Photos: Courtesy Jessica Lander ’10; Photo Illustration: Steven Veach
With a motorbike came liberation

Photos: Courtesy Jessica Lander ’10; Photo Illustration: Steven Veach

Less than a week after parading through FitzRandolph Gate with my fellow graduates last year, I walked out of my new apartment building in northern Thailand, hailed a sawng tow — a truck that serves as a cross between a bus and a taxi — and set off in search of Chiang Mai University. Before ­hopping aboard I jotted down the street name (Sirimangkalajan), praying I could find my way home. I was embarking upon a yearlong teaching fellowship through Princeton-in-Asia.

Struggling with jet lag that first week, I tried to make sense of my new life. There was a new language to learn, with sounds that don’t exist in English. There were new foods to sample, multitudes of Buddhist temples to explore, and, of course, university classes to teach.  

Over the following weeks I caught red sawng tows everywhere, riding on one of their two benches with schoolchildren in scout uniforms, hunched women weighed down by cabbages, shaven-headed monks draped in orange. Peering out of the open backs of the sawng tows, I became mesmerized by the ever-churning roadscape. I started carrying a notebook everywhere, scribbling furiously about motorbikes — bikes festooned with bobbing bags of fried pork skin, bikes that appeared as vegetable gardens on the go, bikes top-heavy with swaying, upside-down, cackling chickens.  

Every day I pushed my limits. But driving was one place where I stalled. I never had enjoyed driving; indeed, I got my U.S. driver’s license only a year earlier. At Princeton I got around on foot. But in Thailand, walking everywhere, especially in 95-degree weather, was impractical. Even sawng tows were limiting: You have to be able to tell the driver where you want to go. I specifically wanted to go to places that I didn’t yet know I wanted to go to. There was one solution: I needed a motorbike.

Driving in Thailand began with a list of   “Never will I ... ” vows. Never will I speed, never will I swerve between cars, never will I drive wearing flip-flops. If living in Thailand has taught me anything, it taught me never to say never.

Day 1: Denali Barron ’09 and a fellow PiA-er took me to a parking lot and watched me wobble nervously around corners at a crawl. Day 2: I allocated 40 minutes for a 10-minute drive to school and made it, solo. Day 3: I surprised myself by getting impatient and swerving between traffic. Day 4: I navigated through three-lane traffic to reach the rock-climbing wall where Denali works and got caught in an evening deluge driving home. (When it rains, Thai drivers relinquish one hand from the brakes to hold an umbrella — a feat I did not attempt.) Day 5: I came back from a market excursion to find I had acquired the first parking ticket of my life. Day 6: I followed friends to a funeral and found myself on the Super Highway — a place I swore I never would drive.   Day 7: I had no intention of resting. I drove all over the city.  

Of the many skills I learned in Thailand, driving became the most reflexive and the most liberating. I no longer carry my notebook, but I still take mental notes about bike riders. I once drove opposite a man carrying a towering stack of Styrofoam trays secured under his chin. I spotted another driver who had strapped a bicycle horizontally behind him. I saw families of four and more riding together on one bike, and bikes carrying rabbits and golden parakeets. Dogs were frequent passengers: toy dogs in front baskets, larger dogs poking out between the knees of their human chauffeurs — a husky on an old yellow Fino, a golden retriever on a teal-tinted model. Cruising through the old city, I drove beside a man whose large black Lab stood on the passenger end of the seat, balancing like a circus act.  

For Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I arranged a party for my Thai friends at a hideaway restaurant near the muddy Ping River. I found myself driving there in a motorbike cavalcade of friends laden with the trappings of my religion: a cake balanced between my knees, apples and honey bouncing from one arm, and two loaves of challah swaying from the handlebars.  

In September I presented myself to the Thai motor-vehicles department — out of curiosity, not necessity, since international licenses are sufficient. I wanted to know what it took to acquire a Thai license. I now can say it includes various eye tests, which may be repeated until the desired passing mark is achieved. My license, valid for a year, is adorned with frolicking pandas, celebrating the two Chinese loaners at the local zoo.

Before my road test, I had to watch an hour-long instructional video about driving rules. Several key tips were absent. Nowhere did the video mention that pedestrian traffic lights are simply suggestions to slow down, that driving-lane markers are primarily asphalt decorations, or that it is customary to drive against the traffic flow if that is the fastest path to your destination.  

And what of my own driving? In the last few months my motorbike has taken me to colorful rituals for elephant gods in the south and to hilltop Buddhas in the west. I have jittered my way eastward past Hmong villages, down mountain trails resembling miniature ravines. Late one night in January, I drove north into the night with a friend, speeding through towns hazed in a neon glow, crossing paths with barking dogs, and avoiding hurtling trucks laden with cabbages.  

But most of all, I enjoy driving in my own city of Chiang Mai. I relish the exhilaration of zigzagging between motorized tuk-tuks on my way to eat sticky rice and papaya salad, filling gas beside ancient temples, darting down alleys, or speeding along empty streets at 4 a.m. after dancing with friends. I have not ridden a sawng tow in months, but from my motorbike I’ll peer inside at the clientele — the monks, schoolchildren, and young Westerners craning their necks to take in the scene. I don’t watch for long, though, before swerving to the left and zooming ahead.

Jessica Lander ’10 recently finished a fellowship teaching English in Chiang Mai, Thailand, through Princeton-in-Asia.