How To Drive (And Stay Alive) In Thailand

This is something that I deal with on a daily basis, and many of my friends have echoed the same sentiment: driving in Thailand is dangerous. So I decided it was finally time to write about it - about the facts, rules and advice on how to drive in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Let it be known that for the most part, Thailand has really great road infrastructure and excellent highways connecting the whole country. The problem is not the quality or layout of the roads - although as Chiang Mai is rapidly developing, there should be consideration of no-car zones or incentives to walk or cycle - the problem is with laws that are not enforced by authorities, who allow potential murderers to continue behaving badly on the roads, and all too often cause the tragic loss of life you can see in the newspapers every other day. So it's people that are the problem, too.

The Facts:

• Thailand has the second highest road fatalities in the world, with 80 lives lost every day.

• It has the sixth highest rate of road traffic accidents, killing up to 26,000 people every year. Yes, 26,000 people. Just let that sink in for a second.

• Even more alarming is that 70-80% of those victims are motorcyclists or their passengers, which is worrying for the majority of Thais, foreigners and tourists, whose chosen mode of transport are motorised two-wheeled vehicles (of doom).

 The most likely fatalities in road accidents are drivers and passengers who are helmetless or not wearing a seatbelt; tragically, this is often combined with speeding or drunk driving.

So now that we know Thailand is a haven for irresponsible and inconsiderate driving, which often ends in accidents and needless deaths, here are a few ways to combat the country's pandemic (keep in mind I lived in Chiang Mai - Bangkok is another monster altogether).

Travelling safely on a beautiful road somewhere in Northern Thailand.

Characteristics of Drivers in Thailand:

Vans, buses and trucks
Here's the part where I'll admit I've always been terrified of humungous vehicles. In Thailand, I'm even more terrified, and I can thank my ten or so bus trips that involved hyperventilation and chest pains. When I say bus, van, and truck drivers in Thailand should be institutionalised, I can back it up with the countless news stories of their frequent fatal crashes. While I understand that most, if not all, of them are working awful hours for awful pay, and many are on yaba to stay awake and make good times, the dangers they impose on their passengers and other drivers on the roads is just criminal.

No checking when entering roads from side-streets.
Unfortunately, many people don't seem to think anything of pulling onto a busy road without checking for oncoming traffic - the attitude is that it's your job to avoid them! I have personally come within inches of colliding with an absent-minded motorbike or car driver more than enough times, and it still happens now! It's just a normal thing for drivers, so be aware that you're the one who's expected to move out of their way.

Indicators? What are those?
Driving in Thailand, you will either encounter motorbikes that have left their indicator on for the last few hundred metres, passing countless roads they didn't turn into, or you will find many people who simply don't use their indicators, and will sharply turn without warning. This is especially scary when you're on a motorbike and cars decide to swerve in front of you on a whim. Again, just stay away!

Angry, helmetless scooter-driver. Yikes!

Driving on the wrong side of the road
Sometimes this is actually understandable, especially on highways when the next U-turn is 5 km away and you're well on your way to the next province. After enough time in Thailand, you will be used to scooters and motorbikes driving on the far edge of the left lane, avoiding obstacles and potholes, just to save time. That doesn't mean it's still not dangerous, and drivers need to watch out for vehicles on these little side lanes.

Driving too slow or too fast
This is something I'm still figuring out. The speed of driving is completely random from one road to the next, with some drivers hobbling along awkwardly and holding up the traffic, and others going 100 km down residential roads. (We almost lost our lives once, right near our apartment, when a car came screeching towards us at a horrific speed and we had to scramble out of the way because he clearly wasn't able to brake to a stop. Phew!)
On highways, many drivers take their turns over two lanes, while it's harder for people to speed in the city because it's more condensed. That doesn't mean they don't when they can though; any time after midnight and especially on weekends, watch out for drunk drivers in their cars whizzing down the moat roads in the Old City.

