The Collective

It is a common belief that Thai people are among the kindest in the world. A wai and bow in the land of smiles.

While generally true, it is not an absolute. There are some mean Thais. Like mean people the world over, many work at the Department of Motor Vehicles.

10 months in, I just completed my battle against the collective known as the Department of Land Transport. It took me 7 hours over two days, but I’m now a legal motorbike operator here in the Kingdom.

When I say collective, I mean it in the complete dystopian sense. A hulking 6 story building in a sprawling complex that is the central point for anything having to do with roads.  Car registration, tax payments, road inspections, drivers licenses. A hive of cubicles, loudspeakers and video screens. Wire run along the ceilings. Dusty fans blow a hot breath.

For drivers licenses they utilize, nearly every corner of the space.

On entry, at the ground floor, one obtains photo copies of all required items. For me it was copies of my passport and current drivers license and international drivers license.

Then we scoot up to the second floor to obtain a number for our place in the cue. #201.  A voice overhead announces they are now serving #156. But there are some 2 dozen desks, and they’re all open, so the line moves quick.

At this step, I get a quick check of my documents. My info is entered into the computer system and I’m sent on my way, on up to the fourth floor for testing. The queue there is some 100 people long.  It winds through a waiting room full of occupied chairs. At the counter, I get number 274. I go to have a seat. They’re calling numbers in blocks of 20. They’re on 130. We get to watch a video of what is going to happen to us.

When my number’s called I shuffle into the next room.  We’re placed in exact numerical order for the first tranche of testing. It’s color testing. When it’s my turn, I shout out red, yellow, green when the lights flash. The yellow light, though is so old, that it could be mistaken for green. But I pass.

The next station is some sort of depth perception test.  Using two buttons, I have to maneuver two sticks so they’re lined up. Easy peasy.

The third station is some sort of Gom Jabbar of drivers license testing. A quick reaction test. Pressing on a rudimentary gas pedal until a line of green lights shines.  Then when a red light flashes, lift off your foot and slam on the brake pedal. I fail twice before I can figure out what’s going on.

This thrills the operator with garish make-up and a crooked finger. She points it at me and clucks and points me back to the end of the line.

When its my turn again, failing to perceive any connection between the pedals on the floor and the lights on the wall, I fail a third time!

“Ah!” She shrieks! With relish. “Come back Monday!”

“What! No way! This is stupid!  Gimme another chance!” I plead.  

She wags her finger at me and bellows.

“If I give you another chance and you fail, you go home! You not come back!”

Challenge accepted! I nail the reaction test well under the required time. There is disappointment in her voice as she waves me on to peripheral vision testing.   

Passing that, I’m sent back to the line outside for a stamp and then on down the hall to a room of 50 computer terminals. I’m seated at one and have to score a 90 percent. Nothing too unusual here.  The only thing I learned is that it is legal to drive a military tank on public roads, and it is prohibited to drive, if you feel you may be having a heart attack. This latter item seems a wee bit intrusive into a person’s medical history and psyche, though well meaning, I’m sure.  

Passing this, I dash across the parking lot to the motorcycle testing course. I fill out a form and pay 50 baht to rent a motorbike. I’m escorted to a waiting room. There are 8 or 9 of us.  We watch a video telling us about the exam. It’s in Thai. It displays people riding a motorbike around a course with traffic signs. Straight forward enough. It does let us know that if we put our foot on the ground when we’re not supposed to, we’ll fail. Also, if we stop to help someone who falls off their bike, we’ll also fail.

Time comes and we arise as a group, and mount up on our rented steeds.  We line up on a starting line. A short woman comes out and gives us a lecture. It is about 3 minutes in Thai. I’m lost. I ask a woman on the bike next to me what’s going on. She shrugs. “I’m just gonna follow someone else.”  

Seems like the collective mentality. If I’m swimming in school of fish, I’m just gonna swim like the guy next to me.  Perhaps, right into the mouth of a shark.

She counts us off left to right. I’m 4th. Then she counts us the other direction.  I’m 5th. Then she points at people randomly to start. Whatever. Off we go. One by one.  

Over a low balance beam. And around a series of s-curves.

Now, the problem with swimming like a school of fish is that the lead fish has to know what’s up.  Our lead fish was a bit dim. And this fish, yours truly, was illiterate. Where we were supposed to stop at the next station, our lead fish just kept happily rolling along. And we followers kept rolling along behind him. Well, most of us anyway.  By the time I got to the next station, the official was waving us back to the starting point.

It was lecture time. She seemed angrier than when we started. We all watched and listened.  And then everyone began taking off their helmets and parking their bikes.

What’s going on?

She failed us all?

What? Why?

Because we didn’t listen to instructions?

What?  That’s crazy!  She can’t fail us. Some of us didn’t even understand the instructions. Shouldn’t that be her problem to solve?  

A shrug.

We all stumble back to the waiting room. We’re all given slips of paper. Letting us know we failed and can come back after three days. I try to protest to the woman that I don’t think it’s fair. I protest to her boss, who turns and walks away. Muttering something about lunchtime. I look around in the hopes of finding an ally with whom to mount a revolt. But no one else seems even remotely upset. The level of fishy compliance is astounding. The take their papers and walk out the door.

I return four days later.  I’m in a school of smarter fish. I find out there is a video available in English, that clearly explains exactly what is expected. I complete the exam in about 45 seconds and am given my passing papers. It’s back to the main building.

On my way inside, I notice people napping and eating in the stairwell.  Hmm. Curious. I return to the counter to be assigned a number. My number? 548.  Now serving? 185. It seems it’s been that way for three hours. The computer system has crashed nationwide. This could go on for hours.

If there is one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that any line is a money making opportunity. I’ll confess that I’ve utilized a license service who specializing in explaining and navigating the collective.  For the price of a couple of tanks of gas, I can jump the line. I’m told, “we pay a little money to the manager, and we can move quicker.” So, even though, my number may be 548 with no hope to advance, they can take my photo and make my license later.

And sure enough, the following afternoon, my license is delivered to my home by one of the many very nice Thais who understand the way things are and who may have prevented an international incident by helping me navigate through a school of fish.

If you’re in Bangkok and you need help.  Consider using TDLS to help with all things license related.  It’s well worth the money saving time and frustration. https://tdl-service.com/

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