Observations on Driving in Thailand

These observations give a different perspective from my last story, which I called, “Low Standards & Cultural Influences Result in Dangerous Driving in Thailand

There’s always something different to see when you drive in Thailand. One minute you’ll see a singing and dancing crowd escorting a novice monk to his initiation. The next moment, and further down the road, you may hear the sad laments of a funeral. Coming from the home of someone who has recently died, the garlanded coffin on full view outside the house.

If you drive into a restaurant or shopping mall car park, you will hear the attendants blowing whistles for all they’re worth to help you park. Police use them a lot to draw attention to other cars and pedestrians and to beckon you forward. Teachers on duty outside a school entrance do the same. You are obliged to follow their directions, even though they have no legal right to direct traffic.

I had to make a detour today to get to the market. Although reading Thai road signs when driving is not always easy, I could make out that the road ahead was closed. I could see preparations for a wedding in the distance. There was music playing. So, it was easy to guess that someone influential had arranged for the road to be blocked. I followed the arrows for the diversion and was just sorry I had not been sent an invitation.

Comparing wearing a chastity belt with wearing a seat belt
Comparing wearing a chastity belt with wearing a seat belt

I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of times I have forgotten to fasten my seat belt. Even if it was not a legal requirement in Thailand, I would “clunk, click, every trip” as I would if I was driving in the United Kingdom.

I had stopped to ask directions, and I only had to drive round a bend for 100 metres before I would be where I wanted to be. I should have remembered it was getting towards the end of the month. It is at that time the police try to make up their target quotas for driving infringements.

And as I rounded the corner, there they were. Ready to swoop. I quickly pulled on my seat belt. One of the officers signaled for me to pull in. I lowered the window and, as is usual in Thailand, he saluted smartly. He politely asked to see my licence, asked what country I came from, and started talking about the Arsenal football club. All very pleasant and friendly. This was obviously just a routine licence check. I was in luck. He was obviously a decent copper.

And then he said, “I’m going to have to give you a ticket. I saw you put your seat belt on after you came round the corner”.

He still had my licence. The procedure would have been for me to go to the police station, pay the fine, and retrieve the licence. The first problem would be finding the police station. I would have to wait for hours. It takes time for the paper work to be completed.

I decided on the Thai approach. “Pom jai ngern hai khun dio nee. Taorai na kap. (Can I pay you now? How much?)”

My wallet was 400 baht lighter but I was not given a ticket. I had my licence back. He halted the traffic to allow me to pull out. The officer gave me an even smarter salute than before. I was on my way.

Collecting minor fines in this way is common practice. The money is shared out later at the station. It’s regarded as a perk of the job. Fines form part of officers’ salaries. It rewards individual officers while cracking down on motoring offences. A win-win solution?

These purges on drivers and bikers are common at the end of each month when police officers are trying to meet their monthly target for collection of fines. I will be more careful next month.

Getting a Driving Licence in Thailand

Renewed my Thai driving licence today. Only took twenty minutes including the test. They had all my previous information on their computer screen. Still needed to provide copies of my passport and visa, a couple of photos, a doctor’s note, and evidence of my address. That was fair enough.

My fitness to drive certificate from a local doctor cost just 50 baht. he just asked me if I felt okay and chatted with me for a few minutes. No need for any examination. Some places will charge 200 baht or more for a signature on a bit of paper. The disadvantage of such a visit to a doctor is that, while you save money, you don’t get a decent check-up. Serious problems could be missed.

Embassies will provide a proof of address (though they never require actual evidence of where you live) for around 1000 baht. Thai immigration will provide what is needed for half that price. Having a tabianbaan is a better alternative. This is a yellow house registration book obtained at the local government office (amphur) free of charge.

You will have to provide photocopies and translations of many documents but it is still cheaper and quicker than using embassy services and it is your permanent record. It can get expensive to visit your embassy every time you need to confirm where you are living.

The actual driving test took about 5 minutes. To check reflexes you are sat in front of a screen. When you see red, you press the brake pedal on the machine. When you see green, you press the accelerator pedal.

Your ability to identify colours is verified by shouting out the colour on the cards that are held up in front of you.

The depth perception test involves your aligning a moving cursor with a fixed point on the screen.

Farangs without a western or international licence have to take the same test as a Thai. This involves watching a video presentation on safe driving. You may have to answer some written questions. You may have to drive around the test circuit a few times while being watched by an examiner. There is no on the road driving test in Thailand.

I only watched the first five minutes of the driving video as the supervisor wanted to go to lunch. You will find that many official procedures in Thailand are either ignored or modified. It depends on the officer who is supervising. Each province in Thailand will have different procedures in place. And, within each office, individual staff members will have their own ideas on how to carry out the tests.

Most people pass first time. Or, they are allowed to have a few more attempts at the written answers. Or, they are asked to make a few more circuits of the test track. I have never seen anyone actually fail a test in Thailand.

Before you leave the office you present yourself at the cashier’s window and pay for your laminated licence.