Special mention: TOURISTS
Unfortunately, our world doesn't share a universal driving system full of polite etiquette and sensible rules, so you will come across people who are visiting Thailand and aren't used to the way of the road yet. This can be quite dangerous, especially because you can't anticipate what these new people might do!
Sometimes people might revert back to driving on the side of the road they are used to back home  or they might not make it through a set of traffic lights because they're used to patiently waiting their turn. Drivers in Thailand tend to run through yellow lights instead of slowing down, and many of the timed traffic lights aren't properly calibrated for the amount of traffic which invites people to act recklessly. I've seen many almost-collisions happen in these situations.
Other times, people are so preoccupied with trying to find their way, they just completely forget about driving and stop wherever they are to pull out a map or point at things. The general consesus is to avoid driving near people who might look lost or confused, as they might do something unexpected and dangerous. C'mon, guys! You'd never do this at home, so don't do it somewhere else!

Two wheels is the way to get around in Chiang Mai.

How to Drive in Thailand:

Be wise with the cops. Yes, this is my number one rule!
This is a bit of a touchy subject in Thailand, because while it's public knowledge that the traffic police here are mostly corrupt, at the same time they do some necessary work (just not enough, in my opinion). I made a very controversial post about it called "Know Your Traffic Police Checkpoints in Chiang Mai", which has gathered tons of shares and comments, and a whole heap of passion, tension, and downright fury. Have a read, and come to your own conclusion, but one thing is certain: be wise when dealing with the traffic police. Do not let them target you, bribe you or blame you for anything that isn't your fault. And always make sure you are totally legal, from your helmet to your vehicle, registration and driving licence.

Always wear a helmet on a motorcycle, as a driver or passenger.
There are just no excuses for this one, and I cringe every time I see two adults squashed onto a motorbike with a baby in the middle, all three of them helmetless and without a care in the world. No. Just, no.

Be aware at all times. So aware it borders on paranoid.
You could act like you are playing a game when driving in Chiang Mai. It's called Dodge The Crazies, and this is the setting: cars and bikes turn out of side roads without looking, songtheaws (red trucks) always pull over to a stop without indicating, and drivers that do indicate leave their blinkers on for ages, leaving you clueless to their intentions.
So how do you deal with all these obstacles? I'll tell you! Be switched on, at all times. Be aware, check your surroundings, and only then make your move (do I sound like a driving instructor yet?) When you turn, change lanes, or pull out of a spot: be a creepy crawly. Sudden movements cause sudden death to those who don't creep and crawl. The rules are simple, and you will almost never get into an accident you could have prevented if you just follow them.

Don't let yourself get bullied.
Easier said than done. This is like trying to ignore the mean kid while he pokes you with a pencil and asks you why you are poking yourself. Car-bullies always push smaller vehicles around, whether they be rickety three-wheeled motorcycles with carts attached to them, or little old ladies on bicycles.
In Chiang Mai's case, there are way too many vehicles, and the infrastructure can barely deal with the traffic. You just have to ignore it as much as you can, and carry on driving reasonably and responsibly.

Big orange thing from the future going real slow in the fast lane.

Double check, triple check, check so much you know the license plate.
Indicating to turn is not enough, and even after a few hand signals - which you shouldn't do on a motorbike unless you're the passenger - drivers will still blatantly disregard you and attempt to mow you down. Always make sure you can drive somewhere, no matter if you have the right of way or not (there is not so much right of way in Thailand, more like "you snooze, you lose"). Cars are big old bullies, like I said, and other bike drivers are mostly insane. Yes, I believe it.

Don't drink and drive. Duh!
Every time I go out somewhere at night I scratch my head wondering about all the drunk people driving to their different homes on the highway or through the city, in cars and motorbikes alike. Both equally stupid and selfish.
Drunk drivers are a huge problem that Thailand needs to crack down on: where are the breathalyser checkpoints in popular nightlife areas on the weekends? Where are the metered cabs waiting to take people home (without ripping them off)? Why are the jails full of poor people, drug users, and petty criminals, and not potential murderers who get in their vehicles and swerve off into the night? I could go on, but you get the picture.

Don't drive aggressively, or speed.
Aggressive drivers don't do well in Chiang Mai, mainly because they have to compete with other aggressive drivers, and then everyone ends up looking like fools on the road. Especially in the old city, which is quite a small area, and unfortunately the long moat roads are a haven for midnight racers.
If you want to see Chiang Mai's version of the Fast and the Furious, hang around on any stretch of the Superhighway late at night. During the day, too, especially if heading up to an overpass or a turn-off. Those are the best places to speed, apparently. How do I know? Burnt rubber, glimpses of near deaths, and trails of stinky exhaust fumes, that's how!

driving in Thailand
Watch out for pesky street dogs who might decide to chase you for fun.

