Car Ownership in Thailand
Reading Stickman’s Without Wheels found me agreeing with most of what he said. I’ve
had many of the same experiences, but perhaps my explanation for these experiences is a bit different.
US culture, and I dare say the same holds true for Aussies and Kiwis more than it does for most Europeans, is that cars are a necessity. The way our cities are laid out, the limited choices in public transportation, and even the concept of the ‘suburb’ has left us dependent on motorized vehicles for most of our transportation needs. It’s probably natural for us ‘not’ to feel comfortable without our own means of transport, while my European friends are quite content to use the many types of public transportation Bangkok provides. Not having a car in the US is rare, and in most cases this is because you find yourself on the lower levels of the income scale. So yes, you don’t really feel ‘at home’ or ‘somebody’ unless you have your own set of wheels.
I’ve personally owned a car/truck/SUV 100% of the time I’ve been in Thailand, Japan, Korea and Taiwan. Yet, I still use taxi’s and public transportation when its personally more convenient. Loading up the car for another fun trip somewhere in Thailand is something I look forward to several times a month. There are few places in Thailand I haven’t driven to. I suspect I’ve driven more of Thailand than most experienced Thai drivers.
I drive everywhere in Bangkok where I can expect to find parking. I’ve enjoyed the empty streets during Songkran when most Bangkokians are out of town, and I’ve been stuck in flood induced traffic jams that leave you stuck in one place for hours at a time. I’m as much at home in the traffic of Bangkok as I am the commute rush hour of Los Angeles. Right or left, this is one area where I’ve always been able to switch back and forth with a confident ease.
Contrary to Stick’s perfectly understandable decision to sell his wheels, I can say with absolute certainty that I’ll never live in Thailand without my own vehicle. If the ‘system’ every gets ‘too much’ for me, I’ll pack my bags and be on the first flight to greener pastures.
Fortunately I can afford decent transport and I do own a modern GPS. 4-5 years ago GPS devices were a mixed bag, and I’ve reviewed the ‘next generation’ GPS devices and here. I now consider them essential for anyone driving in Thailand, and if you pay attention you’ll notice a great many Thai’s agree with me. GPS devices are now sold most everywhere in Thailand from ERSI, to Gadget Trends, to Power City, everywhere in MBK and Pantip, and even in discount stores like Tesco/Lotus. 5 years ago my GPS was baht 42,000. Today a better one can be had for as little as baht 5000 including the Thailand map set.
My two biggest complaints while driving are covered here in “Ugly Thais” and here in “The Culture of Corruption.” Basically the roads, even while well designed and the laws modeled after western laws, are unsafe. They’re unsafe because of an inept and corrupt police force and the culture of corruption they inspire. To make matters worse there are zero trauma centers in Thailand, very few qualified paramedics or EMT’s, and even if there was one close by, most traffic prevents them getting to you in a reasonable amount of time. Thai drivers don’t pull over to the side to let emergency vehicles pass, there are no shoulders on the Expressways and most highways, and the average Thai driver would rather eat glass than allow an emergency vehicle to get past them.
Make no mistake about it, driving in Thailand is a deadly serious endeavor. Being distracted either by your phone, passenger, driving impaired, or even paying too much attention to your music can get you killed. Anyone who’s been here in Thailand a while can tell you about at least several friends who were either tragically killed, or who sustained life changing injuries.
Many weren’t insured and some who’s families couldn’t pay to transport them back to their own country via medevac languished in sub-standard hospitals receiving the bare minimum of medical care. If you’re going to drive in Thailand carry 1st class insurance on your vehicle and its occupants, and the best medical insurance you can afford. IF you survive long enough to get to a hospital, having insurance will normally get you the best care available in Thailand. Just don’t expect much in the way of trauma care. If you receive brain or spinal injuries you’ll soon find the ‘best in Thailand’ isn’t nearly good enough.
I’m going to finish this by discussing some differences in perception I have with Stick’s piece:
Traffic Enforcement: 4-5 years ago it was possible to drive from Bangkok to Pattaya as fast as traffic would permit, and you’d never get stopped by law enforcement. The roads were filled with a mixture of very fast and mostly unsafe drivers, very slow and unsafe vehicles/drivers, and then everyone else.
As the Expressway and highway links to Pattaya were finished, and the highways throughout the country generally improved, there was a rash of very serious accidents and the public started asking what could be done about it. Obviously enforcement costs. Putting adequately trained law enforcement in proper vehicles with the latest equipment would be a huge expenditure. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that they soon figured out this program could be entirely self-funding and even generate additional revenue through enforcement and fines.
