Well, we’ve been here over six months now and I think I can hand out a few pointers about driving in this country, at least from a Chiangmai perspective. I wrote an earlier post about how to survive on a scooter here so this is just a little update after spending time every day in the traffic for the last few months. It is by no means an exhaustive list but only some pointers to let you drive and stay alive here. As usual, these pointers are directed more towards riding scooters and motorcycles than driving a car, but most will apply to both. Unlike China, where I lived the last six years, the Thai drivers do have some sort of order and actually do follow some of the rules.
Make sure you have an International Driving License if you are visiting. In many cases, you will get away with a valid license from your home country but technically you are supposed to have an IDL. You can usually forget about any type of legal fine! If you are stopped, chances are you will be asked, directly or indirectly, for a bribe before you can leave. As in most of Asia, corruption rules the day here so don’t even bother trying to fight it! Depending on your confidence, negotiating skills, and camaraderie, you will end up paying the cop anything from 100-500 baht to make it go away.
Once the bribe amount has been determined, carefully, and discreetly, pull out your wallet. You can do this under the ticket pad which the officer will probably hold in front of you to act as a cover. Like a magician, slip the money into his hand under the cover of the pad and voila! He will probably smile, shake your hand and send you on your way!
If you live here, get a Thai driving license. It took me one day in the LIcense Bureau to get both a motorcycle and car license. My Canadian driving license had long since expired along with my counterfeit Chinese driving license, so I had to write the tests and do the practical exams. That was the worse case scenario. With a valid home country license, the process is much quicker. There are also many perks to having a Thai license including using it as an ID and getting into many attractions for a local fee instead of a tourist fee.
Wear a helmet! There are continuous road blocks to enforce the helmet law and you will end up parting with a few baht if you don’t have one on. See #1 for bribery instructions. I know, I know…this is a joke since most locals ride around with no helmet on themselves or their kids, including newborns. However, foreigners are definitely targeted for a quick buck!
After driving here for a few months, I have definitely discovered that cars feel they own the road and scooters have no right to take any space away from them. Shame on you if you think you can line up with the regular traffic. Get the hell out of my way and move over to the side of the road or squeeze in anywhere you can. But for God’s sake, don’t take up an actual car space! That’s basically the mentality you have to deal with if you are on a scooter or motorcycle. If you do actually drive safely and maintain your space, be prepared for a little honking and angry stares.
Whatever you do, never, ever forget that Thailand drives on the left side of the road. Obviously, this is no big deal for Brits but, for the rest of us, it messes up everything we have dwelled into our little minds about intersections, passing, slow lanes, etc. You have to reverse just about everything. So remember, that at intersections, right-of-way becomes left-of-way.
And unlike China and some other Asian countries, driving on the sidewalk here seems to be a “no, no”. Oh, you will see some people zipping up onto the sidewalk for a short distance and then back into the traffic but it is pretty rare. In China, the sidewalks became another lane of traffic at rush-hour and it was not unusual to see buses rolling along them without a care in the world.
Those damn red trucks (Songtaows)
They can be many colours but here in Chiangmai, most are red. You see them everywhere; the small red pick-ups that are used as taxis and mass transport. Most of the people I have met that have been in accidents have been hit by one of these menaces on wheels. They rely on picking up and dropping off as many people as they can in a 24 hour period. They don’t care where the people are standing or how they get from Point A to Point B. Half the time, they drive down the middle of the road, so you don’t know where the hell they are going to end up. Watch them like a hawk and avoid passing them on the left unless you want to be suddenly sideswiped as they whip over to pick up someone waiting on the curb. In fact, avoid passing them altogether unless you have enough room for an escape route!
The good news is that most vehicles here actually stop at red lights, unlike other places in Asia I have been. The bad news is they don’t stop until the red has been red for a few seconds. Once the light has turned, at least half a dozen vehicles will continue to pass through. So don’t suddenly slam on your brakes if the light turns orange. This will probably result in you being rear-ended by the person behind you who has no intention of stopping yet. And don’t accelerate through a light that has just turned green or you run the probability of crashing into the cars that are still turning right in front of you as they continue to move through the red light.
There are speed limits here! I had to know them for the driving tests. But as always, in this part of the world, nobody follows them. One thing I have noticed is that Thais drive fast. This is probably one of the reasons they are way up there when it comes to traffic deaths. In the most recent data I could find (2010), Thailand has 119 traffic fatalities/100 000 motor vehicles. To put it in perspective, the respective numbers for the United KIngdom, Canada, the US and China are 5, 13, 15 and 36. That’s correct…Thailand has three times the number of fatal accidents than China. Unfriggin’ believable! And, speaking from experience, driving in China is no picnic! Also, the majority of the traffic deaths are scooter and motorcycle related in this country. That does not surprise me after seeing how people drive these two-wheelers and how they are treated by the other vehicles on the road. The bottom line is to stay in the slow lane as much as possible, which I should remind you is the left-hand lane!
What Do the Lines on the Road Mean?
Absolutely nothing! In most countries, the double line means don’t pass. Here it is meant only as a guide. If there is oncoming traffic that is at least five or six car lengths ahead, then they definitely have the right-of-way. But, hey, if you and your followers have time to pass by crossing the double line and moving to the front before the oncoming traffic gets to you, go ahead. At least that’s the way they think here!
Be especially careful on winding country roads, especially those on mountainous terrain. Everybody cuts the corners. If you can’t see around the bend, assume that any oncoming traffic is on your side of the road and either slow down or pull over to the curb as far as you can. On steep switchbacks, it is common to honk as you round the corners to warn those on the blind side that there is a vehicle coming through.
And last, but not least…
Watch out for the dogs!
In Canada we have moose and deer; in Thailand it is dogs! These stray mongrels are everywhere and, for some reason, think that the middle of the road is a great napping spot. I totalled one car when I was a youngster in the process of avoiding a dog and will never forget the cop’s first statement when he arrived on the scene, “Why didn’t you just hit the goddamn dog?”. Instead, I ended up doing a 360, a flip, and rolling into the roadside river, all simultaneously! So avoid if you can, but don’t value the dog’s life more than your own. In the motorcycling world, we have a rule-of-thumb called the “breadbasket” rule. If it can fit into a breadbasket, just keep going straight.
So there we have it! A few pointers to drive and stay alive in the crazy Thailand traffic. For more info regarding driving in Asia you can check out my other posts on this topic.