Readers' Submissions

Thai Driving, Thai Driving Habits

  • Written by BAH
  • February 25th, 2011
  • 9 min read

Black Pagoda Patpong Bangkok

If the following sounds to you like a big moan, then I admit – yes it is, but when you live in a country with one of the highest road death rates per capita in the world, then I reckon it deserves a mention.

Please be aware that 'generalisations' appear in this sub, but when applied to Thai driving, these generalisations are I reckon pretty accurate for 99% of Thai people! Suck it up. To put that in context I'm writing this from about 8 months experience of riding a pushbike here almost daily, and I've covered some thousands of kilometres in cities (not Bangkok, I don't have a death wish) and on country roads, big and small. Pushbiking puts you right at the bottom of the pecking order and you need to be acutely aware of the action. At this level of course you're fair game – the worst habits come out. When I write 'he' below I mean 'she' as well – driving-wise 'she' is every bit as scary.

Living in Thailand is in many ways an edifying experience, and one of those ways is to learn about how to survive Thai driving. Stories on this site tell about bad experiences farangs have in accidents on Thai roads, and the general problem a farang seems to have is: 'I was not at fault' – he's applying the standards and mores of his driving training and experience back home. The farang expects other drivers on the road to show him courtesy as well – imagine that if you can. Forget it, you're in Thailand now and all that stuff is out the window. New rules apply – as in – no rules (or at least however few the Thai driver can get away with). After all he started learning to drive when he was tall enough to stand on the foot board of Dad's motosy and peer over the handlebars. About 3 years later the kid, now 6 years old knows exactly how to do it. “This is all the training I need and I can use it for the rest of my life”.

My experience on the road here fortunately does not include hitting or being hit by a vehicle – I have not had an incident of any kind. Close a few times, yes, but no actual contact. So am I complaining? Not at all. I have been scared shitless a few times, but these times were when in someone else's hands – in particular bus drivers – I think that on the whole they are some of the most irresponsible people on this earth! Consequently I avoid buses when I can.

If I understand the meaning of the word correctly I think Thais tend to be fatalists. Evidence for this is the way they will often exhibit little of what I call common sense on the road, getting themselves into dangerous situations by seemingly closing their eyes, hitting the brain 'off 'switch and pushing the foot to the metal. What will be will be.

Things that a Thai driver will do and presumably think he is doing OK.

ñ get too close – squeeze your position, and tailgate.

ñ cut you off by passing then turning immediately into a driveway.

ñ merge into your lane – squeeze your position – a favourite – he will come out of a side street and once he has established forward motion in your direction then he'll just keep squeezing into your lane.

ñ come out of a side street or driveway on his motosy and not even glance at approaching traffic on his right.

ñ cut across you when you are proceeding straight on at an intersection (I'm referring to the Thai habit of doing a right hand turn in front of oncoming traffic rather than waiting till after it has passed – I wonder what the road rules say on that subject).

ñ stop anywhere on the road and bang on the hazard lights (which absolves him from all responsibility for holding up the traffic).

ñ stop anywhere and not do anything.

ñ stop anywhere, jump out of the car and cross the road.

ñ emerge from a driveway and accelerate so slowly that traffic approaching from behind has to brake hard.

ñ drive at a speed which does not suit the conditions e.g. when the traffic is heavy with trucks and commuters, pedestrians and vendors next to a busy market, he'll try to get along at 120kph.

ñ when his pickup loaded such that the front wheels are only just on the tarmac, he'll try to get along at 120kph.

ñ talk on the phone and drive a bus full of people and still try to get along at 120kph.

ñ drive a bus full of people and compose then send an SMS (I have seen this while sitting in the front seat of a bus, didn't know what the speed was 'cos of the 5 instruments on the dash only one worked – the fuel gauge and the glass on the large dead speedo was broken).

ñ have his view of the road obscured by do-dads attached to the dashboard and hanging from the mirror, and in the case of buses have stickers galore on the windscreen and driver's side windows.

