After driving around Thailand for almost a year, we’ve learned a lot about the unspoken rules of the road. At first glance, Thailand’s infamous “driving dance” seems like a chaotic jumble of moving vehicles, but there is actually a method to the madness. Knowing these driving tips and adjusting your driving style accordingly can make for safer and more enjoyable ride in Thailand.
Here is an extensive list of driving tips to make your time on the streets of Thailand a bit safer. It’s composed of our observations and things we’ve come to expect about the Thailand’s drivers. So far, adapting to this new style has kept us safe and able to explore places in Northern Thailand on our motorbike.
Drive on the left side
The most noticeable difference for some visitors is that driving occurs on the left side of the road. At first it can be weird to parallel park on the left, turn left at stoplights, and yield to oncoming traffic when making a (wide) right turn, but after just a few times we found it hard to imagine driving on the right side.
Make slow and deliberate lane changes
Most drivers change speed or direction slowly and deliberately when making a turn or switching lanes. Rather than looking out for turn signals, keep your eyes peeled for more subtle signals.These include a hand held down at a person’s side or someone gradually moving over from one side of the lane to the other. We are especially careful not to switch lanes too quickly around cars. You must be considerate of their blind spots!
Notify others of your upcoming presence
A polite beep is used to make another driver aware of your presence. Drivers sometimes issue a light beep around blind curves or before entering narrow streets. They also honk as they approach intersections that they know they will pass through as the light is yellow or as it just turns red so that people don’t pull out suddenly. It’s a polite way of saying, “Hey, I’m here.”
Honking is NOT used to express anger or frustration. If another driver is coming over into your lane, break slightly and let them in. Honking excessively and declaring that space as your own and branding them of their wrong doing makes you look silly and obnoxious.
Something else to keep in mind is if someone flashes their headlights at you it generally means “Get out of the way… I am bigger than you, and I’m coming through.”
Park (mostly) wherever
Parking is generally unrestricted. Cars can be found parked halfway into the bushes on narrow streets or helter-skelter on curbs. Motorbikes are crammed wherever there is two feet of space and even lined up on sidewalks. If you can fit, you can park! The same goes with parking lots and garages.
Watch out for the signs that say “No Parking on Even/Odd Days” or “No Parking from 7-9am.” Curbs that have red and white stripes are also off limit. Areas in Bangkok (on the sides of major highways) and areas that are typically reserved for taxis and tuk-tuks are also off limits.
Pay attention to the drivers in front of you
We’ve observed Thais paying attention to the people in front of them and not so much to the people behind them. This seems to explain why drivers confidently switch lanes without so much as a glance in their rearview mirrors or a quick head turn to check their blind spot.
Although it has taken a lot to get used to, sticking to what’s in front of us has proven time and again to keep us safe. There has been more than one occasion when we’ve look over our shoulders only to have to quickly swerve to avoid a sudden stopped vehicle in front of us.
Lookout for vehicles stopped in driving lanes
Keep your eyes peeled for vehicles that make sudden stops and are parked in driving lanes. This goes back to the idea that parking is allowed almost wherever, sometimes without the consideration to those who are driving. Guilty parties are often songthaews and tuk-tuks pulling over to drop off or pick up customers. Citizens do it too, when they “Just need to run into a store for a minute.” Although they aren’t parked, keep a look out for the food vendors slowly pushing their carts in the street, too.
Don’t assume drivers will stop at intersections
Stop signs are not regularly posted at small intersections. Even if a stop sign is present, it is not uncommon for drivers to roll through an intersection or road junction without even a glance over their shoulder to look for oncoming traffic. Make sure to keep a look out for motorcyclists suddenly pulling out even if they don’t have the right of way. Following this simple driving tip has saved our butts a few times from careless people zipping around the back streets of Chiang Mai.
Keep in mind that small intersections in the main part of town often have blind corners because buildings are built so close to the street’s edge. This limits visibility of people coming across the intersection in front of you.
Be wary of crosswalks
There are designated crosswalks for pedestrians, some of which are paired with traffic lights in busy areas. Although it’s pretty typical to see crosswalks at intersections, they also pop up in pedestrian heavy areas along main roads.
Here’s what we do at crosswalks that are not tied to an intersection. We’ve noticed Thais doing the same thing:
- When the traffic light (for vehicles) is green, go, but keep your eye out for crossing pedestrians.
- When the traffic light is red, go, but keep your eye out for crossing pedestrians.
In other words, if there are no pedestrians physically present in the crosswalk directly in front of your vehicle, we feel expected to continue driving though. If you stop for a crosswalk’s red light but the pedestrian has yet to pass or have finished crossing in front of you, you actually risk getting rear ended!
What keeps us safe is slowly approaching the red light and creeping through. We make sure to never get beside a truck or another vehicle that we can’t see around just in case there is someone in the crosswalk just on the other side.
Use lanes as guidelines
Although there may be paint on the road indicating designated driving lanes, you may think they don’t exist at all after watching some drivers weave back and forth. Motorcyclists in particular are notorious for riding wherever there is open space, beyond lanes, including:
|· The sidewalk
· The shoulder
· The double yellow line
|· In between lanes of cars
· Into oncoming traffic
· Down one-way streets
To be safe, we never assume that drivers in front of or beside us will stay in their lane.
Congregate at stoplights
Motorcyclists wait in line behind cars at red lights, right? Hardly! Do what the locals do and drive in between the cars or on the shoulders and get as close as possible to the front of major intersections. It’s common for cars to leave some space between themselves and the white line so that motorcyclists can come to the front.
It is also typical for motorcyclists to zoom off as soon as (or even right before) the light turns from red to green. Keep this in mind so you aren’t run over by someone overtaking you as the stoplight countdown goes from 2-1-0, or someone coming from across the intersection trying to run a red light. Lights with visible timers are typically placed at very large intersections where drivers usually have a full view of all lanes of traffic (opposite and both sides).
Wear a helmet (if you’re riding a motorcycle)
Riding around without a helmet is extremely dangerous. Period. Even if the mental image of brains smeared on pavement doesn’t convince you to wear a helmet, then maybe money out of your pocket will. There are police checkpoints stationed about and they will fine you, locals and foreigners alike, for not wearing a helmet. It may be a double whammy too, if you don’t have an internationals or Thai driver’s license to show.
We always wear helmets and full faced is the way to go.
TIP: If you drive in Thailand, you must have an international driver license. If you want to rent a car, your international license must be approved to drive a car; if you want to drive a motorbike, your international license must be approved to drive a motorbike. If you do not have an international license, you will be fined. For long-term stayers, we recommend that you apply or a Thai license.
Observing these Thai driving tips has kept us safe
Paying more attention to the Thai driving style and what’s happening around us in real-time has helped us stay safe. This is not to say that throwing the hard road rules to the wind is a good idea, but knowing what to expect on the roads and how to react in certain situations has made us safer drivers.
What’s your experience been like driving around Thailand? Is there anything you tend to look out for? Is there anything you enjoy about driving in Thailand?
It’s going to be hard to resort to the “old way” of driving when we visit home in the US. With all that extra pavement we might be really tempted to pass on the shoulder in rush hour traffic!