Death Lurks around Every Corner – Highway Driving in Thailand
The title of this piece might sound like an exaggeration. It's not. What I intend it to be is a summary of some of my recent driving experiences in Thailand last year. While I was there, I rented a car, drove in Bangkok, and then drove some 600 miles down to the South of Thailand, took a ferry to Ko Samui, and then back to Bangkok. While I had rented a car and driven in the madhouse that is Bangkok traffic before, this trip was over 1200 miles through some of the busiest, craziest, most suicidal driving in Thailand, and I thought I might share my experiences with you.
I saw people breaking every rule of the road, of courtesy, and common sense, and some even ignored the laws of physics. This drive made normal Bangkok driving seem quite tame by comparison.
Some of this was inspired by a piece someone submitted about Ko Samui. (I couldn't disagree more strongly about retiring there; while it IS quite beautiful, it strikes me as one of the most dangerous places I have visited, where it is easy to be victimized in any of a dozen different ways, far more than normal, even in Thailand, but to each their own). It was also inspired by previous comments, such as Stickman giving up his car (a wise move, in my opinion!). Much of this will seem funny – in retrospect it is; but believe me, it wasn't all that funny at the time, it was more like terrifying.
I am a big fan of Thailand. I have visited many times over the past 10 years, either brought by business projects in the Kingdom, or on a side visit when business took me to Hong Kong or Singapore. I have a number of Thai friends, and met my long-term fairn there (sorry, no bargirl experiences to relate – no judgments about that, but that life wasn't interesting to me). I have also gotten to know her family quite well and spend time with them in various settings, her parents are both well-educated professionals, and they're good people. They have never asked anything of me, and been nothing but warm hosts and accepting people (when having a farang in a relationship with their daughter could certainly have been upsetting to them). I only mention this to say that I am not a complete newbie, nor suffering from Thai culture shock.
My friend, let's call her Boo, was a professional interpreter for me on one of my first business visits, college-educated and a sophisticated Bangkokian, with spectacular language skills, like a native speaker – we clicked immediately, we liked each other and stayed in touch online after my visit for a long time before any romance developed. Basically she was as close to being an American in spirit, or at least a very international Woman of the World, without having been out of the country. Eventually she came to the US for graduate school, where she remains today. I only mention this because Boo was my companion and co-pilot on this trip. And she was a massive help to me.
I have had some exciting driving in the past. I have driven in Italy and rural France, which had chaos, speeding and exciting moments. I drove much of the length of Chile, which had a lot of the excitement of inexperienced drivers, people and animals wandering all over the roads, and essentially no rules. I have driven in the UK, New Zealand and Australia, so I am used to the "wrong side" driving. And I even drove in Bangkok numerous times, so I guess I thought I was ready for what was coming. I wasn't. No Western driver would be, I think.
What I observed was the violation of every rule, sign, courtesy, common sense, and law (except gravity). I saw numerous accidents and at least one apparent death. I saw a flipped truck, a crashed bus, and a flipped car in flames (all over a 3-day period). More than amazing, downright scary.
After my visit, I did some research. Thailand apparently has about 30,000 traffic deaths per year (almost the same as in the US), or 5 times the rate for the population if compared to the US. I would imagine, if they adjusted the number by miles driven, it would be even higher (Thailand is a much smaller country with far fewer paved miles of road). It currently has the second highest road fatality rate in the World, after Namibia.
Also, given that many "incidents" go unreported, and even reported accidents can be "suppressed" to promote tourism, I would guess the real rate to be significantly higher. I also read that it is estimated that 1 million Thais per year show up at hospitals and clinics each year for treatment due to road accidents (close to 2% of the population), and it is felt that this number may also be under-reported. In short, it's pretty exciting driving out there, and the Tourism Board doesn't mention some of the key rules of the road. I must emphasize that NONE of my observations below are an exaggeration or an attempt to embarrass anyone. They are all true.
