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Nightmare in Bangkok

I am clutching the breaks of the motorbike, nervously trying to get it started, trying not to panic. Cars fly past us, whipping past every which way, on the right, on the left, stopping behind us to signal left and rejoin the fast lane, the city is big and dark and we are helpless. Stuck in the middle of the highway in Bangkok at peak rush hour, I have my girlfriend sitting on the back, clutching me as I am to the bike, trying to keep calm while I attempt once more to get the bike into first gear. “It won’t start!” I hear my voice quivering, in a tone that sounds more nervous than I intended. Hyperventilating in the middle of the four-lane highway, and unable to move any further, we weep.

It had been a long day.

We got off to a good start at about 7 am, and started the two-hour drive towards Kanchanaburi. This is the site of the famous “Bridge on the River Kwai,” which inspired the movie that won an Academy Award for Best Picture in 1957. Having both seen the movie, we were eager to go see the bridge in person and learn more about Thailand’s World War II history. We had considered booking a guided tour to avoid a long drive on the highway, but they were far too expensive, so we decided instead to just rent a bike and do it independently. We’re fans of motorbike travel as it’s affordable and easy to get around, and we figured this would be a good way to see the adjacent province.

About halfway through to our destination, we need to stop for gas, so we pull off the highway to fill up. I park the bike, Shelby gets off, and as I swing my leg over to get off the bike, somehow the bike gets off balance from the kickstand, and before I can balance the weight back to my side, the bike tips right into an adjacent car. Before I can even react to what happened, a furious woman comes out from around the car, yelling in Thai, furious that a farang had dented her car. She starts taking pictures - of her car, of our license plate, shoving her phone in my face. Next thing I know, she is on the phone.

I examine the damage - a tiny dent in the left door on the driver’s side, no wider than an inch and no deeper than half an inch. Not that big of a deal, it’s an easy fix, but I feel dumb for this momentary lapse of caution and for being that guy. She takes out a translation app she has on her phone and types in Thai. It spits out broken English: “You wait for insurance, coming now.”

OK, I nod, and take her phone. “Sorry,” I type, “my mistake.”

Not wanting to deal with the hassle of an insurance agent who likely doesn’t speak English, I type in her phone again: “Can I give you 1,000 baht for the damage?”

“No,” she replies, “you wait for insurance.” For the next half hour, we sit around awkwardly. I need more money for the day, so I go to the ATM and pull out the necessary amount.

Eventually the insurance agent shows up, and takes pictures of my motorbike and her car, along with the dent, the license plates, etc. After a brief discussion with my victim, the agent comes over. “No English, sorry,” he smiles. He has a translation app as well and types: “Do you agree?”

“To what?” I ask.

“If you accept responsibility, you pay 1,000 baht.” “OK,” I say. I give him 1,000 baht (about $30), shake the lady’s hand as I offer an apologetic smile, and we are on our way.

We get to Kanchanaburi and take a tour of the JEATH Museum. JEATH stands for the countries that were involved in this tragedy: Japan, England, America/Australia, Thailand, and Holland. Founded by a monk in the 1990s, this museum commemorates the POWs and Asian forced laborers that built what is now known as the “Death Railway.”

This was a strategically important railway that connected Thailand and Myanmar, enabling the Japanese to transport supplies during the war. The museum resembles the bamboo huts the POWs slept in while building this railway. It contains many graphic images and accounts of the brutal conditions the POWs lived in during this time. In just a few months, over a quarter of the 61,000 British, Dutch, American, and Australian POWs, and roughly half of the 200,000 slave laborers from Southeast Asia, died here building the “Siam-Burma” railway. Tropical diseases, torture, malnutrition, and exhaustion took these men’s lives over the course of less than six months.

With a heavy heart, we take a walk along the famous bridge that was built by these forced laborers. We admire the view downriver, and appreciate the sacrifice made by these soldiers nearly 80 years ago.

We sit for a coffee, and when it’s time to pay, I go for my wallet and realize my debit card is gone. The realization hits me: in the stress of denting the lady’s car, I had gone to the ATM - the kind that gives your money first before giving back your card - and, being flustered and distracted, didn’t get my card. The machine had swallowed it. Once again, I roll my eyes at my own carelessness. The only thing I can do is try and go back to the gas station and see if I can get my card back.

We head off from Kanchanaburi and begin the two hour drive back towards the gas station and Bangkok. We need to hurry though, because we have to be at the motorbike shop at 7pm. The shop closes at 7pm, and they have Shelby’s passport as the deposit. We have a flight to catch the next day at noon, and the shop doesn’t open till 10am, so if we’re not back by closing time, we could miss our flight the next day.

