Driving at Night in Thailand

03/11/2011 05:32 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

There are some relatively simple steps one can take to limit the potential dangers of a motorcycle. Check your oil daily. Brake in a straight line. Know you are smaller than semis. One of the soundest pieces of advice for any biker: don't drive at night. With little visibility and unsure road conditions, you are just asking for trouble and unless you are lit up like a Wayne Newton billboard, other drivers can't see you.

But sometimes wisdom takes a backseat to emotion.

Bangkok is a vibrant, bustling city teeming with energy and tuk-tuks. Hoards of young backpackers stroll the Temple of Dawn and Grand Palace by day, then quickly make their way to Khao San for the endless hours of drink specials. Once their spirits are thoroughly elevated, most head off to nightclubs while a few dabble in the city's oldest competitive sport, ping-pong.

The entire process repeats itself the next day and every day after that, unless you have the good fortune of meeting Bangkok's darker side. Tourism is big business here, and with the heavy pockets of many foreigners, scams of every sort are commonplace. Most are simple -- a tuk-tuk driver that will take you to the sights for cheap... after a quick stop at his friend's silk shop. Others can be a bit more aggressive -- a tuk-tuk driver that will take you to the sights for cheap... after a quick stop in a dark alley, a knife waiting for a quick payoff.


Three days of this coupled with the city's nightmarish traffic and you come to only one possible conclusion:

Time to get the hell out of Bangkok.

Our first day was spent running aimlessly around the city trying to locate a good motorcycle shop. Online riders recommended a few just outside the city center, and it appeared a straight shot from our hotel. We mounted up and began riding east. Then west. Then north. Maybe south. Bangkok has an incredible ability to confound you at every turn. Even our trusty map, proven time and time again along the past 4000km, showed the route as a straightforward 10-minute jaunt. But lost in a hostile world of tuk-tuks, roundabouts, and left lane driving, we found ourselves in a cab after delivering the bikes back to the hotel a mere two hours later.

Over the next 24 hours, we made several back-and-forths across the city, slowly amassing the necessary parts for our bikes. Shop One had new saddlebags, but no tires. Shop Two had tires, but no mirrors. Shop Three had mirrors, but no maintenance service. The distances between each store were probably small, but the city's constant gridlock made the process a frustrating test of patience.

Finally, Shop Four had the skills to put it all together. After four weeks of Lao switchbacks and Thai speeds, it was time for a full service. We delivered our bikes with excitement, relieved to finally have a few days rest and an excuse from Bangkok's rush hours.

But much the same as our bikes, our frustration with the city took a piecemeal route.

Night One: A colleague from Shanghai is in town and we decide to hit the town. A tuk-tuk driver delivers us to the wrong nightclub, the bright neon lights lighting up the wrong dark alley. When we ask for the correct destination, he pulls a wrench from below his seat and hastily affixes a sharp blade to the end. The club bouncers watch on, unsympathetic to our situation. While it wasn't quite a dangerous situation, the moment ends with the tuk-tuk driving away, our group lost and in need of transportation. We take a cab this time.


Night Two: A night at the fights. We head to Lumphini Stadium for some Muay Thai boxing. A cool 2000 baht ($66) gets us in the door, a worthy price for flying kicks and knockouts. The stadium's grime is a perfect setting for the bloody matches inside. We sit ringside, surrounded by a hoard of locals shouting in harmony as each blow is landed. A few fighters are led into the crowd and a cacophony of wagers erupts, hands flying as grizzled men bet on the lean, clean boxers. We enjoy ourselves thoroughly, but a Thai friend later tells us the local price is 200 baht. We'll go with him next time.

