The horror! The indignity! The Shame! My good name tarnished, all for the crime of not being able to read a traffic sign in Thailand. Granted, the sign displayed a picture of an arrow pointing right, covered by a red circle with line through it, but couldn’t I plead the innocence of a tourist, lost and confused, dazzled by all the sights? Didn’t my inability to read Thai count for something?
No, apparently not. It was bad enough that we were making an early morning run to the Canadian consulate to get some passport affairs sorted out, but I felt it unfair that amidst the maze of one way streets, the most obvious and simple route should forbid you to turn on it, for no apparent reason at all. For the most part, Thai drivers paid little attention to most of the common Western rules of the road anyways.
True, they do keep mostly to the proper side of the road, but it is not uncommon to see someone going the wrong way down a one-way street, or turn in blatant disregard for any signage. With this in mind, I made that ill-fated right hand turn onto the one-way street, going in the proper direction, with the traffic. Then I heard it. The shrill scream that becomes so easy to ignore, due to every parking lot attendant who feels that he has been given a sacred duty to keep the city in perpetual gridlock, that piercing call of a whistle; this one on the wrong end of a policeman.
Normally I pay little attention to the sound, due to the aforementioned reason, but as I glanced around, I noticed the brown clad policeman at the end of the whistle. Waving. At me. As I pulled over to the side of the road, Theresa asked what was wrong.
“We’ve been busted” I scowled. She turned and saw the policeman standing on the corner. “Shit!” She said, which about summed up how I felt as well.
The policeman waved us over, which meant going back against the flow of traffic on another one-way street. This didn’t seem out of place to him, even if our apparent transgression did. As I snaked my way back and pulled up beside him, I did my best rendition of “So, what seems to be the problem, officer?”, batting my eyelashes behind my sunglasses. He motioned me off the bike, and got me to follow him back to the intersection.
He pointed out the sign which clearly indicated that a right turn was prohibited. I laughed, and said something to the effect that in my confusion I hadn’t seen the sign. He pointed out the second sign (which I actually hadn’t seen) and in his broken English let me know that I would have to pay a fine. In the awkward moment while I was trying to think of some way out of the situation, several other vehicles made the same offensive turn I had. Apparently, the sign only applied to non-Thais, although the lack of any words on the sign made it hard to tell.
I started to pull out my wallet, thinking that this was how it was done, but he said shook his head, and pulled out his ticket book. Ah, well, simple, I thought. I can just pay the fine later. No, actually, not really. After writing the ticket and getting me to sign it, he took my license, and said, “Now follow to police station.”
“Wait, you don’t understand” Theresa and I said in unison. “We are on our way to an appointment, and our children are at home…” The officer just smiled and said, “Follow. Very close. Will only take five minutes.” He hopped on his scooter, and sped off into the traffic, trusting that we would follow him. “Let’s just leave!” Theresa said. “Why do we have to follow him?” “Because he has my license!” I growled. I heard an annoyed “Oh.” behind me.
After weaving through the morning traffic for several blocks, the officer pulled into the regional traffic police station, and we pulled up beside him. I left Theresa with the bike, both of us exhibiting clear annoyance at the situation, and followed the officer into the building. He handed my ticket and license to a man behind a counter, and led me another man behind a desk, giving him another copy of the ticket. The man smiled, and asked for Sawng Rawy Baht. 200 Baht. Aka $7 Canadian. I kind of chuckled to myself at that point, and handed over the money.
He signed the ticket, which I took over to the other window, where my my license was returned. Justice had been served. At this point, I noticed that one of the officers was wearing a pink Hello Kitty armband. Was this a new fashion statement among Thai police? From what I had observed, they all exuded a sense of macho as yet unseen amongst the Thai people, stiff backs and cut physiques, and an attitude of arrogant self-possession. How did Hello Kitty fit into their culture of dominance and authority?
A Google search revealed that Thai police are punished for poor behaviour by having to wear a pink armband with that nonchalant symbol of Asian pop culture, the Hello Kitty face. And in this case, Hello Kitty was accompanied by two embroidered hearts. I did my best to suppress a smile, and left the building before I gave in to the temptation to show my disrespect for authority by breaking out in a fit of guffaws.
Theresa shared my mix of humour and annoyance when I let her know how grievous the fine was, and how severe the punishment for misbehavior by Thai police. Late for our appointment, we sped off, dutifully observing the road signs, lest we come under the scrutiny of the Kitty-clad police. The moral of the story, it would seem, is that your time is worth more than the fine when in Thailand. And that shame is sometimes the best means of enforcing discipline.