If you are considering living in Thailand, it is probably a good idea to begin thinking about what you will do about transportation. Mass transit, outside of Bangkok, is basically non-existent. Most towns have converted pickup trucks that act as taxis and pick up people for short rides for a few baht (thus the name “baht buses”), or you might wind up riding in a motorcycle side car which do the same, and there is a pretty extensive bus system between towns. But for everyday trips to the market, a local restaurant, the shopping malls, or just a drive in the country for a picnic, you will probably want to have your own set of wheels. The number of wheels you get becomes the real question.

We decided on buying a used car. Most towns will have an area where used cars are for sale (at places called “tents”) and some will have a Sunday market where you can go and do some car and motorcycle shopping. Used cars are quite a bit more expensive than they are in the west. This is probably because maintenance and service in Thailand is very good and inexpensive and used cars can last many decades. And they often do. I have a friend driving a car that is at least 30 years old. The used car we bought was a 5 year old Toyota. The cost was Bt275,000.  That was 5 years ago and it has only been in the shop a few times for basic maintenance.  We are looking forward to many more years of faithful service. Buying a new car or pickup was never a question.

But then it came time to decide on a second vehicle, for all the normal reasons.  But a second car was a bit out of our price range.  So we decided on a motorcycle (for me of course).  Now I use that word “motorcycle” quite loosely.  I mean, those guys on the U.S. TV series Sons of Anarchy*, who ride around on those huge, stripped-down Harley hogs wouldn’t use the word “motorcycle” for what I ride, but I am happy with my 125 cc Honda Dream. I’d love a big bike but with the narrow alleys and dirt roads I go down, a small one is more suitable.

For many reasons, new Expats to Thailand will wind up riding motorcycles. I think it is important to talk about some of the things a motorcyclist will encounter on the Thai roads.  You will be shocked and amazed.

My first bike

When I first came to Thailand as a Peace Corps volunteer, there were two basic rules that we had to follow.  The first was that we were not allowed to ride motorcycles.  And the second was, when we did ride motorcycles, as they knew everyone would, we had to wear a helmet.  Back then, the first purchase of almost every volunteer was a motorcycle, and the second was a helmet.  My first bike was a 50cc Honda.  I had never been on a bike before, and after paying for it, and getting some brief driving instructions from the salesman, I got on to ride it out of the showroom.  I quickly bounced down the sidewalk and turned into on-coming traffic, going down the road the wrong way.  How it happened I can’t be sure, but I did survive.

On my first drive into the countryside I came across a flash flood covering the highway, from one rice field to another.  So of course I drove right through it (I have since learned how dangerous that was).  The water came up over my engine and my spark plug got soaked and I had to wait an hour for things to dry out so that I could start the bike up again.  Then I realized that I had to go back down the same road to get home again.  So, I rode right through the flood again, got the spark plug wet again, and waited another hour for things to dry out again, before returning home.  I am happy to say that I have since become a much better motorcyclist than when I started out.

 

Many years and many bikes ago

 

Some rules of the road

Cost of a motorcycle

This depends on the size of your bike. The most popular are Honda 100cc bikes. New they cost about Bt30,000. My 125cc is more in the Bt35,000 range and the new automatic transmission bikes are closer to Bt50,000. Of course I buy nothing new so my 2 year old used bike cost Bt25,000. There are bigger bikes for sale here too but they can be quite expensive and they seem to have a very punishing registration fee for the bigger bikes. The Sons of Anarchy could even find a few 1300cc choppers around.

Learn to ride

Lots of tourists come here, rent a motorcycle for the first time in their lives, and wind up in serious trouble. I was at the hospital ER with someone I knew when they rolled in a western tourist with a nice white bone sticking out of his leg. I went over to help with translating for him and found out that he and some friends had rented bikes, went up into the mountains, and he let his mind wander while riding, and wound up driving off the road and breaking his leg. The doctors said it would be at least 6 months before he could walk normally again.  He had never driven a motorcycle before that day.

Moral of the story: Learn how to ride.  Take it slow at first. Save the mountain riding for much later.

Wear a helmet

Another story. Last week as I was coming down the highway I saw an accident up front. An older Expat man was lying in the middle of the road. He was semi conscious and was bleeding profusely from a long deep gash along the side of his head. He had been riding on the back of a bike when the driver swerved to avoid a car and he had fallen off. He wasn’t wearing a helmet. What should have been a bump on the head and a headache became something much worse. I couldn’t follow up on what happened to him but judging by his injuries and his age I would say that his retirement has been very rudely interrupted, possibly terminated.

