If you ask a Thai why he prefers to drive on the wrong side of the road, against the traffic on the “emergency” lane, rather than take the next U-turn which is 2 kilometers away, his answer will probably be somewhere along the line of “ki kiaet pai U-turn”. If you ask this Thai girl why she doesn’t wear a helmet, maybe she will reply “ki kiaet sai”. Now ask this truck driver why he didn’t put on his turn signal before he turned and he may reply “ki kiaet peut”.
“Ki kiaet” means lazy in Thai and it is a derogatory word, like most words beginning by ki-. I’m not saying Thai people are lazy, but we can safely say that, generally speaking, they drive in a lazy way. It means that they choose the easiest, smoothest way to do things, not the safest, or not the most considerate.
Of course, we can’t take this word “lazy” just like we know it in English. We can’t understand a foreign language, especially Thai, just by translating everything word for word. A language is much more than a set of words to name things, it’s a way to apprehend the world and it is deeply linked to a culture. To understand people who speak another language than our own, we must try and understand their main cultural concepts. For instance, if a Thai says “ki kiaet bok khrao” (“I was lazy to tell him”), in a situation where he refrained to say something to someone, it’s not really laziness, but rather the choice of an easy way: “I didn’t say anything because I didn’t want to start an argument”, for instance.
So I think that the “ki kiaet” attitude, whether you choose to translate it as lazy, or easy, or just “ki kiaet”, is a good way to understand the way Thai people drive. They are not lazy people, but they drive lazily, they choose the easy way to do things. That’s why you see them drive on the wrong side of the road instead of driving 2 kilometers to the next U-turn, that’s why they can enter a gas station through the exit or exit through the entrance, and that’s why they do all the crazy and dangerous things you see them doing.
The questions we are entitled to ask ourselves, as foreigners, is why is it the easiest way that prevails, and not, say, the safest way? Or the most considerate way?
Well, first of all, safety is not as big an issue as it is in the West, and laws are not always enforced. And that concerns everything, not just the roads. The Western world has laws, rules and regulations for just about everything and is supposed to be a safe place. Funnily though, you see tourists in Thailand driving rented motorbikes bare-chested, wearing only pants and flip flops, and of course with no helmet on. They left the regulations at the boarding gate and they are enjoying freedom! Well, Thai people enjoy freedom on a daily basis. Besides from that, most Thai people are Buddhist people, they believe in reincarnation and they believe in destiny, luck, protection and a few other obscure concepts. That doesn’t make them daredevils, but basically, whatever should happen will happen.
OK, so far we have ki kiaet + freedom + destiny. If you are not familiar with Thai roads, you should now have a pretty clear idea of what is expecting you. The next question is, are Thai people considerate drivers?