Thai people are inherently kind, friendly, forgiving and turn into complete psychopaths when behind the wheel of a car or motorbike. How such polite and generally demure people become such “I-am-the-center-of-the-universe assholes” behind the wheel, is open to debate. The road fatality rate in Thailand is more than double the global average. The blame lies somewhere in the poor driver education system, the Jekyll and Hyde nature of the people and the lack of law enforcement. Whenever I think I’ve just seen the quintessential worst idiot driver, another one comes along to prove me wrong. Yet, somehow we manage to get around here in the Land of Smiles. You merely have to forget everything you know about driving in the West and adapt to the Thai rules of the road.
Here are the basics:
1) Drive on the left. This complicates things for drivers coming from other countries that drive on the right, of course. Thai drivers drive anywhere they like, including sidewalks; officially they’re supposed to be on the left.
2) Watch out for motorbikes. Motorbikes are the dominant form of transportation. You’ll see entire families on one bike, sometimes five at a time. You’ll see parents holding a baby, while driving. I see motorbike drivers on the phone all the time despite the fact that it takes two hands to bring the bike to a stop. Motorbike drivers never look when they pull out into traffic. They’re difficult to see when driving a car, especially at night with many broken headlights. They’re supposed to be off to the left because motorbikes are slower, but they can be anywhere including the wrong side of the road.
3) Be aware of everything around you. Dogs run out into the traffic with cars and bikes swerving or stopping suddenly. In rural areas, water buffalo graze and wander onto roads. Tourists on motorbikes do crazy things. Thais never look before pulling out in front of you. Be vigilant.
4) Stay calm and avoid confrontation. You will need patience in Thailand. You’re going to be tested by suicidal drivers, speeding and constantly swapping lanes without indicating or using mirrors and a general lack of courtesy.
5) Accidents are your fault. This is the Thai way. As a foreigner you will be automatically blamed even if the other person is at fault. It’s your fault because you are in their country. If you are involved in an accident, plan on having to pay some compensation. A Thai driver who kills someone in an accident commonly runs away.
6) Police stops and fines are part of driving. You will get stopped by the police. You will eventually run into a manned traffic stop and they will find something wrong. They have to supplement their income somehow! Refusing to pay just means a trip to the station and the fine going up. The good news…the fine is typically $10.
7) Forget about common courtesy. Take for example pedestrians in a crosswalk. If you stop to let them cross, you’ll get rear-ended. Being courteous just screws things up because no one expects it. Thai driving laws are generally the same as the rest of the world, they’re just ignored. The first rule for a Thai driver is, “ME FIRST”.
8) Drive extremely defensively. Look both ways and then look both ways again. Drive assuming that everyone else on the road isn’t paying attention, because likely they’re not. I’m constantly scanning the road and mirrors for possible problems. You can be legally right and legally dead. You are always in the wrong on a motorbike. On a motorbike, never push your luck; give way to things bigger then you. The very early hours of the morning are especially dangerous with many drunk drivers. Drunk drivers kill at an alarming rate.
8) Thai police are useless. In most countries, we drive safely and courteously out of consideration AND fear of the police. There is no fear of the police in Thailand. They have little interest in making sure the public drives safely. Police have poor training and don’t have vehicles for traffic enforcement. They have no desire, motivation or ability to ensure the public’s safety. No one ever gets stopped in Thailand. That’s the reason it’s so dangerous to drive here. Speeding, blowing off traffic lights, passing on curves, driving on the wrong side of the road, anything goes because police never enforce traffic rules so the driving is insane.
9) Don’t stop or get involved in an accident. If the mob smells money, then it’s your fault and plenty of “witnesses” will state that. I know this goes against everything we know as drivers in the West, but TIT.
10) TRY to never get angry. It’s frustrating, but it is what it is. Always expect someone to do something stupid in front of you…and behind you. Driving in Thailand takes infinite patience and constant awareness. Thai drivers believe they are invincible, infallible and immortal, despite the evidence to the contrary.
Don’t come here on vacation and rent a motorbike unless you’re a very experienced driver. The emergency rooms at the hospitals are always filled with bloody broken tourist. Don’t make it a memorable vacation for the wrong reason. The World Health Organization reported that 74 percent on road deaths in Thailand involved motorbikes.
The main thing to remember is, driving in Thailand has its own rules and you will need to adapt to survive. Be careful out there.