Cutting corners is a habit (or skill!) that Thai people have not only in traffic, but in many other aspects of life too: work, social life, study, language. The focus is not on doing things the correct way, but on getting your things done the easier way. That there are consequences, risks and disadvantages to doing things not in the right way is not something most Thai people worry about, as long as you can get away with it now it's good enough.
I've been working with Thai workers for years, even when fixing a leaking water pipe workers prefer to go the quick-and-dirty way taping things away or 'solving' it with lots of silicon, which does the job for a few months, but you know it's not going to last. Cutting corners is the cornerstone of the Thai skillset.
These are a few of the most remarkable features of Thai-style traffic that are probably different from what you’re used to. Besides that, almost everything you can imagine could go wrong goes wrong.
Thailand has adopted international traffic rules, but Thai authorities of course have come to realize that not all international rules go very well with Thai culture and traffic behaviour, so they have made alterations aiming at improving traffic situations in a way which is more suitable to Thai drivers.
Unfortunately, not all of them work well.
The many U-turns you find on main roads are an example of that: they are an alternative to having an real intersection. Real intersections in Thailand suffer from the problem that Thai drivers tend to speed up last-minute to push through the last seconds of the green light or the beginning of the red light, thus delaying the traffic coming from the next green light. Also, sometimes traffic doesn't flow through and just parks in the middle of the intersection.
Energetically, intersections embody direct confrontation, which doesn't go well with Thai culture.
The alternative, the U-turn which allows traffic to smoothly blend in with the current flow, is much more suitable to Thai culture in many cases, but it can get irritating if you have to drive a few kilometers before you can change direction.
Making roads one way only is another example of how Thai authorities try to improve traffic flows to cater for Thai-style driving. Unfortunately, it's often the only tool Thai authorities see in otherwise congested traffic, and it doesn't really work.
Especially in the busy hours of the late afternoon, when parents pick up their kids from schools and early workers go home, Thai police come out to main intersections to "regulate" traffic manually that should be done by a computer rather than a human, and often they make the traffic flows go worse.
Whenever you notice the traffic is not flowing around 4 or 5pm, you'll often notice that the reason was a police guy redirecting traffic a few hundred meters further on.
In some locations, Thai authorities have reversed the direction of lanes aiming at improving traffic flows, which may be effective at most times of the day, but it can come at the cost of some traffic accidents due to confusion amongst Thai drivers who didn't pay enough attention. A reversed left-right traffic flow is a situation that most Thai don't expect and when not well-marked or well-separated, confusion and accidents are bound to happen.
Being aware of the main "rules" I set out above, you will be better equipped to stay safe.
While not neglecting your international driving rules' obligations to watch out 360 degrees around you, in Thai context mainly focus your attention in front of your vehicle. You need to put about 80-90% of all your attention in front of you within your Range of Responsibility. Correct international driving behaviour would put perhaps 60% of your attention in front of you and 40% of your attention around you, because this is also part of your responsibility. But in Thailand, you have to break with this habit because you really need more attention in front of you where dangerous things can happen suddenly all the time.
Don’t make sharp or sudden turns. When changing direction, signal and move slowly. It's all about being predictable to your fellow road users so they can adapt to you.
In an international driving context, you are supposed to adjust your speed at the proper level: at times slower and faster where you can, you could even fail your exam by not driving fast enough. You're supposed to make smooth and fast turns.
In Thai context, this doesn't always work out well. Making a sudden quick turn or a sudden movement outside of your steady 'cruise-controlled' pace could surprise other road users who were anticipating your predictable behaviour.
For example, some in particular young Thai scooter drivers take over at very high speeds, zigzagging around other vehicles. This irresponsible behaviour can only go unpunished when all other traffic is predictable.
In such case, if you would make a sudden movement, however correct in international driving context, a collision might happen, it wouldn't be your fault but you don't want to get involved.
Another example is how some pedestrians, after having waited for a long queue of vehicles to pass, suddenly try to cross a road running when they see an opening in the never-ending traffic. They might be noticed by one vehicle but not by another vehicle which comes from another lane. Even when crossing a lane as a pedestrian, walk over in a composed, predictable manner making sure that all other traffic sees you. Make a short sprint only when you are absolutely sure that there is no one left to hit you.
In the same way, don't stop to abrubtly. Try to stop slowly, so the traffic behind you can notice. Stopping in situations that the traffic behind you doesn't expect, for example if you want to exhibit gentleman behaviour for a pedestrian waiting to cross the road, can cause the driver behind you to hit you in the back.
Do cars really stop at the zebra?
Anticipate how traffic, especially in front of you, will behave, rather than trusting that everybody follows the rules.
On many intersections, the lights turn green in a fixed sequence against the clock, but on some major intersections in Chiang Mai (Airport Plaza intersection, Rincome intersection, etc.), it's completely different, so don't anticipate the normal sequence but actually watch.
Generally, roads in Thailand are pretty good and comfortable to drive, but this can be misleading as there can be sudden and unexpected unevenness in the roads or even big gaps without a notice. Especially when you're driving at high speed and you encounter an uneveness, it may bring you off your balance.
Some foreign drivers with lots of driving experience got killed in Thailand driving into caves in the road where they didn't expect it.
The water department didn't bother to put the lid of the water sewage system level with the road, in this case it's about 5-10cm deep compared to the road. It's practicably invisible and you won't expect it as you're focusing on the intersection, and it can have an impact on your stability when you're driving at high speed.
In international driving, you should have learned to (a) signal first, then (b) do a shoulder check, then (c) change lane or make a turn. This is the correct way to change direction or make a turn, however, this doesn't go 100% well with Thai driving styles, so I recommend a different procedure:
(a) watch first in mirror and shoulder check
(b) wait until the right moment to signal
(d) watch again in mirror and should check
(e) make the turn or change lane.
