Most travel blogs generally paint pretty sunny pictures of idyllic lives on the road. You have your standard listicles of cheap places to stay and your shiny photo filled descriptions of stunning beaches. Usually, mine follows a pretty similar positive tradition. However, the reality is that bad things do happen when traveling! And my travels are certainly no exception. So adding to a long list of travel mishaps, this year we had the unpleasant experience of a motorbike accident in Thailand.
First off, I should point out that at the start of this year’s adventure, I didn’t know how to operate a motorbike. I do now, but that is a story for a different post. However, when we started off this year, I was motorbike clueless. Luckily for me, I was in the company of a motocross genius! While I might not know a thing about motorbikes, Emery is a champion motocross racer and just about the best person in the world to trust at the wheel (handlebars??) of anything on two wheels. The Thai traffic was absolutely intimidating! However, in about two minutes from signing the rental papers, Em had the situation figured out.
For the next six weeks, we explored the chaotic roads in and around Chiang Mai, discovering the best markets, massage places, and deserted water parks. There is no better way to see Thailand than on motorbike with the sun on your back and the wind in your hair…or, ahem, helmet.
However, unfortunately, Chiang Mai in May floods with monsoon style daily downpours. The city’s infrastructure isn’t exactly stellar in the best of conditions. In heavy rain, it turns pretty unfortunate. We had been able to wait out the worst of the rain for a few days, hiding out in our convenient AirBnB house. But after a few days, our food supplies ran out. And thanks to another mishap involving my debit card and a greedy zoo ATM machine, we needed to make for the nearest Tesco for groceries rather than the local, cash only market.
We waited for a lull in the rain and then headed out. Most of the trip went pretty smoothly. Again, riding with someone who has literally won medals for motorbiking in the mud makes for a pretty smooth ride in just about any circumstance. But just as we were almost to the store we needed to use a frontage road and underpass which had unfortunately washed out in the storms.
We entered the muddy swamp of a road along with about a dozen other vehicles and carefully navigated the underpass. Just as we pulled out of the muck and heading toward the maintained road and just as I was shaking my head in relief that we, at least, knew what we were doing, I saw a wobbly movement out of the corner of my eye. I had forgotten to account for the other people who don’t know what they are doing!
Another driver, completely out of their element in the muck, lost control of their vehicle and started to head straight for us. Emery immediately took good evasive action and managed to get us clear of the careening vehicle. Unfortunately, the only place for us to go was deeper into the muck. As the bike started to shake and it became clear that we were going to go down, we realized we were going to need to abandon ship.
Upon realizing this, Emery, ever the expert, knew that if we got thrown as we were, I would suffer severe injury. The way these bikes are built, the passenger sits high and at a strange balance, meaning that I would likely have face planted in a deeply unfortunate way. So in an ultimate hero moment, he had the forethought to throw the bike clear of me. As we skittered to the ground and came to a stop, I limped up and away from the bike with only a sprained ankle, a slightly damaged wrist, and some unfortunate road burn on my knee. Poor Ems, however, had broken both arms in throwing the bike!
Those initial moments after the motorbike accident were, for me at least, kind of blurry with surprise. Due to the washed-out road, we had, thankfully, only been going at a speed of maybe 20kmh. Yet there we were, sitting on the side of the road, sporting scrapes, bruises, and broken bones.
After the shock wore off, it became clear that we needed to get Emery to the hospital. There was one down the street aways and we knew we at least needed to get the bike off of the road. There was no question at that point of Emery driving the bike. So I had to quickly shake it off and put my two or three lessons to use in order to slowly navigate the bike to the nearby Tesco parking lot.
As we stood in the Tesco parking lot considering our options, a kindly local and his wife pulled up beside us. They had seen the accident and had come to drive us to a hospital. Although we had been planning on making our way to the nearest hospital, these wonderful strangers graciously drove us to the best hospital in the city, the Chiang Mai Ram. They drove us straight to the door, refused to take any money for gas or time spent, and gave us their phone number in case we needed anything else. This is one of many such examples I had in Thailand of the kind and generous local spirit.
