Racing the clock for a Thai driver's licence
Rushing legal paperwork seems like it will eventually have some detrimental effects on this trip. Photo: Supplied
“Shit, shit, shit,” is never a good internal dialogue to be having with yourself while taking a corner at speed on a motorcycle. It’s an even worse one to be having out loud.
My mind had drifted off as I was racing the clock to get to the Phang Nga Transport Office. Entering the turn unprepared and too fast for me (I’m sure the bike could handle it, but just not with me driving it), I start to do everything wrong: I let off on the accelerator, I hit the brakes, I pull the clutch and the bike wobbles into the outer lane as I move through the apex of the turn.
Let’s pause for a moment.
Why am speeding toward Phang Nga at 4pm on a Friday afternoon? I need a driver’s license. Yes, I probably need some driving lessons, too. But the task at hand was simply getting some government approval of me taking a motor vehicle on the roads of Thailand.
If you wanted a driver’s license back in the United States, you’d drive to the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). Wait. I mean you’d have a friend drive you to the DMV after making an appointment. You’d get your eyes tested, take a quick written exam and then hop into the car for a driver’s test, where you’d get off with bumping into the curb a few times as you attempt to parallel park – or at least that’s the way I remember it.
Of course my US driver’s license would do the trick for the trip, if I still had it and it was still valid. Unfortunately, I don’t and it’s not.
Within the first year of being in Thailand it was stolen along with my entire wallet. Going with the flow, I didn’t bother to report the wallet stolen or follow up on replacing my driver’s license.
With that complete sense of dread that any poor expat about to enter the bureaucratic jungle of Thai officialdom knows, I dragged my heels on getting any driver’s license at all. It was much simpler to just cough up a 500 baht fine when I was unlucky enough to be stopped at a police checkpoint and required to show a driver’s license.
However, the sense of dread returned – threefold – as the wait to even take the test in Phuket was backed up three months. Even if I had all the proper paperwork, I wouldn’t be leaving Phuket with a driver’s license until the end of July, instead of my planned launch date of May 9.
I did try to renew my US driver’s license, which quickly became the practice in a discipline many have mastered in Thailand: beating one’s head against a wall.
The kind lady at the Indiana DMV kept insisting that I come down to a local office to get a new one. She seemed blissfully oblivious to the fact that Thailand is about 14,700km from Indiana; perhaps she thought there was a Thailand, Indiana – there is after all a Peru, Indiana. Bottom line was that the DMV was a dead end, for the nice lady’s career and my attempt to procure a license.
Then, in a moment of total elation, I stumbled across the International Automobile Association’s International Driver’s license. The IAA had an office in Chalong – my part of town. It’s hard to get this lucky, but I was. No need for piles of documents, reflex tests, sitting through dull learner videos, none of it.
With a copy of my old driver’s license, a nod and a wink, I was going to be buzzing around the world with a very official document in English, French, Spanish, Russian, Chinese, German, Arabic and Korean; a document that gave me the right to the roads of the world.
I met a good Italian friend of mine, Adriano Trapani, for an espresso that morning, bringing him up to date on my Dice Travels’ launch plans and progress. He recalled also having gotten an “international driver’s license” through a non-government agency, which turned out to just be a very expensive translation.
I assured him that this was in fact different – how many times has a tourist or expat in Thailand thought their situation was different? I would venture about as many as have been wrong. Nonetheless, I was confident.
The IAA had an unpretentious little office about five minutes from my house. At first, when I arrived, it appeared empty, the front desk was vacant. A bookshelf with a wooden ship looked cheap and out of place on the far wall. Then, a tall cross-eyed man with thinning hair came into focus. He was sitting at a desk that was jammed into the back of the office.
He welcomed me in.
The man – let’s call him Tim – was courteous and on point as soon as I explained who I was, as I had already been in touch with his boss about coming in to get the license.
He smiled a big genuine smile, as he put on a pair of thin reading glasses and began thumbing through the paperwork. I eventually produced all the necessary documents, including a photocopy of my lost driver’s license. Tim stapled them all together, then handed me an example of the international driver’s license. It was a hefty, official-looking document about the size of a passport.
I had the cash in hand, about 160 dollars, when I balked. At the bottom of the license it clearly stated: International driving license is only valid if you have your valid national driving license with you when driving.
Stepping outside of the office I called Adriano, he confirmed – my idea wasn’t different.
I thanked Tim, feeling guilty about having gotten so close to making the transaction and then bailing. There was of course the temptation to just run with it. I’ve used a PADI scuba diving license as a substitute for a driver’s license at police checkpoints in Thailand, so this particular document would probably be fine. Probably. However, one entire year on a bike without getting a valid driver’s license seemed a bit daft, even to me.
There was only one option left: the Phang Nga Transport Office, which was a 90-minute drive from Phuket.
Armed with a list of the documents I needed for the driver’s license, I started going about the process of securing them. Thankfully, I had my work permit, which simplified matters – or was supposed to.
Not wanting to miss any more days of work than absolutely necessary, I sped up to the Phang Nga Transport Office early one morning in March.
The government facility isn’t a big complex, just three buildings, a vehicle compliance-testing center and a test-driving course. The several story buildings are concrete white with purple trim.
I was excited. This was a step forward, a little progress after more than a month of spinning my wheels. Spinning my wheels trying to get sideboxes for my bike, which would hold essential gear, trying to get my taxes sorted out, trying to determine exactly what gear is essential for a year of living on the road, while blogging, climbing, freediving and doing magic shows.
