I’ve been meaning to publish this post for a while now but kept putting it off thinking that as soon as I posted it saying I had been riding a motorbike in Thailand for years without any problems that I would get in an accident. Well, I got hit by another motorbike a couple weeks ago (nothing serious) so that’s over with and now I can post this…
Riding my motorbike in Thailand is one of my favorite things in the entire world. I love being outside instead of stuck in a car, I love how cheap my motorbike is to maintain and fill up with gas, I love how easy it is to weave through traffic and bypass the increasingly crowded Chiang Mai streets, and I love simply how fun it is. Especially my first year living in the country, I could not get enough of being on the bike – after years of commuting two hours to and from work every day in long lines of traffic and on a commuter train, the freedom I felt being able to zip around town in the fresh air was intoxicating.
It also wasn’t as scary or intimidating as it first appeared.
The traffic in Thailand is obviously different than most places and may seem a little out of control when you’re not used to it, but give it some time and you’ll soon realize that there really is some rhyme and reason to the traffic flow – though you do always have to be ready for anything!
And the answer is yes…usually. I certainly feel more comfortable driving a motorbike in Thailand than I would in the U.S. mainly since everyone grew up driving a motorbike and is aware that there are motorbikes everywhere. Here, motorbikes are expected to pass cars in an unofficial left hand lane or weave through stopped traffic to the front of the pack – in the U.S. having even one motorcycle drive past you is sometimes jarring and unexpected. While I don’t always trust the driving skills of many people with cars, mainly because owning a car is a relatively new thing for many people, they are far more aware of cyclists than in the U.S.
That said, I am a very careful driver and always do something to limit my risk – I don’t drive fast, I wear a helmet, I know where I’m going and understand the way Thai traffic works. If you’re thinking about riding a motorbike in Thailand during your trip or after moving here, read on for a mix of official road rules and my personal tips…
Wear your helmet – Obviously, but you’d be surprised how many people don’t. By law, everyone is required to wear a helmet at all times, even though it may not seem like it. In Chiang Mai for instance, the locals know when and where the regular police checkpoints are for checking helmets and will wear helmets during the day, especially in these areas, but at night you’ll notice few people wearing helmets…partially because they know they won’t get a ticket. For many people, the helmet is simply to not get a ticket, not protect their skull and that idea trickles down to kids as well. Also, the helmets you’ll usually get from a rental company are pretty crappy – worn out with funny fits and little padding. If you’re going to be spending an extended period of time in the country go and buy your own to help protect your head a bit more.
Remember to drive on the left side of the road – It really isn’t that hard if you’re not used to, just follow the traffic. That said, for the first several months driving here, every time I turned I kept reminding myself, “Left, left, left, left!” in my head.
Expect the unexpected – Be ready for anything. This may seem like a daunting thing to keep in mind – how can you expect the unexpected?? – but it’s really quite simple. Instead of blindly assuming someone is going to use their blinker or not pull out in front of, you just know that there’s always 50/50. If I’m driving in the U.S. and someone doesn’t use their turn light I’m pissed, but in Thailand I’m already slowing down and passing them because I figured there’s a chance they may turn with no notice. No big deal. Dogs running out into the road, motorbikes going the wrong way down the sidewalk, people pushing street carts slowly around the corner or a giant garbage truck with people standing out the back of it don’t faze me because I just keep in mind that anything can happen and make sure that I’m always driving cautiously enough to have time to react.
Pay attention to what’s going on in front of you – Learning to drive a car in the U.S., I was taught to constantly be checking all my mirrors and windows and try to be aware of what was going on all around me at all times. Here drivers, of both bikes and cars, tend to focus more on just what is going on in front of them and assume that the people driving behind them are doing the same. While I still try to be aware of what is coming up behind me while on the road, paying attention to what’s right in front of me takes priority.
Follow the people in front of you – When I was learning to ride I got anxious when I came across a congested area or up to a stoplight and the motorbikes were weaving their way to the front of the line. I didn’t want to make a stupid mistake and tip over into a car as I tried to squeeze my bike in between lanes or get stuck with other motorbikes behind me. Again, though, it’s really quite simple to figure out where to go – just go slow and follow the bike in front of you. Plus, you don’t want to be the one bike holding up everyone behind you by refusing to weave through traffic or stopped vehicles.
