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What it’s Like to Drive in Thailand

Thailand has a reputation for hair-raising driving conditions, and that reputation is well-earned!

I’ve driven a car for almost the entire six months we’ve been here, and progressed from being “terrified beginner” to “almost native”.

Starting out

To begin with, it was pretty terrifying getting into the rental car at the airport.  I had to remember to get in on the right side of the car, and once I was in, it just felt weird.  The pedals are the same as our cars in the US, thank goodness, and we had an automatic, so I didn’t have to try and shift with my left hand.  (Note – there are many options to rent a manual transmission for cheaper.  It’s worth the bit of $ to upgrade in the beginning)

As we left the lot, my main goal was to make it home without killing anyone.  With the number of pedestrians and people on scooters, that was no given.  The Chiang Mai airport is in the city, which meant lots of traffic, but also plenty of visual cues to go to the right place.

Easing into traffic was ok, but my mirrors were almost useless because I was reflexively looking in the wrong place.  (They’re mounted in the same spots as US cars, but since you’re sitting on the other side, you have to look up and left for the center mirror.) Even if I looked in the correct spot for the mirror, I saw a different perspective than I was used to.  And while I processed that, someone probably pulled out in front of me. Thankfully, Kirsten navigated and kept an eye out for hazards in front of of us.

Getting in the swing of things

It only took a few days to get reasonably comfortable with left-hand driving – probably about a week to get 80%.  I went up the wrong ramp at the mall once, but I caught myself before making any other major mistakes.  Over time, the smaller habits were hardest to break, such as walking to the wrong side of the car, and looking over the wrong shoulder when I was backing up.

After about a month, I was pretty comfortable and able to relax.  I still wasn’t driving like a Thai, but at least I was getting accustomed to the action going on around me and anticipating challenges better.

Turning Thai

Eventually I started to drive more like the locals, which is actually a lot of fun once you’re used to it.  While it looks like chaos, certain aspects make more sense than the strictly regimented driving I was used to back home.  Kirsten and I joked about a “Thai driving checklist” where I completed certain maneuvers I’d never do in the US but that the locals do all the time without batting an eye.

Below are some of the different things we see regularly.

  1. Running Red Lights
    Red lights are the equivalent of a yellow in the US.  It pretty much means “OK, only 2 or 3 more cars.  Maybe 4”.  If you stop on a yellow, you WILL cause an accident.  They time the lights for a 2-3 second gap before the next green, so this is rarely a problem.
  2. Double Right-Turn
    Don’t you hate it when traffic backs up in a turn lane and you miss the light?  Thais will turn from the adjacent straight lane, so a lot more cars get through the light.  Certain intersections would be a complete mess without this.  Of course you have to learn to avoid the adjacent lane if you want to go through the intersection because you’ll sit there waiting for the turn light and lose the chance to go straight.
  3. U-Turn Mania
    All the major roads have medians, so any time you want to get to the other side you have to U-Turn.  They often have little cutouts for U-turns, besides being able to do it at lights.  It’s not necessarily different rules than the US, but I’ve done more U-Turns here in 6 months than in my whole life cumulatively.  And even if there is a no U-Turn sign, the Thais will use it anyway.  Our friend actually got pulled over and ticketed for this – who knew there were actually traffic cops?!?
  4. Personal Safety?  Meh! This is a hard one to wrap my head around.  Thailand has some of the highest driving death rates in the world, in large part because people disregard safety in many ways.  Despite helmet laws, probably only 30% of people wear one.  I regularly see an entire family on a scooter with a toddler standing between adults.  Scooters will cut right in front of you without looking.  They will also drive on the wrong side of the road towards you, at night, without lights on.
  5. Traffic Flows to Least Resistance
    This is the most challenging thing to deal with in the beginning because your instincts are WRONG. Vehicles go wherever it makes sense for the driver.  And what makes sense is not always the same as “marked lanes.”  Think of it like flowing water – it will fill gaps and voids  because it’s the natural thing to do.

    • If there’s enough room on a wide inner shoulder to pass, cars will go there.
    • Scooters regularly create a lane along the outer shoulder.
    • When traffic is stopped, scooters will create lanes between cars.
    • Scooters drive against traffic on the shoulder if it’s quicker.
    • Cars will park in an outer lane to run into a store and get something.
  6. It’s Not Personal!
    This is a natural results of the least resistance rule and one of the things I love most about driving here.  Everyone seems to understand that you take what you can get, traffic-wise, and they don’t get offended when you do what you gotta do.  In 6 months, I haven’t heard more than a small handful of honks from drivers being pissed at one another. US drivers are so “Me-Centric”.  Americans will crowd up and defend “my space”.  Even with all the traffic here, I find I can get across lanes more easily than the US because there are almost always little gaps I can fit into.   And if you have to do something unusual to get somewhere, no one bats an eye because they do it when they need to, as well.
  7. Nearly Killing Someone
    There are 2 forms of this.  One is the everyday zipping in and out of traffic with you narrowly avoiding the people around you.  These close calls count on everyone paying attention and you can usually expect that all parties are prepared for this.  It’s harrowing in the beginning, but you don’t raise an eyebrow after a few months.
    Then there’s “HOLY S—, I ALMOST KILLED THAT GUY!”  I had one of those on the night of the Yi Peng lantern release at Mae Jo.  We were cruising home on the highway around 11 pm and all of the sudden there’s a guy carrying a bicycle standing directly in front of me!  It should have been obvious to him that I was coming, but who knows what he was thinking. I had no chance to stop, but luckily there was no traffic and I could swerve around him.  If I hadn’t had my full attention up front, he’d just be a spot on the road.  That really got the adrenaline pumping!

I’ve been telling Kirsten I’m going to miss driving here.  There’s just a certain efficiency and natural flow to things that make it more comfortable and practical at times.  I can’t say that it’s better because there are more accidents and deaths, but provided you’re a survivor, it’s pretty cool.

Practical Tips

  • Get an International Driving Permit before coming.  It translates your license into many languages, none of which are Thai, so it hardly makes sense.  But I think it’s useful if you get pulled over.  At the very least, it’s cheap and can’t hurt.  At the moment police are stopping expats in droves, and you get fined 500 Baht if you don’t have a Thai or International Driver’s License.  You can get one thru AAA in the States even if you aren’t a AAA member.  Click here for the application.
  • Liability insurance is included with the car, so you don’t need to arrange anything.
  • If you can spend a couple weeks here before driving, do so.  It really helps in learning how traffic moves before you have to do it yourself.
  • If you get in an accident, let the insurance company handle it.  Especially if it’s not your fault.  You may get intimidated into paying for something, but we’ve heard through other people’s stories that once the insurance is involved, usually the other party will back off and go about their way.  I’ve also heard that the insurance adjuster will come to the scene if you call them, but I don’t swear by this since I have no experience
  • Get someone to accompany you for your first few days of driving.  They can handle directions and be another set of eyes for safety.
  • Flashing lights or a short horn toot is a warning that someone is coming and you should watch out.
  • If you do get pulled over, ask if you can pay your fine on the spot.  It’s usually only 400B and saves you hassle.  Whether it makes it into the city coffers or the officer’s pocket is not your problem.
  • Scooters are fine for a little bit of in-city driving, but only if you’re used to riding them.  This is not really the place you want to learn.

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Ellen December 15, 2013, 10:04 pm

    You nailed it!