I haven’t ranted about driving in Thailand for awhile. Here are some thoughts, observations, and tips for staying alive I’ve learned after living here for a little over a year. This post is meant to be partly humorous, partly critical, and partly helpful. Hope you enjoy it!
I read somewhere that Thai people treat driving like a videogame they are out to win at all costs. This could explain a lot except nobody is winning. For a very long time Thailand has been ranked near the top of road deaths per capita. The culture of driving here is very much “up to you” / “no problem”. Want to drive 60+ mph when the speed limit is 30 mph? No Problem! Want to pass cars around a blind corner? You can! Want to run red lights or drive on the sidewalk? Go for it! From a western point of view Thai people are rude, selfish, impatient, and inconsiderate drivers. Imagine a drunk, roid raging immature teenager and that’s 90% of the drivers here.
What To Expect
- Children as young as 7 or 8 speeding around on motorbikes. Usually with 2 or 3 of their friends on the back.
- Thai people do everything possible to avoid wearing a helmet even if it causes more problems than just wearing the helmet.
- Entire families on a motorbike. Small kid in front. Dad driving. Another kid or two behind dad. Mom behind the kids and holding a baby off to the side in one arm while carrying the groceries in her other arm.
- Oncoming traffic in your lane at any time and for no reason at all.
- Being passed / oncoming traffic around blind corners.
- Vehicles pulling out in front of you.
- Using a lane of traffic as a parking lot.
- Ninja motorbikes. No, not the Kawasaki Ninja. In Thailand, these are the motorbikes driving at night with no headlights, taillights, or turn signals because the owner is too poor or lazy to replace them.
- Overloaded trucks with bad brakes.
- Etc, etc…
Stop For Step
Stop For Step is an awareness campaign started some time last year in an effort to get drivers to stop for people crossing the street in crosswalks. It is widely known that one should not stop for pedestrians to let them cross because if you do then other vehicles will just try to go around you and end up hitting pedestrians or rear end you. So it’s actually safer for everyone to not stop. Which is exactly what is shown in the video they created. So although I think it is great that people are finally trying to raise awareness to change the poor driving habits here I think this approach is misguided. Better would be to enforce speed limits, licences, and basic rules of the road. Stop at stop signs, don’t run red lights, no passing around blind corners, etc… Without any actual enforcement of the law and suffering consequences when one breaks the law there will be no change in driving habits.
Trying to understand the mentality of the Thai driver is an exercise in futility. The Stop for Step video mostly shows a vehicle stopped at a crosswalk, people crossing, then the pedestrians getting plowed over by another vehicle that didn’t stop at the crosswalk. But one clip shows a group of pedestrians crossing a crosswalk with a car approaching the crosswalk and slowing down (brake lights on). Then, right at the last moment while one person is still in front of the car the driver takes their foot off the brake and accelerates into the person. How the driver thought this was the correct course of action given the present situation is beyond me.
This is the million dollar question. What I have been trying to figure out since I got here. There are a few obvious reasons why:
- Thailand is a developing country. Though there are some very wealthy people here, most are poor and not well educated.
- Very little and arbitrary enforcement of the law.
This would be enough to explain these observations if it was just any other country. But this is Thailand! Land of Smiles where the people are known for being compassionate and polite so I think there are some other factors at play.
I read on another blog that tried to explain a theory of the Thai driving culture being rooted in their language. That Thai people are unable to modify future behavior based on negative past experiences because there is no way to express tenses in the language. I think this is incorrect for two reasons. First, although it is true there are no verb tenses in the Thai language, there are many ways to specify past, present, and future in the language. See words such as จะ (ja) which is used to indicate something will happen, กำลัง (gamlang) which is used to indicate something is currently happening, and แล้ว (leaow) which can be used to indicate an action that has been completed.
Second, even if there was no way to indicate tense in the Thai language it still wouldn’t make sense to me why the structure and grammar of a language would have such a dramatic impact on driving. And like I mentioned above, the people (when not driving) are very polite. This politeness is even built into the language and other aspects of Thai culture, so why aren’t they more polite drivers?
But I think they were on to something when suggesting that Thai drivers are unable to modify future behavior based on negative past experiences. Thai people seem to very much live in the moment. They do not dwell on the past and do not worry too much about the future. I think this is due to the dominant religion in Thailand being Buddhism and the practice of meditation that goes along with Buddhism. Now I don’t know much about meditation but I do know that it teaches to be in the present moment and to clear your mind of thoughts. In western countries we learn to not pass around blind corners or pass when cresting a hill because there might be another vehicle coming that we can not see. In Thailand drivers do these things because in the present moment they can not see another vehicle coming. Then when there are close calls but no collision occurs the Thai person considers themselves lucky because Buddha was watching over them and quickly forgets about it. So the next time they are confronted with a similar situation they do the same thing as last time.
