Moving to Thailand is an assault to the senses in many ways, but once the novelty wears off, I started noticing “new” things that nobody had prepared me for. For once, I expected the traffic to be something from the 9th gate of hell, but nothing turned out to be further from the truth.
Yes, Bangkok has some of the worst traffic in the world, and YES, the number of fatalities on the roads in Thailand is staggering. However, I find these two facts are hard to reconcile with the general driving experience in Thailand.
In fact, whenever people visit me in the Kingdom, planning a road trip is one of my favourite things to do. Not only do you get to see some of the more secluded and authentic parts of Thailand, I also enjoy the driving itself. Outside the cities it is a stress free affair, and even in the densest traffic, hardly anyone ever touches their horn.
I enjoy giving people the right of way as well, because this is usually acknowledged with a little nod that you may just be able to see through the heavily tinted windscreen. Plus, driving a classic car will often get the approval of Thai gearheads on motorcycles, who will speed by and give me a thumbs up.
Things turn very, very differently however when you are unfortunate enough to get into an accident. Having lived in Thailand for almost ten years, I have certainly had my share of automotive misfortune. In the paragraphs below I will describe my different experiences and some of the more upsetting stories I heard from friends and coworkers.
Self-inflicted motorcycle wounds
Although I never took a class, a few months of total “motocy taxi”-dependency pushed me over the edge and I purchased a small bike with semi-automatic clutch. It took me exactly 15 minutes and one pothole to land in the nearest hospital, where they proceeded to stitch me up. This was on the outskirts of Bangkok, and the entire emergency department was filled with kids who were mauled by soi dogs on one side, and banged-up motorcycle drivers on the other.
I learned a few things that day. First off, Thai hospitals are cheap, professional and very reliable. I also didn’t know there was such a thing as internal and external stitches, but my knee required both in the double digit numbers. And finally, squeezing both brakes as hard as you can is counterproductive, as it locks the front wheel and will catapult you over the handlebars.
Two-vehicle incidents in Thailand
Expats will often warn newcomers that “crashing with a Thai will be your fault. Period”. I’d like to refrain from the deeper cultural implications on why this is, but it really seems to be true. I’ve been hit by a speeding motorcycle when I was waiting to make a right turn, and ended up paying 4.000 THB.
A colleague of mine had the exact same situation, where he was about to enter a factory parking lot and a speeding motorcycle misjudged a tiny hole between the SUV and other cars and sent himself flying over the car. Convinced that this could simply not be his fault, he pursued the matter hard and also ended up at a police station where he was told he is a foreigner with a big car and that paying 5.000 THB to the (helmet-less) motorcycle driver is only fair.
What’s funny to me is that in both instances, these were Thai boys, driving like maniacs with shorts and croqs. But in their narrative, they were successful career men, who were enormously inconvenienced by the farang who not only put them in mortal danger, but also caused them to miss several hours of work. Never mind that both farang had offered to settle the matter on the spot and offered to pay for all repairs; these are insignificant details!
It’s a shameless practice, and all (Thai) stakeholders will participate without blinking. What’s funny to me is that in a similar situation where I was actually very, VERY guilty (texting when driving), nobody seemed to care.
The texting assault
One night, I returned from a disastrous date (Tinder really ought to add a 3rd gender category in South-east Asia) on the other side of the island. Upset with the weirdness of the situation, I was slowly driving through a tourist area and paying too much attention to my phone screen than I really should.
So it wasn’t long before I heard a heavy “thud” and I instinctively slammed on the brakes. I looked up just in time to see a very large Asian rolling off the hood of my truck, falling on the street.
Well-aware of the implications of the situation, I could hardly contain my panic as I got out the car to check up on my victim. While a crowd was quickly gathering, I found a large Asian man on the street, moaning and smelling of alcohol, with a smashed Samsung phone a few meters away from him. My car had a little dent on the hood, and kneeled down as more and more people gathered around the spectacle.
“Are you okay? Can you talk?” I asked the man in Thai, as he continued his moaning. Meanwhile, his friends caught up to him, and started to shield him from me, the imperialist farang aggressor. I had noticed that he seemed to be fine though, and apart from the smashed phone, the very large man didn’t seem to have a scratch on him.
While I was trying to assess the situation further, doom scenarios kept running through my head, and from the corner of my eyes, I had already noticed Tuk-tuk drivers nearby signalling for the police to get involved, while more and more bystanders walked over. But I also noticed the men didn’t seem to speak Thai and instead of continuing to ask in Thai, I switched to English and asked where they are from. What happens next continues to baffle me to this day.
The injured man rolled over and moaned; “We. are. Chineeeeese…” and the crowd that gathered around the accident immediately lost interest. The same Tuk-tuk driver who seemed hell-bent on getting the police involved walked over to me, put his hand on my shoulder and literally said: “You will be ok – nobody cares about this”, scoffing at the Chinese man and walked away.
A Chinese tour guide eventually turned up, and insisted we all go to the police station while my victim goes through a medical check-up before we do anything else.
Four hours later, a Thai cop rolled his eyes at me and whisked me out of the station without even a small fine, while a frustrated Chinese tour guide kept screaming “MURDERER!” at me, as the officers frowned their eyes at this annoyingly loud little man.
I feel driving on Thai roads is safe, even more so when you are in a car. I don’t recommend renting motorcycles, especially inexperienced drivers inexperienced tourists who 9 out of 10 times do not have the proper insurance. The risk is very real, especially when you ride around on a rackety scooter with flip-flops, gravel on every corner of the road and the local practice of “creative overtaking”.
While newer cars can be prohibitively expensive, running costs are next to nothing. Thai cars have strange depreciation curves, but if you are willing to drive a car that is fifteen years or older, you can get a great deal. For me personally, Thailand really opened up once I got my first truck and I could drive wherever I wanted, whenever.
I’ve talked a lot about accidents in this article, but in all fairness the costs of a fender bender are inconsequential (especially when you hit a foreigner) compared to my own country. The insurance premium alone would cost me dearly, whereas in Thailand a parking mishap is mostly a waste of time for everyone involved. The system is not always fair and biased against foreigners at times, but the advantages outweigh the risks by a mile.
Top 5 awesomeness on Thai roads
The zen behavior of road users. Honking is rare
The street food stands in the middle of nowhere
The long-distance infrastructure
When your car breaks down, people will help
Top 5 annoyances on Thai roads
Motorcycles on the wrong side of the road, including highways.
Cars slowing down (?!?) before merge lanes
Newborns carried on motorcycles