Night Three: We take a ferry out to see the Temple of Dawn at sunset. Overcast, so not the spectacular view we hoped for. The dark waters throw the passing boats by. A split-second decision and we jump off in Chinatown in search of some grub. As we look at our map, the rain lightly falling overhead, a man closing up his shop nearby casually asks where we are headed. A friendly, seemingly normal conversation ensues and our new friend recommends a little restaurant up the road. He helps us grab a tuk-tuk and we soon arrive at a shanty-esque seafood place down a gritty alley. As we scour the menu, we are a bit surprised by the high prices. We didn't think too much of it as our compadre said it was a famous place, but decide to only grab a beer and one main dish. I can't help but notice that the place is slowly filling up with foreign faces, not uncommon in much of Bangkok, but odd for a "local gem" hidden so far off the main streets. The bill comes and we know why. 2500 baht for one dish and two beers is a bit steep, but not when you add in the fine print. 10% service charge, 7% Thai tourism fee, 20% for being dumb enough to trust a friendly passerby. We won't take a "friend's" advice anytime.

Hans asks the table next to us how they found this place.

"Oh, the tuk-tuk driver recommended it!"

We leave with a grin, teeth grinding behind the faked smile.

Bangkok had thoroughly gotten the best of us. And with another 4000 baht ($133) spent on our bike service, we were ready to burn out of this town.

We arrived to pick up our bikes on the fourth morning with the plan to quickly pay, load our bags, and fly far, far south. We set our sights on Prachuap Khiri Khan, a seaside escape a mere 300km away. As we should have expected, one bike was still lying in pieces on the shop floor. A wheel here, shocks there. Our grinding grin returns, but is relaxed by the giggles of the owner's toddler daughter scampering around among the gears and motor oil. Four pm would be the earliest we could leave, not ideal but could still make some good distance. Anywhere but Bangkok.


We mount up. It's now five pm. Rush hour. It doesn't matter, we need to punch through. The route south is obvious, west on Route 37, south on Route 4. Engines roar and the new rubber accelerates us forward.

It's now eight pm. We are 20km outside of Bangkok, bewildered by the obvious route. There are no signs of agitation in Hans or me; this is the way it's been for the last four days. Why get angry now? We pour over the maps yet again, I now know Thailand's highway system better than the King. A few friendly passersby point us in the right direction. We trust their opinion as no restaurant recommendations were given.

It's now nine pm. We have found the road south, but know we have a ways to go. At our trip's start, we made a promise to limit our nighttime driving, but neither of us bring it up -- we are going to keep driving. We need to. But first, some street food and two M-150s, the local energy drink of choice.

By 10 pm, we own the road. Not a car for miles and we have a perfectly lit highway taking us further and further from Bangkok. We both note the benefit of night cruising -- fewer double-decker tourist buses blowing by. The buses, ever-present throughout Thailand, carry so much wind in their wake it almost bowls you over as you hug the curb in terror.


By 11 pm, I start to miss them. The buses are always headed to major destinations, reassuring when less than confident about the correct path ahead. Signs for the southern town of Hua Hin whiz by. 87 km away, now 53, now 64, then 22. I worry that the late hours are playing tricks on my judgment. We had already made the poor decision to ride at night, and perhaps muddled judgment pushed us on. The right direction, we hoped.

Time doesn't matter anymore. We are going to Prachuap tonight. We may have been delirious in our rush to leave Bangkok behind, but the thought of continuing on is lucid. We are smiling now, the grinding teeth replaced with soft smirks. I know I should feel tired, but I have a new energy. The road ahead is crystal clear.


We pull into Prachuap Khiri Khan at an unspecified time. The streets are blank, the yellow streetlights illuminating the black pavement to nothingness. A wrong turn through a market leads down a street of golden-lit fruit and vegetables. A few groggy workers are restocking the stalls. Neither of us have any idea where we need to be, and simply point and shoot the bikes into the nearest hotel.

We've made it. Now we can be tired. The chore of unpacking the bikes is both satisfying and cruel. It's two am, our bodies suddenly broken by the nine hours of nighttime driving. Sleep comes easy.

It's not the fatigue that shuts my eyes. It's the feeling of accomplishment. Of escape.