The photo above is of a roadsign I have only ever seen in Thailand advising drivers to use a lower gear going UP A HILL. I have often wondered why my car slowed to a stop as I drove steep climbs in fifth gear. Now I know.
Driving in Thailand is one of those hot topics on expat forums and the sort of thing that is often raised in conversations whenever farang get together. The statistic that Thailand is the second most dangerous country in the world to be on the road is sometimes quoted and examples of situations seen here that defy the traffic laws in western countries are exchanged. So what is it actually like to drive here?
I have lived here since mid-2013 and have always had a car from day one. I hired vehicles for five months and then we bought a car once I knew I was retiring here. In that time we have driven around 100,000 km covering all sorts of conditions from big cities to small backroads. This blog is a testament to our wide ranging travels. Based on this experience the following is not just a summary of my views and opinion about Thai driving, which you can take or leave, but I also provide some tips and insights that might help make life easier and safer if you take to the roads here.
Because I don’t have photos that illustrate most of the points I raise I will break up the words with some photos of my favourite roads in Thailand and anything else that is vaguely motoring related. My comparisons are mostly to driving in Australia for obvious reasons but I am sure we Aussies aren’t that different from other westerners in this category if not others! Buckle up (optional) and lets go.
This photo above made me laugh, not because of the scene but because even then I ended up with flowers on my “wheels”. Nothing has changed as I often get garlands of flowers placed on the dashboard of the truck by Gaun for good luck, either bought from the vendors at traffic lights for 20 baht or ones that she has made herself:
Back to topic. I am probably going to be controversial by saying that I don’t think Thais totally deserve the bad rap they get on the driving issue (I am only talking about cars not motorcycles). I have certainly seen some amazingly awful overtakes and an over-reliance on the grace of Buddha but I have seen the same death defying suspension of common sense on the road in Australia too. The thing is, we all rate the greater freedom Thailand offers as one of the main reasons we live here yet somehow we then expect Thais to operate in the same fashion as the drivers in police states (where motorists are concerned) such as Australia or the UK. It took me a while after moving here but what I found most useful was to relax into the Thai driving style and stop analysing everything according to what would be allowed back “home”. I will expand on this theme as we go along, which I will write in the form of a list of random driving related topics:
I find one of the big pluses to driving here is that I am more fully engaged in what’s going on around me than I ever was in Australia. I have driven the backroads from here to Chiang Mai many times, a nine hour journey, but never found it boring in the same way I would say on the backroads from Canberra to Queensland. I can remember doing the drive from Canberra to Sydney and return, a three hour trip each way, on a straight dual carriageway with a 110 km heavily enforced speed limit. I would set the cruise control at 118 km, on the basis the speed cameras were rated at 120 km, and basically fall into the twilight zone until arrival. I got so tired halfway as a result of boredom that I used to stop at McDonald’s for a thickshake sugar hit to keep me going.
I never find Thai journeys that deadly dull. The scenery is more engaging, the traffic is more challenging and the speed limit is more advisory 🙂 Even on major roads I need to be far more aware of what’s happening around me, which keeps me alert. Motorbikes on the left and sometimes the right, SUV’s who think they own the road coming up fast behind (not you Terry), overtaking on the inside and vehicles and motorbikes turning onto the road without checking oncoming traffic. Instead of challenging the situations and getting angry, I generally try to go with the flow and deal with what’s happening around me. An overtake on the inside just as I was about to move into the slow lane is an equal reflection of my inability to monitor what’s happening in the rear vision mirror as it is on the person making that overtake. Get involved and leave the road rage for when you get “home” and it will help.
Slow Lane/Fast Lane on a Dual Carriageway:
The same as Australia. You get people who refuse to move out of the fast lane when they are travelling slowly no matter what you do. It not a “stuff a farang” thing requiring a ” ***** Thai” response – they are a pain for everyone on the road equally and Thais are probably just as frustrated. The good news is that although many expats get caught up in this, overtaking on the inside is perfectly acceptable here. I often do it and on occasions when travelling in a fast lane of equally slow moving vehicles, have had it done to me. I keep a very close eye on the slower moving vehicle while making the inside overtake and am still here to write this blog.