A young, pretty girl, Khun Ae, met me at the counter of the office and flipped through the paperwork that I was told was necessary.
There was an issue. The Gazette didn’t have me registered at its address in the work permit.
I didn’t think I could handle another round of ‘mi di’ – cannots. I needed something to go forward.
“Please don’t make me drive all the way back to Phuket,” I begged.
What Khun Ae needed was my registered address. A single document issued by immigration, which of course would be produced only after a half dozen other documents were sorted out.
With a stern smile, Khun Ae found some room in her heart to be lenient. She would sign me up for the test at 8:30am next Friday. However, I must bring the document. She showed me an example of it. This document was necessary.
I was so grateful. She bent the rules for me, and it saved me a very long trip.
The day of the test, Julia, my beautiful Siberian girlfriend, and I piled on to the bike with our climbing gear. We were excited for a 3-day weekend to commence once I garnered a driver’s license.
That morning, there was that unsettling sense of something being wrong that clings to me whenever I’m about to attempt to deal with officials in Thailand. There is a certain helplessness that is fueled by the inability to sweet talk your way out of a situation. Holding my breath as we roared across Sarasin Bridge to mainland Thailand, I wished for a driver’s license.
Khun Ae was furious. She bent the rules for me, and I failed.
“Not from immigration!” she said. “Not from immigration.”
The document I had did come from Phuket Immigration. It was the document I thought I needed. It was the document the woman at immigration said I needed when I told her I wanted to register my address. However, it was clearly not the document Khun Ae needed.
I pleaded with her, playing a bit puppy dog and a bit hapless foreigner. Neither made progress. Her boss agreed: not the right document. I was shown a document brought in by a Myanmar national.
“This is what you need,” she said.
I understood that. I clearly didn’t have it, but I was clearly there and not keen on ruining a spectacular 3-day weekend because of a bureaucratic hiccup. Not to mention the fact that it would cost me one or two more days of running back and forth to Phang Nga.
A nice Phuket local, also in Phang Nga to get his driver’s license, helped them explain everything to me. I already understood, but was hoping something could be done. Was it possible to fax or email the document up to them?
No, nothing was possible. Khun Ae wanted me out of her sight.
Stepping out of the office, I messaged Julia: “I hate this fucking country.” I had kept it cool inside, hoping that a calm, let’s-talk-it-out demeanor was going to be useful. It was not. I now needed to vent.
We drove to a nearby Amazon Café and ordered. What to do? What were the options? We had a pile of heavy climbing gear and the bike. I needed this document from immigration and there was no way I would enjoy a minute of the weekend if the situation were left lingering. It needed to be dealt with – I needed to make progress. After finishing my Americano, it was decided. Julia would rent a scooter and poke around town while I went back to Phuket to shake it all out. See what I could accomplish.
Having another person’s happiness and weekend to weigh into the plans added more stress, even though it was entirely self-imposed. Julia, however, was happy to manage the gear and have a day in Phang Nga Town. Headphones back in, listening to an episode of This American Life, I raced to Phuket.
I hadn’t been entirely off. The document from immigration was exactly what I needed to get the document that I actually needed.
Step by step, I was marching through the system. While waiting at Phuket Immigration, watching the red number flick on the electronic board, ushering people to Desk 1, 2, 3, 4 and so on, I read motorcycle riding safety tips – more progress.
The time was ticking though. It was already 3pm.
I messaged my chief reporter Khun Um: When does the Phang Nga Transportation Office close?
Time continued to slip away.
My number flashed on the board. I handed over the documents and about 300 baht cash. I didn’t hesitate to cough up the random sum of money necessary to process a free document, something the Gazette has clarified with the immigration chief numerous times, following allegations of corrupt officials charging for it. I didn’t bother to ask for a receipt; I was watching the minutes, trying to determine what the cut-off point was for an attempt to make it to the transport office.
I sat back down. More waiting. It was 3:30pm.
Minutes later a man walked out carrying my passport and the confirmation document in hand.
I was off. I swerved through Phuket Town traffic, and then, able to pick up some speed, I hit Thepkrasattri Road – the island’s main north-south artery. Using the recently read tips on body position, I slid half my ass off the seat and raced through the corners.
Then, my mind drifted off.
I started to do everything wrong: I slowed down, I hit the brakes, I pulled the clutch and the bike wobbled into the outer lane as I moved through the apex of the turn.
Taking in a deep breath, I’m back in control. A bit scared. After five years of working with the Gazette, I know exactly what the accident scene looks like when a big bike goes down in the corner, slips across the road before bashing into the cement curb, throwing the rider over the median into oncoming traffic. I know exactly what half a brain looks like in the middle of the road, what half a face look like after it’s been driven into a utility pole at full speed, what half a body looks like after its been dragged by a 18-wheeler for almost a kilometer.
There is a sinking feeling as I pull into the transport office. The gates aren’t closed, but the lot is empty. There aren’t even enough bikes left to account for those employed by the facility.
I check the time. It’s 4:38. Eight minutes late. I think about just turning around and finding Julia. Fuck it: just call it what it was, a good effort. But the doors are still open.
The lights are off as I head upstairs to the second floor, where they process driver’s licenses.
Khun Ae and her supervisor are packing things up. With a big wai and a smile, I timidly ask if I can give them the document.
Khun Ae smiles.
“You were so angry this morning,” she says.
“So were you. So angry,” I reply.
“We were both angry,” she said. “Everyone saw.”
I agree. Though, I remember it slightly differently.
Bashfully, she takes the document. A few small jokes later, I’m registered to take my driver’s test – again. The date: April 1.