The Traffic Police were born. By now I’m sure you’ve noticed their brand spanking new Honda Accord maroon and yellow cars, officers in nice new uniforms, and of course the latest in radar and laser detectors. By and large, the Traffic Police are not corrupt. They are the most honest uniformed agency in Thailand. When you get stopped in one of their many speed traps from one end of the country to the other, you’ll be issued a ticket and expected to pay for the ticket on the spot. They’ll have umbrella canopies set up with tables and chairs and you’ll be treated with courtesy and respect through the entire process. You actually leave with the feeling you received much more than you paid for, which is odd considering the only think you really received was fair treatment and the proper respect you deserve.
It is possible to find a dishonest Traffic Police Officer who will send you on your way for a few hundred baht, but you take your chances. These guys are seriously professional. And lately they’ve been reporting these tickets to the insurance companies. It won’t be long before insurance companies are sharing information and raising your rates based on the point system like they do in the west.
The amount of ‘revenue’ they raise has been legendary. So much so, that as you pull out of one of their traps you’ll often find the ‘local police’ have set up a trap less than a kilometer or two later. Unfortunately these guys aren’t nearly as professional, honest, or fair as the Traffic Police. And further down the road a piece you’ll find another. And then maybe another. Well, you get the picture.
I was the one with Stick, and the one driving, when we were stopped by the local police on a major highway and told “I want 100 baht” with such ease and fluency you just knew we weren’t the only farangs he’d stopped that day. I remember being taken aback by the brashness and fluency of this individual. Stick and I looked at each other in surprise, I gave him his 100 baht, and we were on our way. No words were spoken, it was obvious we were thinking the same thing.
Yes, it is entirely possibly, even probable, that you’ll be stopped 4-5 times on a long highway trip, for example Bangkok to Chiang Mai, while if you live in the country somewhere and stay local being stopped is a rare occurrence. The Traffic Police will usually give you a 5kph margin, but the local police traps will not. They’ll stop you and take your money, no ticket issued, for going exactly the speed limit, or 10kph under the speed limit. They’re not there to enforce laws or make you safer. They only reason they’re there, is for personal enrichment. Corrupt to the core.
With over ten years of experience driving in Bangkok I know which parts of Bangkok present no issues with the police at all, and which areas I’m likely to get pulled over because of my white face 2-3 times heading to the same destination. Clients have been with me and seen this happen and just shake their heads. The closer you get to the tourist areas, the more chance you’ll be pulled over for “driving while white” and graft demanded.
On my latest two vehicles I purposely had my windows tinted so dark they can’t tell I’m a farang until I’m right on top of them and almost past. If they don’t react very quickly I’ll get by, which is why I did the dark tint. You can see the anger in their faces in your rearview mirror when you get by one of their cherry patches, almost like you cheated them. I’m not going to discuss DUI checkpoints. My opinion on these, is that if you drink at all, and then drive, you deserve what you get. Hate me for it, but that’s how I feel.
Insurance Coverage: For the most part, insurance and civil liability laws work the same way in Thailand as they do in the west. It’s simple. The police will charge you if you break a law, and a citizen ‘can’ sue you for anything they wish. Whether or not they’re successful or not becomes an entirely different story.
In the west, your insurance covers civil judgments up to your insurance limits. Same here in Thailand. This means that you’ll need to let your insurance company handle things for you in the event of an accident. As in the west, the moment you interfere with their handling of the incident, you lose your coverage. Same here.
In the west, insurance companies demand the injured party sign a release to all parties involved before any payout. Not so here. Here, the injured party reserves the right to sue you even after they get their payout. And this right is often abused against foreigners and there isn’t much we can do about it.
The number one thing you can do about it, is carry 1st class insurance and to up your limits way past the minimum. I personally carry a 50 million baht policy. It only costs about 4000 baht more per year over the minimum. This means I’m covered up to 50 million baht. If someone isn’t happy with the insurance payout, and I have 50 million baht in coverage, then the judge will take the insurance companies judgment into consideration. If in the event the judge rules the injured party is entitled to more than the insurance payout, then the insurance company is liable up to the limit of my policy. If the award is less than my policy cap, they’ll have to pay the legal costs as well. It’s in the fine print. I’m confident it’s in the insurance companies best interest (and mine) to settle with any injured parties as fairly as possible.
There are different tiers of insurance in Thailand and I don’t know enough about them to give advice. I know the compulsory insurance you buy with your yearly registration is 3rd class and the bare minimum. 1st class is full coverage for your car and its occupants. 2nd class is something in between. 1st class insurance is less than half of what it costs in the states, in the cheapest district possible. In other words, it’s very affordable. If you’re going to drive I’d recommend you have 1st class insurance and you up your limits substantially over the legal minimums.
