Driving in Thailand Tips and Tricks – You Can Do It!

No matter where we travel, we usually wind up doing some driving.  Heidi and I have the whole driving thing down to a science.  I’m usually the driver, and she’s the navigator.  We rarely get lost, and when we do, it’s more of a “controlled lost“.  And even when we get really lost, it’s not all that stressful.  Unless it’s late.  Or we’re all hungry.  Or tired.

Driving in Thailand

With our recent car rental with Avis Thailand, I got a chance to get behind the wheel, and drove from Chiang Mai to Chiang Rai, which is about 185 km (115 miles).  And I also drove up from Chiang Rai to the Myanmar border to get our 2nd 60-day visas squared away.  That’s another 64 km (40 miles) give or take.  Roughly 160 miles, which by U.S. standards is a pretty short distance.

A couple of things to note about the driving over here in Thailand.  They drive on the left side of the road.  Some Americans call that the wrong side, but I just look at it as something different.  I’ve gotten a lot of questions from people over the years asking about the difficulty of driving on the left side of the road.

Sidenote:  It’s not really that difficult, but I will pass on some driving wisdom my best friend Mike shared with me in Australia (where they also drive on the left side).  The reason he imparted this wisdom to me is because we had been drinking some wine with a friend of his.  I’d had one glass of wine, Mike a few, and his buddy, a lot.  When it came to drive drunk friend home, Mike said he could do the driving, but didn’t want to risk it, so I became the designated driver.

It was the first time for me to drive on the left side of the road, and I was a bit nervous, but Mike explained the two key ideas to me (I can’t believe I’m giving this useful information away for free):

  1. Keep your body on the inside of the road.  Even if you drive on the right side, you do this, you just don’t think about it.
  2. When pulling onto a road, remember “Look Right-Left-Right”.  You do the exact opposite in the U.S.

That’s it!  Pretty simple, but very effective.  (Note to Editor:  Include a $5 donation Paypal button at the bottom for such useful information).  When driving on the left side, I always say these two things mentally to myself, and it helps put me in the proper state of mind.

So what specifically was it like driving in Thailand?

The biggest thing we noticed is that there’s really no road rage here.  People don’t honk their horns, and if they do, it’s usually more of a courtesy “I’m here, don’t run into me” tap.  The other thing was that those lines on the road are more of a guideline.  It’s perfectly acceptable here to split lanes, cut across lanes of traffic, or even drive on the wrong side of the road.  The flexibility of the driving rules would get people really worked up into a lather in The States, but the people here just don’t let it bother them.  Perhaps it’s that the country is primarily Buddhist.

My big takeaway is that you can drive a bit crazy here, and people don’t get upset.  The corollary to that is when other people around you are driving in a crazy manner, you can’t get upset.  Much harder, huh!  There are also tons of mopeds (125cc is the most common), tuk-tuks and songthaews (song-tao — rhymes with cow).

Mopeds in Thailand

I love not only the number of people, but the complete lack of helmets. Those “protective” thongs are pretty neat too.

Tuk-Tuks in Thailand

Like every other type of transportation here, they like to load a lot of people.

Songthaew in Thailand

Songthaew literally means two rows.  Two rows of seats.  Songthaew…good name!

For me those vehicles are the biggest worry, because it seems like they expect the cars to look out for them.  Again, you can’t get too worked up, or you’ll just wind up getting frustrated and angry.

During the driving here, we’ve found out a few interesting tidbits (in no particular order):