Second, there is this concept of “saving face” in Thailand. I still don’t fully understand this but based on what I do know, in Thailand it is very frowned upon to show anger. It is also frowned upon to embarrass or make other people look bad. Losing face by showing anger or causing someone else to lose face by embarrassing them could just result in them ignoring or being rude to you or in some cases result in extreme violence. Which I find ironic considering it is so culturally unacceptable to show anger. Because of this, Thai people will never criticize or point out mistakes made by someone they are with. They are always tiptoeing around this idea of saving face. So nobody ever gets told they are acting like an idiot, not to do something, or that their behavior is inconsiderate or dangerous because doing so would embarrass them and cause them to lose face.
Speaking of saving face, this guy completely lost it.
There are two other smaller reasons I can think of to explain the driving here. Thai people literally grow up on a motorbike. When / if they are able to afford a car, they drive the car just like a motorbike. Meaning they zip in and out of traffic, and in general do things that you can get away with in a motorbike but are more likely to cause problems in a car.
Finally, when driving a car to get the same perception of speed in a car as on a motorbike the car will be going 30 to 40 kph faster. I realized this after I rented a pickup truck to move to a new room not too long ago. I thought I was going 50 or 60 kph and was a little surprised when I looked at the speedometer and saw I was going 80 kph or so.
Culturally Acceptable Behavior
All this brings up another issue I’ve been interested in. What is considered culturally acceptable behavior? I’m pretty sure Thai people are not trying to be inconsiderate, selfish, and impatient when driving. I’m also pretty sure that other Thai people don’t view these actions in a negative way either.
Thai people also wait in line like they drive. They will blatantly cut in front of people and can be very pushy. The change in personality of a Thai person when driving still amazes me. It seems Thai people have never been taught that patience is a virtue and the concept of waiting your turn.
Then there is the culture of the Chinese tourist in Thailand. Despised by everyone, Chinese tourists are even worse drivers than Thais. They are known for making a complete mess of bathrooms and eat dinner as if they are attacking their food like rabid dogs. But I guess this is considered OK in China.
And of course Thai people probably think tourists drive like idiots. To be fair, plenty of them do.
How Not To Die While Driving
Many people say that if you’ve never driven a motorcycle or scooter you should not learn in Thailand. There are some places this is true. I’m thinking specifically of Koh Tao which has many very steep poorly maintained roads. Koh Tao is also filled with tourists who think that just because they are in Thailand they can act like idiots. But the fact is a motorbike is the best way to get around Thailand, especially in the city. A motorbike really isn’t much harder to drive than riding a bicycle so most people will have no problem. Just approach with caution and you’ll be fine. Here’s a few tips I’ve learned after being here a year:
- Drive DEFENSIVELY!
- Anticipate unexpected actions by other drivers.
- Do not expect other drivers to follow any western standard of driving etiquette.
- Check your ego. If somebody cuts you off or does something to anger you just let it go.
- Don’t speed!
- Wear a helmet!
- Right of way is determined by vehicle size. The larger vehicle has right of way. Always! Pedestrians and motorbikes are at the bottom of the food chain. Don’t get out of the way and you will be run over and it will be your fault.
- Don’t be afraid to use your horn to make a couple short beeps to make others aware of your presence. So far it hasn’t caused a problem and I’m pretty sure has avoided a few crashes by now.
- Longer more aggressive sounding of the horn is not appropriate but could be done on rare occasions. Thai people will definitely think poorly of you for doing this but I’d rather avoid a crash than care what some random Thai person thinks of me.
- Motorbikes are expected to drive on the shoulder to the left. But Thai people do not look before pulling out into the street. So if driving on the left or on the shoulder go slower than normal and give extra caution when approaching side streets.
- Front brake is on the right. Rear brake is on the left.
- Thai drivers are erratic and not good at planning their route or anticipating when they will need to do something. Because of this, give them plenty of room. Don’t tailgate, etc…
- At night be extra cautious and watch out for the ninja motorbikes.
- Don’t let your guard down just because you are on vacation.
- Don’t do things you wouldn’t do in your home country just because you are in Thailand / on vacation.
- When cars flash their brights at you it means DO NOT go because I will not stop or slow down and will run you over if you get in my way.