Eight years ago today, on July 24, 2002, we had a motorcycle accident in Mae Hong Son, Thailand. I know, what a travel cliché! While I wish we didn’t have to join those ranks, it gave us a window onto the place we had chosen to do our research, and the people with whom we had chosen to do so, that we otherwise wouldn’t have had…and for that I’m grateful.
Francisco and I were 5 weeks in to our planned 10-weeks of field research and we’d made a great connection with the Kayan women we were working with at Nai Soi Village. Each day, we’d ride our rented motorcycle the 21 kilometers from our guesthouse in MHS to the refugee camp (camp for displaced people fleeing fighting) and spend hours talking with and observing Kayan women, their families, and the tourists visiting them for their interesting cultural feature of wearing a brass neck coil.
This particular day, Francisco was sick, and didn’t want to travel. However we’d managed to line up a very important meeting, one that could provide us with a place to stay just outside the camp, in an area not usually offered to “farangs. I convinced Francisco that we should go, and that I could drive. I’d ridden motorcycles “since I was little” I argued- entirely ignoring the fact that I’d been 12 the last time I’d ridden one, and even then, never with a passenger. Effectively convinced, or too sick to argue, Francisco hopped onto the back of the Honda Dream scooter.
We started off fine, until everything imaginable designed for accidents happened at once-
rain, dirt in my lane, a sharp turn, followed by another sharp turn in the opposite direction. Upon heading into the second turn, as I scrambled to use the right combination and pressure of brakes, the last thing I heard or remember was Francisco saying “Oh shit!”…And then he jumped.
I came to, to the sound of my own screaming and Francisco throwing water in my face to try to make out the damage through the blood. My mouth was full of dirt, I couldn’t move my leg, or open my eyes fully. After an indeterminable time, two men drove up in a truck, picked me up, and put me in the back of the pickup. I screamed all the way to the hospital, louder with each bump and turn in the road.
Still screaming & crying, we arrived to the hospital. After exhibiting great patience, the E.R. doctor finally told Francisco, who had refused care out of concern for me, to make me stop, as I was bothering other patients. She also needed me to hold still to stitch up my eye. Done! That shut me up! I’d never had sutures in my life and I certainly didn’t want to contribute to anything getting worse at that point. Facial sutures, x-rays, bandages, a cast, a broken mandible, tibia and fibula, and days went by in a fog. I remember negotiating with my doctor, promising to drink all my food for two weeks and keep my jaw closed to avoid having it wired shut. From what I’ve been told, it’s a good thing I slept through those first days and wasn’t alert enough to request a mirror.
As soon as I could hold a phone, our mothers were on the line begging us to come home. But I couldn’t do it. I was too grateful for our scholarship and didn’t want to blow what I knew was an amazing opportunity. I’d worked for ten years, often at crappy jobs before returning to school, worked really hard to get the grades that made me even eligible- and Francisco had to- to earn the scholarship. Our families were worried about the care we’d receive in Thailand, but how could they, or I until that experience, know that I would have the best hospital experience of my life?
The hospital and its staff were amazing. It seemed like a place that had been built with the expectation of an impending disaster that never happened. It was clean, pristine, and well staffed, and in the 11 days I was there I had amazing round-the-clock care. It awed me how the nurses used large forceps with the deftness of Edward Scissorhands, to avoid touching the cotton or dressings for my wounds- and they still wore latex gloves. I had a private room, as did most people, with a beautiful view of the mountains. My doctors were incredibly available and attentive. A specialist flew in from Chiang Mai to make sure my leg was set properly and that I didn’t need surgery- one more millimeter of displacement and…phew!
Word spread quickly in this small town, and even got back to our Kayan friends, most likely through our friend Nipon, a local travel agent from whom we’d rented our bike. A couple of our Kayan friends went through the difficult process of checking out of the refugee camp and arranging transportation to come to see us. Sitting in my room near the end of my bed, refusing to come closer, Majon looked relieved and said that they had initially heard we’d died. When she, her Mom and sister left, hospital staff looked at us in disbelief exclaiming, “Long Necks came to see you!” Tourists motorcycle accidents may be a dime a dozen, but apparently this was not.
Nipon was the first person at the hospital and witnessed my she’s-clearly-not-from-Thailand E.R. screaming fit. She was concerned for us, not the least bit angry about her damaged bike, and she visited every day. People in the village, including the owners of our guesthouse, brought food to the hospital from the places that had become our routine haunts, and I got really used to drinking banana porridge and soup through a straw. When Francisco ventured out, scraped, bruised, and hurt in his own rite, everyone asked about us, wished us well, gave him food & free services. It felt like the whole town stepped up to try to make things easier for us.
11 days, 5 casts and a lot of healing later, I was out of the hospital, adjusting to the intense heat with a cast, and figuring out a new mode of transport out to the camp. We traded in our motorcycle for a jeep (and were given a deal for being friends with Nipon) and went back to the camp.
The welcome we got was amazing. It was the rainy season, and I couldn’t crutch my way through the muddy camp, so Francisco would walk in while I perched at the entrance, and one of our friends would come and get me on a motorcycle- yes, I got back on a bike with my cast.
And for much of the remainder of the next weeks, our friends made us lunch and requested that we get to stay after closing hours to have dinner. We’d rotate houses. They signed my cast with well wishes, gave us hand-made gifts, and shared many personal stories and fears with us. The connection was clear, and tourists often asked if we lived there, to which Majon, always the joker, would reply, “Yes, they are Long-Neck too.”
Today, coincidentally, the National Geographic Channel is repeating the episode we shot in 2006, Taboo: Body Modification, in which I discuss our research with Kayan women at Nai Soi.
UPDATE: In the time since I’ve written this post, I’ve realized that for any person considering riding a motorcycle for the first time, that this may be a truly frightening, and not very encouraging post to read (except for the beautiful part of a community helping those in need). Since, I’ve grown into a writer who, while not afraid to share difficult experiences, tries to convey constructive ways to look at them. I gave my childhood riding experience more weight than it deserved and miscalculated how well (or not!) it would serve me. I failed to consider the advanced skills that may be required to handle a passenger, the challenging route we took, and the conditions we were met with. All of those factors contributed to the outcome of the accident.
Having said that, I still love riding motorcycles and feel they can be a safe, convenient, fun, eco-friendly option for getting around, but I advocate for proper skills training. When we returned home, I went on to take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s courses and actually got my license. I can’t believe the difference it made. Handling a motorcycle properly is actually counter-intuitive for many- the way to properly steer a bike, how to handle skids, turns, all are different than what one might instinctively do. And the problem is, you often don’t realize you’re doing it improperly until you’re faced with real, immediate challenges that require lightening fast, skillful responses. I can’t recommend getting proper training enough- there are so many skills that can keep you (and me!) safer in getting out of your own way, and of others who may not even see you. Accidents can happen to the best riders, but better equipping yourself to deal with them, may help you avoid some…and greater injury.
The next thing I’ve committed to, is wearing a helmet- regardless of the local laws or customs. My face would not have gone through what it did (and trust me, you don’t want yours to!) if I’d been wearing one, and I am SO FORTUNATE to not have suffered more damage. No more Thai-style for me thanks!
I think it’s also important to gauge your comfort. I’m not comfortable riding by myself over bridges or on freeways- so I’m just not going to push it. Only you know what you’re confident doing.
With the skills I learned in training post-accident, I’ve gone on to enjoy thousands of amazing rides, and owned and rode my own bike, a 1966 CA 77 Honda Dream (a sexy beast!). And you can bet I’ll continue to ride during my upcoming RTW trip!