The lesson too many expats learn the hard way


The name ‘Andrea Woodmansey’ was not familiar to me but I knew the narrative by heart. A newly formed group popping up on my Facebook feed dedicated to raising money to cover the rapidly soaring medical bills of a British woman involved in a serious motorbike accident in Phuket.

The dates, places and people change but these stories all have a common thread. An expat seriously injures themselves on the road and after the initial agony and the inevitable surgery they are left with hospital bills which can easily equate to a year’s salary in England.

Andrea Woodmansey came off her scooter on a wet road and suffered a dislocated hip, broken left femur, fractured left kneecap, fractured right arm, torn liver, skull fracture, collapsed lung and potentially permanent nerve damage to the right arm and already owes around $18,000 which her family and friends are desperately trying to raise.

The hedonistic island life to be had on Phuket’s bars and beaches can transform into a living nightmare in the split second it takes to lose control of a scooter while driving home late at night, a lesson which far too many expats learn the hard way.

Everyone’s assessment of risk is different but I suspect that very few of the foreigners who drive scooters are qualified to do so. All that is generally required to rent one of these machines is cash and a copy of your passport and after that you are on your own on the hectic roads which connect the various resorts on the island.

Thailand does not have the stringent practical and theoretical examinations, aggressively enforced drink driving laws or even the widely accepted motorist’s etiquette which is prevalent in the UK and, whereas back home a quick flash of the lights is often a signal to say ‘I’m slowing down to let you out’, in Asia it inevitably means ‘get out of the way I’m coming through fast’.

Even a seasoned biker might take a day or two to get to grips with the Phuket roads, let alone an unqualified novice but part of the problem is that the consequences of being stopped by the police without a license or helmet are comparatively light; a trip to the station and a 500 Baht fine and 20 minutes later you are back on the road again.

Unfortunately the knowledge that there is not too much to fear from the actual authorities tends to tempt people, particularly those of the young and male variety, to try and push their luck. For every ex pat who I read about suffering a serious accident there are many more regularly driving drunk or recklessly, effectively playing a game of high speed Russian roulette on the Phuket roads.

I’ve had countless conversations on this topic with ex pat friends who are also long term Thailand residents and more often than not someone will say something along the lines of ‘but it will never happen to me because when I get really drunk I always make sure to drive my bike much more slowly’.

My Mum has an expression which she is fond of using which runs along the lines of ‘There but for the grace of God go I’ and I think anyone who has spent a lot of time driving a two wheeled vehicle in Phuket will be able to recall at least one close shave, regardless of their attitudes to things like road safety and sobriety.

It seems that a person’s sense of risk is radically altered the moment they step onto the runway at Suvarnabhumi Airport because I can’t think of anyone I knew in England who would routinely ride a motorbike while well over the limit. Maybe it’s the sunshine or the sense of being on holiday but when people visit Thailand they have a tendency to take chances that they probably would not back home.

It’s not just on the roads. It could be someone failing to ask themselves exactly what the red flags on the beach signify before plunging into the sea, or not pausing to question whether putting expensive land or property in the name of a local partner they barely know is actually a prudent course of action.

It is three years since I stopped working for the Phuket Gazette and moved to Bangkok but I still know enough people on that island to ensure that every few months a friend of a friend will have a serious enough motorbike accident for it to feature on my facebook feed, inevitably accompanied by pictures of them in a hospital bed and desperate pleas for money.

Hedonistic Hollywood movies such as The Beach and The Hangover II have helped to give Thailand a reputation as a place where you can get away with almost anything but when it comes to road safety the reality, as too many ex pats continue to discover to their cost, is that you can’t.


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