Riding a Rocket on Koh Samui – Thailand

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Riding a Ninja 650 on Koh Samui

We drank Chang and played pool in Bangkok the night before we went to Koh Samui. At five the next morning we boarded a bus, switched from that to a ferry, and fourteen hours later, just as the sun was setting, we arrived in Koh Samui, Thailand. The seas were choppy, dozens of people had thrown up, and the inside of the ferry smelled like a theme park. 

 Phalarn Inn Koh SamuiDespite inaccurate directions from Google Maps, we managed to find our hostel and toss off our heavy bags. Phalarn Inn was a great place to stay, one of my favorite hostels in Southeast Asia. There was a large pool, an outdoor restaurant, and the whole place was tucked into the jungle. Every morning we woke up to the sound of hundreds of birds demanding attention.

Even though the hostel turned out to be unexpectedly amazing, there was something else that held my interest hostage. In the course of my research I discovered that you could rent a motorcycle on Koh Samui for nearly half of the price of other areas in Thailand. By this point I had rented several dirt bikes and a small, 250cc motorcycle, but I had never gotten the chance to take out a bike with a proper engine. This time, Thai Moto was going to be my accomplice in crime. The bikes were affordable, I was dying to drive something fast, and we had a reason to rent one. Driving around the island was the perfect excuse to justify the rental.

Fuckups and Misdemeanors

SongthaewAll over Thailand there are unique taxis that I’ve not seen anywhere else. They;re pickup trucks (usually red) with elevated roofs covering the beds. Not quite high enough to stand up comfortably, you have to crouch to reach your seat. There is no gate on the back of the truck, and you simply hop on after flagging him down. The Songthaew (as they’re called) follows a fixed route and is usually about a quarter of the price of a regular taxi.

Several days after arriving in Koh Samui, after I had drank too much gin and made an ass of myself in front of the other guests, we flagged down a Songthaew and rode into town. I held onto the bars on the back, perilously close to the road. In Southeast Asia there may be safety regulations in law somewhere, but the day they’re actually enforced will be the day that wealthy musicians stop doing Bolivian cocaine.

Downtown, we pounded on the roof, paid 100 Baht, and started walking towards the rental place. In this moment, I can pinpoint the precise second where I fucked up with Joanna. There were about a dozen such fuckups in the course of our five month relationship, and this was one of them.

After getting off the taxi, I hadn’t checked how long it would take to walk to the rental place. Even at 9:30 in the morning it was already approaching 90 degrees, and we were walking on the side of the road. No sidewalk, no shade.

“How much further is it?” Joanna asked me.

Zooming in and out on Google maps, taking a terrible guess, I told her twenty minutes. The problem was that I had been so caught up in my own selfish thinking, I had failed to think about what Joanna might be feeling. I have no aversion to so called death marches in the heat. Hot and sweaty, being uncomfortable, nearly getting run over by traffic multiple times, these things don’t bother me. But more sane people (like Joanna) don’t have the same reaction.

With all traces of a smile gone, she flagged down a real taxi and he drove us to the rental place. A walk which wouldn’t have taken 20 minutes, but closer to 45. We arrived, and I said thank you to the taxi driver.

“Thank you Joanna” she said to me, as she paid for the taxi. It was one of the very few times that I ever felt Joanna was truly angry with me. Like any relationship there were times we’d get upset with each other, or have disagreements, but I felt ice in her voice. If I was a hermit crab I would have retreated into my shell. To make things worse, the fucking rental place was closed. I felt like Steve Jobs when he was fired from Apple, the company that he founded. Ashamed, embarrassed, and distraught. At this point, I would have welcomed getting run over by an insane Thai driver.

Instead of being crushed, I ended up standing there lamely, like a kid who’s too scared to ask out a girl to the prom.

“I’m getting a drink” Joanna said, and went into the cafe across the street.

Before I had a chance to make a wild dash into traffic, I was surprised to see our taxi driver standing in front of the rental place and waving to me. I walked across the street to him.

“Open soon, you see. 10 they open, I know this place. You see.”

“Alright fine” I said, stress creeping into my voice, avoiding eye contact with him.

He was right though. A few minutes later a man pulled in on a bike and began to unlock the doors. Without glancing at us, he began to move the dirt bikes out in front of the building. Ignoring me, it turned out that our taxi driver was just as interested to look at the bikes as I was.

If the Bike Fits, Rent It

Ninja 650I already had a good idea of which bike I wanted. Unlike other rental agencies, Thai Moto actually had a comprehensive website which I had already spent nearly an hour browsing. I immediately gravitated towards the far corner of the shop, and there she was. A Ninja 650, black on black. 649ccs of race tuned power. Zero to sixty in under three seconds. Top speed: faster than 95% of the other shit on the road. I gingerly sat down on it, balancing it with my legs, kicking up the stand and getting a feel for the weight.

