Readers' Submissions

Owning And Operating A Personally Owned Vehicle In Bangkok

  • Written by BKKSteve
  • August 14th, 2006
  • 23 min read


By BKKSW

A recent submission about the Thai traffic police initially motivated me to write a “me too” submission with my own experiences and the such but I resisted and thought about it a few days. There’s no doubt that dealing with the Thai police is an issue and requires certain “handling”, but I wanted to include more than that. So I put on my thinking cap and finally the obvious came to me… anyone thinking about driving in Thailand and Bangkok in particular needs to be armed with the entire gamut of information, so I’m going to try to outline a mini-guide to what you need to know and what you might experience if you undertake this rather hazardous activity. Before I start I want to apologize for not getting that next photography post out. I need to actually go outdoors, especially at night, and use the camera and provide some examples but due to a really bad infection coming from what turned out to be a tooth I’ve been feeling poorly and just haven’t been in the mood to venture to the nightlife venues, not only because I’m a bit weak (and in the recovery process), but because my breath from the infection smells like death itself and I can just imagine the reactions… No matter, I’m about 80% recovered so it will be soon.

The first thing you’ll need to drive in the Kingdom is a license and I say that with a half a smirk working at my mouth. The truth is any official looking card with your picture will probably fool many of the Thai police (for lesser offences I’ve even used my Costco card once, I’ll explain why later) as a license, but if you get into something serious and come under scrutiny you’d better have some sort of recognized license. Recognized licenses include international (current) licenses issued from your home country and Thai issued drivers licenses. Your home state license might fool a junior police official and some graft might get you out of trouble for now, but if you get a DUI or heaven forbid hurt a Thai national without a valid license you’ll be in hot water more than neck deep. <Remember having no licence will render your insurance useless, so you really do need a licence. If they want to get nasty, they could insist it is either a local Thai licence or an international licenceStick>

Licenses I use. I use a variety of licenses depending on the situation. The first thing you must realize is that if you can’t talk your way out of the ticket either with your great looks and charm or the much more common 100-200 baht then you’ll be issued a ticket, your license taken from you, and be asked to come to that district's police station to pay the fine and get your license back. Until then you use the ticket as your license and I’m not sure how many days you have to go pay the fine <SevenStick>. The point to me is you’ll need to schedule a trip back to that district's police office, be made to wait, pay a fine, get a lecture (maybe), and this can take the better part of a day off. So if the offense isn’t serious I’ll hand over one of the many expired international licenses I keep in my center console. I have a valid international license in case they notice it’s expired but because of the different dating system they never / rarely do. This way I can put off the trip to retrieve the license and pay the fine until I have the time. I also have a 5 year Thai drivers license which can be a pain to get (only issued after successfully living through your initially issued one year license) and I’ll use this if the offense is serious and I think the police knowing I’m a local expat would work to my benefit. Use some common sense here, if the traffic cop looks you and the offense is an “aw shit” mistake then playing the tourist might work for you. If you’ve obviously been a bad guy (DUI, accident, high rate of speed, etc) then a local license might save you from being taken to the station because they know you’re not going anywhere soon… and it might let them know you’re well versed in the local graft custom. We’ll get to that later. Yes, fake licenses can be purchased on the local streets along with university degrees, press passes, or whatever… but why risk it when the cost of the fake license is often more than the fine / graft? <DON'T ever get a fake Thai drivers licence as it is a VERY serious offence. You're talking jail time!Stick>

I’m going to touch on something here. The physical co-ordination of driving a car in Bangkok is not the hard part. A much higher level of physical coordination skill IS required over any western country I’ve ever visited, but there’s more. Thailand has a plethora of signs, curb markings, street signs, and what not that I’ve never seen in any other country. You won’t recognize more than half the stuff you see and until you get the “feel” for things you might find yourself driving in a bus only lane, getting stopped for reasons you can’t comprehend but are perfectly clear to the traffic cop, and avoiding near misses like you wouldn’t believe. The “International signs” you read about in your country's international license guide are flatly inadequate. If you’re going to drive in Thailand stop, by the Transportation Department and pick up their rather THICK book on signs, lines, and the like. Study it, refer to it, and life will get a lot smoother. This might be a good time to point out that not many westerners ‘on average’ drive in Bangkok. Many find the traffic overwhelming, the required reflexes years behind them, and the confusion factor from the roads, signs and lines… extreme. If you look around you won’t see many Thais over the age of 50 driving either. If you do they probably come from a smaller province and only venture into the capitol on occasion to sell their wares or see family.

