Scooter Fail


Author: Spencer Sass
Location: Ko Phayam, Thailand

After several long backpacking trips through Asia and C America where I was lucky enough to narrowly escape the type of unexpected travel disasters so many had told me about, I knew it was then only a matter of time before chance caught up with me. No matter the degree -nothing can prepare you for when these moments strike and how fast they can change the fortune of your entire trip. All you can do is deal with the consequences. My most recent incident took place during a 3-month trip around SE Asia on a small remote island in Thailand.

After having recently ridden many janky scooters across Bali and Lombok all coming out unscathed from several close calls of traffic, animals, potholes, and other boobie traps all with my girlfriend on the back, I felt pretty good about my scooter riding skills. So it was then on a serene island setting with no traffic that my overconfidence along with a combination of other factors led to my travel fail.

Remote island with narrow sandy roads. Check
Rented old scooter with no back breaks. Check
In a hurry to return rental scooter. Check
And most importantly wearing flip-flops. Check


Maybe it was because I was in a hurry or that I was just recovering from a bad cold and I didn’t have my strength, wits or most importantly reaction skills. So when I drove off from my beach bungalow I never expected to crash the rental scooter in the five minutes it was going to take to return the bike to the rental shop.

When I spotted a large lip in the road too late, I swerved too quickly to avoid it while using the only brake that worked (the front one) and hit a patch of sand in front of the lip which immediately flipped the bike over pinning it on my left leg. This was the disaster freeze moment, that oh fuck did this really just happen?!

I was down in the middle of a bad road with nobody around. I could feel the pain and I could not move my left leg until I moved the scooter with my right leg and both arms. And then I could see the pain when I saw the deep wound in my ankle and gnarly gashes on the top of my foot and toes  – which I knew were serious. There I was laying on the ground yelling for help in the silence that amplified the pain and desperation in my voice. But minutes later a local man and tourist ran out from a nearby restaurant and dragged me to a shady spot where I wasn’t baking and bleeding in direct sun and there I poured bottled water on my bloody wounds.

From there the next round of yelling began this time for my girlfriend who was in our nearby bungalow but couldn’t hear me. Finally one of the workers at our bungalow ran out to see what had happened and the first thing she said in a hung over state was of course…”you must not know how to ride a bike”?! This was exactly what I wanted to hear but despite questioning my riding skills I was helpless to defend myself and all I could do was tell her what bungalow number we were in so she could find my girlfriend. Once she saw my injuries, she had to go back to the bungalow to find my first aid kit. I used everything in the kit to bandage myself up. Then another local guy put me on the back of his scooter and drove me 20 min on small narrow bumpy roads to the island “hospital”.

Now I will be forever grateful that this island even had a clinic or hospital to get treated but still this wasn’t the ideal place you want to be treated for wounds abroad. I arrived in shock and was placed on a table and a young Thai girl began treating my wounds. First she poured burning iodine all over my abrasions – which felt like my skin was dissolving.

Then with thick black fishing line she stitched up my ankle – despite my pleas for something to numb the pain. Next, she tested for broken bones – which would be revealed much later. And finally, she gave me wooden crutches (a bit small for my 6 foot plus frame), a prescription for questionable pain meds, and with a smile, sent me on my way.

My girlfriend arrived at the clinic just in time to see the stitches getting their final bow tying treatment. And from here we began the long process of healing my wounds enough to be able to gimp off and escape the island. This was a race against time since we were supposed to be flying out to Hanoi Vietnam in 4 days and had limited funds since there was no ATM on the island.

The biggest concern now was the fear of infection. To prevent this I had daily wound cleanings for the next 4 days, which were almost as painful as the first skin dissolving iodine poured over my wounds and more abrasion road rash wounds revealing themselves. I eventually recovered just enough to be able to put enough pressure on my foot and leg to gimp off the island. Despite this medical attention, I started to notice how the skin around my stitches was turning black, and the fear of staph infection set in.

Our goal was to get north to Bangkok as quickly and pain free as possible. First this would entail taking the only boat off the island. To get on board, I scaled the side of the boat and then sat below deck during a rainstorm  – using gasoline tanks to prop up the gimpy leg. When we eventually made it back to the main port after a bumpy boat ride in a worsening rainstorm I was relieved to stay the least. Once affected by tragedy the mind starts to spin out thinking and perhaps knowing this is could turn into a chain reaction of bad events.

We then took an overnight bus to Bangkok where the mystique of cheap health care quickly disappeared. Removing the stitches revealed the inevitable infection I feared under the dead black skin, which then had to be picked out by the doctor. We were then told we could attempt to fly to Hanoi Vietnam but that I’d have to continue with my wound cleaning treatment there for some time. So after being humbled in many ways including using wheel chairs to get through the airports which was actually great in that we could move ahead in each customs line we eventually arrived in Hanoi where we were able to very slowly finish the rest of our trip in Vietnam which was one of the most difficult places to have to gimp around with all the crazy traffic.

As I now sit at a comfy office desk with my foot up, still gimpy and far skinnier I can start to reflect on the new found perspective, appreciation and lessons learned from this experience. Perspective wise it could’ve been far worse, in that I could’ve broken my leg or gotten a staph infection. Appreciation for having had my girlfriend there by side to help me through the long recovery process since if I had been traveling on my own like so many times before, I would’ve have been seriously helpless and might’ve needed to even cut my trip short.

The lessons learned have been a reminder that accidents can happen in the least expected times and to better prepare next time by wearing proper footwear when riding scooters like I already knew. The biggest thing I learned is PATIENCE, which is now being practiced on San Francisco public transport and in a corporate work setting.

I understand this story pales in comparison to other far more serious travel disaster tales I’ve heard but its inspired me to learn more about how other travelers have dealt with and learned from their tragedies to better prepare for (if that’s possible?) the next adventure.

One Thought on “Scooter Fail

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