Don't drive at all, if you can
This might sound like a simple suggestion, but honestly, there are very few alternatives to driving your own vehicle in Chiang Mai. The mayor has been promising to get round to implementing a public transportation system for years (there was talk of bus services back in 2010, and most recently, his tune changed to "there are no funds for public transportation").
Songtheaws are slow and a big contributor to the air pollution in the city, while tuk-tuk drivers are very keen on squeezing your pockets dry while also being huge contributors to the city's air, and noise, pollution.
Bicycling is always an option but some do complain that city planning doesn't allow safe bicycle paths - remember up there when I said little old ladies on their bicycles are always bullied by cars? But then again, I do know many people who cycle in Chiang Mai. Perhaps they are just a lot braver than me!
And of course, there is walking, but since I arrived here, walking has become less and less pleasant due to the constant hollering of tuk-tuk drivers and the sickening scent of exhaust fumes. Unfortunate, as the city is lovely to walk around, particularly the old city with its pebbled alleys and the pretty lights and trees around the moat.
Sometimes, we have to travel by bus or van. Visa runs, for example, or short getaways to Pai. In these situations, make it your mission to sit up front with the driver (not as easy with buses) and make sure he knows you're there. Buy him an ice cream or coffee at one of the 7-11 stops, make small talk - the general idea is to keep him awake and alert with your antics.
The last time I did this, I actually asked the driver of my van to kindly slow down and stop tailgating other vehicles, and told him how I was fearful of an accident - he calmed down considerably, and spent the rest of the time chatting to me about his interesting life as a van driver all over Thailand!

Be kind, and patient
This might seem like a strange how-to, but it seems to work for the most part. When you let other people have their turn, you will have yours, instead of everyone trying to scramble and fumble over one another. When you wait patiently, somebody will stop for you, or let you get to where you need to go, and a nod in their direction is always appreciated. When you drive selfishly or angrily, you will find driving much more difficult as opposed to driving calmly and kindly, which in turn attracts more calm and kindness your way. Okay, was that too wishy-washy? I must be done here.

King Thailand portrait
A huge ornamental portrait of The King on the side of a highway. Quite a common sight!

So here are my final observations about driving that apply to big cities the world over:
1. Who else thinks zooming around in big hunks of metal is pretty strange?
2. Also, isn't it funny how we're all in a big rush to get somewhere, pretty much all the time? (But mostly, we're just on our way home to plonk down in front of the TV in our PJs)
3. Okay, this one really baffles me... why do we feel the need to squeeze through everyone else to all get stuck at the same red light?
4. And, finally, don't you think it's really rubbish how we're never alone on the road (except at 3 in the morning), so we constantly have to battle with other selfish, absent-minded, or plain psychotic drivers? Like, couldn't we make a system already where we all got teleported to work at the same time or sucked up a cool sky tube to go grab dinner or something? Or, maybe someone else has a better suggestion?

I'd say, all we can do is try and be a little less selfish, absent-minded, and psychotic ourselves, and realise that we're all on the road with somewhere to be (even if that is just safe at home in front of the telly). What do you say? Do you agree?

Another distraction - adorable smiling dogs!
What a happy little guy.
A bonus smile from the driver!


  1. Hi Adrian.. Nice & very detailed post! Luckily I haven't been in an accident myself, but someone who was driving my car coming out of a street to turn left did ran into an unlicensed kid (who also wasn't waring a helmet - surprise, surprise! ) riding a motorbike coming up the road the wrong way! The driver was looking right to turn left, and she didn't see the kid riding up on her left. Fortunately, he wasn't hurt.

    ..So it would pay if you're driving out of the road to turn left to check your left hand side too, in case there are motorcycles coming up the wrong way!

  2. This is such an informative article: you cover all the areas. I wish someone would do something like this for Durban

  3. Hahhaaa, this made me laugh but also kinda depressed too. I think that's good though! Thailand may be the "Land of smiles" but I think they need an additional logo.... "Land of deadly drivers and greedy cops".. whooops, should I not say that?? PS I dig your citylife article about the traffic checkpoints, I had no idea that was you ;) nice job!

  4. Seriously, effing lunatic drivers

  5. "Big orange thing from the future going real slow in the fast lane." Made me LOL! Thailand is crazy eh