As the police officer told me, “you are in my country, you should know our laws”. That’s when it hit me, not knowing the law of a country is not a good enough excuse, regardless of what everyone else was doing. Yes, I had been stopped at a police checkpoint!
Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start
How did I get myself into this situation in the first place? After arriving in Chiang Mai, we had 4 days, Tom (who I was travelling with) and I sorted out a plan of action on what activities we wanted to do whilst in the area. After all the planning we had a free day and wanted to explore the national park, and wanted to head to Doi Suthep. The only way we could work out doing this on the cheap was to hire a small motorbike/ moped.
Now every other shop and every hotel is offering motorbike rental and all for the same price of about 200 Bhat for a 24-hour period. With motorbikes in Asia often seen to be carrying whole local family’s (including the family dog) a motorbike seemed a good choice for Tom and myself. By splitting the cost this was going to be a really inexpensive and fun day out in the national park.
Renting the bike
One of the easiest things I have found in Thailand was renting the bike. All I had to do was pay my 200 Bhat fee, hand over my passport or 20,000 Bhat as a security deposit, (Like I had 20,000 Bhat on the last few days of our trip!) Then finally complete a form with my name, hotel and nationality.
As in all rentals I carefully read the terms of hire, this had a few lines of what payments would be made if you damage the bike. All that was left to do was to sign my name on the dotted line and I was given the key to my rental and told to return the bike with the same fuel level 24 hours later. EASY!
On the road
After a quick test lap or two around some of the quiet roads by our hotel, you know just to get use to how the bike worked. It was now time to head to the national park with Tom in-tow on the back.
We headed out of Chiang Mai city on the main roads. The sun was beaming down, it was another typically hot day in the city with temperatures reaching above 38c throughout the afternoon. With Tom playing the role of navigator we were on our way. 15 minutes into our “road trip” and up-a-head we saw a group of 6 police officers pulling bikes to the side, and yep you guessed it as we approached mine was going to be one of them getting stopped.
At first, I just thought it would be a random check, checking to make sure the bike wasn’t stolen or anything, so I guess you could say I wasn’t that worried at first. The officer asked for my drivers licence, which I always carried.
A few minutes later after he went to check with another officer he comes back and explains to me that I am not allowed to drive on an English drivers licence. Me starting to panic a little now for what might happen and because I had seen so many hundreds of tourist renting and driving these bikes, thinking how the hell are they doing it. The officer continued to educate me and inform me that I need an international drivers licence, something I thought was only needed if you rented a car!
After my educating lesson, hoping that’s all it was and I would be able to stop riding, somehow get the bike back (I didn’t know quite how yet) I would be allowed to go on my merry way. WRONG… VERY WRONG… The officer told me I would have to pay a fine as I was breaking the law… FANTASTIC not what you need when you’re already on a tight budget.
After hearing what the officer said and pleading to let me go with a warning because I didn’t know that I needed this document, the officer had a very valid point “you are in my country, you should know our laws”. That’s when it hit me, not knowing the law of a country is not a good enough excuse, regardless of what everyone else was doing!
From Formal Cop to Micky Mouse Cop
The officer explained to me that he would keep my UK drivers licence, and fill in the ticket. I would then have to ride the bike to the police station, pay the fine, then ride back to the police checkpoint with proof I had paid to get my UK drivers licence back.
Now let’s just break all that down! So I have been given a fine for not having an international drivers licence and therefore should not be driving or riding. However, this police officer wanted me to ride to a police station, still with no legal licence and then drive back to collect my ID. To me, it just seemed a little stupid and a backwards law.
I asked the officer how much the fine would be, he told me anything upwards of 1000 Baht. 1000 BAHT! It was the last few days of our travels and a spare 1000 Baht was not what we needed to lose. Not wanting to go try and find this police station or try and find this checkpoint again, I asked the officer if we could not pay an on the spot fine now?
From Micky Mouse Cop to bent cop!
After speaking to a few of the other officers he wanted to make a deal with me. For 500 Baht he would let me go, without having to go to the police station, and without having to keep my ID. I just had to give him 500 Baht. I would also be allowed to continue driving this bike without a licence for 24-hours. My name would be on a computer system and if I was pulled over again the other police officers would be able to see I paid a fine and allow me to continue on my way.
Now I’m not in the habit of bribing police officers in any country, but I had to weigh up my options. Pay the 500 Baht and still be allowed to continue my day with Tom to the national park, or pay what I was informed going to be a fine of 1000+ Baht. I mean a 1000+ Baht fine could literally mean anything I guess. Drive to the police station, pay a ticket and drive back. So the 500 Baht bride was looking like the easiest and probably cheapest option.
As I have never had the privilege of bribing a police officer before, I wasn’t sure if it’s like most things in Asia. Was I meant to haggle, like I’m trying to get some fake designer sunglasses? After only thinking about this whilst fishing around in my bag for some money, I decided haggling a bride with a police officer is probably not the best idea.
Of cause, the only notes I had in my bag were 1000 Baht notes. I mean do you get change for bribes? I was hoping so and even asked the officer for some change. I must admit the officer dealing with me didn’t take the money, another officer came over and very discreetly took my larger note off me and again very discreetly with a rolled up 500 Baht note slipped it back to me.
So now I was on my way
After having to fill out my name and the registration on the bike, I was allowed on my way. This register I was told would be added to a computer all police have access to, so I would not get ‘fined’ or in my case ‘bribed’ again. Did I have much hope for the system, that I would not be pulled over a few hours later and bribed again? No. But I thought I would take that chance, I wanted to get to this national park.
You will be glad to know the rest of the day went without any problem. We didn’t see any more police checkpoints, so I can’t tell you if we ever made it on to this lucky ‘you don’t need a licence for 24-hours system’. I would like to hope you can trust a man in uniform and one of Thailand’s police officers, but let’s face it he has just pocketed 500 Baht illegally! Anyway, the national park was a really nice drive up a massive mountain with some good views over a smoggy Chiang Mai City.
What did I learn
- Double check the laws of the country your visiting. Just because everyone else is renting a bike, does not mean its allowed. I’m pretty sure 95% of the other tourists in Chiang Mai who rented bikes also didn’t have the correct licence.
- Always carry smaller notes, you never know when you’re going to need change
- Visit the Thai Department of Land Transport for full details about international driving licence
And the rental place
I didn’t bother mentioning it to the rental place, I was going to get angry with them, but at the end of the day, it’s my responsibility to know the law of that country as the officer quite clearly pointed out.
I do however think rental companies and hotels renting out bikes should tell their guests that they should have the correct documentation. You would never be able to hire a car or bike in the UK unless you showed your full licence. But I guess for the rental places and hotels its money to them so why should they care!