Some things I learned:
– When driving a rental car, remove all rental stickers or badges from the car. They will only identify you as a target for police bribes or theft while parked. When in SE Asia, Western tourists are only seen as a source of easy cash. <I *strongly* disagree. Theft from and of vehicles is so much worse in other countries – particularly the West – than it is in Thailand – Stick>
– When stopped by the local police, always have small bills for a "payment". They don't make change for larger bills. This caused me to pay 1000 baht "fine" instead of the 500 that I felt he would accept. Always be polite and deferential with the police. You may think he's being a dick to squeeze you for some cash, but give him a bad attitude and you may find out what being a dick really means (not something I wanted to experience).
– When you rent a car, don't assume that it will be new (mine had 100,000 miles on it – not kilometers, miles). And this was from a major US car rental firm. Also assume that if there is any problem with the car (and I had a fair amount of trouble) you will be expected to pay for it, have it fixed, and then negotiate for a possible future reimbursement or credit from the rental car company (and this was a good rental company). You may also be left stranded for days if your car breaks down. Remember, anything that happens, it's your problem, not theirs. This is Thailand.
– It is possible for 8 or 9 separate "lanes" of traffic to all merge into 2 or 3, in the slowest, yet most aggressive way possible. If you can imagine thousands of cars, on the ring roads outside of Bangkok, all inching forward, none giving way until their bumpers practically scrape each other. It's a game of the most annoying form of slow-motion chicken that I have ever seen.
– Giving any indication of your intentions is a sign of weakness. Trying to catch the eye of any other driver means nothing. It's almost viewed as a challenge. Using a turn signal only causes everyone to speed up and assert their mammalian territory-claiming rights and rituals.
– Unlike in the West, when someone flashing a light often means that they see and acknowledge you, in Thailand, when another car shines its lights at you, it means, "I see you, so now get the$%$% out of my way". When a car behind you, travelling 40 mph faster than you, flashes its lights, it means, get the $%$% out of my way before I rear-end you.
– A red license plate means a new car. A new car can mean a new driver. If you can imagine it, a new Thai driver is even more dangerous than an "experienced" Thai driver. They have no understanding of the "rules of the road", and forms of courtesy, and frankly struck me as not all that familiar with how to control their cars in traffic. If you see a red license plate, give them a wide berth if you can.
– As a farang, if any accident happens, it's your fault. After all, you're a foreigner, and if you weren't there, the accident wouldn't have happened. If anyone is injured, especially in a rural area, I was warned that you may be beaten up, and will likely be arrested. I was especially concerned that someone on a scooter might smash into me when I was at a light or making a turn. Most advice that I got was to GET LOST, FAST, if that happened. If someone is killed, a cash settlement to the police and the family can make everything go away. Your insurance representative is there to handle the necessary negotiations and to make sure that the police only take their fair share. This advice came from sophisticated, well-connected Thais who only had my welfare in mind. I didn't feel that they were exaggerating or messing with me.
– If driving in the rural South, avoid driving at night, especially later at night. There are many more drunks on the roads, cars and scooters driving without lights and other unexpected hazards, such as massive potholes and police checkpoints. Take care of your car and keep it in decent condition and with enough fuel. If you break down in the middle of nowhere, you could be in danger in certain parts of the country (and I am not just talking about the parts of the deep South). In some areas I was warned that kids and gangs sometimes toss large rocks into the path of nice looking cars to cause accidents and then see what they can get. There are certainly many kind and generous Thai people in every part of the country, but there are also stories of thugs and potential criminals – when the sun goes down, it gets harder to sort out who's who.
– Expect to be passed on the right, the left, and pretty much anywhere by scooters and motorcycles. Don't assume anyone will notice, respect, (or believe) your turn signals. It is not uncommon for a scooter to blow through a light and hit you, or hit you as you make a turn, or turn directly into your path, at speed. At night, some people may turn off their lights (they don't want to use the bulbs up? or use gas??? I have no idea why – it's insane). Cars and scooters will drive on the shoulder, often in the same direction as you, sometimes directly into your path in the opposite direction, and usually everything at once. Expect people to drive through red lights, not to stop at stop signs, and to come the wrong way down one-way streets. ALL THE TIME. If you are in a situation where it seems that someone could do something incredibly dangerous and foolish, assume that THEY WILL DO SO! You will see things that will turn your hair grey, every day.