The next thing you’re going to need is a vehicle. Renting can be smooth, or it can be fraught with extra expenses and complications. I chose to buy a car both times I’ve lived here. Being the “I like to take off in the boonies and take pictures” kinda guy I like 4×4 vehicles and the first time I was here I decided I wanted an extended cab pickup. Silly me, I thought that if I bought a 4 door pickup the family would choose to drive their own cars on family outings and my wife and I would be left to the relative peace of my clean cab and music CDs. No chance! Did you know that 4-5 Thais can sit in one of the small fold down back seats extended cabs have? And more will pile in under the shell / canopy in the back? They all love buying snacks and eating in the car which is something I only do with great caution, but they’ll stuff the peelings, nutshells, papers, etc, in every nook and cranny, under the seats, anywhere they think I won’t see. I used to spend a few hours cleaning the interior of my car after every family outing.

When it came time to buy the 4×4 Toyota Tiger I looked at used ones and asked for maintenance records. ‘Some Thais’ are fanatic about keeping up with regular maintenance but they’re the exception, most don’t. The dealership might have changed the oil, probably will have steam cleaned the drive train, and they’re very good at detailing, fixing, hiding discrepancies in the body, paint, interior, and things which don’t work. Personally, I wouldn’t buy a used car unless I purchased from a private party I could trust because I knew them, or because they could produce maintenance receipts for every scheduled maintenance and the car had not been recently “prepped.” So I bought new.

Cars are very much the status symbol in Thailand. Most people know which cars cost what, and apply status to the price, make, type, and care of the car. In Thailand there are heavy taxes for cars exceeding 3 liters in displacement and certain levels of horsepower / kilowatts, and for imported cars. Cars manufactured in Thailand with engines under 3 liters will be affordable (2 million baht down to 600k baht) depending on what you want and fortunately they make some nice sensible cars in Thailand. Virtually every pickup truck will run on diesel and it used to be the same for ‘truck like’ SUVs like the old Toyota Sportrunner or its replacement the Fortuner. Now many of the ‘truck like’ SUVs while still available (and more expensive) in diesel will be also sometimes be offered in “petrol” models designed to run on ethanol for a slight discount. For instance, a fully loaded Toyota SUV Fortuner, leather, power everything, etc, etc, in diesel is 1.2 million baht. The ethanol model is baht .998 million. I recommend the diesels. They’re incredibly powerful and peppy for a 4 banger 3.0 liter, they’re turbo charged and inter-cooled, they’re very well engineered and will last forever with reasonable maintenance – and diesel is available everywhere. A truck or SUV might also provide some measure of protection. My wife wanted a small 4 door Toyota Yarris or whatever the new economy model is, but it’s so small and IMO wouldn’t withstand a significant impact and protect her at the same time. A fully loaded Toyota extended cab turbo diesel runs about 850,000 baht while a small 4 door economy petrol burning car runs about baht 500-600k.

The first time I was here I chose the pickup. I was pretty proud of my brand new 4×4 Toyota Tiger but it didn’t take long to notice that the locals who drive that car are from a working class who often use the trucks for (are you prepared for this?) work! Unlike the states where soccer moms drive one ton PUs to take the kids to school just so they can see above the traffic. Anyway, you’ll be lumped in with “that class” of people if you drive a truck for the most part. For over two years I enjoyed the truck, never had a problem with it, had it maintained, and sold it two years later for 550k baht which I was assured was a good price because Thais know farangs are stupid enough to maintain their vehicles. I kept it garaged, and it was always cleaned and waxed regularly. Thai vehicles have a life pan here which I haven’t quite figured out, for sure Thais like new cars, rarely buy used, and most cars you see will be newer models. So where do the old cars go? Some are sold in the countryside to those with lower incomes, many are imported to neighboring countries like Cambodia and Laos, and some 4 doors end up as taxis. There are probably a lot more venues they meander through during typical service lives but in Bangkok it’s mostly new cars.

The second time I came here I came to stay, and I came knowing I’d be doing a lot of driving with a lot of expensive professional gear in the car that I’d want well protected and out of sight. This time I spent the extra 400-500k and bought the Toyota SUV. Immediately you’ll notice successful professionals like doctors, engineers, property managers, financial workers, and the like drive SUVs. Pretty much like back home. You get treated differently and looked at differently when you drive a SUV and you’ll start to notice it in the attitudes of the valet parking staff, car park (in the states we call them parking garages) attendants and others you come in contact with. I’m sure it’s also different for those who drive luxury cars, a few more steps up I’m sure. Just be aware that the car you drive broadcasts things about you that may or may not be true, but the stereotypes are alive and well here in Thailand maybe more than where you come from. Interestingly enough my in-laws won’t eat in my new SUV. Perhaps because it’s an SUV or perhaps because my wife noticed all my cleaning and decided to put her foot down. I don’t really care why, but I do enjoy the results. Of course I’ve learned just how many Thais can fit in an SUV but I’ve limited it to ‘seat belt equipped seats only’ claiming insurance reasons but the truth is I really do care about safety. No seatbelt, no ride.