Night Driving in Thailand

An elephant with a red flashing light on his tail
Elephants have a red flashing light on their tails at night

Driving around a bend tonight, I saw a red light flashing in front of me. It was fixed to the tail of an elephant. He was quite a big beast so I’m glad I had some warning as I approached. Always drive in Thailand at a speed that allows you to pull up within the space that you can see ahead of you.

The mahout is looking for gifts of money. He will sell you sugar cane to feed the animal and let you take photographs. The practice is being discouraged because of the risks involved but the regulations are not often enforced. Too much sugar can, in any case, make elephants hyperactive.

Police generally ignore mahouts leading their elephants into restaurant car parks to beg for money. The patrons, Thai and farang, usually give generously. Sadly, that perpetuates a dangerous and often cruel practice of bringing elephants into crowded areas.

The best way to interact with these creatures is to visit the sanctuaries where they are well looked after. Elephants don’t then have to parade on the streets or perform at circus-like shows. Always more interesting to see them behaving naturally in safe conditions.

An Amusing Example of an English Driving Test

My 80 year old uncle was an undertaker in Starcross, a scenic village on the Exe river in Devon. He was asked by the driving examiner where road users should not park their vehicles. Presumably, the correct answer includes: not on a hump back bridge, not near a zebra crossing, not on a bend etc. etc.

His reply always made me laugh.

“Don’t know about any Highway Code Book. Never been a keen book reader. I only ride around the village on my moped. If I stop anywhere, I’d just park it in a hedge. I’ve no intention of riding in big cities like Exeter anyway.”

Thais don’t keep to road regulations. Driver training courses are few and far between. None of the Thais I know have been on formal driving courses. Tests are not taken seriously. Mai pen rai is everywhere.

All nationalities drive differently

A Greek driver swearing to try to get a traffic light to change
A Greek driver swearing and honking his horn to try to get a traffic light to change

I remember driving from the airport in Athens and being stopped at a traffic light. The cars ahead of me were tooting their horns. It didn’t make the lights change any more quickly. But it was a common practice apparently. Not sure if that still happens. Perhaps readers with experience of Greek driving will comment.

Driving in Paris can be unforgettable. The French drive fast and seem to assume drivers will mainly keep to the rules.

There are many lanes on the Arc de Triomphe roundabout
The many lanes on the Arc de Triomphe roundabout

I recall driving around the Arc de Triomphe roundabout which has 12 exits. We were taking my son and his French girlfriend back to their apartment. Drivers have to move from lane to lane, pushing their way into the traffic, in order to get into the correct lane for their exit.

My son’s girlfriend told me that I drove like a Paris taxi driver. To this day, I don’t know if that was a compliment or a criticism of my driving.

Everyone will have their own recollections of driving in other countries.

Thais start at an early age to learn to ride

A Thai child watching how is father drives in Thailand
A Thai child learns to drive by watching his father

Kids are naturally curious and observant. So, perched on the front of a motor bike near the handle bars they pick up a lot of ideas on how to drive. When they themselves have a motorbike or truck they already have a host of driving techniques to call upon!

To turn right or go forward at a red light they’ll regularly go left and do a U-turn. They then go straight on if they wanted to turn right originally or turn left if they wanted to go straight on.

They won’t do it if cameras are visible or if any police on duty are likely to take a note of their registration numbers.

A biker (circled) doing a U-turn
A biker doing a U-turn, almost hitting the truck. Credit Bangkok Post

Are the bikers adopting a mai pen rai attitude? Do they really believe it does not matter that they are putting their lives and the lives of others in jeopardy?

Is it related to the doctrine of predestination, whatever will be will be? That one has no control over one’s destiny.

Is it because they are pretty certain that police officers called to the scene when there is an accident will usually find the other party at fault? Most officers will have first learned driving skills on a motor bike and are therefore sympathetic to, and possibly biased towards, bikers.

If motor cyclists are uninsured, and most are not, it may appear more pragmatic, and support the biker better, by getting the motorist or his insurer to pay.

Turning into a main road without looking

Whenever I have asked a Thai why motor-cyclists (and sometimes cars) come out of sois without looking, I am never given a plausible reason. Even some seasoned farang expats resort to the old chestnut, “It’s not just Thais, it happens all over the world”. Yes, it does occur elsewhere, but these expats intentionally miss the fact that it happens more in Thailand than in the West.

Why some farangs regard themselves as unpaid apologists for Thailand is something else that is difficult to understand. (There are also foreigners, of course, who perpetually criticise anything and everything Thai or associated with Thailand. These Thai “bashers” cannot seem to construct a balanced view of life here, they cannot see the good and the bad.)

Thai drivers don’t keep to the rules

Amazing how Thais park their cars and bikes wherever they like. A few motorbikes had some near misses this morning on a corner where two cars had double-parked. Thais aren’t the most careful of road users.

The larger or more expensive the vehicle, the more the driver will flaunt the rules of the road. Never assume a large truck, coach, or “hi-so” car is going to keep to driving regulations. They’ll do what they want to do. Motor cyclists will overtake on either side of you even if you’re signaling to turn. A no-entry sign is not always observed; expect two way traffic on one-way streets.

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