We start driving back down the highway, and since we don’t know which gas station I left my card at, we have to stop at multiple gas stations, not quite sure which one is correct. The Bangkok highways are tricky, and in order to get back, we have to drive about three miles past each gas station in order to take a U-turn at an off-ramp, and turn around and drive the proceeding three miles to the next gas station. We do this for about three stations, and the clock is ticking.

Finally, after about an hour we get to the appropriate place. I check the ATM, and obviously nothing is in there. I find a gas station attendant who just shrugs her shoulders like there’s nothing she can do. I signal to her phone, asking to borrow it, and call the phone number listed on the front of the ATM. After about a 10-minute wait, I get to an English-speaking customer service agent who informs me that, unfortunately, the card has been swallowed and there’s nothing I can do.

I’m pretty tired of driving at this point, and already drained from turning around back and forth on the highway, frustrated from having lost my debit card and denting the lady’s car. But I know we have to press on: we are about to hit rush hour in Bangkok, and the shop will be closing soon, so we have no time to waste.

We drive another hour and arrive in the city, and something strange starts happening to the bike. Waiting at a traffic light in first gear, the bike would slowly accelerate on its own, so at some points I was forced to weave through stopped traffic at a snail’s pace, the brakes unable to stop the bike in first gear. If I put the bike in neutral, on the other hand, it would simply shut off, and when the light turned green, I would struggle to get the bike back into first gear to get going in front of the impatient traffic. A recent study showed that Bangkok is the 12th most congested city in the world, and to drive in Bangkok rush hour with a bike that either wouldn’t start or wouldn’t stop is one of the most stressful things I have ever done.

We navigate the city in extremely congested traffic, either getting stuck in red lights as cars zoom past, or trying to prevent the bike from moving on its own while all the other traffic around us is at a stop. The shop proved difficult to navigate to: a couple times, we made a turn that would lead us there, and then we would reach a toll road that doesn’t allow motorbikes, so they would turn us around a mere 10 minutes from the shop. At one point, unable to get the bike started once more, we had to push the bike uphill against traffic in order to get back to the main road. It was honestly the closest I’ve ever come to having a complete uncontrollable meltdown.

After getting turned around at two more toll roads, we navigated around little backstreets for the better part of an hour. Shelby calls the shop, pleading them to keep it open. It was 7:30pm. Covered in sweat and dirt, absolutely exhausted and at our wits end, glad to be safe, we finally arrived around 8:30pm.I park the bike just a few feet from the inside of the shop, and hand the keys to the lady at the front desk.

She wants to put the bike in the shop, and she can’t get the bike to start, or drive the few feet to put the bike inside. After a few tries, she gets off the bike and asks, with a bewildered look on her face: “How did you get here?” Shaking my head, I have no answer. “I don’t know,” I reply. It had taken us over five hours to get back from Kanchanaburi, normally a two hour drive. Getting on the bike one last time, I manage to get it started and park it inside the shop. Day of hell.

Thailand, overall, was… hard. In Myanmar, we showed up for our flight to Thailand on January 4th. The person at the ticket desk politely informed us that our flight was on the 3rd. We had missed our flight by an entire day, and had to rebook tickets. We knew we were off to a bad start, and it was the beginning of a series of unfortunate events: I lost my kindle on a bus, got pulled over by cops and fined - twice - for not driving with an “international license,” dropped the motorbike and dented a lady’s card, and forgot my debit card in the ATM machine... On our last day in country, we rented a canoe to row to an island near the beach, and of course, of course, we capsized about five feet from shore as a wave hit us unexpectedly on the side. There were dozens of people on the beach to witness us, drag the canoe back up to shore, soaking wet and embarrassed. We just couldn’t catch a break.

After nearly six months of traveling the world, this has been the hardest, most frustrating month we’ve had. It seemed like something was always going wrong. But I wouldn’t trade in these experiences for anything. It’s just more battle scars for my collection; more knotches in my belt.

A friend of mine I told about this experience had an illuminating perspective. “There is absolutely no way you can travel this long without some bad things like that happening.” He’s right. And in the end, I can only be thankful that I even have the time and the opportunity to have days like these.

These days, along with the long nights sleeping in buses, living out of a backpack, packing and unpacking every day, losing my possessions, constantly spending money, and saying no to what I can’t afford: these moments are a natural byproduct of the lifestyle. In exchange, I get to forge unforgettable experiences every day, and each day is different and new. I get to try strange new foods and observe the customs and practices of new religions and cultures. I get to marvel at this big, beautiful, strange world we live in; I travel on trains, buses, tuk tuks and motorbikes to marvelous palaces, intricate temples, old battle sites and beautiful waterfalls. I get to read, learn, exchange, and debate new ideas every day. I can spend a day doing nothing on an island, or hiking laboriously up the highest mountain range in the world. The world is a giant playground, and I wouldn’t trade the bad days for anything.

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