Moral of the story: Whether you are driving a motorcycle or are a passenger, wear a helmet. It is also the law and if caught without one is a Bt400 fine.  Probably less than 50% of Thais wear helmets. But this is one aspect of the culture that you don’t have to follow.

Getting a license

There are car drivers licenses and motorcycle licenses. They are different. If you already have a license from your home country then it is quite easy to get one here. So be sure to bring your old drivers license here and all it will take is some paperwork to get a Thai license. Otherwise you’ll have to take a written test and a driving test. These can be quite a hassle.

Traffic rules

Although Expat conventional wisdom tells you that there are no traffic rules in Thailand, there really are.  It is just that not everyone follows them. Remember that Thais drive on the left (opposite from U.S. but the same as the Brits). It is important to keep in mind that if you are on a motorcycle then you are probably smaller than anyone else on the road except bicycles.  That means that you let the big guys go first. Why? Because they are bigger, and no matter if you throw a rock at a glass, or a glass at a rock, it will be the rock that wins out in the end. Bigger has the right-of-way, maybe not legally, but I wouldn’t want to argue that in court after losing the rock/glass battle.

Very often you will see people driving down the “wrong” side of the road, against traffic. I put the word “wrong” in quotes because they don’t seem to think there is anything wrong with it since it saves them a few minutes. Interestingly, I have seen Expats doing the same. My advice is to avoid doing something so foolish. If you are retired then you don’t need to save those few minutes. You’ve got lots of time, that is unless your drive down the wrong side of the road without wearing a helmet. Then you might find that you have less time than you would like.

Stop and look

There is a saying in most drivers’ ed classes that when you come to an intersection, stop and look both ways. In Thailand I would change that to look six ways; left and right, front and back, and for good measure, up and down. When you come to an intersection be prepared. People will try to pass you in all of those directions.

Stopping for pedestrians

Because pedestrians are smaller than you, you have the right of way (see above). No one here stops for pedestrians, neither 9 month pregnant ones, nor little old ladies, nor little children, and never for a Farang. It wouldn’t even cross a typical pedestrian’s mind that a car or motorcycle would stop to let them cross. So, if you are from Seattle like I am, and have become used to letting everyone cross before you can go on, and want to do that here, then check very carefully behind you before you stop to let a pedestrian cross or you might find that your back end might need some serious body work after the car behind slams into you because, why in the world would anyone stop to let a person cross the street? Also, since the pedestrians will not know why you are stopping, you might have to wave like crazy to tell them it is okay to cross. It is really a no win situation.  Just let them wait. They are used to it.

Drive slowly

Here is the most important piece of advice I have to give to motorcyclists. Drive way to the left and drive very slowly. I do not go over 50-55 kph and that is only on the open highway. Since one of the definitions of being retired is I never have to hurry anywhere anymore, taking it slowly has not turned out to be a problem.

Drinking and driving

Most motorcycle accidents I have seen involving Expats have had something to do with alcohol. Either the Expat was drinking or his accident was caused by someone who was drinking. So, don’t drink and drive.  And try to avoid the times when drinkers are out on the road.  Times like weekend evenings, end of the month after payday, holiday evenings, and really late at night. If you have to go out then get someone to drive you in their car or call up one of the metered taxis that are beginning to show up around the country.

Conclusion

I have driven a motorcycle in Thailand for many years and have never had an accident (my computer desk is made of wood which I am knocking on right now). So you can ride safely here too.

Riding can be great fun and will get you where you need to go. And it is cheap. I spend about Bt100 every two weeks for gas. That compares to about Bt2000 for my car for the same amount of time. The rainy season is not problem. Just always bring rain gear and have a good face mask for your helmet. In the hot season most Thais wear long sleeves or even a jacket. Keeps their skin white and might save you from skin cancer. In the cold season I wear a jacket, scarf, and warm gloves. It is hard to believe but you will need them.

And when you finally know what you are doing, then you can go riding up into the mountains.

To end, here is a quote from the financial guru Richard Russel (dowtheoryletters.com) whom I listen to religiously and who is a big Harley enthusiast. The quote works for riding bikes safely, investing in the stock market without losing your retirement savings, or for life in general: “Everything is anticipation. You’re looking two miles ahead, one mile ahead, two hundred yards ahead, fifty yards ahead. You must see potential trouble before it becomes real trouble in your face.”

Drive safely.

 

On a trip to Doi Intanon in the good-old-days

 

*Sons of Anarchy is a series about a motorcycle “club” in California who get into all the usual troubles.  It is sort of a cross between a soap opera, a cowboy western, and Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It is quite a fun show with good acting and lots of violence, sex, and big bikes. Everything a boy could ask for. It’s the Sopranos on wheels.