I have no idea what the problem is with this maneuver other than it is illegal “back home”. Stay alert, be prepared to take avoiding action, watch your mirrors and don’t be brain dead. This isn’t “back home” and extra flexibility in regulations is part of the joy of Thailand (and also part of the bad) but it is more punishing on the people who can’t adapt. I liken it to the soi (street) dogs in the village. The ones that don’t quickly get the hang of getting up from lying in the sun on the road aren’t contributing much to the future soi dog gene pool, which is just the way nature designed it 🙂
Also on the plus side I find that if vehicles in the slow lane see you coming up fast behind them most will get out of the way. I sit behind them and if they don’t make any sign to moving over I overtake on the inside….. problem solved. There seems to be an unwritten code that the larger and newer the vehicle the more likely you are to get consideration. I find that the Nissan pick-up gets a more responsive “courtesy” than the little Mazda 2 did in the same situations. That also may be because often the drivers of the big pick-ups (utes) and SUV’s are pretty aggressive on the road to the detriment of smaller vehicles and motorbikes.
In Australia if a vehicle flashed its lights it might be a warning but often it was an indication that you had right of way. For example if two cars are at an intersection with equal priority and one flashes their lights the other car is free to move.
In Thailand flashing lights is a warning to move over as the other vehicle is coming through (usually a pick-up or SUV) and they will run you over if you don’t get out of the way. This isn’t a negotiable situation and the other vehicle could well be in the wrong according to the road rule book. I have had cars decide that they are going to make an overtake heading towards me and they will flash their lights and move into my lane. In Australia this is a road rage opportunity and probably both cars will play chicken to the last moment. Lights, horns, fists and a residual anger is the result. You can do all of that here too or the alternative is just to move into the motorbike lane on the left (checking your mirror for motorbikes) and enjoy the rest of your day alive and well. It’s not an regular situation but it does happen. I have never had it done to me where there wasn’t space to move over. In the following video note the pick-up in front of us that moves into the bike lane to avoid a bad or aggressive overtake. Nothing dangerous unless he wasn’t paying attention. You will note by my complete lack of emotion at this move that i have been here a while. Most of this video is just of driving and I have left it because it does give you an idea of the quality of a decent rural road with a bike lane.
The Motorbike Lane:
This sort of flows on from the previous topic. Most roads in Thailand apart from the very narrow backroads have some form of motorbike lane on the left side of main pavement. Most motorbikes use this lane although they will venture over if overtaking a slower bike, sometimes without looking, and at school’s out time you may be passed by kids on your right hand side seeing how fast they can go .
This lane can be used as a safety space for cars when a two lane road is turned into an unofficial three lane version due to aggressive or badly planned overtakes as explained previously. Make sure you keep an eye on your rear vision and left mirrors so you know what is in that lane just in case you need to move into it quickly. I also use the bike lane regularly coming up to a crest of a hill. Thais make some very odd decisions about overtaking on hills and it’s an easy defensive move to keep well to the left until you see the road ahead is clear. I can’t recall having a vehicle on my side of the road coming over a hill but others have. It only takes the one so better safe than dead.
In larger urban areas most bikes will still be on the left but it is a far more flexible situation and you should expect them to flow around you on both sides. Drive as you would normally and the bikes sort of work it out by themselves (mostly).
I find that Thais are really efficient about painting the new lines on a resealed road, unlike Australia where nothing often happened for ages. The downside is that the lines don’t seem to make much sense in relation to the actual road conditions 🙂 Do what the Thais do and basically ignore them. I drive to the situation as I see it and if there’s a double yellow line on a long straight I will overtake as does everyone else. Three demerit points and a multi-hundred dollar fine in Australia no matter how safe the reality is.
Do be careful with overtaking lanes on hills. The end of the lane and a return to a single road is mostly not shown clearly by the painted lines or by the signage as it is in Australia. The transition space, that is the road given over to allow for smooth merging, is often very short so you’ll go from a double to a single in no time. If you are committed to an overtake you might suddenly find the inside vehicle moving across because the extra lane is about to run out. Fun times.
Speaking of lines – make sure you stay off the white line, however faintly painted, at most traffic lights. Although we have all seen vehicles stopped well into the intersection at traffic lights it is in fact illegal to be on or over that line. The police will fine you 400 baht (Nong Bua Lamphu prices – and only by hearsay thankfully) if they are in the mood.
