The Scooter Diaries
I have a love-hate relationship with scooters. I had never had any interest in riding a motorcycle back home, as a driver or passenger. I didn’t get the thrill and wasn’t keen on being flattened like a pancake. This is the story of our adventure with motorbikes, featuring international destinations, action, self-doubt and more. A truly coming of age type of story…
Episode 1 – The Pilot: Awkward Exposure
My first ever experience was as a passenger for a very short distance was in Turkey. Imagine the impressive resort landscapes, the hot sun, and blue skies. Our friend Bekir told us to jump on, and I being a complete newb with these things, I thought back to what passengers on motorcycles do in the movies. “Do I hold onto his waist?” Instead, I awkwardly wrapped one arm around his waist while the other dangled halfheartedly from his shoulder. Banana fingers. Mike sat behind me, 3 on a bike, and off we went for only a few hundred meters. Phew. Okay that was not so bad. We zipped around some trees which freaked me out a bit. I closed my eyes and it was over.
Episode 2.1 – To Adventure!
After observing people on scooters I decided it couldn’t be too hard. People drove with whole families on them. I pushed Mike into renting one because well he had driven one before, ONCE. How hard could it be? I will jump on the back and off we go to the beach!!
Yeah. It did not happen that way. Mike could barely get down the street away from the eyes of the shop owner we rented from. I walked to give him some space to re-learn. We ended up taking turns in suburban Dalyan, Turkey. He went around the block a few times. Then I tried. Whoa. It wasn’t as easy as I thought. Vroom, err turning scares me. How do I not run into cars? Oh man. After some practice Mike was confident enough to have me try to sit in the back.
I was not a good passenger. Learning from watching, I realized passengers hold onto handles at the back of the scooter. Isn’t that a bit unnatural?? Why is there no bar at the front to hold onto? But Mike went slow and with practice going round and round the same block until he decided to screw it and head towards the beach.
Episode 2.2 – Reality finds gravel
It was a great ride! We went slow, the roads were smooth, and there was barely any traffic. We hit a slight downhill but Mike did well. Then the parking lot came up. Hairpin turn on loose gravel. My eyes widened and before I knew it, slow mo crash. We tip over. BIKE DOWN! We are sprawled out on the gravel.
Episode 2.3 – First Aid
A parking guard helps us out and gets the bike off Mike. We get up. We are okay but scratched up. Luckily there is a first aid tent by the beach (way to go Turkey!). We limp there, shaken. The guy bandages us up. Mike has a decent hole in his knee and general cuts on his hand and arm. He gets a needle to the knee and refuses stitches. I have the same scrapes but to a lesser degree. No needle for me, thank god. The parking guard shows us some kindness as we wait for the rentee’s to collect the scooter. No way are we getting back on. We of course have to pay for the “damages.” Anything to end this ordeal. We leave Turkey damaged but not broken, ending my curiosity for motorbikes. I will not risk hurting myself again.
Episode 3 – Terror and Prayer
We meet some awesome people, Steffi and Daniel in Chiang Mai who offer us a ride to do some sight seeing. This will basically be our first time back on a motorbike since the accident. Our bandages are gone but the scars inside are not. We agree anyway and each hop on a different bike. Stefi says, “Let me get used to riding with a passenger again.” My eyes widen, my heart rate increases and off we go. In Turkey, Mike went may be 30 km/h. It was super slow, on a clear deserted road, just the way I like it. Here, however, our destination is far and Stefi and Daniel have to navigate the extremely busy roads of Chiang Mai. Weaving aggressively through tuk-tuks, street venders, motorbikes and cars. All, while driving on the LEFT side of the road like in the UK. We get up to speeds of almost 80 km/hr, zipping in and out of traffic, always trying to get ahead. Many thoughts come to mind as I have nothing to do but hold on for dear life. Is it physically possible to stay on a bike when you’re going this fast? What’s wrong with staying behind that slow grandma? This is unnatural. Please let me live through this. I have horrible visions of myself being thrown off the bike. Ughh, closing my eyes do not help. I watch Mike one hand it on the back of their motorbike. Isn’t he scared? My two hands are not letting go. I come to the firm conclusion that man is not supposed to go this fast without the comforting assurance of steel and glass. I so want to be enclosed in a box right now.
Steffi might laugh at this. I tried to play it cool, or not. Not sure if she noticed that I was scared shitless while exchanging pleasantries with her, praying, always praying. Not that I didn’t trust her. She drove like a boss through the streets of Thailand. I just couldn’t help thinking I was going to lose my life at any second. When we got to our destination, my hands and I were shaking.
Episode 3.2 – What? I have to get back on the bike?