Ok, now you have a car and a drivers license. Now you need insurance which is compulsory in the Kingdom and registration, both of which will be provided to you at the point of sale (for a price) if you’re buying new. If not, then be aware you need to have both. The wonderful transportation office will handle your registration and the dealer will provide you the restricted (no night driving, no expressways, and some other things) red plates until the normal white plates come through. Insurance can be handled by any office but be aware the “minimum” liability is I think baht 50k which isn’t that much for a farang running over a Thai national. I’d recommend upping your liability to at least 1 million baht and it won’t cost that much more. Also know that there are two types of collision insurance. That which pays for your car to be repaired at a local factory service center using factory parts and repair methods, and that which only pays for cheap generic parts at a body shop of their choice near you who probably gives them deep discounts. The cost again isn’t that much but know what you’re asking for. Have you ever noticed all the multi-colored stickers on the passenger side of Thai cars and trucks windshields? Those are the registration and insurance stickers that let the traffic cops know at a glance if you’re current or not. It’s mandatory they be displayed but it really is ok to remove the old ones before putting on the new ones…;o) Many Thais like to display these stickers like medals of honor.

Now you’re ready to drive! Welcome to Bangkok but it’s only now beginning. You’ll need to learn the holidays, pay days, weekends, times of day, weather, and everything else that affects the flow of traffic and choose when you drive carefully. You’ll sometimes wonder why you spent all this money on a car when the cost of taking a taxi everywhere is a great deal cheaper, or when to leave the car at home and use a taxi or the BTS or whatever… There’s an ebb and flow to the traffic in Bangkok and it really does take some experience to get comfortable with it and we’re not even talking about the hazards, thousands of motorcycles buzzing around you like mosquitoes or pedal powered food carts, human powered food carts, elephants, big trucks, tour buses (I have it in for big tour buses this month), dogs, children who act like they don’t see you, behavior learned from their parents who act like they don’t see you either, the occasional Thai who’ll notice you’re a farang and try to provoke an accident for profit, thieves, and so much more… Parking is often a nightmare and the car parks can scare to death most westerners. Steep inclines, small spaces, extra small areas to drive through them, and then once you park you’ll need to find the stairs or elevators and your way back again. Still, it’s an adventure and I wouldn’t be without a car in Thailand!

About traffic cops. It seems a bit better now but I’m not sure if it’s due to my “precautions” or perhaps my driving is getting better, or maybe the traffic cops are less corrupt. The first years I was here 1999-2001 I felt I was often stopped for “driving while white” and my wife agreed. Traffic cops would let ten Thai drivers pass and then pull me over after noticing I was a farang expecting the common 100 – 200 baht bribe / graft. Some I would argue, once I even told the guy to call his supervisor and make him come to the location (then he let me go), some were things I tried to get away with because the traffic is so bad if you miss a turn it can add an hour to your trip so you’ll turn where you’re not supposed to, etc… But many were corrupt stops and I figured that was just the price of living here. This time however when I bought my SUV I requested dark tinting (which I wouldn’t recommend unless you have great night vision because driving at night in Bangkok is another story altogether) on the back and sides and a dark strip about 12” down from the top of the windshield. If I sit up straight and tall the cops often can’t tell I’m a farang until I’m right on top of them and driving past and I’ll swear I’ve seem some disappointed looks when they realized “one got away.” For whatever combination of reasons, driving has gotten more relaxed, traffic doesn’t seem as bad, and I’m enjoying myself much more. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons is knowing where I’m going. Bangkok is anything but logically structured / laid out so this can be a challenge. My mai noi Jill (my talking GPS) has relieved my stress so much I can’t describe how much. I can now sit back and follow her directions and be assured I’m getting to the right place in probably the quickest possible time and learning my way around as well. I don’t need to use it all the time, less and less as time goes on, but especially when traveling out of Bangkok to the south or north it’s very helpful.