Thailand is very kind to us expats (the English speaking ones anyway) in that there is often dual spelling on essential as well as non-essential signage. The road signs are the same. International standards are mostly adopted – a one-way street sign looks the same here as everywhere except it is more likely to be ignored here 🙂
What you will notice is that there are almost no advisory speed signage for corners. You will see signs telling you which direction the curve is going, which is nice, but after that you’re on your own! You can either see this as a negative or take it as I do as another opportunity to be engaged in the drive rather than switching off the brain when you turn on the engine. A GPS can be useful if the road is very varied as you can glance at it and get an idea of what the the road is doing ahead.
Having never had to take a Thai driving test I have no idea 🙂 As a rough guide the dual carriageways (motorways) are 110 km/h although some are 90 km/h, most other roads are 90 km/h and urban areas 50 – 60 km/h. You might see signage advising you but it is unlikely. Do what everyone else is doing and you will be around 20 km/h over the legal limit! Buses, trucks etc are supposed to travel slower but I have been overtaken at speed by local Isaan buses that were old rust buckets 20 years ago driven by drivers who Gaun reassuringly tells me are on yaba:
Yaba is a combination of methamphetamine (a powerful and addictive stimulant) and caffeine. Yaba, which means crazy medicine in Thai, is produced in Southeast and East Asia.
I have never been pulled over for speeding although I usually do (I think) but it will happen. A speeding fine, unless you are doing something especially stupid, is around 1,000 baht (A$40.00) and there is no system of demerit points. In Australia you only need three minor driving infringements and you’ve lost your licence. Here you can speed away until your money runs out.
You will be stopped a lot by police here both when driving locally and on a trip by comparison to Australia, where you get your fine in the mail. The vast majority of the police you will see and meet are traffic cops and they are just doing their jobs not angling for a bribe. I am sure in the major southern farang entertainment centres it is a different story but in four years I have never had to pay a bribe for anything (famous last words!). I have found Thai cops to be generally polite, respectful and professional. They often roll out their entire English vocabulary when they see a farang and you can usually just wind down your window and say “Australia, 61 years old” and drive on 🙂
Have your licence readily to hand because that is mostly what they are checking. I have never been asked for my passport (I have a mini-laminated copy in my wallet) except on one occasion just after the military coup when I was returning to Chiang Mai from Isaan. They will also look at your vehicle registration sticker (still on the windscreen old fashion style) and then you will be free to go. Sometimes they just slow you down, check the rego and wave you on. I always laugh at the one time we got a heavy interrogated by a policeman at a roadblock. He asked Gaun in Thai where we were going. Gaun replied “we’re going home” and that was that 🙂 If you want to avoid being stopped by the police drive on Sundays, at lunchtime or when it is raining!
Greenery in the Road
Tree branches lying in the road usually means that there’s a broken down vehicle ahead not that pruning is in progress. This is a cheaper and more convenient solution than the orange cones and does the job. A very Thai solution.
There maybe some written etiquette on what should happen at a roundabout but it isn’t in evidence once you try to get through one. We have a local roundabout where giving way to the right is a mystery or the biggest vehicle has priority rule applies. In Udon Thani at rush hour the roundabouts are a test of nerve and bluff. I have seen the police set up their checkpoint actually in the roundabout, which adds an extra challenge to traffic flow. It’s all very Thai however and if you take your time it all works out in the end. Unlike elsewhere in the world Thais very rarely blow their car horns so you get none of that feeling of pressure you might in other countries with cars beeping you from behind even if you can’t move.
Turn Left at Traffic Lights
Thailand treats you as an adult in this situation. In Australia you can be sitting at red traffic lights with a clear and safe opportunity to turn left but you have to wait until the lights turn otherwise I am sure there will be a camera to catch you out. Here you can turn left at your risk. If it’s clear off you go. How sensible.
You might also come across traffic lights flashing yellow or red. In either situation you can go through the intersection with care. If you have the yellow lights then you are supposed to have priority but never count on it. I have sat at lights in Australia late at night (I was that sort of party animal back then) with nothing in sight waiting for it to cycle through all the variations before I was cleared to go. We can’t encourage people to use their initiative and common sense – where would that lead?
When I first moved to Isaan I was amazed at the number of ambulances with flashing lights I saw on the road and started to think that I must have chosen a very dangerous place to live. I was also a little concerned by how slowly they were travelling and how little priority they were given by other vehicles. I decided that they must just be staff trying to get to lunch that much quicker, always a priority with any Isaan person.
