Driving in Thailand is one of those situations where I really wish I had a video camera strapped to my helmet so that I could record some of the crazy things I’ve seen. But you’ll just have to make do with words as I try to explain some of the unique aspects that make driving here an inimitable experience.
As easy as falling off a bike
I’ve written before about the way in which I came to ride a scooter – not an easy journey for me. One of the main reasons for it taking me six months from arriving to being mobile was the traffic and road system in Thailand.
Rules of the Road
At first, I really felt that there were no rules. Whilst it felt familiar in some ways – mainly because they drive on the same side of the road – it was like another world in others. People seemed to appear without warning from side roads, would overtake and undertake with abandon, and I couldn’t read any of the (few) road signs so I had no idea if there were speed limits or other imperatives.
In my first 6 months I was a passenger on a scooter, in a tuk tuk or songthaew, or walking. Thailand’s not really made for pedestrians – there are few pavements and Thais generally think you’re a bit mad if you walk when you don’t have to, because of the heat.
There are very few places to cross the really busy roads safely (or indeed, to cross any of the roads!). For example the Chiang Mai moat road, which can have up to 6 lanes (three each side of the moat, traffic moving clockwise outside the moat and anticlockwise inside the moat), has only a handful of crossings where the cars ‘have’ to stop, and then a number of zebra crossings where traffic just doesn’t stop. I’ve seen many a foreign pedestrian standing disconsolately at the edges of one of these waiting in vain for traffic to stop (you may remember my top tip for crossing the road was – find a monk to cross behind!).
Being a passenger on a scooter really helped me to become more familiar with the traffic and roads when not actually driving myself. After the first week or so (when I’d started opening my eyes again), I could see that the Thais have a different approach to driving and traffic, and as I’ve mentioned in a previous post, it’s much more about ‘flow’. They expect people to pull out in front of them from side roads, and drive accordingly. There is very little of the beeping or horn blowing I would have expected given the driving style. When a horn is used, it’s usually in warning that something is coming up behind you and is about to pass, rather than in an annoyed fashion like it might be in the UK. I also learned whilst being a passenger that you could turn left on a red light, which helped me not to annoy the other drivers when I started driving myself!
One thing Thailand does do well is traffic lights at big junctions, where a countdown is used to tell drivers how long a light will remain red. Of course, people start going a few seconds before the light turns green, but given when the tactic isn’t used people sometimes go through a red, it works reasonably well. I also quite like these big traffic lights for the flood of coloured scooters that usually go through them first – the scooters are all able to flow through the other traffic to build up at the front, so it’s like a cork out of a bottle when the light turns green and all the scooters go at once.
There aren’t many roundabouts here, and the few I have seen don’t seem to have the same rules as the UK – people often stop on a roundabout to let other traffic go past, so you can get on a roundabout easily enough but sometimes it can take a while to get off it. And on the very few mini roundabouts I’ve seen, people go in all directions.
What’s on the road
In Bangkok there are a lot of cars, but even in the big city, as elsewhere in the country, the main form of transport is the scooter. But the scooter can come in many forms – it can be made into a tuk tuk, or it can have a side car, it can have an ice-cream or fruit shake stall attached, and it can carry almost anything. Including four or five people (I’ve seen 3 adults and two children on one scooter). I’ve seen dogs in side cars, and even dogs on scooters (!), but the most amazing thing I have seen on a scooter is a washing machine. I can’t imagine how difficult it is to drive with one of those on the back, especially when I think about how hard I have to concentrate when I just have the weight of a passenger – the balance needed must be tremendous!
But of course Thai people use scooters from a young age. If you go to a school you will find the school parking filled to the brim with scooters of all kinds, and I’ve often seen quite young kids (aged 10 or 11 up), especially on Koh Phangan, a much smaller and rural community, driving scooters. Though wiki does tell me that the minimum legal age to drive here is 18…
Children even younger than that are often stood in front of the driver looking over the handlebars. And before you judge, consider the very low wage of a Thai person in such a community, and the distance their child might have to travel to go to school. It’s no easy choice – if people consider it a choice at all given it’s culturally acceptable here.
Thailand’s version of motorways are the Superhighways. These are huge roads, with 4-6 lanes in each of the two directions, which can be quite challenging for a novice. I only started driving on these myself when I had to make a trip across Chiang Mai to go to my Thai language lessons, a good few months after I started driving my scooter. There aren’t so many lorries in Thailand (not compared to the UK) but there are a few on these superhighways, and also a lot of trucks – big, noisy vehicles that are always terrifying when they overtake you, and always look very overloaded with produce or goods.
The Superhighway also foxed me a bit at first – as you’re going (a bit!) faster than normal, if you go in the wrong direction, you can quite quickly find yourself in a very different place than you meant to end up in. On one of my earlier outings, partly because I’m not that strong on Thai geography, and partly because I don’t read Thai, I found myself in the middle of the countryside outside Northern Chiang Mai.
Not ideal. I eventually stopped (you can just pull over on the hard shoulder, everyone does – well, a lot of bikes actually drive on the hard shoulder, so you have to avoid them if you’re going to stop!), and worked it out, and found a way of turning around, but it was a lesson – spend a lot of time with the map before going anywhere!
Taking a break, Thai style
I think my favourite moment so far whilst on the road is driving past some road workers on the superhighway. Imagine a motorway underpass, with three lanes in either direction and a hard shoulder.
Then imagine some men are painting the underpass. There’s no shelter, no loo, no facilities of any kind for the men, and they’re there when I drive past first thing in the morning on my way to class, and still at lunchtime five hours later, in very high temperatures. But as I drove back they would usually be having their lunch hour.
Which would consist of a picnic on the hard shoulder. There’d be a blanket, various bowls of food that they’d share, and they would be sitting on the floor cross-legged in the shade of the underpass, happily sharing lunch and conversation whilst the traffic went past at 70 miles an hour.
And then some of them would take a nap on the hard shoulder after lunch. Lying down, with their hats over their faces. Not the atmosphere most conducive to slumber, but then perhaps for some people the noise of traffic can be soothing…?!?! It certainly didn’t seem to bother them!
Where’s the most alien place you’ve ever driven? Share your stories in the comments below…