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Tips for Driving in Thailand

Paul first visited Thailand in 1996 and has been retired in Siam since 2007. He has a beautiful and loving Thai wife and can speak Thai.

Bangkok Ratchthewi Skytrain View of a Traffic Jam.

Bangkok Ratchthewi Skytrain View of a Traffic Jam.

Early Experiences Driving in Thailand

The prospect of having to drive in Bangkok or other parts of Thailand can be a frightening thought for a new foreign resident or traveler to the country. In this huge metropolis, there are mazes of roads and unfamiliar driving practices which can be very confusing. Based on my driving experiences in Thailand, I will detail the "dos" and "don'ts" of operating a motor vehicle in the "Land of Smiles."

I started driving in Thailand in 2003 while I was working for the U.S. government in Bangkok. At that time I was driving two types of vehicles. One was my own American-made Toyota which had a steering wheel on the front left. The other motor vehicle was a Honda CRV rental with a steering wheel on the right which I used for official business travel. Needless to say, it was a little confusing at first to change from one vehicle to another in my driving. I was continually making mistakes like flicking on the windshield wiper when I wanted to turn on the directionals. I was also getting used to a new unique driving experience unlike any I'd had in the United States.

Tips for Driving in Thailand

Throughout my driving experiences in Thailand since 2003, I have learned a lot that would benefit the new driver in Thailand. What are my tips for driving in Thailand? They are as follows:

1. Drive and Keep to the Left of the Road:

Unlike in the United States, traffic keeps to the left of the road as it does in Japan and England. On one-way, multi-lane roads, the extreme left lane is the slow lane, and the extreme right lane is the fast or passing lane. This is just the opposite of driving in the U.S.

2. Beware of Motorcycles:

The first day I started driving I was warned to be on the lookout for motorcycles passing my vehicle on the left and the right. This turned out to be very true as motorcycles carrying two or three passengers were passing me on narrow lanes. There are many motorcycles on non-toll roads, and most of the riders are not wearing helmets.

3. Beware of U-Turn Lanes and Junctions:

The number of U-turn junctions on all roads is amazing. On most roads in the city, you will see them every 500 meters. On highways between cities, you will also find them about every 10 kilometers. There aren't many intersections in Thailand for making right turns or U-turns, hence you see their frequent appearance on the roads. When driving you must be aware of the locations of the U-turns, so that you can shift to a left lane to avoid the cars which are waiting to make U-turns.

4. Offensive Driving Is Very Common:

I was trained to be a defensive driver when younger, but here in Thailand offensive driving is very popular, especially among SUV and truck drivers. It is very common on highways outside the city to see the offensive driver snaking between cars all over the road to get ahead. Tail-gating is very common, so if you are driving a little too slow in the fast lane, you should always check your rear and side mirrors to be aware of who is following you.

5. Shoulders on the Road Become Lanes:

During times of heavy traffic congestion during holidays, the shoulders of the roads between cities become traffic lanes. It is common to see offensive and aggressive drivers using both the left and right shoulders as traffic lanes on a 2-3 lane road.

6. Pecking Order on the Road:

It is an unwritten rule that smaller vehicles give way to larger vehicles and that pedestrians crossing the roads yield to all motor vehicles. For example, if a truck is tailgating a car on a highway, it would be wise for the car to let the truck pass.

7. Be Patient When Driving:

You will experience a lot on the road which will raise your blood pressure. This will include instances of motorists cutting you off, double parking blocking traffic, left turns from the right lane, and other practices where the offending driver thinks that he is the owner of the road. Throughout all of this, you have to be patient like other Thai, grin, and bear it.

8. Little or No Headlight Use During Dawn and Dusk Hours:

When I had a driver's education in high school, I was instructed to turn on my headlights a half-hour before dawn and a half-hour before dusk. It is very common for the Thai to be driving with no headlights right before dusk or when it is dark during a rainstorm.

9. Anticipate Lane Positions on Tollways and Other Roads:

This is important when you are driving on a tollway during rush hour. Give yourself enough time to get over to the turn lane so that you can exit the road in time.

10. Parking is at a Premium on Roads:

If you are going to a supermarket, department store, or large restaurant, there will usually be ample parking in a parking garage. Parking on city roads is very difficult, and many times a person won't be able to find a parking space.

11. Gas Stations and Service Plazas:

These are very common on roads between cities. Usually, a gas station will be no further than 20 kilometers away. All gas stations are in full service. They are usually situated in service plazas where you will find small restaurants, gift shops, and convenience stores.

12. Most Traffic Signs Are in English:

Almost all of the traffic signs in Bangkok and other cities are in both Thai and English.

13. Avoid Driving at Night:

It is a wise practice not to drive at night if you can help it. This is due partly to drunken drivers on the road, and also due to truck drivers who are trying to stay awake by taking amphetamines which are known in Thai as "ya ba" or the "crazy medicine."

14. The Tollway System:

The tollway system in the greater Bangkok area is extensive, fairly good, and reasonable. You can take it to any part of the city, and you can also use it as a beltway to go around the city. There is a tollway from Bangkok to the city of Chonburi about 60 kilometers away.

15. Traffic Police:

You won't see many traffic police on the tollways, but you will see them on the major roads between cities, especially during the holidays. The police often set up roadblocks searching for illegal drugs that might be coming from the northern or northeastern parts of the country. Almost all of the traffic police I have encountered have taken bribes for such infractions as driving in the wrong lane or speeding. A common bribe would be about 200 baht.

If you follow my tips, driving in Thailand is not impossible. It is a great way to see the countryside as well as being more comfortable and convenient than a bus or train. There are numerous car rental agencies, and you can drive in Thailand using your home country license or an international driver's license.

16. Insurance Coverage:

Since it is very easy to get into a motor vehicle accident or hit a pedestrian, make sure that you have insurance with full coverage to pay for any vehicle damage or death, or injury.

17. Beware of Animals on Rural Roads:

It is very common to find water buffalo, dogs, and chickens crossing roads in villages and surrounding rural areas. According to Thai law, these animals have the right of way. In the Thai language, there is a saying that the water buffalo is the owner of the road.

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2011 Paul Richard Kuehn