Glancing to the left I saw another bike, just as sexy, just as black. I was a kid in the candy store. The problem is that as a kid, you can pick out a couple of your favorite candies. As a semi-responsible, sort of adult, with a beautiful girlfriend who’s going to be riding on back, you only get the chance to pick out a single bike.

Finally making contact with the owner of the shop, I asked him how much the Ninja was.

“1,000 Baht” he said with a Russian accent.

“Ты говоришь по-русски? You speak Russian?” I asked him.

“Да, конечно. Я из России. Yeah, of course. I’m from Russia.”

“Круто! Я преподавал английский язык в москве восемь месяцев. Cool! I taught English in Moscow for eight months.”

A transformation came over his face. When I had first entered the shop he looked like his wife had left him. Now he was smiling and ignoring the taxi driver, who was asking stupid questions about motorcycle tires. Sensing that most two year old’s with down’s syndrome speak better Russian than me, he switched to English and showed me around.

“So you like the Ninja. It’s a good bike. This one is nice too” he says, starting up the other sexy monster that was parked on the opposite side of the shop. “It’s got a custom exhaust kit on it and when you rev it up..” He pulled the throttle back and I thought it sounded like god speaking the ten commandments to Moses. I was tempted, but not persuaded. I had an aversion to loud motorcycles, and me and Joanna had made fun of dozens of them so far in our trip.

“It sounds great!” I said to him after he shut it off. “I like it, but I don’t think my girlfriend will. She doesn’t like loud motorcycles.”

“So you want the Ninja then?” He asks.

I look at it the way parents look at a newborn baby, and say: “Yeah, I want the Ninja.” I handed over my passport as collateral (illegal, but common practice in all of Southeast Asia), give him a thousand Baht, and carefully selected the least smelly helmet from the large rack of loaners. Mr. Russian parked the bike on the street, turned the keys over to me, and it was time to go to the cafe and make it up with Joanna.

Two and a Half Times the Fun

“Sam I’m going to kill you!” Joanna screamed into my ear, as we squeezed through a three foot gap, between a pair of dump trucks, going 85 mph. I understood how she felt. Riding on the back of a motorcycle is one of the most powerless feelings in the world. You sit back there, your entire existence at the mercy of the driver. In a car there are seat belts and airbags to cushion the crash. If there’s an accident on a motorcycle, the first thing you run into is a dense piece of asphalt which is going to rip the side of your face off.

There’s a great paradox here though. The driver of a motorcycle feels just as confident in his or her abilities, as the passenger feels powerless. Tearing a narrow gap between forty thousand pounds of metal going close to 90 felt as safe as taking a sip of room temperature coffee to me. No matter that I would have been just as dead as Joanna should something have gone wrong, my experience of that second in time was totally different than hers.

The Ninja ended up being the fastest thing that I’ve ever driven in my life, and that record may stand unbroken for a long, long time. Perhaps you’re familiar with the feeling of driving an average car. You jam your foot onto the gas pedal, what happens? It feels like pressing into a wet sponge. Even though you may have the pedal fully depressed, there seems to be a lag. It takes a moment for the engine to catch up and give you the speed that you’re looking for. Unless you drive a M4, that’s the type of throttle response most people are used to.

Now imagine this. As you push down on the pedal, the engine matches your wish. If you push hard, you take off. Push it all the way down, and you’re going 100 mph before your brain can process what’s happening. That’s what it was like to drive the Ninja. Turn the throttle and you explode forward like a bottle rocket. If you keep the throttle held down, the next thing you know you’re doing 110 and you become very aware of how mortal you are. I never took it that fast, but it would have gladly performed should I have asked.

All Good Things Come to an End

We circled the island twice and Joanna said she was going to kill me exactly three times. That’s once every two hours. Not bad considering I was having more fun than a kid in high school getting laid for the first time.

The second time around Koh Samui we stopped at one of the more pristine beaches that I’ve found in Thailand. Palm trees, tropical breeze, and a white sandbar stretching well out into the ocean. I parked the bike in the shade. We stripped down, waded out into the ocean, and lay in two inch water, with barely perceptible waves lapping up against us. Joanna’s head was resting on my stomach, and we listened as Russian tourists walked by.

Sunrise at Grandfather rock at Koh SamuiThen it was time to go. We dressed, donned our helmets, and got back onto the rocket ship. Two hours later we were back at the hostel, the bike safely parked for the night. The next morning we would drive across the island to see the sunrise at Grandfather Rock, and then I would return it to the Russian.

Faster than Superman on meth, that bike was the most exciting thing I’ve ever driven in my life. I’m a die hard motorcycle addict, and feeling the power of that engine did nothing to cure my sickness. For me, driving a motorcycle is one of the most exhilarating feelings in the world. Combine that with a stunning tropical island, an awesome girlfriend to keep me in check, and we had a hell of time. Back in the states I’ll drive my own significantly slower bike and enjoy every second of it. But as I feel the sponge throttle, there will always be the memory of letting the Ninja loose. Tearing between the dump trucks, and my amazing motorcycle candy Joanna threatening to kill me, if I didn’t do it first.

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