In this article, I would share my experience of driving around in Thailand. In the beginning, it is a little unnerving but after a while, it gets easier once I figure out how things work around here.
Preparation before coming
Before I came to Thailand, I applied for an international driving license with my country of origin, Malaysia. There are conflicting information in the web- which apparently the Malaysian license is accepted. But since I am staying in a more rural area, I do not want to run into the risk of the officer claiming that they are not aware of the rule. I decided to make myself an international driving license which can only last for a year.
You may have already heard that driving around Thailand can be dangerous since they have one of the highest accident rates in the world. But since Malaysia also have high accident rates, and I am used to the motorbikes (having had the license to drive one myself), I am naturally cautious and would look out for the motorbike riders.
There are some things I have observed when driving and going around in Thailand:
1. A normal two lane road, in reality can be 6 lanes
You see a road of two lane going in opposite direction. Nothing unusual rite? But lo and behold, two lanes can actually consist of ‘unofficial’ 6 lanes. How it works is that you would be going in a lane on a particular direction, just minding your own business. Then suddenly, you would have usually the motorbikes coming from either your left or right side. So one lane can get up to 3 lanes. Two lanes would make it 6 lanes.
This is especially so in smaller towns. If there are dividers put then usually two lanes can only unofficially convert to 4 lanes.
2. Balancing act and riding motorbike without helmets
The folks in the amphoe that I am staying mostly do not wear helmets when they are riding their motorbikes. I use to ride a motorbike during my university days and I am fully aware of the extreme vulnerability a person is when riding the motorbike. Not only we are at mercy of the elements, but it is actually dangerous to ride a motorbike.
Just a slight graze by a passing vehicle or hitting a pothole or sometimes a small stone can cause the rider to lose balance and fall. Some unlucky ones ended up getting run over by other vehicles. I try my best to look out for them when I am driving.
And it is not unusual to find three or sometimes four persons (usually a mixture of adults and children) riding in a single motorbike…. without using helmets. Sometimes the one who operate the motorbike is obviously underaged and carrying other younger siblings with him/her also again without helmets.
Once at a traffic light, a young girl of perhaps 12 or 13 years old was riding a motorbike carrying her younger siblings. As she stopped at the traffic light, she lost balance of the motorbike because there were another 2 passengers- one in front and one behind. They fell sideways and other passerbys quickly go over to help them up. She then rode off trying to balance the bike unsteadily.
3. Rules… what rules?
Forget about right of way as how you have learn the traffic rules in your country. Cars, motorbikes and trucks will just turn out from a small road into the main road that you are driving along. As per above, they sometimes appear all of sudden at the opposite direction driving at the same lane that you are driving.
When you are driving in Thailand, don’t just look straight ahead. Be aware of your surroundings and possibly of vehicles suddenly moving into your lane from a smaller lane.
If an accident occurs, even though it is not your fault, you are still a foreigner in this country. It’s their words against yours. If you try to justify or argue with them, you would find that you may further annoy them and other ‘witnesses’ who may say things against your favour. So, the odds are pretty much against you.
Even though you are driving and following the rules, and then someone suddenly cut in and you hit the person, and the person gets hurt, disabled or worst still pass away, you would get into serious trouble. The hassle is so not worth it so it is important to becareful.
Once someone was reversing a car and hit the car who my friend (also a Malaysia) was driving. It is not my friend’s fault but the driver was quite a bully, talked loudly and had some people to back him up. That is why my host does not allow me to drive out alone by myself. I had to always be accompanied by either an experienced driver or a Thai person so that if anything happens, the Thai person can help to talk or communicate with the police.
4. People/ animals just cross the road when they feel like it
Sometimes you are driving, don’t be surprised to see someone running across the road. When you are at a traffic light and it turns green, by right you should be going but you need to look carefully because someone may just attempt to make a quick dash across the road. Sometimes not even quick dash but they may walk slowwwllly across.
It is the same with animals like doggies. In the more rural roads, everything is more laid back. Even the doggies are also much more relaxed and less stressed. When the dogs cross the road, they are used to having vehicles stop for them so be on the lookout for them for they may just walk casually along the path that you are driving without looking panic or stopping. Sometimes, they even rest right in the middle of the road…. at night when it is dark with no streetlights.
5. The vehicle in front of you may just stop suddenly to park or turn into a lane without signal or warning
Sometimes I wonder how shops and banks by the roadside can sustain their business. How they are going to get customers where the customers are not able to find parking?
But somehow, the customers are able to figure out a way. Through parking by the roadside or double parking. It is not uncommon to see a three lane road become only one lane. And it is quite usual to have the car in front of you suddenly slowing down and attempting to park at the roadside without signalling. Basically they would just slow down and try to slowly maneuver into a narrow small parking. If you are not alert, you may potentially hit their cars. Or you could hit the car in front of you that is slowing down because the car in front of it suddenly move to try to park by the roadside. Be especially alert with buses, tuk tuks, songtaew (the red passenger truck) or taxis as they can just stop anywhere, anytime.
6. Waze and Google map sometimes don’t work
Sometimes I cannot blame Waze or Google Map…. For example sometimes they ask me to turn left. And I saw that the road branches to 3 different roads so which side to turn? The turnings can get a little confusing and at some roads if you miss a turning, you could find yourself stuck in an endless massive jam. So if you are attempting to get to an important place such as sending someone to catch a flight but do not quite know the roads, do not take the risk- call a cab for the person.
Once, we were driving at Rama II road wanted to get to Central Plaza Mahachai. But we were supposed into an inner road at a distance before we can get to Central. We missed the turning and we thought well if we turn into the next turning and go through the smaller lanes we may be able to get to Central. My friend used Google Map and I used Waze…. we ended up circling for 2 hours into an industrial area. Waze told me to turn left into a factory! Then it led me to some dead end roads. We were lost and eventually got into a road where I actually saw a boar walking around minding its own business.
But usually Waze can still get me to places which I turn to desperately when I am lost (of course I have a Thai person accompanying me usually but he/she sometimes is not familiar with the routes). Just that if the place is a little rural, not well known or out of coverage, it may not be accurate at times. Sometimes no signal with the GPS.
If you are from a country where you are used to strict traffic rules being enforced, for example in Singapore, you need to have a mindset change when driving around in Thailand. Also if you are driving away from the city, do look be observant and alert. If the traffic light is red, it does not mean the car or a huge speeding lorry may stop. So don’t just drive across without looking. Few times my friends almost got hit by a speeding truck who tried to beat the red light on their side (the light on my friends’ side already turned green).
However, Thai drivers are generally courteous. Back in Malaysia and Singapore, we sometimes have people with road rage issue- ie they are just angry inside and they become road bullies. Thai drivers are different- they are more polite on the road and does not shout foul language or make the middle finger at you at the slightest annoyance. But avoid getting into an accident with them because it may change- they can become fierce and a group may try to bully you into compensation.