When my birthday rolls around in five months, the driver’s license issued to me by the State of Washington will expire. Not being a bona fide Seattle resident anymore, I decided it was time to bite the bullet, so to speak, and get one issued from the country I’ve been residing in for most of the past three years.
Up to now my dealings with Thai bureaucracies (outside of Customs) has been limited to the annual visit to Immigration to get my retirement visa extended. That process runs fairly smoothly assuming you have all your paperwork in order. Now, however, I would be mingling with the masses, trying to decode procedures designed for the locals. Fortunately I would have an American ex-pat with me (Tod) who speaks the language and specializes in escorting fellow farangs through the labyrinth of rules that must be followed here to get something done.
The fun began at the Department of Land Transportation Office, a large and rather imposing-looking building located a good five minute walk opposite Sukhumvit 62/1. Crossing the threshold into the cavernous main area is like entering a giant ant hill with waves of Thais scurrying about in all directions. I came to an immediate stop, dumbfounded as to where to begin. A girl at the nearby Help Desk, taking mercy on me, provided directions and the required form.
Paperwork is a necessary evil when interacting with any level of government, but the officials in this country have an insatiable appetite for it. I had brought five pages to feed to the lions covering my health, residence, passport info and current driver’s license. But even that meticulously put together package did not keep me out of trouble. After waiting in a shifting column of people for some fifteen minutes to get to a clerk, I discovered that my Certified Letter of Address from the Immigration Bureau needed to be “re-certified”. (WTF?) For this transgression, I was banished to an upstairs office for the procedure, which cost me my hard-earned place in line. Tod fortunately got us back in the ballgame when we returned by butting in and tossing my paperwork on top of a stack of forms waiting to be processed. I would not have had the audacity to try this, which is why I brought him along. Getting a Thai Driver’s License is not for the fainthearted.
I now had to wait for the clerk to call out my name and return the papers Tod had sneaked in. A number of anxious minutes passed as I watched one Thai after another solemnly march up to the desk to receive their documents. It was like witnessing a graduation ceremony. Then the clerk began reading off names in an uncertain voice, indicating that she was now working through the packages of foreigners who had applied. If no one showed up right away to claim their prize, she quickly moved on to the next name. I edged closer to the desk and when I heard my mangled surname, nearly pounced on her.
Besides all the papers and forms I had brought, the returned bundle had a mysterious blue tag attached to one corner with a number written on it. With no signs directing us to the next station of our quest, we decided to go over and join a bored-looking crowd milling about in front of a pair of closed doors. On closer inspection, both had an attached sheet of colored paper containing a range of numbers that changed every fifteen minutes or so. This had to be the place. We settled back to wait for what would be my Big Moment: taking the Thai Driver’s Test.
There was a knot in my stomach some two hours later as I and around fifteen other applicants finally entered one of the sacrosanct chambers to match my driving skills against four machines which would determine my future. To my relief, the first test was simply identifying the colors of a traffic light. I would have liked to have replied in Thai, but feared making a pronunciation mistake. For example, there’s a slang term that sounds very similar to the word “yellow”. It means a kind of adhesive. Thus, I could have ended up answering: red, green, red…sticky?…which might not have earned me a passing grade.
The second challenge involved depth perception: aligning a pair of upright chopsticks from ten meters. I found this annoying, not because of any intrinsic unfairness, but because the cutlery reminded me I had not eaten since an early breakfast.
Tod had prepared me for the next — and most dreaded — ordeal: the infamous Gas Pedal Machine. One puts their foot on an “accelerator” and gently depresses it. A few meters away, an ascending serious of white lights begins to build until a red one suddenly pops up, requiring you to immediately take your foot off the “gas” and put it on the “brake”. If your reaction time is on the slow side — say more than fourteen milliseconds — you are in trouble. According to Tod, this fails more applicants than the other tests combined.
When the red light came on for me, I hit the brake pedal so abruptly and decisively my right foot was sore for the next half hour.
The last hurdle I like to call A Visit to the Optometrist. You get seated, then gingerly lean forward until your forehead touches a bar. Off to either side lights begin flashing and you tell the operator when you see them. This seemed straightforward enough and I eagerly settled in, positioning my chin on a metal base and easing my forehead into the bar. Wrong! It was not my chin, but my nose that needed to be touching the base, which was yellow with wear. Gross. What are they testing here, one’s peripheral vision or immune system?
It was at this final contraption I had my only real trouble, missing a flash or two. The lady in charge pointed out the errors in an annoyed tone, then reran those sequences so I would learn my lesson.
Limping out on my aching foot, but with “pass” marks on all my tests, we happily journeyed to the final stop at the opposite end of the hall where a Thai license would be bestowed upon me. This was simple and straightforward: heft up the bale of papers I’d accumulated onto the main reception table, receive yet another number, and wait to be called. Unfortunately, the fellow at the desk I was assigned to didn’t speak hardly any English and had a difficult time communicating that I needed to push my chair back a bit for the photo. (Tod came to the rescue.) But that was the final bit of confusion. All that remained was confirming my personal information on the computer, whereupon the long-sought plastic card was birthed out of a small machine in the center of the work area.
There is always a sense of relief after I’ve navigated the obstacles of Thai officialdom. These people hold my life in their hands and if so inclined could make it truly miserable. But that has never been the case and unless one of my former Thai girlfriends gets a job with the Transportation or Immigration Departments, I anticipate continued smooth relations.