The main problem of driving in Bangkok is not the traffic in itself. Sure, there is a lot of traffic, taxis driving like taxis do and motorbikes passing you all over, but if you are cool enough and if you are used to driving in big cities, it’s not that stressful. Thai drivers aren’t usually courteous, but they are not aggressive either. The best way to drive is to be assertive. Cautious, but cool and confident.
What is the main problem when driving in Bangkok?
The main problem is to find your way. Bangkok is a big city, there are a lot of expressways, and it’s hard to find any logic or rational organization. Nothing seems to make sense, and the signs are often confusing and unhelpful. You can follow a sign and then find the same sign a few hundred meters farther in a parallel road that you can’t reach anymore. You can find yourself at a junction with the same direction indicated on the left and on the right, or at a junction with no sign at all. Sometimes a direction is indicated on the left, but you have to stay on the right to reach it quickly. Here are just two examples.
On these signs Dao Khanong is indicated twice, you can either turn left or go straight. Actually turning left will make your trip 3 km longer! It’s written below, in Thai. Why bother to mention the alternate longer route?
This is just before you reach Don Meuang airport. Don Meuang is indicated on the left, but this is actually the district of Don Meuang. To go to the airport, you have to follow “Domestic/International Terminal”. No airport sign, it would be too easy! This shows that you always have to read all the signs carefully.
What about a GPS?
One could argue that in our time, all you have to do is buy a GPS and follow the instructions. Call me old fashioned, but I don’t like to depend on a GPS. I had a few GPS, the first cost me 20,000 baht because it was not yet widespread, and the last one died on me because the battery could not be replaced. The GPS I had were hardly of use in Bangkok anyway. They kept losing signal under the BTS, or they wouldn’t know if I was driving on an elevated highway or on the road below. Now I have a GPS in my phone and I switch it on when I really have no clue where I am.
So if, like me, you like to prepare your itineraries and actually know where you are and where you are going, here are a few tips to know your way around Bangkok.
1. Get to know the districts
Directions in Bangkok, especially on expressways, are not given clearly. If you want to go south, for example, which means exit Bangkok through Rama IX bridge, then Rama 35 and Highway 4, the direction you have to follow is “Dao Khanong”. Nothing else is written, not even Rama IX bridge, not “south”, nothing. Now tell me how someone renting a car and driving for the first time in Bangkok is supposed to know what and where Dao Khanong is? Same goes for Chaeng Wattana, Din Daeng, Bang Na, Bang Pa In… Those names and their approximate location should be familiar to you.
2. Get to know the main roads
Rama IX, Rama IV, Rama III, Phetchaburi, Silom, Satorn, Ratchada Phisek, Chaeng Wattana, Lat Phrao… names of major roads are also used on signs. The problem, though, is that some of them are 6 or 7 km long, and the signs never say “west” or “south”, so once again, don’t rely only on signs and prepare your itinerary beforehand.
3. Use Google Earth and Street View, and take notes
Because paper maps are often approximate (it’s never clear where you can actually enter or exit an expressway, for instance), Google Earth can be your best friend. And even better, in Street View mode, so you can actually see the road as if you were on it, with all the junctions, signs and everything.
4. Know when to take a flyover
Flyovers are great to avoid traffic lights at a main intersection. Except of course you don’t want to fly over the intersection where you are supposed to make a turn! Then again, Google Earth will help.
5. Use the expressways
Expressways are all over Bangkok. Except a few obvious one (like Highway 9, the outer ring road) I never got to remember their names or numbers. Thai people don’t use them either, they just say ทางด่วน (“thaang duaan”). Expressways are indicated with blue signs. Tolls can be paid in cash, the price is indicated on a small sign at the toll booth, or sometimes you are given a magnetic card and the price is read when you exit. The main problem with expressways is to know where to enter and where to exit. Street View is great for that.
6. Mind the soi numbers
The only thing that makes sense in Bangkok and in other cities are the soi numbers. There is an even-numbered side and an odd-numbered side, and sometimes a large soi also have numbered sub-sois. The only trick is that sometimes the sois are indicated by their name and not by their number.
7. When in a taxi, pay attention
Taxi drivers usually know their way quite well, including shortcuts and how to avoid traffic jam. You can learn from them.
8. Know where to park
Wherever you go, parking is something you must figure out. If parking appears to be a problem, you can always leave your car in a nearby shopping mall or supermarket, then hop on a motortaxi or take the BTS or MRT.
9. Take notes afterwards
If you got lost, got out at the wrong exit or hesitated at some junction, jot it down! Next time you go, it will be easier.
10. Don’t go somewhere the Thai way
I was scratching my head for a 10th tip, to get to a round number. Eventually I remembered when I am with my (Thai) wife and she is taking me somewhere, for instance to visit friends, or to take one of the kid to a sport competition, or whatever. She usually has no clue where it is exactly, but she’s always confident we will find it (“I’ll call them when we get close”, you know…). The first few times I just got behind the wheel and I would tell her OK, let’s go, you tell me the way. We always ended up driving around for hours, looking for some temple or school, stopping in the middle of the traffic to ask for directions (usually to people who have no clue but who would prefer to die rather than admit it, so they would send us anywhere). If you have a Thai wife, you’ve probably been there! So now, whenever it is possible, I try to get the exact location before we are going somewhere, so I can prepare the itinerary.