Dealing with The System (an example) ...

Awakened by a gentle or sometime urgent call of nature, often around the hour of six in the morning.  One of us will walk to the kitchen to turn off the street lights, which are left on throughout the night for the benefit of our neighbors, who have no municipal street lighting.  The main beneficiaries are the immediate neighbors, including our housekeeper and our gardener.  I suppose it also eases the way for those who travel to the deeper, darker recesses of Soi 2.  Residents of another nearby lane requested that we put in a light for them.  Explaining that their location, not being on our land, was beyond our purview, we did offer to buy the light if they would install it and pay for the electricity.  We have heard nothing since, as I suppose it wasn’t important enough for them to invest their own time or money.

Returning to today’s story.  After the lights have been extinguished, we normally go back to bed for another hour or two.  Today, however, was different.  We needed to be on the road before eight thirty, so immediately launched into our morning routines, minus the lounging in bed ritual.  Roughly on schedule, we dawned our helmets and mounted our recently purchased scooter and headed off in pursuit of our motorcycle driving licenses.  On a previous occasion we had stopped by to inquire as to exactly what they required.  I have found over the years, that depending on third party or hearsay information, can lead to unnecessary difficulties.  Best to go to the source. 

In this instance, recent pictures were required, as well as a trip to a hospital and the boarder immigration office, to obtain the specified paperwork.  As is often the case, one must choose between the nearest or the easiest location.  Only occasionally, are they one in the same.  For example I prefer the longer trip to Mae Sai, over the nearer Chiang Kong immigration office.  The nearest hospital worked out fine, though it did take a rather long time.  We chose the closer location of Thoeng over the main licensing office in Chiang Rai.  I suppose if one didn’t speak Thai, the Chiang Rai office might be easier.

I was of course the only foreigner as nearly twenty of us prepared for our daylong ordeal.  First there was testing of reflexes, depth perception, peripheral vision, and color blindness.  Followed shortly thereafter by two hours of orientation videos and lectures, on driving regulations and traffic signage.  After a lunch break we all returned for our computerized written test.  This was the one and only thing that had the option of being in English.  Everything else was in Thai.  Even with a heavy Northern accent at times, it was still in Thai and not the local dialect, so I had no difficulty understanding.  If one passes the test with 23 out of 30 correct answers, the driving test is next. 

The test is not rocket science but is done at very slow speed.  Something I had not practiced.  One must first mount a narrow plank and traverse the entire length without falling off or touching your feet to the ground.  This, alas, was my downfall.  The remarkable balance that I once possessed as a youth, seems to have deserted me in my advancing years.  I found the explanation for this part of the test interesting, indeed.  It was asserted that one needs this skill, to squeeze between the sometimes very long lines of vehicles waiting at a stoplight, especially during rush-hour in a big city.  Back home that maneuver would get you a ticket, but we are in Thailand after all.

In short I failed my driving test and was told to return in three days for another try.  Oddly enough my wife was allowed to pass her test, even though her skills on the road leave something to be desired.  For the next two days I practiced my super slow driving skills.  It became clear that there was something about the anticipation of falling off that plank, that completely unnerved me.  Not feeling confident at all, we headed back for my retest.  Sure enough I fell off again and was told to go sit down and wait for what I guessed might be, one more try.  After an appropriate passage of time I was called over and my paperwork was returned with the words, “number three.”  Now, I interpreted that to mean, come back for “try number three” at a later date.  My wife realized, however, that he had actually meant to send me to “counter number three” for payment.  He simply didn’t wish to acknowledge, before the other applicants, that he was letting me pass.

You might ask why I am writing about this.  Or, perhaps why I put myself through all this to begin with.  Back in 1982 when I got my first private vehicle drivers license in Thailand, I did what was the common practice at the time.  I found a way around the rules.  That is a common convention and mindset for expats.  Visa runs, dummy corporations and various other techniques are used to circumvent restrictive bureaucratic regulations.  Foreigners often take on a defensive posture, assuming that the locals are “out to get them.”  I suppose this was written as an example, to show that with time, patients and a pleasant demeanor our host country will often, or at least sometimes, go out of its way to be accommodating.  Presentation is often more important than substance.  It is not what you do, but how you do it.  It is not what you know, but who you know.  As Thailand modernizes, some of this form over substance will diminish but old habits and customs die slowly, so will no doubt linger on for sometime to come.

I know a lot of foreigners, who never bother with this kind of thing and prefer to buy their way out of problems as they arise.  I find these new hard plastic licenses work well as a form of identification in the provinces, however.  Often people are not equipped to deal with a passport in a foreign language.  Any kind of a local ID is much preferred.  So in the end I guess I put myself through this short term inconvenience, for a long term benefit of not needing to look over my shoulder and a convenient local ID.  Then again, perhaps there was just a perverse desire, on my part, to see what normal people have to go through.  Either way what’s done is done and now, on to the next thing.