Wait a beat at stop lights – If you’re at a stop light and the light turns green, wait a second and look in all directions before going through the intersection. It’s not uncommon for vehicles to come screaming through as their light turns red.
Stay to the left but not too far – First of all, in Thailand you drive on the left side of the road – a fact that some tourists don’t seem to realize as they naively wobble down the right side oblivious to oncoming traffic. (I see this happen in Chiang Mai at least once a month.) Motorbikes are expected to stay to the left side of the lane, but you also have to be cautious of vehicles turning into your lane from a side street without looking. Also, when you come to a stop light, make sure to leave enough space to your left for motorbikes to turn left if they need to.
Be wary of tuk tuks and songthaews – Try and keep away from the left side of tuk tuks, taxis and especially songthaews, pick up trucks that act as shared taxis. These are all notorious for quickly pulling over to the left to pick up potential passengers without signaling or looking before they swerve to the side.
If you don’t know how to ride, don’t start here – I know it sounds cool, and I had never ridden one before I made the move, but landing in a new place where you not only don’t know how to ride, but also don’t know where you are, what traffic is like and how to get places is not a good combo.
Take some time watching how people drive here; learn from observation – Thai driving has a different set of rules. Traffic just flows differently here than anywhere else, it’s more instinctual and less about rules, but it works. Really. Just watch.
Get to know the area – Spend some time familiarizing yourself with an area before jumping on a bike and trying to balance while turning and attempting to read street signs at the same time. Part of the reason I haven’t made stupid mistakes driving or hit anything is because I almost always know where I’m going and what to expect. I know where the funny intersections are, where the big potholes are and where tourists tend to wander down the middle of the street without looking. I know where I’m supposed to go and supposed to turn, so I only have to worry about my driving and immediate surroundings instead of trying to figure out where to go. I have seen tourists driving where the girl on the back is holding a map or iPhone in front of her boyfriend who is driving to see where they’re going…that’s just asking to hit something.
Rent a bike you’re comfortable with – The quality of bikes available for rent varies. Don’t feel rush or pressured into renting a certain bike, take time to give it a short test drive and check the lights, horn brakes and gears. Spend a little more money for a newer model or automatic that will be easier and safer to drive. (Also make note of any existing dents or scratches with the rental shop before you head out on an adventure.)
Cars will stop in the road while the driver runs into a shop, there will be someone walking pushing a food cart slowly down the middle of the street, there will be people turning without their signals, driving the wrong way, zooming down the sidewalks or attempting to cut across five lanes of traffic – It’s okay. Don’t get flustered and just keep moving. Sure, driving down the sidewalk probably doesn’t seem like the safest/smartest/legal thing to you…but was there really any harm done? Probably not. There’s more leeway here to do what (someone may think) is necessary to get them from Point A to Point B. And, while everything may seem crazy, you’ll rarely hear people honking or witness any road rage. It’s pretty incredible.
Don’t get cocky – It’s important to be reasonably confident in your driving skills and capabilities to ride through different situations. It’s equally important not to become overconfident. You never, never, never know what’s going to run out of the road in front of you or if the car you’re following is going to make a sudden turn. If you’re riding slowly and safely instead of zooming down the road thinking you have everything under control, you’ll be more likely to handle unexpected situations without a problem.
Most people who have come to visit me weren’t aware of these…
Overall, while Thailand is known for having a high number of road accidents, really what it comes down to is using common sense, just like anywhere else in the world. If you feel comfortable driving, are aware and capable of what you’re doing and following the rules to the best of your abilities, you will probably be fine. If you’re not comfortable in your riding skills or familiar with where you are, you’re more likely to come across problems or, not just be in an accident, but cause an accident. Just be smart.
Note: This post is extended from an article I originally wrote about driving in Thailand here.
Hey! I'm Alana and I've spent nearly the past decade living in Chiang Mai, Thailand, working as a writer and photographer. I started Paper Planes as a place to share local insight, special places, and how to travel well through a range of experiences — from hostels to high-end hotels, street meat to multi-course meals.
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