Driving in Thailand
Coming to the differences: This is how I perceive traffic and driving in Thailand. I will start with driving in Bangkok, a city where I really don’t like to drive. Bangkok itself has a population in excess of 8 million, but that increases by one million during the day. Also, this is just the metropolis and doesn’t include the neighbouring provinces, which make it even seem larger as it’s really just one huge city, only administered differently. The main reason is that I don’t know the city well enough from a driver’s perspective. This combined with the traffic creates a nightmare to me. Staying in one wrong lane, missing one turn-off and you are in a completely different area. Furthermore, drivers in Bangkok seem to be much more aggressive than drivers in other parts of the country, which isn’t really helpful. I also question the choice of driving in Bangkok, which is notorious for its traffic jams, instead of using public transport there. Whenever possible, I give Bangkok a wide berth. When asking Google for directions from the northeast to southern or southeastern destinations it always seems to tell me that the “fastest” way is through Bangkok. That might be the case when using tollways during times of light traffic, but would still require a good knowledge of those tollways. So I better stick to driving around Bangkok and the neighbouring provinces.
What about the rest of the country?
It is very different. Generally, I like to drive in the south, where traffic seems to be more light. But the other areas aren’t too bad, especially when avoiding times of heavier traffic.
What are the challenges a driver faces in Thailand apart from Bangkok?
Overall the roads are in good condition. Not worse than in most other countries.
I already talked about the traffic rules and signs. So in theory driving here should be the same as in other countries. When driving in Europe or north America the driver is always aware that breaking any traffic laws may result in a fine or even loss of the drivers license. Drivers know that police officers are cruising the roads and that there a speed checks. Considering that, most drivers follow the rules. The sight of a police cruiser slows everyone down to almost the exact speed limit.
Now I like you to imagine that there are no speed checks and no police cruisers on the roads. Imagine how you and others drivers would drive. That is the situation is Thailand. There are police stops, plenty of them. I have been stopped eight times in one day on a longer drive. But they are checking drivers licenses and vehicle registration, sometimes if motorcycle riders are wearing helmets. There are a lot of accidents in Thailand, most of them include motorcycles. But considering the circumstances I would predict that it would be worse in other countries. I found Thai drivers in comparison are more defensive and polite drivers on an average, with emphasis on “average”. Which of course doesn’t mean that that goes for everyone.
So how does traffic look like and what are the challenges?
In comparison to western countries there are significantly more motorcycles on the roads as they are very cheap in comparison to cars. Often they serve as the family vehicle and it is a common sight of three or more persons on one motorcycle. To make them even more useful people attach sidecars to them, which gives space to additional passengers, all types of cargo or the attachments transform it into a shop. There is certainly no limit to imagination.
Thailand is taxing pickup trucks significantly lower than cars, a reason why there are so many trucks on the roads. The truck bed also serves as an additional space for transporting passengers and you will often see another group of people simply sitting in the back. The trucks, however, have to have leaf springs, a reason why Nissan is selling its 4-door Navara in Thailand with leave springs, while it is available with coil springs in other countries (ironically build in Thailand and exported to those countries). Almost all trucks have diesel engines.
So now we are coming to the driving part. Thailand’s roads weren’t build for the type and amount of vehicles. Around the big centres you will see motorways, elevated roads, ramps, etc. But if we are taking a look at other main roads, they are widened to 4 or 6 lanes to accommodate the traffic. A major obstacle are U-turns. You have to imagine (i.e. a 4-lane road divided by a meridian) with the slow traffic moving in the left lane. If someone’s destination now is on the other side of the road they have to find the next U-turn in order to cross the meridian. Even though the U-turns often have turning lanes, the scenario looks as follows: a truck driving 50 km/h moves into the right fast lane (in front of cars driving 80 or 120, slowing everyone down) and than into the U-turn lane. Of course a slow truck will start this maneuver early to ensure it will get into the lane. As in other countries you will also see that trucks passing trucks, really making traffic break and slow down. Truck drivers have the tendency to just pull out, knowing very well that they have the bigger vehicle and other drivers will brake for them.
On the 4-lane roads the slow lanes are often in bad shape due to the heavy truck traffic, making the rest of the cars driving in the right lane. This makes faster cars weaving around them, changing lanes frequently, sometimes cutting narrowly in front of the other traffic. Speed limits are not followed here. The speed limit might be 50 km/h, but all the traffic moves through at “normal” speed, which for cars and pickup trucks might be 100 km/h. Another irritation on this type of road is that cars may even pass on the shoulder of the road, line up on the shoulder of the road in front of red lights, only to then squeeze in front of the other vehicles once the lights turn green. Like I said before, if the majority of the drivers wouldn’t be so considerate, there would be significantly more accidents. It is also normal that vehicles might travel on short distances (like a kilometre or so) on the shoulder against the traffic as they consider it too onerous to do it the proper way, use the next U-turn and come back to their destination that way. This can create some challenging situations as normally motorbikes and motorbikes with sidecars are now forced into the left lane, pushing heavy trucks into the right lane. Just imagine the the scenario.
Driving in the village is quite different. Here you will find a lot of motorcycles, with riders as young as 7 years old. In the mornings they head to school and in the afternoons they are cruising with their friends around the villages or lake. That goes for boys and girls and is considered “normal”, in most cases without helmets. I haven’t seen once that police would stop them. It is common practice that underage drivers use the bikes. And of course, you can’t expect them knowing or following traffic rules. So they ride wherever there is space, even if it’s the wrong side of the road, cutting corners in the process. What I find particularly dangerous is them riding the motorcycles in the dark without any lights. That in addition to the bicycles that travel at night without light (as they simply have none). Other obstacles on the roads are dogs, some of them are just sleeping there, expecting traffic to move around them. Then there are cows and buffalo using the roads in the mornings to walk to their grazing area, and then walking back in the late afternoons. The cows grazing alongside the roads mostly stay there and are often watched by someone.
All of the above is considered normal and I often wondered what would happen, if the police would start to strictly enforce the rules. The interesting thing is, that if there is an accident the guilty party will be charged according to the law. If traffic rules would be enforced it would have a significant impact on people’s lives. There surely would be a public outcry. Similar to what happened in 2017, when the government tried to enforce the wearing of seatbelts, what would have meant that people couldn’t travel in the beds of pickup trucks. The government had to pull back within a week. I expect it would be similar if rules regarding the age of motorcycle riders, helmets, etc. as it would have a huge impact on people’s lives.
One of the main problems is, that according to the Bangkok Post newspaper, only 4% of people (in Bangkok) are paying a traffic violation ticket. Though it seems tickets are issued there, but then simply ignored, which begs the question, why they are issued in the first place.
In comparison to Canada, driving in Thailand is not relaxing. You just can’t enjoy the sights as you do have to pay attention all the time.
How is it to drive in Thailand?
It is a left side of the road country and the rules are very similar to most countries. The only real difficulties may be created by signs warning about construction delays, etc., in Thai language, though this would be the same in other countries where visitors may not have a full command of the local language.
So driving is almost the same as in western countries? Not really...