Each time we get off the bike to sightsee, I dread getting back on the scooter. I nonchalantly get back on each time like it’s no big thing but inside I go through the whole terrifying process again and again. We make it back to Chiang Mai at the end of the night and I almost kiss the ground. I am grateful to Daniel and Steffi for bringing us to see what we would’ve missed otherwise, BUT my life is more important to me.
Adios motorbikes. I WILL NOT be seeing you again.
Episode 4.0 – Stuck
In Chiang Dao, we stay at this wonderfully isolated farm stay. The only problem is, is that it is wonderfully isolated. There is a kitchen but no cook and no ingredients. The market or any semblance of civilization is 6 km away. Not quite walkable. How were we going to eat? The farm stay owner suggests scooters. We ask if anyone rents out bicycles. He just looks at us like we are crazy. Impotence and uselessness rears its ugly head again. For 5 days we pretty much don’t stray too far from this farm.
Episode 4.1 – Dabble and fight.
I watch scooter people enviously all around Thailand. I see kids as young as 9 riding motorbikes! We are always at the mercy of tuk-tuks and taxis and its been frustrating me. I observe and I observe psyching myself up like, I can do it. Mike gets the courage again to rent on an island in Thailand. And with encouragement he practices a little. Traffic on the island isn’t great and the roads are not ideal. He tells me to get on and wobbles like there is no tomorrow. I get off and we get into a fight because I want him to practice more first but he wants me to get on so he doesn’t have to turn around because he is afraid. Nuh-uh, I am NOT getting on with a driver who is scared to turn. Turning is PART OF DRIVING. Not happening.
Episode 5 – Redemption and the wonderful Mr. and Miss Noy
In Laos, we play around with trying again. I know, I know… How many times have I sworn off ever riding again?? We think maybe if I rent my own and we each ride then Mike will have an easier time. Plus Laos traffic is less crazy AND they drive on the right side. It’s hard to be around all these people who have access to this mode of transportation and we are always stuck. We check motorbike prices in Pakse. A stop only because we wanted to break up our bus journey and it was the next logical stop after Don Dhet. We happened across a little shop called Miss Noy. There’s a Belgium guy (otherwise known as Mr. Noy) working there who tells us to come by an info session he’s having later that night. We show up late but whoa this was not what we expected. He hands out maps and the routes and gives more than the 10 people there a whole presentation. I honestly didn’t even know there was anything to see here. We thought one or two nights in Pakse and we would peace out, but here he was detailing what to see, where to stay and all the info you would ever need for the area. Mr. Noy is super supportive of making sure people take care of themselves first and that the bikes are just machines. I liked that he seemed to care. Little did we know, Miss Noy’s rental shop was number 1 on trip advisor. We had NO CLUE but lucked out hard.
After the info session he looked at our faces and asked if we have ever ridden. I tried confidently to nod, but my eyes probably betrayed me. In a twist of fate, he had run out of automatic scooters but had semi-automatics available. He was going to try to teach some people to get them to switch and invited us to learn.
He let about 5 of us practice on a quiet street. I didn’t even know how to turn one on. But he patiently went through the steps. Taught us how to change gears (I still don’t know the purpose of gears) and trusted us newbs to practice with his bikes. He was confident some of us would want semis now. He said the only people he couldn’t teach were those who had never ridden bicycles before. I could do this. I can ride a bicycle, I thought. I made so many mistakes while practicing: driving with the kickstand down, changing gears with the throttle down, and don’t get me started on balance and turning. But after 20 minutes we agreed to go with the semi-automatic bikes. Suckers? Well at least it was cheaper plus I didn’t know how to ride a regular automatic scooter anyways. So why not? We picked them up the next day and I tried to ride out confidently so as not to alarm him while pulling out. Kickstand up. Kickstand up!
Episode 6 – Independence
5 days later we returned to Miss Noy with smiles all the way. Since that first day we have driven well over 300 km total. Albeit slowly. That first day I didn’t go over 40 km! But slow and steady wins in my book, as I learned to navigate traffic, drive dirt roads, around pot holes, mountains, and across rickety bamboo bridges. I still get scared sometimes. I also get stuck in the mud or have rolled back on an uphill (seriously I still don’t get this gear thing). BUT, I am beginning to love the freedom and it really IS like riding a bike. I am so happy we overcame our fears on this journey. We endured some scrapes but I am proud we took the time to really learn. There are countless stories of tourists getting into motorbike accidents. We witnessed one ourselves which terrified me. If you choose to try, please do it at a safe speed and a completely easy, empty road. Miss Noy’s place was instrumental in helping us learn and giving us the confidence to rent and ride elsewhere as well. Book early because they really do run out of bikes or take them up on their offer to learn semi and you won’t regret it. We aren’t quite ready to drive across country (especially at my turtle like pace – move over grandma) but I now know that if there is a waterfall 20 km out of town, I no longer have to worry about negotiating a fair for a tuk-tuk or joining some dreaded tour. I can get there myself.