Juggling Fire

I Plead No Thai


So, this is what the receipt looks like for a paid traffic ticket in Thailand.

Now, before you go calling me a speed demon and accusing me of misconduct and such, let me state my case.

I was driving home from the immigration office, where my friend Carla and I have spent seven blissful mornings seriously bonding over hours-long waits amid people of all age, race, color, and well, some pretty random smells – some particularly pleasant, like the cologne of the older European gentleman this morning, and some not so pleasant, but humbly forgiven, like the hard-working scent of 100,000 migrant construction workers coming in off the job to comply respectfully to Thai immigration laws. Chiang Mai is booming with industrial growth. Unfortunately, the immigration office maintains its same roughly 50-seat capacity and 20 workers as it did before the big influx.

So, anyway, Carla and I have made seven trips to immigration (Actually, I have made seven, and she has made six. I had to make an extra trip.) in hopes of obtaining a Thai driver’s license – normally a one- to two-day process.

A few steps are necessary. These steps have been described to me as “simple” by others who have gone before us. I’d like to issue a strongly-worded rebuttal: The simple days are over!

Let me explain the process quickly. (I’m lying. This is a long story.) For foreigners to obtain a Thai driver’s license they must obtain a physical. This part is indeed simple. You just go to the local hospital or clinic, tell someone at reception you need a driver’s license, and next thing you know you’ve got a blood pressure cuff slapped around your bicep, a colorblind chart in front of your face, and a recorded body weight of WAY more than what your American driver’s license has said since your 16th birthday. Oh, wait, maybe that last part just applies to me.

Regardless of the disappointment you might feel about your current weight (well, ok, me again), two positives come out of the deal: your weight is recorded in kilograms, which looks way better than pounds, and a payment of 100 baht (about $3.23) gets you a piece of paper that says you’re healthy enough to drive in Thailand. Cheapest physical you will ever get.

And that’s the first leg of the race because after you get your physical, you have 30 days to complete the marathon. That’s not long.

The second leg begins at 6:30 a.m. when you leave for the immigration office. Despite the fact that all you need is a piece of paper that says, “I live in Chiang Mai (basically),” you still have to mingle among the visa extensions and, well, I don’t know what else. I just know there is a lot of government stuff that goes on in that office.

The first time you arrive, you think, “It’s early. Nobody’ll be here. I’ll just park in the immigration office parking lot.” Wrong.

The immigration parking lot holds about 10 cars and is already full of 60 motorbikes and at least 75 people who got up at 5:30 a.m. and knew they couldn’t park anywhere near the immigration office. As you honk your horn through the line of people (quite embarrassing) to exit the immigration parking lot, you will see a sign (which you should have seen when you entered) that says, “Parking lot full. Park next door.”

Now, next door in Thailand could mean “next door,” or it could mean, “down the road about a quarter of a mile.” It could mean way further than that. At immigration, it means the quarter of a mile.

So you park, and then you walk, and then you stand. By then you’re already sweating. It’s 90 with a humidity of 284 percent at 7:15 a.m.

By 8 a.m, a nice Thai man starts speaking over the intercom. Don’t ask me what he says. Our Thai lessons haven’t started yet. (And if you’re interested in sponsoring them for us, shoot me an email. They are important!) So, as he is announcing a bunch of stuff you don’t understand, the line rushes forward, and at the doorway of a tiny blue building is a man passing out numbers. Get your number. Pray for a seat. Wait.

When your number is called, you are hopeful (on the first trip anyway) that this is all there is to it. Hand in your paperwork. Get your letter. Right? I mean that’s how the ones who have gone before us described it.


What happens now is this: they call your number, you stand in line some more like sweating sardines (and that’s about how it smells at this point – no air conditioning at immigration), and when you finally reach the counter, sometimes the lady takes your paperwork. Sometimes she waves her hand in a “no more, no more” gesture and tells you to come back tomorrow. That’s always fun. Repeat above process. Pray for success.

If she takes your paperwork (like she did this morning – hallelujah!) she stamps it and says, “19” or some number. If you’re dumb like me, you think, “Oh cool, my letter will be done today, and I just have to pick it up when they call the number 19.” You can, however, sit in the same cramped, hot, closed quarters all day long waiting on that number to be called, but it ain’t gonna happen. What she actually means by “19” is, “Please, miss, could you kindly return to our spacious, luxurious office on the 19th of June to pick up your paperwork which we so joyfully will process for you.” Or at least I’m sure that’s what she means to say. 19? Today is June 11. Great.

So, you leave there, stunned from the madness, driving a car that’s been graciously loaned to you, (I am VERY thankful for having access to this vehicle, and I don’t want this next part to sound like I’m not) to run into a routine traffic stop where police officers are standing in the middle of the city street checking vehicle registrations randomly. The nice officer waves you over, puts his finger on the sticker – written in Thai – on the windshield and says very plainly, “Expired.” Why can’t I read Thai??? The registration expired in May.

As the officer is asking for my license and writing out my ticket, I am desperately trying to explain in my best Thai sign language (that means I was pointing in the direction of the immigration office three miles down the road and then placing my hands in the “10” and “2” position on a pretend steering wheel) that I have been to the immigration office trying to get my Thai driver’s license.

He really doesn’t care.

Farang (foreigners) have a 60-day grace period to obtain a Thai license. They do not, however, have a grace period of any kind to drive a car with an expired registration. I could have been in the country for 17 years without a Thai driver’s license. He wasn’t concerned about my residency status. He did, however, hold up a peace sign (or maybe that was just two fingers), look me dead in the eye, and annunciation very clearly in his best English, “200 baht” … as he walked off with my American driver’s license.

As Carla is shouting for me – I’m in shock – “Hey, can she have her license back?” The officer, again in very nice English, says, “She can pick it up at the police station when she pays 200 baht.” And signals once more with the peace sign.

So there we were in the middle of the street – no Thai license, no American license, expired registration, borrowed car, and no idea where the Chiang Mai Police Station is. Huge pause to reflect on this life experience.

Carla broke the silence with the only question that could have possibly been appropriate at the time: “What just happened here?”

I. Don’t. Know.

The car is now parked. The ticket was paid, thanks to a Thai friend who helped me take care of business. Fortunately, 200 baht is only about $6.45. And my American license – the only legal document that says I still weigh 125 pounds – is back in my possession.

I’ll let you know how it goes on the 19th. Please pray for Chiang Mai immigration. There are some busy folks down there.

Me driving our borrowed car. Driving on the left side of the road didn’t take as much getting used to as turning on the blinker with my right hand.


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