  • As I mentioned above, those solid/dotted lines on the road are just guidelines.  You would be surprised how many lanes of traffic you can put on a two or four-lane road.
  • When driving on the larger roads (four lanes total), it’s expected that you move over to the left a bit, because:
    • a driver will want to cross the center median to pass you;
    • an oncoming driver will want to pass his traffic by crossing the median;
  • Gas is expensive here (about $4.25);
  • The turn signal is on the RIGHT!  I don’t know how many times I turned on the wipers when trying to signal.  Rookie move!
  • There are a lot of close calls, and people don’t seem overly concerned;
  • They pack a lot of people on a moped.  We’ve seen very small children sandwiched between parents, or my favorite, standing on the foot platform hanging on to the handlebars…and no helmet.  I’ve also seen sidecar like contraptions bolted on to mopeds, and 4 or 5 people sitting in them.
  • At the stoplights, the mopeds split lanes and move ahead of the cars, and tend to jump the lights before they’ve actually turned green.
  • U-turns are a big thing here.
  • The global split in driving on the right vs. driving on the left globally is about 75%/25%.  An interesting tidbit I found was that even though the split is 75/25, right-handed driving accounts for 90% of the goods transported by roads globally.
  • On the bigger roads where there are two lanes, some sort of grass/hedge median and then two lanes, there are these pedestrian bridges that get NO USE whatsoever!  People don’t bother to use them, it’s just easier to walk or ride a moped through.
  • We saw our first native language Stop sign.  During our driving over the last two years, I don’t recall seeing a stop sign that didn’t say “stop”.  In Spain, France, Italy, wherever, the stop signs always had the word “stop”, and not the local word, “alto”, “arrêt”, or whatever.  Here’s what it looks like:

Stop (Thai)

  • If you’re ever stuck in a Parking garage, and are trying to look for the exit, this is the word you need to look for:  ทางออก  (in a Latin alphabet, it kinda looks like nriaan…sorta);
  • Out in the country, the rice paddy fields are beautiful;
  • It is very cool to be driving and seeing huge Buddha or monk statues.  To a Thai person, it’s probably no big deal, but it’s definitely different for us.
  • Luckily, most of the signage on the major roads is dual-language.  The Thai alphabet is completely unlike anything I’ve seen before.  To me the letters look like solder points on a circuit board.
  • There was one time when I was driving, and I didn’t recite my “Left-Hand Driving Littany“, and I was driving on the right-side of the road.  Something didn’t feel right, and Heidi and the kids didn’t say anything, and then all of a sudden, there is a car coming directly at us.  Oh yeah…Left side!

Avis Thailand Toyota Innova Mae Sai Border

Of all the driving, I would put driving in Thailand in the middle of the pack in crazy driving experiences.  If you’re not a confident driver, it’s not something I would recommend, but common sense goes a long way in keeping safe.  And when there’s no common sense on tap, just do what everyone else is doing.  Oh, and be flexible.

Now for the serious stuff

If you’re renting a car here, they only require a passport, and your local driver’s license.  You don’t need an international driver’s license, although if you get stopped by the police, it may help.  Traffic control signs are all pretty much standard, and easy to understand.  If you’re looking to get a Thai driver’s license, you can find all the details here.  Remember that those with tourist visas cannot apply; you must have some sort of resident visa.

If you’re looking to rent a scooter/moped, there are plenty of places to do so.  The bigger the engine, the more expensive they get.  It ranges from 200 Baht (for a small 110cc scooter) to 1800 Baht or more (full size 600cc motorcycle) per day.  You’ll need to leave either a cash deposit, your passport, or a hold on your credit card.  Do some checking around on the web, and make sure to find a reputable business.

Mass transportation is pretty reasonable.  Here in Chiang Mai, the songthaew is 20 Baht per person to anywhere in the city.  You may have to increase your price if you’re the only one in the back, as the drivers are reluctant to drive a long way for a single fare.  Tuk tuks run around 80 Baht per ride, but they are much slower than songthaews. Use them only for relatively short distances.

Safe traveling to you all.  Any interesting driving experiences you want to share?

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About Alan Wagoner

Alan digs on technology and travel and is definitely the comic in the family. He's traveled all over the globe in search of cultural experiences. He has a fantastic wife and two great children that put up with his "humor", and luckily they all love travel as well. In Aug 2012, they sold their house and all of their possessions and moved to Spain to soak up the culture. He has written a book titled Live In Spain to help those wanting to obtain a Spanish Resident Visa. He also loves to write about the funnier side of the family's adventures.

5 thoughts on “Driving in Thailand Tips and Tricks – You Can Do It!

  1. Great tips! For turn signal and wipers, I just remember that the turn signal is on the window side of the steering wheel and the wipers are towards the middle of the car. Also, if you find yourself blocked in at a car park, the car blocking you in may be in Neutral so that you can push it out of the way.

  2. I used to work for an airline and we were told never to wear sandals on board an aircraft. In the unlikely event of an emergency, it’s best to have a good set of sturdy shoes that will protect your feet from heat or sharp objects.

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