Driving in Thailand – “The Rules of Engagement”

By | July 26, 2013

Driving in Thailand – Article Disclaimer:
“This article is a lighthearted series of observations based upon my own experiences of driving in Thailand, plus a series of anecdotal notes from friends over the years, and although this is a very serious subject, it is best approached I feel by keeping it light & amusing”.

All the characters that appear in this article are completely fictitious and bear no resemblance to any living or real people.

Driving in Thailand

General background
Having lived in Thailand for nearly 15 years, and covered some 250,000+kms in that time I feel that i am reasonably qualified to make these personal observations.

You might feel that I am being a little disparaging towards my hosts, but believe you me, this is not JUST about the local drivers, foreign drivers seem to slip “seamlessly” into this mode of driving when in Thailand !!.

I have tried to portray each “event” as a small interesting “sound bite”, and welcome Visitor Feedback on this highly emotive subject.

However, before we try to find order in the chaos that is the law of the jungle on Thailand’s roads it is important to note that Comprehensive Car Insurance is compulsory throughout the country, and as you will soon see – that can only be a good thing!

Driving in ThailandThe Law of the Jungle:

* The first rule of the road is that EVERY type of vehicle has a specific“right of way” – if a vehicle higher up the chain of importance wants your lane you either get out of the way, or slow down and let them in, because like it or not, they are taking your spot!.

The “chain” is quite simple:

1. Most important – Lorries/vans/buses/taxis/songthaews(baht buses).

2. Medium importance – cars / tuk tuks.

3. Little importance – motorcycles/motorbikes with food carts / bicycles.

4. No importance – pedestrians / dogs. 

Driving in Thailand

* General Observations:
– Any form of painted lines on the roads, whether they be pedestrian crossings (please check out the video for proof of this!), lane seperators, central reservation lines, no parking areas or just lines at junctions – are only there for others !!.

– The changing colours of traffic lights are purely there to indicate that once the red light shows, you have another 10-15 seconds (or longer if you are either brave or have a death-wish) to cross the junction.

– Stopping immediately as soon as a red light shows is not advisable, as this is how accidents happen!.

– Just because the green light is showing there is no rush for the queue of traffic to move, after all we have “bonus time” after the lights go back to red!.

– Mirrors fitted on cars are a mystery, what purpose do they fulfil, I know where I am in relation to the road, WHY do I need to see what anyone else is doing?.

– The single most dangerous driving manoeuvre carried out on the roads of Thailand is the “U” Turn, what happens is that as you are travelling quite happily along the dual carriageway, you see a way off in the distance a car that sits at the “U” turn opening waiting to join the traffic travelling in your direction, as you approach to within 300 metres, he still sits there “why doesn’t he move?”. Then, suddenly at around 50 metres he decides to pull out, directly into your lane, so you have to either swerve or brake to avoid him, it’s almost like a game of “Dare”!.

The first time this happened I got very annoyed, but since then as it happens on a daily basis, I suppose you just get used to it, but why do they wait until they can see the “whites of your eyes”!!.

Beware!, lorries & buses do EXACTLY THE SAME but as explained in the first paragraph they belong to the “most important” category so they can do pretty much what they like.

One added point on the lorries & buses, when they are about to “U” Turn they will typically block two lanes in the direction they are travelling, so that they can turn easily into the opposite direction, so having stopped all the traffic in one direction, they then pull straight out into the traffic travelling in the opposite direction, creating once more the mayhem effect that is the Thai “U” Turn !!.

Driving in Thailand

* Pedestrians:
– Due to pedestrians being in the
“of no importance” category they are advised to look both ways at least three times before crossing a one-way street!.

– Pedestrians are allowed to cross roads & dual carriageways one lane at a time, pausing on the white-line lane dividers.

– Having safely reached the relative safety of the “undergrowth” located on the central reservation of the dual carriageways, pedestrians usually wait for an oncoming vehicle BEFORE running like crazy to the safety of the side of the road, this can quite often cause palpitations for the driver of the oncoming vehicle !!.

* Dogs:
– There are no rational reasons why dogs believe they are immortal when trying to cross the road – only drivers & pedestrians are protected by Buddha!.

– As bicycles & motorbikes form the largest part of the “of little importance” category, and dogs are desperately trying to join this category, instances of dogs chasing bicycles & motorbikes along busy roads are commonplace, and do inevitably lead to one or the other losing out!.

Driving in Thailand* Motorbikes:

– Motorbikes may ride in ANY direction that suits them on ANY road irrespective of what the road-signs say.

– Motorbikes may ride on the pavement/sidewalk if it suits them to do so.

– The age for driving a motorbike is ONLY governed by the child’s ability to walk!.

– Motorbikes MUST always carry the maximum amount of people possible (my personal memory is 1x man, 2x women, 2x small children & a small dog) on a single motorbike!!.

– It is advisable that after dark, following a visit to the local market, all the shopping should be placed in the motorbike front basket, so that the lights are obscured, and you cannot be seen by your fellow road users.

– Motorbikes can also be used for carrying awkward & large objects on busy roads, again I have witnessed the following:

a/ a large television- not flat screen being carried by the passenger, who was sitting facing backwards with only his balance stopping him falling off.

b/ a large dog(Labrador sized), with back feet on the riders legs, & front feet on the handlebars.

c/ a mid-sized refrigerator, front rider standing up, with his passenger balancing the fridge across the motorbike seat.

d/ a large gas bottle, around 120cm long(4’),again balanced on the passenger holding it sideways, thus creating an obstacle for anyone trying to navigate around them!.

* Foreigners:
– If a foreigner is in a taxi, and the taxi is involved in an accident, it is the foreign passenger’s fault.

– If a foreign driver is involved in an accident with a local, it is the foreigner’s fault, regardless of the truth (again I know this from personal experience, and I was stationary at the time!).

– The fines for foreigners involved in major accidents are typically directly proportionate to how much money they have in their wallets and savings accounts!.

Driving in Thailand* Traffic Cops:

– Traffic police exist solely to wave their arms, blow whistles, and collect bribes.

– Traffic cops who are on duty at traffic lights are merely there to control the lights, NOT the traffic!.

– If you see a police car parked near a busy road, more often than not they will be drinking coffee & reading the newspapers & completely oblivious to the mayhem that is going on around them.

– “Checkpoints” – is the classic Thai method for traffic cops to catch unsuspecting law breakers.

I have seen more motorbikes & cars travelling the wrong way up major roads to avoid getting caught than I care to mention.

Minor traffic affrays such as:
– driving a motorcycle without a helmet.
– staying in the outside lane too long(even though it’s the safest place).
– illegal turns, speeding (never seen a speed gun though),no road tax, noinsurance, no drivers licence – all the normal stuff.

All the above constitutes a 200 Baht fine – paid either directly to the traffic cop(never yet seen a receipt), if you don’t want to pay “roadside” you can go to the local police station and typically wait 3-4 hours pay up to 500 Baht AND get a receipt.

– There appears to be no official recording system of driving offences, so it’s really only down to the “strength” of your wallet as to how you approach driving !.


I hope that you have enjoyed our collection of observations, this page will I am sure keep growing over time, as each day we venture onto the roads there are ALWAYS “new experiences” that we promise to share with you !!.

Please remember if you have driven in Thailand, and have other memories besides ours, please Share Them with us.