The Chiang Mai Ram is a large, modern and efficient hospital and Thailand aims to be a center for international medical tourism. As such, the staff all spoke clear English and were prepared to deal with our international status. Thanks to the rain, unsurprisingly, we were not the only tourists in the ER that night. The chairs around us were filled with other motorbike accident victims, toting their helmets and sporting an array of injuries.
As soon as we arrived, Em was promptly swept into treatment where they began cleaning cuts and scrapes and taking X-Rays. We were shuffled from ER treatment room, to X-Ray room, to consultation room, and back again. A few hours later, bandaged and booked for a follow up a week later, we were ready to check out.
Thai hospitals, or at least the ones I have been to, have a pretty efficient check out system. When you are ready to leave, you take a number. When your number is called, you approach a desk and settle payment. Once payment has been settled, you are moved down to another counter where they then provide all medications indicated. All explanations, including all prescriptions and paperwork, were given to us in excellent English. We were then sent back to X-Ray where we could obtain a CD of the films taken.
Having finished in the hospital, the owner of our AirBnB rental was nice enough to come and fetch us as Ubers were hard to come by in that rain. He helped us home and then arranged to go with me back to the Tesco. I was still pretty shaky and certainly didn’t trust my meager skills with the bike in the dark and the rain. He drove the bike home for me and arranged for a driver to stay there at the Tesco with me so that I could get the groceries we had originally needed, as well as new additional supplies for our varied injuries. Again, I can’t stress enough how kind and helpful the Thai people were during this ordeal!
The coming weeks were definitely not your ideal vacation! We had planned to move on to our next destination a week later, however, with two broken arms, we made the decision to keep Em as still as possible and let him heal. Our AirBnB was already unavailable during that time, so a week later we moved into a hotel downtown and there we stayed for a month.
I’m sure that the staff at our new location was fairly amused by us. One person with two arms encased in casts and the other pathetically limping everywhere. But they were, of course, also exceptionally helpful. Now, I am sure you can all imagine that there is nothing at all fun about having two broken arms. You are pretty limited in doing just about anything. Add to that being in a foreign country with strange new foods and nasty, extreme heat and humidity. Em was a total champ about the whole thing. Far more so than I was at times, I am sure.
For the next several weeks, our travels were anything but the postcard-perfect picture of white sand beaches or exotic adventures which fill the feeds of most travelers. But we got through it, even with a few laughs at times. It would, unfortunately, not be the last time we were in hospital in the coming months. But if nothing else, I suppose we learned a few things to pass along:
Wear your helmet!
Fortunately, we always wear helmets. And I was pretty lucky this time. But it could have been very different. If Em hadn’t taken the brunt of the force to protect me, I easily could have traumatically injured my head. And we were only going 20kmh!! No, it doesn’t matter who you are, you are not too good for a helmet.
Don’t overestimate your skills
Thousands of tourists each year travel to Thailand or any of the dozens of other similar destinations and assume that they can rent a motorbike to get around without problem—even if they have never once in their lives driven one. And the thing is, yep, you can absolutely rent a motorbike with no experience. They don’t especially care. There are police checks in Thailand and other countries looking for your international driver permit. But you can simply pay the “fee” and be on your way. Not to mention that those permits don’t mean you have motorbike skills in the first place.
Motorbikes are pretty serious business. While they are relatively easy to operate, in many places the traffic is not. Nor does being able to turn a bike on and propel it forward mean that you will know how to handle the shimmy when it hits a pothole. During my time in Koh Lanta, two unfortunate backpackers overestimated their skill. Having never before touched a bike, they rented a pair and planned to set out for the day. They didn’t even make it out of the hostel parking lot before they were in the ditch.
In many of these countries, taxis are cheap. Ubers are cheaper. Song Taus cost mere pennies. Tuktuks are ubiquitous. If you don’t know how to operate a motorbike, your holiday isn’t the time to learn. I’m not just saying this for your safety. I’m saying it so that you aren’t the bad driver who sends me off the road next time.
