Driving in Thailand
Driving in Thailand has a completely different set of rules than the driving I’m used to. I have no desire to drive really, but see it more as a necessity and a safer option than the motorbike. I work about 35 minutes south of the city. The first time I got a ride out there, I literally could feel my anxiety rising in my body at the thought of riding a motorbike all the way there and back each day. I moved closer to school, but I still need to get around, so,I sucked it up and bought a 1993 automatic transmission Honda Civic for 120,000 baht. Yep, that’s one thing in Thailand that is expensive: a car, even one that’s 19 years old.
I’ve realized that my car is that of an Asian teenager. A Honda Civic with tinted windows. Awww yeah! I feel like an Asian teenage boy…and that’s when I realized what driving here is: a combination of 16 year old boys and grannies on the road. This makes for extremely fast and reckless, or extremely slow and overly cautious and driving, both equally not safe on the road.
Let’s start with some basics: the driving is on the left side, the opposite side of the road than I’m used to. The wheel is on the right, so had to adjust to realize how to turn right and left properly. How many times have I turned on the windshield wipers for the turns signal? Quite a few.
My friend Sam said it’ll take about 3 days to get used to driving on the other side of the road, but about 3 months to get used to the way people drive. He was right.
Narrow roads are very common place – they were built for bicycles and motorbikes, not cars and trucks. In year 2000 in Thailand, there weren’t many cars on the roads, mostly motorbikes and songthaews. Now there are still loads of motorbikes, but a lot of cars too. When there are two cars, or worse a car and a truck, approaching each other, often one will have to stop and pull over just so they can pass each other. Another thing I’m glad someone told me – when someone flashes their headlights it means don’t go. On the positive side there is not a lot of horn action unlike other countries I’ve visited in Asia.
Around the moat in Chiang Mai is a merge-y affair. There are cars, motorbikes, songthaews, tuk tuks, tourists on foot not knowing where they’re going, and bicycles, all competing for the same space. At least the traffic all (mainly) moves in one direction. There are areas that look like complete merging chaos, but somehow it works. I don’t know exactly how, but it just flows.
Often there will be a bicycle, motorbike, motorbike and side car thingy, car, or truck, coming at you the wrong direction on the highway. Stopping and pulling out from roadside food vendors with no warning is another reason to be on the lookout. Motorbikes will often have 3 people on it, none wearing helmets, and the driver looks like he could be 10 years old, and probably is.
Overtaking on either side of the car when there even is the smallest of windows of opportunity is the way it’s done. Often this is just to speed up to wait at a red light. On curves cars and trucks don’t mind crossing over the middle line in the road, which is merely a suggestion in Thailand. Driving on the shoulder happens all the time, it’s really just like another lane here.
It’s a good thing people meditate here – you have to be completely alert on all sides of the vehicle, at all times. It takes constant awareness. I have gold, silver, and bronze colored Buddhas protect me in the car. I buy them flower offerings from the roadside sellers.
After having driven here a little while now I’ve noticed that what was initially very scary driving, is less scary when you are the driver rather than the passenger. Do I love driving here? No. Do I love driving anywhere? No. I am getting used to it here.
Be careful. Expect the unexpected. Be mindful. Enjoy the adventure. Watch out!