 

The Sons of anarchy riding real bikes.

 

My website retire2thailand.com has some information on how to apply for U.S. Social Security from abroad (different from how to apply while in the States).  A gentile reader recently sent me an update with lots of good info which I will post on the website but wanted to include here also.

BTW, if any reader from another country has info on how to get your government pension while living abroad please drop me a line and I can share it here.

Thanks to my gentile reader for the following info.  Since we just went though all this I can confirm that the info below is correct (as of this writing)

Latest info on applying for Social Security

The SSA Manila has been implementing a new procedure concerning application. They now do telephone interviews where the SSA representative will take your information by phone and put it directly in the SSA system. There is no need for filing out an application form. They would only give the paper application if the claimant does not speak English. The new steps are:

1. Contact the US Embassy/Consulate and they will get your basic information (name, SSN, date of birth, address and telephone number). The US Embassy will then send this to Manila by e-mail or mail.
2. Once SSA Manila determines that you may be qualified (based on age and your record in their system), they will contact you by phone. So it is important to give an accurate telephone number or alternative numbers (cellphone, work phone, etc). If they could not contact you, they will mail out a letter indicating you need to call them or email them.
3. If they were able to contact you, they will schedule you for a telephone appointment within that week or the next week. Depending on how much their pending work is. Some claims examiners  can do the interview the same day, provided you have all your information.
4. After the interview, they will tell you what documents you would need to send to them to complete the application. The documents will depend on the information you provide. SSA Manila can receive the original documents (via courier) or you can certify copies (for free) at the American Embassy. While you are doing that, the SSA representative will send you the summary of the application you just did over the phone so you can check if everything is accurate.
5. Once SSA Manila receives your document, they electronically sends this to the central office in Baltimore, Maryland together with your claim.
6. You will have to wait until SSA Baltimore sends you a notice if the claim is approved and when you will receive the payment.

Some shortcuts you can do:

– Instead of contacting the American Embassy/Consulate to start your application, you can actually contact SSA Manila directly. It takes a lot of patience because there are only 13 claims examiner handling the whole of Asia and the Pacific claims. But once you do get through and speak to the representative, they can immediately give you the date and time for the interview. Do not leave a message on the voice mail because you might get overlooked. Persist in calling until you get someone over the phone.

Call this number 632- 3012000 Press 5 for Social Security. The best time to call is 730-8am and from 1-3pm Mondays – Fridays. The reason for the gap is that the claims examiners usually schedule their telephone interviews from 8am-12nn.

– Have all your information ready. Nothing slows down the interview like not having your personal information on hand. The interview usually takes 10-15 minutes.

– Be there when when they call you at your scheduled time. When the representative say 8am Manila time, they will call at 8am Manila time. If you are not there, they will try 2 or 3 more times and then go to the next interview. If its already 815am and you have not received the call, call the representative directly. Each of the 13 representative have a direct line and they are open in giving this to you. Ask for the name and direct line of the representative when they contact you for the schedule.

– Be honest when you do not have your documents with you. Some of the representatives will need to look up their policy to see if they can excuse you if you do not have certain documents (for example, birth documents from certain countries is really not available – they won’t push you to get this). For US citizens born in the US, they sometimes won’t request for the birth records.

– Have an email account. Most of the representative would prefer communication via email rather than you calling them.

– Have your information ready. If the representative feels like you are not the same person as that on their record (giving out incorrect answers, hesitating, getting coached by someone else), they will terminate the interview immediately. This results in longer processing time since they will probably ask you to identify yourself personally at the Embassy or do the paper application.

Additional Info:

* Contact the US Embassy/Consulate or SSA Manila 3 months before your 62nd birthday
* Mails usually arrive 10-14 days from your country to Manila. If you are sending your documents by mail and want to make certain that the representative received it, call or email them after 15 days from the date you sent it.
* Be polite. Complaining to the supervisors will not endear you to the representative. Cases are divided by alpha (first letter of your surnames) so even if you complain, your case will not be transferred to another unit.
* The office email is FBU.Manila@ssa.gov
* Fax number is (632) 5221514 (available 24 hours)

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Note on spousal benefits

My wife just applied for Social Security (I have been receiving it for 2 years now) and there are a couple of things we have found out. If a spouse is eligible to receive SS on her own then he/she can apply as stated above. If his/her benefits would be less than half of what the spouse receives then they can apply as a spouse. If he/she has never worked but the spouse is receiving SS then they can apply as a spouse.  A spouse usually receives approximately 1/2 the benefits of their partner.  One thing to remember though, spouses can receive benefits (including window’s benefits) only if they have lived in the United States for a period of 5 years.  If not, they are out of luck.


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