If you’ve ever driven in Thailand’s capital city, you’ll know first hand how the Bangkok traffic engulfs you. Your nostrils are overwhelmed by the stifling pollution as swarms of two stroke engines blast out dense clouds of soot into the smoggy air. The glare of the sun against the tarmac and overbearing glass buildings causes your eyes to squint behind the screen of an oily visor. As you make your way, the gaps between rusty pick-up trucks and rickety old buses seem to shrink rapidly while the incessant danger of over and undertaking vehicles creates an ever present tension. So, with my fresh Thai driver’s licence and second hand Yamaha Mio 125CC, I figured this would be a good place to learn to drive.
After a couple of months commuting to work through “rush” hour queues and getting used to the hectic sprawling system that somehow beautifully seems to work, at least for the motorbikes, I decided to take my newly named scooter “Ruby” for a longer trip around the Land of Smiles (and incompetent drivers). Firstly, Ruby and I headed east to Khao Yai national park then north via the ancient cities of Ayutthaya and Sukothai to Chiang Mai. We followed the twisting mountain roads of Doi Inthanon up to Thailand’s highest peak then pursued the infamous Mae Hong Son loop, passing spectacular valleys and waterfalls. After a break at the Golden Triangle, we returned south until we eventually reached the islands and beaches on both sides of the peninsula. Looking back at the 6000km+ journey, there were many things that surprised me about driving in Thailand that I wish I’d known before setting off. So, here are some thoughts to consider for others planning to undertake a road trip by motorbike in Thailand.
1 Be Prepared
Plan your route in advance. My favourite app is definitely Maps.me which allows you to download and use GPS maps offline. Also, you can pinpoint interesting pit stops along your route such as viewpoints, waterfalls, hot springs and of course gas stations.
Before your departure, take the time to gather and compile emergency equipment in your seat storage compartment. For example, a couple of waterproof ponchos for unpredictable torrential rain and some back-up petrol in case you run dry unexpectedly. Also consider taking a hammock and silk sheet for an excellent plan B accommodation option.
2 The Road Surface is your PRIORITY
Thailand’s transport network ranges from immaculately smooth, well-lit stretches of highway to dirt track and crumbling concrete; it really is a country of inconsistent road surfaces. I learned the hard way that hitting loose gravel or a deep pot hole unexpectedly, can spell your doom. If you move too swiftly and don’t have the time to spot and avoid the issue, you’ll likely lose total control of the machine, leaving you at the mercy of the law of abrasion. Furthermore, in the sleepy countryside towns you’ll need to keep an eye out for hidden speed-bumps which, like the potholes, aren’t usually signposted and are often obscured by shadows. So, keep your beady eyes on the road surface and make every effort to spot and avoid the darker patches in your way. On a side note, the road might also unveil a whole host of animal obstacles, such as roaming cattle, wild boar and packs of stray dogs. In fact, many a brave/dumb pooch has chosen to hog the junction, sprawled out and basking in the heat of the sun. Do not be fooled into thinking these furry obstacles will budge if you sound your horn, just swerve and smile.
3 Expect the Unexpected
The first thing that might strike you about many Thai drivers is their apparent reckless nature. However, it seems there are general patterns of behaviour which, once accustomed to, will save you being caught off guard. For example, you should expect people to pass you on either side seeing as undertaking is legal here. Also, people will happily drive against the flow of oncoming traffic along the hard shoulder of highways, and one way streets, watch out for them and accept that this is apparently “normal”. You’ll even come across people driving at night without any lights on. Although this behaviour may appear to be absolutely insane, once you notice how often it happens, it turns out to be another common hazard to pay attention to. So, when someone decides to cut in front of you without looking or turn suddenly without indicating, why bother getting angry? You’re in Thailand! Laugh it off, just try to get into the habit of expecting the unexpected, as quickly as possible.