– On the "freeways" to the South, some parts will be well-paved and well-marked. Others will be rutted and have huge potholes and no lane markers. You won't know where one starts and the other stops. You won't know what fun it is to hit huge holes (or try to avoid huge holes) at 75 or 80 mph. You can easily blow a tire, destroy an axle, or flip your car if you are inattentive. There are two lanes; the slow lane which goes about 30 mph, full of old crappy diesel trucks, and the fast lane, which goes about 90 mph. Get stuck behind the wrong person or in the wrong place, and watch the fun and mayhem.
– In the West, safety on the road comes from being predictable, speeding up or slowing down when it is expected, using signals, turning when safe, keeping enough space between cars, etc. It seems to me that in Thailand, road safety only comes from DRIVING FAST, cutting people off, and being as aggressive as possible. This seems to be the expected behavior. If you try to show common road courtesy, or be more careful, I believe you may cause an accident with other Thais who don't understand what you are doing. This may sound crazy, but all I can say is that you have to experience it.
– Don't honk. Don't curse, yell or flip anyone off. This is good advice in the West, where it can help avoid some minor road rage. In Thailand it can cause all kinds of mayhem, including beatings or worse. If you flip off some connected Hi-So in a Mercedes, he may stop and have some of his boys give you a physical "tune-up". Or pop a few rounds into you. To say that some of these roads are the Thai equivalent of the Wild West is a true statement. Don't flash beams at anyone, or tailgate. Don't make eye contact, it can be seen as being Aggressive. If prudent, get out of the way of the more aggressive drivers. Just don't look at anyone, drive as if you own the road, and you will fit right in. Leave your ego at home – it's just not worth what can happen if you get into trouble.
– When they do road construction, they're not big believers in putting up warning signs or cones. I had huge excavators on the shoulder swinging into oncoming traffic, workers wandering directly into traffic, etc.
– One thing that happened was in broad daylight, just 30 or so miles outside of Bangkok on the way to Hua Hin. As we were cresting an overpass, meaning you couldn't see anything that was below the crest of the road, I suddenly saw an orange construction cone, in the middle of the fast lane. That's right. One cone. And about 10 feet after that, a large dump truck full of workers and a few other large trucks, doing some kind of clean up or repair. Think about this. You're going like 75 mph, with aggressive sedans and fast-moving vans and buses right behind you. All of a sudden you crest a hill and have to jam on your brakes to avoid smashing into trucks and workers. I was able to stop about a foot short of the cone. A car right behind me screeched on its brakes and stopped inches behind us. To the left, in the middle lane, we were completely boxed in by fast-moving traffic. After the other car roared away, nearly being side-swiped, I knew that if we didn't get out of there in the next minute or two, we were going to end up getting rear-ended and probably be smashed or crispy critters. I told Boo to be quiet, hold on and pray, as I floored it and got into the other lane, just able to accelerate into the middle lane and pass the workers. As I passed the work trucks, I heard the sound of brakes squealing and a crash in the fast lane that I had just left moments earlier, where someone hadn't been able to stop in time.
Just stunning, frightening, and a regular occurrence. How could this be avoided? Invest in more cones, a warning sign or two, and perhaps a few flares, don't park workers where they can't be seen, and give more advance notice of construction, like a quarter mile. It makes you feel that life just isn't valued in the same way on Thai highways.
– There are two types of trucks on the larger freeways. Slow moving, yet aggressive huge freight trucks, belching diesel fumes and cutting right in front of you, and fast moving pick up trucks, loaded to the sky with materials and people. I mean piled some 15 feet high with things. I saw more than one truck piled 15 feet high (they have high metal railings to hold everything in).
– In heavy monsoons, the typical feeling was that turning on headlights and wipers would allow you to speed up. I saw so many "frustrated" drivers speeding like maniacs, hydroplaning over puddles at 70 or 80 mph, tailgating, and weaving in situations where you could barely see through your windshield. My advice, slow down and stay aware from the aggressive drivers. Darwin will sort them out.
– Two pairs of eyes are better than one, and having someone in the front passenger seat, scanning the road for hazards was very helpful. There can just be some situations where things are so chaotic, you can't see all the potential hazards simultaneously without help. My girlfriend Boo was an amazing help to me.