And yes, 1st class insurance will cover you to your limits in the event an uninsured kid on a motorbike runs into you, and their parents sue you. They are legally bound to do so.
Personally, no matter how many times I have someone tell me this I still find it shocking.. a farang comes here and can afford to buy a newer car, in many cases they pay cash for some very nice cars, and then fail to buy 1st class insurance. Usually they’ll tell you they have 1st class insurance because they know it’s just plain stupid not to, but if you start pushing to find out the details of why they’re being sued and the insurance didn’t handle it. You’ll usually find they only had 3rd class insurance.
Caveat Emptor. You’re a farang in a strange land. It’s up to you to know the laws, how your insurance works, and to know when someone is trying to take advantage of you. And they will try to take advantage of you, from the local corrupt police to the citizens. Know your rights, have an attorney you can call, and don’t sign anything without representation.
Civil Rights: Stick mentioned the cops asking questions like “where did you come from, where are you going, do you work in Thailand” and other such questions. It’s not a violation of your civil rights to be asked a question. It is a violation if the police can’t accept “I’d rather not answer that” as an answer. But that’s really not what it’s about.
As a former cop I know we find such questioning useful for many reasons. On the surface the answers might prove useful, say someone in Chiang Mai fitting your description just robbed a 7-11, and you tell them you came from.. depending on your answer and the direction of travel it could immediately let you off the hook from further inspection. If you have nothing to hide, answer the questions. It’s really not painful.
Under the surface, how you answer the questions, your non-verbs, your willingness, your speech.. all tell the trained law enforcement officer important information. It’s not the questions or the answers, it’s how you handle them that provides the information they’re interested in.
And also consider Thailand cops aren’t required to know English. Possibly the only English they’re formally taught is what they get during their training. And questions like “where are you going, where are you from, etc” are exactly the type of questions you’d get during training. The answers are useful.
So, when a cop asks you these questions maybe he knows something you don’t (a place in the last town was robbed), maybe he’s looking to see how you react so he can further judge if you’re DUI or maybe carrying contraband, or maybe he’s just practicing his English. It never hurts to be polite to cops. It almost always makes the experience worse if you’re not.
Unreasonable Searches: We’ve all heard about the police searching you coming out of the nightlife areas, or off a bus as the Ekkamai station, or as Stick mentioned during traffic stops. Keeping in mind there’s little you can do against a corrupt out of control cop, I’ll share with you how I’ve handled these situations and avoided being searched every time.
Nightlife areas. Anyone who knows me knows I carry a knapsack almost everywhere I go. Police zero in on these. On several occasions I’ve been stopped outside a nightlife venue and been ‘told’ I’m going to be searched. Each time I hadn’t been drinking, each time I was dressed neatly, and each time I said “I’d be glad to submit to a search, let’s go to your office where your supervisor can explain to me why I’m being searched.” I then photograph them with my mobile phone. Each time I’ve been apologized to and sent on my way. The key here is that cops don’t like to be told “no.” It’s like waving a red flag in front of a bulls nose. Instead, I tell them I’ll submit to the search, but with reasonable conditions. And I photograph them just in case.
Bus Station. Same exact thing as above. This only happened once to me and I was there to pick someone up. I pointed at my car and told them I’d follow them to their office. They apologized and wai’d.
On the Road. You need to recognize each type of stop and react accordingly. There are immigration stops where they’re looking for human cargo. In such cases approach them with all your windows down, smile, be polite, and you won’t have issues. There are drug stops. These are everywhere. Again, windows down, act like you have nothing to hide, and even ask them “can I open my trunk for you?” Cooperate, be reasonable, and you won’t get searched. They’ll wave you on. Traffic Police will never ask to search your car unless they smell alcohol on you and are looking for a container.
Local police who set up traps on the highways are looking for money. They’re not above planting evidence. I get out of my car and lock it. Again, I tell them I’ll be glad to submit to a search and will follow them to their office where a supervisor can explain to me why I’m being searched. Meanwhile I’m taking their pictures with my mobile phone. NEVER leave your car unlocked or allow them to enter your car while on the road. Lock it. Make a supervisor come to you.
There is no question owning your own car in Thailand carries some risk, or that it can be dangerous, and that the stresses can easily become an issue. However, if you learn all you can about the system, anticipate as many issues as possible ahead of time where you have the time to think them through, and you exercise good judgment, you should be fine.
But if you drink while out, or you really can’t afford the best insurance, or you don’t have medical insurance, then consider alternate means of transportation. Many find it’s just not worth it, especially considering what they came to Thailand to accomplish.
Until next time..
As I wrote in the article to which your article refers, I really enjoyed owning a car in Thailand, but the hassles reached a point where it was no longer the trouble-free experience it once was, which really is a sad indictment on Thailand.