Traffic cops come in all age and experience sets. Some are not corrupt at all and I’ll usually approach these with “I’m really busy, can I just pay the fine now?” Others are obvious and will ask for money and expect you to bargain your way down to a reasonable amount. There are also times to pay attention to the person. An example: We were stopped for an illegal U-turn on Sukhumvit late one night and an old cop with hash marks (normally meaning from 4-5 years service per hash mark) running down his sleeve came up and wanted our license and registration. Before I opened my mouth my wife’s sister talked down to him like some lowly civil servant and offered him 100 baht. You could watch his face getting more and more red and I got the feeling we were going to be arrested on the spot. I quickly and harshly told her to be quiet and not treat this man that way and she looked mortified. I got out of the car and started talking to the cop letting him know about me, that we had some experiences in common, my sister in law was a bitch, and that I understood what I did was wrong and I’d pay the fine tomorrow if he’d only give me directions to the station. He got a soft look on his face and pointed to his bars and hash marks and complained how he got on his supervisor's bad side and he had him out there directing traffic and how he “lost a lot of income” from the transfer which probably means money from businesses like bars and the such he let stay open… and I handed him a 500 baht note and told him I hoped that helped and could I have my ticket now and I’d be on my way. He let me go without the ticket and that was the most expensive bribe I’ve ever paid, but considering the power he had and the way my sister in law pissed him off we got off easy. My point is, don’t assume all Thai cops are corrupt, do pay attention to their age and time in service, and don’t for a moment think they won’t give you a very hard time if you make one angry.

Eventually you’ll have an accident. The Thai method of handling accidents is to immediately stop exactly where the accident happened and call your respective insurance companies. If there’s injury of course you’ll need to call the cops and emergency services and I recommend you have these numbers in your mobile phones memory. Thai insurance companies keep a number of motorbike equipped adjusters out on the road at all times and they’re pretty quick to get to you after an accident happens. They’ll quickly take pictures and THEN get you over to the side of the road if possible, if not they’ll fill out the forms and send you on your way to the repair shop on the spot. They’re very efficient and fast but you’ll still stop traffic for at least 30 minutes or so in the best of cases. If the accident is obviously not your fault and the other guy asks you if you want to move to the side of the road beware that once moved from the site of the accident he / she might then claim it was your fault. This isn’t a big issue if you both have full coverage, but if the car is older and you suspect the other guy doesn’t have collision insurance, or insurance at all, then be very suspect. Even with a hit and run, someone hits you and takes off, the insurance company actually expects you to call from the spot and wait for an adjuster to make an appearance. I just learned this through actual experience. There’s lots of insurance fraud in Thailand (like everywhere else I suspect) and this is their way of handling things.

Motorbikes are a real hazard. Even stopped at a light they’ll whiz around you and maybe knock off a mirror or scrape your paint and keep going. I try to position myself at stop lights so they can’t get around me forcing them to take another route. If you go for the brakes or change the direction of the vehicle every time a motorbike cuts in front of you or gets too close you’ll soon find you’re a nervous wreck. Many motorbike riders get hurt and killed in Thailand, I recently read an article that Thai males from 14-35 had the highest death rate of any country in the world and it was largely due to motorbike accidents. I suggest being careful, not being careless, but if you don’t relax your normal cautious ways around motorbike riders like you do in your home country you’ll soon be a nervous wreck. This is where the fast reflexes and physical co-ordination comes in. Lighting fast corrections and sound judgment are vital to driving in Bangkok because of these motorbike riders. Also, be careful of small children walking among cars at lights not even tall enough to reach the bottom of your window. Bangkok is NOT a place to be distracted on the cell phone, talking to your passenger, etc, in the least. Always be aware of everything around you at all times.

Expressways. I’m convinced the tolls are priced just high enough to keep the flow of traffic on the expressways moving along smartly and I greatly enjoy using them. I live an easy 2km from an expressway entrance / exit and I can get almost anywhere in Bangkok in 30 minutes by using them wisely, though during the heavy traffic periods the expressways going through the downtown area might slow to a crawl. The tolls run from 20-40 baht and you might have to pay 2-3 tolls to get to where you’re going. I costs me about 180 baht to go to the airport and back, 110 baht to go to Bumrungrad from my home. Yes, 4-5 dollars to go to the airport and back, but compare that to taking the surface streets, your time, your fuel, wear and tear on the vehicle, and your peace of mind and it becomes a bargain.

There really is so much information to be written on this subject that this can be considered only a brief primer. There are many reasons most westerners choose not to drive in Bangkok and I don’t blame them at all. On the other hand I get by just fine driving in Bangkok by paying attention to the differences that make driving here unique. I’ve had many “rich” experiences driving here in Thailand which I’ll share in further submissions.

Off topic a bit, but the weather has cooled off a lot and the air conditioner isn’t running anymore and we’re getting ready for the monsoon month coming up (September) where the streets can flood and a 4×4 truck / SUV can really come in handy. When the rain comes the traffic slows to a standstill in some places for hours on end. You can easily spend 3-4 hours going less than 2km. On the other hand, if you pay attention to the weather and avoid getting caught out in it then things become quite pleasant this time of year. With the windows open, fresh air flowing, sounds and smell of the city drifting up, it really becomes nice to be here.

Until next time…

Stickman's thoughts:

I agree with pretty much everything you say about driving here. To anyone who stays in Thailand long term and is thinking about buying a car, don't be put off. Once you have a car it really does open up a lot of new options.