking our way through tree roots grown into makeshift stairs on trails that could only be called such because of the occasional signage surprising you over and over again with the news that actually this was the trail! Though I should say that we found the remains of what once were four waterfalls because on our visit, during the begining of the dry season after at least a couple of weeks without rain, all that we really saw were piles of rocks. And at least four different types of tropical drink colored butterflies and a really stunning view of the island from the top of the mountain; even sans actual falling water it was a worthwhile trip.

After lunch we took off down the road to the other famous waterfall on the island, Noom Tok Than Sadet, which we expect will also have no actual water but which has been visited by the last 5 Thai kings all of whom have carved their initials into the rocks. Feeling the calling of greatness, I figure I too should make a visit. The road to this waterfall is much less well traveled and shoots up, up, up over and over again at daunting grades that our little scooter can barely manage. I'm reduced to hyperventilating on the back of the scooter whispering in Geoff's ear that if we don't die in the next few minutes we will most certainly perish on the return trip when we burn out the scooter's breaks trying to go back down the hill at something slower than the speed of light. Surely this whimpering inspires confidence and safe driving not just a desire to chuck me into a ravine.

The going is slow enough that my main fear was that the scooter would cease to balance on two wheels and we'd roll to a stop and then begin rolling backwards right before the whole contraption toppled over landing on my right leg. This would, of course, break my tibia in 3 places as the still spinning wheel of the scooter nicked my face permanently removing my nose, right before a truck full of tourists, still drunk from the Half Moon party the night before, came barreling over the rise of that last hill and ran over me. Squash. This is pretty much exactly what happened minus a few minor details.

We're on hill number 800 at what must now be an elevation of 400,000 feet -- I think I spot a couple of satellites cruising by -- when the road suddenly turns from sad cracked pavement to loose red sand broken open in places where water obviously flash floods over everything in the wet season. We manage to make it up and down the first few dirt hills and start down the third which is much steeper. Geoff grips the breaks to save us from the light speed decent mentioned earlier. I guess his mistake was breaking with the front brake instead of the rear. Down we went --me, then Geoff, then scooter. Thank god for the helmets, for the slow speed, for the Thai man who came out of his house to help us push the bike back up the hill when our white person arms and legs proved too weak/shaky.

Of course, then we had to make it back down the mountain. I quickly changed my mantra from "oh god we're going to die" to "you are doing such a good job! We are going to be JUST FINE." You can tell when I'm really positive that death is about to tip me over the side of a cliff because that's when I start lying.

But we made it down and we're mostly ok. When we crashed I'd caught myself with my right calf and the palm of my hand and both we're scraped up and bleeding but hardly gushing blood in the way I'd imagined. Reality never lives up to your fantasy -- remember that next time you act out your own death wish.

1 comment:

Dean Winter said...

Glad you made it out ok.

I would say that traffic-related problems are what every expat dreads most. Not only for fear of killing someone, which even if not your fault, would still suck. But if a local was struck down by some vehicle at the hands of Khun Falang, $$ signs would flash in their eyes like on a cartoon. Many people I know got financially raped in this way, and it's probably my biggest relief about leaving Thailand.

Please be very careful operating vehicles, and don't expect insurance or the police to "help" should anything go awry. If the police get involved, they'll confiscate your passport to prevent your fleeing before they get their tea money. Smile a lot, don't raise your voice and only say "lawyer kha". A good lawyer in Thailand will help you not to get robbed, but you'll still need to bribe your way out of trouble.

Sorry for the general tone of the comment ... Just please consider the gravity of the decision to drive yourself in Thailand.