However I am pleased to learn that there are two levels of ambulance travel you will spot. To explain you have to understand a little of the Thai public medical system. Hospitals are layered with the more basic ones at village and small town level up to the major hospitals in the cities such as Udon Thani or Khon Kaen, which is where my step daughter Peng has her major operation covered HERE. In theory you are supposed to work your way up the chain depending on the severity of your condition. The initial assessment will be done at your local hospital and if you need more specialised care you will be transferred to the next level up and so on. That’s where the many ambulances come into play. In their “relaxed” mode they are transferring non-urgent patients from one hospital to another. They are a taxi service with lights.
The ambulances with lights and sirens that are looking like they are urgently on a mission are just that. They are the real deal and are given some priority attention by the traffic.
Most dual carriageway roads have a central verge or concrete wall that separates you from the traffic coming the other way, which is probably a good thing. The only downside is that if you want to turn right you have to wait for a designated U Turn point where there is a space in the barrier. If these points aren’t busy they are no more of a liability than turning across traffic in any situation. However you will sometimes find a big back-up of cars, trucks and bikes waiting to turn and there maybe two or more vehicles at the front row when it is only supposed to be one. It can be all a bit exciting but as always take your time and make a sensible decision and all will be well. When you turn into the opposite road you are supposed to cross all the lanes and you’ll find that there is a merging lane on the far left hand side. This means you don’t have to turn into the main traffic flow, which is travelling at speed. Sensible.
Mainly because of this system you may sometimes come across cars and motorbikes travelling against the traffic on your side of the road. It is less likely on the major and very busy roads but it will happen. The reason for this often is that these people were travelling on the opposite side of the road and then wanted to turn left (from your point of view) and it is quicker to go against the traffic than make an official U Turn. The diagram below illustrates and also demonstrates what happens when you work in government for too long as I did. If you are on road B and want to get to the small exit on road A you can either go all the way down to the U Turn point at 2 and then travel back or of course turn at U Turn 1 and cut across to your exit saving time and making sure you are eating sooner.
This head on traffic can upset some farang because based on the traffic laws in their own country this would be illegal. However in all the instances I have come across this maneuver has presented no problems. The vehicles are usually well over in the bike lane and not travelling fast. You see the situation and if you have to move over to the right lane that’s what you do and carry on. It only become dangerous if you are asleep at the wheel or aren’t willing to adapt to the more flexible driving conditions in Thailand. An angry farang set in his ways is far more dangerous on the roads than most Thai driving situations.
Cha Cha (slowly slowly)
What’s the hurry? I never wear a watch and my ETA is whenever I get there. I am retired and have all the time I am given so what’s the rush? Why risk my wonderful life in Thailand with a slightly risky overtake when a safer opportunity will arrive shortly? Traffic going slowly – who cares. Turn up the music and enjoy the scenery. In urban areas large or small I travel slowly as there is often a lot happening on the roads. Driving through my home village I am well aware of young kids, chickens, dogs, motorbikes, farm vehicles and buffalo all of which can unexpectedly make an appearance onto the small sois.
This isn’t a “get to work on time” western scenario and I have left that mindset behind a long time ago thank God. Try it out here even if you are just visiting. Thai-time can be frustrating but once you adapt it is a far less stressful way live your life.
Motorbikes WILL turn into the road without looking your way so please be aware of the possibility at every road entering on the left. Once again it’s no problem if you are alert. They usually keep well to the left and are inside your projected path. It just is it can be a surprise sometimes to see it happen.
Driving at night is more challenging as there are few street lights and a lot of bikes seem to have broken rear lights making it hard to spot them. Farm equipment also often have no lights (a torch to see where they are going) so you need to be aware of vague movement in the bike lanes at night. Make sure you have good headlights.
Many motorbikes don’t have wing mirrors so be aware that they are more likely to make a rash overtake of a slower bike into your path than those with mirrors. The young blokes take them off to reduce wind drag 🙂 Most mirrors on bikes are used for checking zits, hair and applying makeup (usually when stationary).
Bikes will flow around you when you are stopped at traffic lights. No matter how cluttered it all looks before the lights turn green it all works itself out. Let them go first and cha cha works best.
Do make sure you have an international driving licence if you are moving here permanently . It means that you won’t have to take the theoretical test when you come to get a Thai licence, which I hear is a real pain. The Thai licence is for an initial two years and if you survive that they will renew it for five years. Very cheap to get.
Always carry the licence with you as it can be used as a general form of ID (it has your address on it) and you will be asked to produce it by police on a regular basis. You can also use it to prove you are an expat resident rather than a tourist and that can help sometimes by getting you into places that charge farang a premium price – not always but worth a try.