ñ have the windows in his vehicle tinted so dark that you cannot even see him, let alone make eye contact (I really hate that one – you can't 'read' him at all).

ñ when stopped at a major intersection on his motosy – start a phone conversation, light a fag and proceed across the stream of traffic 'cos he's turning right.

ñ carry the whole family on the motosy – all 4 kids, the youngest clutched against the left hip with the left arm so it's only possible to have the right hand on the handlebar (and let's have them all in light clothes and flip flops).

ñ (one of my favourites) drive along the wrong side of the road at speed, usually on his motosy but sometimes in his car – this can really freak out the farang cyclist!

ñ ride his motosy without a helmet.

ñ ride his motosy with a helmet but the straps flapping in the breeze (I've seen cops do this).

ñ when turning right cut the corner so tightly that if I'm turning left at the same time I have to dismount mid corner and get off the bitumen.

ñ sink more than a few cold ones and away we go.

ñ take off at a lights-controlled intersection and be across the intersection before 'his' lights turn green.

ñ block the footpath by driving onto it and parking.

The above is the short list. The long list? – OK, Stick's site is big, but not that big! All of these things I've seen at least once and the majority many many times.

How does Somchai think when it comes to the blame game after a crash? I've been racking my brain such as it is, about that and concluded that his logic says that you hit him so it's your fault, regardless of the circumstances leading up to the prang – if he's just pulled onto the road and stopped then the sensible thing for you to do is to stop as well thus avoiding contact, right? I can see his logic, just never mind that you did try your absolute hardest to avoid him but he failed to give you warning and enough space to be successful. I've read but not experienced if you are farang not only is it your fault but you pay – I think this is the reason I don't want to drive here in Thailand. There is the idea that insurance companies maintain – you're 10% guilty just because you were involved – a little bit of Somchai in there.

A couple of anecdotes . . .

I'm stopped next to a male driver at the lights, his family on board. A vendor of those hanging flower arrangements knocks on the window of his pickup and he buys one. This gets hung on the centre mirror with all the other stuff hanging there, and he proceeds to grip it all between two hands and say prayers – till the lights change. I'm thinking maybe this is to protect him from the hazards of the road and help him and his family arrive safely. I want to point out to him that he could start out by taking down all that crap on the mirror so he can see properly and not be distracted as it swings around in front of him . . .

I'm in my favourite hair cutting shop having a coffee when a young man emerges from the cutting room after having his hair cut. He jumps onto his motosy, girlfriend on the back and zooms off, no helmets to be seen. Bangon the hairdresser then tells the story (she worked in Wales for 8 years and is worldly but she's freaking out). A large area of his scalp is soft – missing bone – she poked the area and it's the softness that's freaking her out. The guy explained that this was the result of a motorsy 'off ' last year. She asked him if he now wears a helmet – he said 'sometimes'!! This is a true story! Go figure. I get this gruesome pic in my head of his next crash – the road sweepers will wonder what that grey stuff is . . .

All of the stuff above needs qualification. My country and others I've visited and I've driven on the the roads in most of them had in the past very bad fatality statistics. Times have changed and even though the 'excitement' is now missing from motoring – the decrease in death rates due to the enforcement of rules, the improvement in road architecture and vehicle design has gotta a good thing. Plenty of people still get dead every year though, so there's a way to go. Why should anyone die on the roads?

Am I being holier than thou here? Sounds that way but I have to tell you I remember with pleasure 45 years ago hooning around in my Austin Healey on public roads in ways which should have got me dead, sometimes seriously pissed as well. An accumulation of years allows hindsight, and sometimes the view ain't so good! A few years ago I bought one again and realised just how much cars have improved – I sold it after a short period as it was dangerous, cramped and bloody uncomfortable – by today's standards those cars were unsafe at any speed.

Ho hum, things on Thai roads aren't gonna change in a hurry, so … mai pen rai!

Stickman's thoughts:

I can indeed vouch for everything said here. The driving standards in Thailand are not what you may be used to back in Farangland.