Some things I saw:
– I saw a motorcyclist lying sprawled across a concrete roundabout. He was as pale as a sheet and his body was at an unnatural angle. I have seen dead bodies before and this guy was dead. He was surrounded by gawkers, not a first responder in sight.
– I saw a large freight truck lying on its side in a ditch, wheels still spinning. In fact, Most of the large highways heading South, especially after you pass Hua Hin, have a deep ditch in the center, for hundreds of miles. When they're not full of trash, they are also a convenient place to keep the wrecks before they get collected. They are usually placed there by reckless and aggressive drivers.
– I saw a passenger sedan, on its side, engulfed in flames. Police had closed 2 of the 3 lanes, and we were all (of course) forced to drive right past the burning wreck, within a couple of feet. I could feel the heat of the flames. Naturally the Thai drivers were driving extremely slowly to get a good look at it. This was one time that I violated one of my own rules, and started honking to get them out of the way. And having us not dying in a fire or explosion.
– I saw a large inter-City bus, lying on its side. It perhaps wasn't quite as "fresh" as the other wrecks I saw, maybe a day old or so.
– Taking a car on one of the ferries from Dongsak to Samui is nearly impossible. You can't just drive up, buy a ticket, and get on. You need to make a reservation days in advance, or join a membership club. Of course it's impossible to know this in advance. Strangely, this was one of those un-Thai situations where negotiation and bribery didn't work. We had to leave the car overnight in an unsecured area by the dock, and come back the next day, spending the better part of the day getting the car onto the ferry. It wasn't that I so desperately wanted the car on Samui (although local transportation there is ridiculously overpriced and chaotic), it was more that I didn't want the car stolen or vandalized in Dongsak. I believe that the only reason the car was still there in the morning the next day, was the torrential monsoon rains that were going on all night.
– I saw a loaded concrete truck (the mixer was turning), driving like a madman on Samui's narrow two-land road, weaving and passing at 40+ mph while scooters, motorcycles, and pedestrians scurried out of the way at the last instant. That truck was nearly on 2 wheels for part of that, and if there had been an accident, I think he would have taken out a dozen people or more. And this was just something you might notice at any time while driving around.
– I saw pickup trucks, loaded high with merchandise and people, piled high with boxes, and people sitting on top of the boxes! Bouncing around at 70+ mph, where a simple misstep, fall, or swerve could be fatal, and not a care in the world. I even saw a chair tied on top of some of the boxes, with someone sitting in it. Probably close to 20 feet in the air. I'm not making this up.
I left for Hua Hin and Samui with thoughts of a beautiful, relaxing drive and a romantic adventure, with visions of palm trees, infinity pools, and azure blue waters. I got all of those. But what I also got was hassle, inconvenience and the constant, blistering fear of death. When I returned the rental car, it was as if a huge weight was lifted from my shoulders. I'm not a wimp, nor am I a kid, but this was one of the most stressful couple of weeks that I have experienced, ever.
Bottom line: You're on vacation, take a plane. Don't drive long distances if you can avoid it. And especially, don't take a bus or a van if you can help it!
In the 90,000 km in Thailand I drove in almost 7 years of car ownership in Thailand, I experienced much of what you talk about. Some local drivers are absolutely reckless. I would, however disagree with some points.
Be careful of proliferating the old wife's tale that foreigners involved in accidents in Thailand are always found to be in the wrong. This is not the case at all. Well, it does happen sometimes…but *why*. The authorities may try to apportion blame to one party in instances where that party has insurance and the other doesn't. Apportioning blame to the party with insurance (and seldom do foreigners driving in Thailand not have insurance) means that the insurance company will cover both parties so neither will be out of pocket. Think of this as a Thai solution where no individual suffers greatly.
Being safe behind the wheel in Thailand is all about driving defensively. You have to watch carefully what others are up to and anticipate possible problems before they happen. For the first few weeks it can be quite worrying, even nerve-racking, but once you get used to Thai drivers, it isn't quite as bad as it first looks. I only had one accident and it was entirely my fault – I backed in to a wall! That's not to say that the standard of driving here is good, because I don't think it is…but once you get the hang of it and adapt, it's not quite as bad as it first looks and there is method to the madness!