You are only as safe as the idiots around you…
Ok, so you have established that you have reasonable motorbikes skills and you are ready to head out on the roads. But wait! Still keep in mind that, as with anywhere, you are only as safe as the environment around you. Just like in our situation, you can literally be an award-winning motorcyclist but all it takes is one idiot driver next to you to create a motorbike accident. Keep your situational awareness high!
Have an emergency fund—even if you have insurance!
Nearly every travel blogger out there raves about travel insurance, such as World Nomads. While I agree that insurance is usually a smart idea, make sure you understand how it actually works.
When you have a travel insurance, such as World Nomads, which is what we had, this does not mean that you won’t have to pay medical bills! In the US, when we have insurance, we can go to the hospital, give them our insurance information, and they will bill us later if necessary. This is not how travel insurance works!
The local hospital is unlikely to accept your travel insurance as payment. Instead, you will need to pay all bills immediately. Many hospitals won’t even let you leave the hospital until you pay your bill. Then, later, you can submit a claim to your travel insurance.
However, it still isn’t as simple as it sounds! First, if you require multiple visits for the same incident, such as we did, you can’t submit a claim for each visit separately. You have to wait until all expenses related to the same incident are complete and then submit. That means that you can’t expect to even begin working on reimbursement until you have closed the entire issue.
Next, don’t forget that travel insurance isn’t your primary insurance! So like any typical insurance company, they are going to require proof that you have already tried to submit the claim to your primary provider first. Yes, even if your primary provider obviously doesn’t cover out of country expenses.
Basically, they want to make it so inconvenient for you that you ultimately give up on seeking reimbursement. So expect it to take, at best, several months before you see any money back.
In the meantime, those bills need to be paid. So regardless of whether or not you have travel insurance, make sure to keep an emergency fund available to you. Thankfully, this entire motorbike accident ordeal cost less than a thousand dollars. Fortunately, for the most part, we had that on hand. Hurray for low medical costs in Thailand! At least it didn’t happen in Norway…
Get a local SIM and keep it full
Being as we were living in Thailand for a few months, we had local SIM cards on our unlocked smartphones. I generally get a local SIM even for stays of only a few days. However, on that occasion, our plans had just run out of data the day before and we had not yet refilled them. A fat lot of good those will do if they are inactive! Always keep a phone with a local SIM on you for emergencies and make sure to keep your minutes and data up-to-date!
There are some genuinely kind people in the world
Turn on the news and you could be excused for believing that the world is filled with nothing but hate. It feels like everyone is angry about something! Sometimes this gets me feeling pretty depressed. But my multiple experiences with being sick or injured in Thailand presented me with a long list of positive experiences in which people bent over backward to help me out. Have faith, everyone! Good still exists!
Don’t wait until the last minute to do things
This tip is more for the digital nomads than the tourists. Tourists usually go on holiday with a set schedule and try to live it up. However, nomads are generally also working. When we arrived in Thailand, we put all our energy into working and banking up some extra funds. The result of that was that we procrastinated doing all the cool stuff that Chiang Mai is known for. We had only just started to go out and do things when the accident happened. Let me tell you, you can’t really do elephant bathing or cooking classes with two broken arms. Nor do you even want to at that point. So don’t put things off, because you never know what might happen to prevent you from having those experiences!
Patience is a virtue
Regardless of how you prepare, sometimes the bad things just happen. When they do, patience is a virtue. As is a sense of humor. It is going to be miserable for a little bit. And then hopefully you can look at it as a story or have a good laugh down the road. Of course, it is a lot easier to laugh from the comfort of home when the offending situation is far, far away…
Again, hats off to Ems for not only being a straight up hero that day, but also being an absolute champ during what was, undoubtedly, a miserable recovery! #AdventurePro
What about you? Have you ever had a serious mishap on the road? How did it turnout?