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Motorcycle Diaries: Crash in Chiang Mai

Posted in Featured, Motorcycle, Writer's Rides by Dustin Driver | April 22nd, 2010 | Leave a Reply |

The first motorcycle I rented in Chiang Mai in 2003.

I posted a bit about motorcycles a while back. I mentioned a crash. Here are the gory details:

Chiang Mai’s first ring road is clogged with cars, scooters, and delivery trucks. They sputter, wail, and gush smoke as they charge around the ancient city. I’m stranded in a one-lane exit, a link between clockwise and counterclockwise-flowing rivers of traffic—the first and second ring roads. They form a square around the old city where the fortified walls used to be. There’s a moat between them that once churned with fire-breathing Nagas. Now it’s just a murky green pool besieged by nothing more than noisy two-strokes and diesels.

I stare across the moat from the seat of my rented motorbike, a 250cc Honda Rebel that resembles a Harley. It has high chrome handlebars, a low seat, and a comically menacing exhaust note. My fiancée is behind me, arms wrapped around my waist. I’m terrified. I haven’t been on a bike in ages. I’m shaky, unbalanced, dizzied by the swarming traffic. And I’m responsible for the life of my future wife.

We’re in Thailand for a few weeks on vacation. We rented the bike to take a trip to the flower extravaganza, a botanical wonderland a few miles outside the city. It’s a showcase of Thailand’s wildly diverse blooming plants. And it’s a good way to get a break from the swarm of Chiang Mai. The motorbike seemed like the way to go; cheap fun transportation. I was once confident on a motorcycle. I fool myself into thinking I still am.

We wait at the mouth of the exit for a break in traffic. It doesn’t come. Scooters whip around us and dart into the stream like minnows. Soon there’s one, then two cars on our rear fender. I breathe, try to remain calm. They can wait. I’m in no rush, I tell myself. Then they honk. My nerves sizzle like statay on a roadside snack cart. I can’t wait any longer and there’s nowhere to park the bike for a breather. I see a gap in the stream, just a car length or so, and twist the throttle.

The bike leaps into the fray a few yards from the rushing traffic. I take the turn wide, too wide, and drift into the far lane. I can feel the cars and trucks bearing down on us, a rushing wall of anxiety and impatience. I wrench the bars, pull the bike to the right. It goes down, smacks the pavement with a sickening crunch. We’re not going fast, but the bike still slides. I let it go, somehow get my leg out from under it. Parts of my body scream with pain, but I can only think of my fiancée. I turn and see her splayed out on the blacktop, face twisted in agony.

I scramble to my feet and run to her. She’s shaking. “Are you okay?” I gasp. She takes a breath, examines her hands. They’re scraped. “Yes,” she replies. I help her up and walk her over to the grassy bank of the moat. Cars are honking. The bike is dead in the street. I limp over and heave it onto its wheels, push it to the banks of the moat, and flick the kickstand. Cars squeeze past it, but it’s still blocking the road. My fiancée sits on the grass next to the moat. I stoop beside her. The blacktop has grated through her pants and dug into her knee. It’s bleeding.

My elbow is rubbed raw and my right knee is sore. The cars keep honking. I have to move the bike, ride into the turmoil. I’m twitching like an epileptic, adrenaline surging. Our hotel is just a few blocks away. My animal brain tells me to leave the motorcycle, to walk back. But I can’t. I examine the little Honda, look for signs of terminal damage. The engine guard is scuffed, a taillight dangles from wires. But the machine is fit enough for the ride back. I help my fiancée up and we clamber on.

I’m still in crisis mode, nerves tingling, stomach hollow. I breathe again, will my muscles to stillness. It’s only a few blocks. I’ll take her back to the hotel, then return the bike. That’s it. No more motorcycles, no more foolish risks. I recite tips from the riding class I took ages ago, assure myself that I can pilot a motorcycle without smearing myself across the pavement. Then I start the bike and ease into traffic.

We make it back to the hotel without wrecking. My fiancée still has the shakes. So do I. We take a few minutes to recover, then I return the bike to the rental shop.

I feel better, but I’m still nervous. To make things worse, the roads are thick with cars and I can’t find the shop. My brain is mushy from the crash and the buildings blur together into a soot-coated streak as I ride. Eventually I give up, park the bike in front of an Internet café. I walk until I find the shop. I tell the lady there I crashed the bike, that it’s parked at a café down the street. I tell her I need someone to go get it. A kid of about 15 appears and I take him to the Honda. We get on and he rides back to the shop, careening down a series of narrow alleyways and backstreets. He handles the motorcycle like he was born on two wheels. I feel worthless.

I pay $10 for a new taillight. The lady at the shop tells me not to worry about it. Go get some food, she says. Relax.

We take a bus to the flower expo. It’s amazing, a dazzling display of screaming foliage. My fiancée still marries me, but now I can’t look at a motorcycle without getting smacked.

Riders will tell you: If you ride a motorcycle, you will crash. I’m lucky we weren’t badly hurt. I’m also glad the crash scared the crap out of me. I’m wiser for it. If I get back on a bike, I’ll know how dangerous they can be. But here’s the thing with motorcycles: They’re as fun as they are dangerous. Which means they’re insanely fun. Do I think they’re worth it? Absolutely. Life is short, too short to pass up motorcycles. Just ride safely and know your limits.

If you want to see photos from that trip, check out the gallery here.

Unfortunately, I didn’t get any photos of the bike from the crash.

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