Thai style driving context is different from international context in that you always have to be careful that no one is passing or overtaking you from the wrong side / angle. If you turn left, you not only have to check your right side (which is normal), but also your left side, because someone might just want to pass through going straight on your left.
Another difference is that you should not leave the signal on for too long. In international driving, you can leave the signal on for a while, traffic will notice and pass and you change lane or direction after that. In Thai context, this may not be the case. As soon as you signal, other drivers behind you are on alert as you are going to make a move which is inside their Range of Responsibility. So you may find that the traffic behind you is waiting for you to change lane, whereas you're used to international traffic to simply pass.
So, don't signal too early. First check how much traffic is behind you. If you keep the signal for too long, traffic behind you may think you have just forgotten that you left your signal on.
Signal, watch, and take action on your signal. Don't wait too long to take action on your signalling to others.
Allow yourself time to adjust to other people's mistakes.
Roads in Thailand are generally good but there is more pollution including some petrol sedimentation on the surface of roads, which can become slippery especially when it rains. Also, some shops clean their own floors with soapy water and then throw the water on the road, which may be a bit slippery.
By leaning into the curve, you make yourself more fragile to loss of balance in case of slipping. Also, it's much harder to stop properly when you're in a leaned position in case you encounter another vehicle as your gravitational point is not straight above your tires, then stopping abrubtly will lead to slipping.
Leaning in curves can feel good, but roads are sometimes more slippery in Thailand
due to petrol and other dirt sedimentation on the surfaces
Nearly the only thing Thai police are actively enforcing is wearing a helmet, so if you stay in Chiang Mai during about one month, the chances of getting fined are quite high. Besides that, it's of course the most essential piece of protective wear to have. You can buy simple Thai quality helmets at a few hundred baht or very high quality ones at several thousands. Both will at least give you the most important basic level of protection.
If you feel comfortable with it, you can also wear long pants and long sleeves (which are good against the sun and mosquitos anyway) and at least wear proper shoes, not flip-flops.
Gloves are also very good protection but a bit of a bother when you're just driving in the city.
If you drive a big bike and go around or out of the city at much higher speeds, all of this becomes much more serious and you should definitely at least wear proper shoes, gloves and helmet.
Most of the popular large banks in Thailand offer an accident insurance, in particular the one by Bangkok Bank is famous amongst foreigners but other banks in fact provide nearly the same offer.
An accident insurance usually covers a substantial amount of damage in hospital bills (around THB 50,000) at a very modest price (about THB 1,000-2,000).
(The insurances are usually underwritten by an insurance company that the bank teams up with, so the bank just serves as a counter.)
Besides that, if you own a vehicle you should pay for your government license every year (just a few hundred baht) and when you do that, they will require you to have your vehicle inspected and get an obligatory accident insurance as well (just THB 100-200).
Perhaps the most important of all is: don't be over-confident. When you just start to drive a motorcycle or vehicle in Thailand, you may feel everything is under control, you're enjoying the roads or the landscape and you may become over-confident.
I had three minor slipping accidents in my time of driving here, and they all happened in the beginning because I felt too confident about driving and trusting the road or others.
Driving too fast, hanging in the curves, trusting the surface of the road, and trusting others to follow the rules can all come from over-confidence and will lead you into trouble.
This article has at times been edited and updated with help of readers to give you the most realistic and complete survival guide of how to stay sound and safe in Thai traffic. Help us to do so by leaving your comment underneath.
Enjoyed reading this in-depth article? Read another top article: on our site: Farang Life Cycle in Thailand
|FFB Posted on January 15, 2017 at 19:47:10|
The best article written about driving in Thailand ever ! Should be translated to Thai and given to kids to learn what their stupid parents and ridiculous teachers are unable to teach them !
|Dee Posted on January 14, 2017 at 15:38:44|
Wow, this is an amazing article. Driving a scooter in Thailand for the last 10 days, I already noticed and started acting on some of those rules. Thank you for putting them all together in this enlightening article.
|Dellboy Posted on January 12, 2017 at 14:23:02|
|LivinLOS Posted on January 09, 2017 at 08:00:06|
Superbly written with both actual rality and 'context' on why the reality is the way it is..
Right up to "dont lean in corners".. er care to explain the physics of that magic trick then ??
|CMDriver Posted on January 07, 2017 at 12:22:44|
Very good, well thought through and comprehensive analysis of the driving habits and risks we all face over here. Many thanks to the author for the time and effort you put into this - it should be required reading for all drivers used to the international conventions of driving.
|Admin Locator Posted on July 05, 2016 at 07:36:32|
Dear Garnet, official Thai regulations for zebra crossings are: "in the case of people crossing the road on zebras, cars have to stop and let people go first", but they are quick to add a "people who cross zebra should also look carefully and allow the time for cars to reduce the speed". In other words, there is a mutual responsibility, but the warning to zebra crossers suggests that the police are aware that not all cars stop.
Official Thai regulations for roundabouts are: "let the car which is on the right in the roundabout go first". However, some Thai drivers might mistake the situation at a roundabout with that of an equal intersection and believe that the traffic from the left should go first.
|Philippe Posted on July 01, 2016 at 04:16:22|
This is the very best explanation ever how traffic works in Thailand.
I'm writing a blog about traveling on motorbikes in Thailand. It is in german language. If you allow i would love to share your article translated in german but with a link to your article. Is that ok for you? Many thanks for your work. Really helpful indeed.
|Garnet Posted on June 29, 2016 at 18:28:43|
An interesting and pretty good article. However i have been wondering lately what are the official Thai regulations for zebra crossings or even if there are any official rules. Do you know ? Same for roundabouts.
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