Buy one day one. Heaps of choice under 1,000 baht. If you are involved in an accident it would be really helpful to have a visual record of what happened rather than rely on Thai witnesses. The video I shared above was taken on mine, which has an internal lens as well as the road one.
PTT Service/Gas Stations
These come in two sizes. There are the small PT gas stations in bright green that are everywhere in Thailand. The other is the large PTT stations that always include a 7/11 supermarket and an Amazon cafe plus other shops. Both are great resources for the traveller.
They are well maintained and the toilets are clean. 7/11 has a range of cheap pre packaged food that they will microwave for free, as well as hot and cold drinks. Amazon cafes are always nicely landscaped and offer a peaceful break from driving. Their coffee is more expensive but better than the average. Most of the local gas stations have toilet facilities, good and bad, so if you do get caught short drop in. You don’t have to buy petrol to use their facilities.
Generally the higher the road number the worse the road. The main national highways are numbered very low 1 or 12 for example. The next level may still be dual carriageways such as the 210 or just a reasonable single road like the one to our home the 228. the 1,000/2,000 series of numbered roads are reasonable rural roads, the 3,000’s less so and beyond that it is all a bit hit and miss. Generally the road system in Thailand is excellent, unless you get really back into the backwaters. Away from the main centres the traffic levels are low and the road surfaces are pretty reasonable. There are almost no overtaking lanes on single lane roads except in hilly areas but I find there are usually lots of straight sections where overtaking if required can be done safely. The scenery is interesting and you are often slowing to go through small moo bans (villages) that break up the trip (off the main highways of course).
I made comment at the very beginning of this post about the challenges hills pose to some Thais. I came across this funny entry on another blog written by someone trying to get to a temple in Isaan called Wat Pa Phu Kon, one of my favourites and on my list of “The Best Wats of Isaan” HERE:
NOTE: If you have an automatic car, I would HIGHLY suggest you don’t try to drive up to the main temple grounds. The road going to the main temple grounds is VERY steep and thus it would place a heavy strain on the cars transmission. Especially going down I don’t want to imagine if your breaks fade and you get in that situation when you step on your break pedal only to have the break pedal slam into the floor board and you are coasting down the hill faster and faster! Since I have an automatic car, I turned around about half way to the main temple grounds and we got the service of one of the temple service trucks to take us to the main temple grounds.
The final climb to this temple is a steep one but we did it at the time in an automatic Mazda 2 and we got up there without too much strain on the transmission. The “breaks” didn’t fade and slam into the floor boards on the way down either. Phew. We are taking a friend there early October so I will report back (if we make it).
I have probably missed things that I will think of later. So may update this post from time to time.
A couple of other posts you might find interesting:
Buying a Car in Thailand HERE
Motor Registration Renewal HERE
Update 27 Sept 2017
That SAME afternoon in our village this happened, which supports my recommendation to drive cha cha (slowly slowly). The calf came close to wiping out a bicycle being ridden by an elder.
An even greater disaster was averted as I had just stopped at the local noodle shop to buy some beer and you can hear the bottles falling over as I quickly slowed. I am happy to report none were broken
A couple more thoughts on Thais using lights on cars:
- When Thais indicate a lane change they mostly expect to wait until the road is clear before making that change. Other Thai drivers will NOT usually slow down to let them come across. Leave your western road courtesy aside and do what the Thais do. To slow down and expect them to move over is not likely to happen or not for ages anyway. You sit there probably blocking the fast lane and they sit there waiting for you to pass so that they can move over!
- Putting on hazard lights (both indicator lights) at an intersection means that you are planning on going straight ahead. I find this a very useful extra warning to vehicles around as to your intention.
- Thais are very slow to turn their lights on as the light fades in the evenings. I had an expat tell me once that he thought it was because they thought turning lights on used more power and therefore fuel, which sounds stupid BUT………..! Many Thais will only turn on their lights when they can no longer see the road, and some not even then, and have no concept of using headlights so other can see them sooner in dark conditions. Most new vehicles have LED driving lights that are on when the engine is running, as do motorbikes, but using headlights as a daytime safety feature is not widely used. In Cambodia only official government vehicles are allowed to have their lights on in the daytime (or so the urban myth goes – supported to some extent by comments on the web). ASEAN in action.
Thanks for reading.