It may seem rather foolish to undertake the main highways of Thailand on a little 125CC scooter and it is. However, if you find yourself in this situation it’s a very exciting and cheap way to cover large distances through the gateways to the north and south of the country. One key piece of advice, stick to the hard-shoulder and middle lanes! If you stray into the far right, you’ll be caught up in the rush with tailgating minibuses and occasionally you’ll need to slam on your brakes to avoid u-turning queues that pop up without warning. If you stay in the left lane, you’ll soon realise it’s also the favourite stomping ground for all the lumbering HGVs that have warped the tarmac into pits, dips and ridges over time. The hard-shoulder, to the left of the solid white line, is usually a safe haven but you’ll probably need to do a lot of overtaking while other mopeds (and occasionally an old woman on a bicycle) trundle along at a leisurely pace. Try to avoid using this channel around left bends, since every once in a while some wise guy, or a wandering buffalo, will be parked on the blind corner, just to remind you of the need to “expect the unexpected”. What’s more, intimidating lorries occasionally drift into the hard-shoulder, I’d consider overtaking them on the outside. Generally, for most of the ride the middle is your best bet. You’ll bear witness to the flatlands of Thailand, the endless green paddy fields and remote communities that dot the roadside. You’ll also experience the wind and the weather like no other road user and you’ll notice the blur of the grey ground as your speedometer needle rises. Of course, don’t forget to keep an eye on your mirrors for any coaches, pick-up trucks and minibuses that approach excessively fast. If you don’t anticipate these guys, you’ll be in for a shock when the wall of wind left in their wake hits you.
5 Dealing with the Police
Checkpoints, marked by red lights and white triangular signs, are littered all across the country but are very rarely manned. However, on the off chance that they are, 95% of the time you’ll simply be waved through by the guard on duty or the odd decoy left to cover their shift. The rules only seem to be strictly enforced in very touristy areas and the big cities like Chiang Mai and Bangkok. Wear a helmet to avoid becoming an easy target for a quick 200 baht fine. If you’re caught without a licence, they’ll charge you 400 baht and let you drive off as soon as it’s in their pocket. I had a legitimate Thai Licence which is very cheap to acquire, a friend used a fake international licence bought at Khaosan Rd which he said worked well too. In some cases you may find yourself the victim of Thai roadways through no fault of your own. For instance, I was caught and fined for driving on an express way road in Bangkok, even though there were no obvious signs prohibiting motorbikes where I joined the highway. Thankfully the cop accepted a 500 baht cash offering on the spot instead of the usual 1000 baht ticket and trip to the police station. It’s worth carrying a 500 and 1000 baht note on your person at all times, just incase you need to use the unofficial “express service” that most Thai police are happy to offer. However, don’t offend the officer in question by calling it a bribe or saying it’s for them personally, just ask if you can pay now in cash and say you don’t need a receipt. Generally, you have nothing to fear from the police if you act respectfully around them and abide by standard road laws, like carrying a valid motorcycle licence and wearing a helmet.
6 Drive like a Thai
Since you’re in Thailand, it makes sense to embrace their way of life, which includes their driving habits. It’s certainly worth adding some local manoeuvres to your repertoire. Ignoring NO U-TURN signs, since they’re probably only meant for bigger traffic, might save you a few seconds. Hopping onto the pavement at traffic jams could be your best option in some situations. Persisting the wrong way up one way streets will almost certainly lead to finding more short cuts. Building your experience and confidence with undertaking will lead you to weave in and out of traffic more effortlessly. Best of all, if you begin to drive like a Thai, you’ll find yourself more able to expect the unexpected. You’ll be more able to predict the irregular actions of other drivers and be better equipped to anticipate and evade road hazards. However, whatever you do, don’t drive like a Thai mini-bus driver, they have a reputation for being the most reckless drivers on the roads. It seems too many among them take negligent driving to its most lethal. Overtaking around blind corners or tail-gating within inches of another vehicle travelling over 100kmph. Make sure you watch out for these guys and give them plenty of space!
Although driving a motorbike around Thailand isn’t without risk, it is certainly the best way to get around if you like to travel with ultimate freedom and enjoy finding places that other tourists will never see. So, enjoy every minute of your two-wheeled adventure and have a safe trip!