If you have read our two articles about the general attitude of Thai drivers (the easy way of doing things, and why they are not so considerate), you should have a general idea of the kind of behavior you are bound to encounter. Now let’s get a little more precise and see what really happens on Thai roads.
Driving on the wrong side of the road
When a famous expat forum wrote an article on April Fool’s day saying that Thailand was to change from left to right hand driving, several people stated that it wouldn’t change much and that Thai people were already driving on the wrong side of the road. This is particularly true on highways where there is a middle central reservation (a divider strip that can’t be crossed). On those highways, there are U-turns every now and then, but if you are on the left hand side of the road and you have 1 kilometer to drive in the opposite direction, sometimes it means that you have to drive 2 kilometers to the next U-turn, 2 kilometers back, and then the additional kilometer. So 5 km if you follow the traffic laws, instead of 1 if you don’t. That’s why Thai people (and local expats!) drive against the traffic quite often. Sometimes the next U-turn is just a few hundred meters away, sometimes there is no central reservation, but they choose the easy way. It’s very common for motorbikes, and cars do it also (cautiously most of the time, with headlights or warning lights on). So, when you arrive onto a highway from a side road, look right for the incoming traffic, but also look left for the lazy drivers!
A car flashing its headlights to you don’t convey a polite message. It doesn’t mean “I’m letting you go first” but “I’m coming first”. You can use it when approaching a U-turn and some cars are waiting (while other cars turning right at the same U-turn are of course blocking their view, which is another reason why U-turns are the most stupid things ever).
Motorbikes wobbling on the left side of the road
If you see a motorbike wobbling, like the guy has almost stopped but he still tries to keep his balance, chances are he is about to turn right, even if he is on the left side of the road. As a matter of fact, most bikers don’t veer off to the right side of the lane if they need to turn right, they prefer to keep left and slow down until the road is clear. They are very reluctant to stop, though, especially if they drive a manual shift bike, so they just… wobble. Don’t hesitate and use your horn.
Other tourists or “farangs” driving
Some farangs can be a real danger, for many reasons. Either they are not used on driving on the left hand side of the road, or they don’t have a clue about how the Thais drive and they insist on driving like in their homecountry and they expect everyone to do so, or they think they adapted very well to the system and they can beat it by driving too fast, or they like the anarchy here and you see them shirtless and drunk on big bikes they can’t control. If you rent a motorbike in Phuket, Pattaya, Koh Samui or any other tourist destination, beware of your fellow compatriots even more than the locals.
In most developped countries where safety is a priority and the laws are enforced, roads are in a pretty good condition and dangers are properly indicated by warning signs or lights. Don’t expect the same in Thailand, even if things here are not too bad. You can still drive and happen upon a poorly marked road work area, and they are roads with dangerous curves where dozens of people die every year but nothing is done to improve the situation. In other words, don’t drive too fast and always expect the unexpected.
Dogs, cows, snakes…
Just about anything or anyone can cross the road at any time. Dogs, cows, snakes, monitor lizards… but also pedestrians and children, even on highways.
Usually there is no need to give way to people coming from your left, except of course if you are on a minor road or there is a stop sign.
Roundabouts are not common in Thailand, as deadly U-turns are favoured. When entering a roundabout Thai people usually force the way, even if there is a “yield way” sign. In doubt, drive very slowly.
Turning left at a traffic light
It is usually allowed to turn left even if the traffic light is red, but not everywhere. Watch for the “free left turn” sign, and mind the light: if there is an arrow light, wait until it turns green.
Slow lane and fast lane on highways
The left lane on highways is supposed to be the slow lane. Practically, it is the lane where everyone comes from the left without looking, or the lane that madmen use to overtake if the two others are blocked. The right lane is supposed to be the fast lane, used only to overtake. Practically, it is also the lane used for the U-turns, so people can drive very slowly there, even if the U-turn is still a mile ahead. And some others will drive slowly because they have no clue that it is supposed to be the fast/overtake lane, or because they don’t care at all. The middle lane is the lane you want to be in if you’re not overtaking.
Why is everyone horning at me all of a sudden?
Chill out, you’re probably just passing by a temple or a sacred place. Be happy, there was a time when Thai people would let go of the wheel, join hands and “wai”!
For further reading, see our articles about the dos and donts on Thai roads.