Who’s who on the road in Thailand: an anthology of drivers you might encounter in ‘the Land of smiles’

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Asia » Thailand » South-West Thailand » Phang-Nga
November 20th 2013
Published: November 20th 2013
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Antique BikeAntique BikeAntique Bike

Parked at a local boutique hotel that's decorating scheme can be described as "cutesie."
This entry is a tide over as I work on a series of entries drawn from a month on the road in Malaysia, Indonesia, and Singapore.

I’ve done a lot of driving over the last two weekends. I’ve logged about 500 butt-numbing kilometers going to visit my cousin who has set up shop in Krabi as a climbing bum/guru and to take a cooking course in Phuket. That’s a lot of time to think, sing songs into my motorbike helmet at 90 km per hour*, and observe other drivers. What follows is who’s who of driving archetypes in Thailand – a politics, a pecking order, a potentially patentable way to make sense of the chaos that is the Thai driving experience. All archetypes have been exaggerated, mildly, so that you can better understand their tendencies and what it’s like to be a guy on a motorbike just trying to enjoy the ride. (Keep in mind, Thais drive on the left, so passing on the left is bad form, rights turns are the more challenging of the two, and the driver sits in the right front seat!)

The ‘To Be
The Open RoadThe Open RoadThe Open Road

On the eastern, less developed side of the valley Phang-nga sits in. Doesn't the rock in the back look like it could have been the inspiration for Pride Rock in "the Lion King"?
Avoided’s – Red Flags

The private van – These guys are the undisputed king of the road. Get out and stay out of their way at all costs! They’re trying to get tourists from Point A to Point B, and they’ve got a schedule to keep – with enough downtime built in of course to gouge tourists at high price stopover points. Vans will run you over, cut you off, and push you out of your lane all in the interests of turning a bity Baht.

The fancy car driver – Another guy you want to avoid like the plague. Thai people who drive fancy cars are game for corrupt police officials. The fact that they are willing to drive a car like this suggests a) they know how to buy off officials b) if they ran you over, officials might not care c) they might have connections to things you don’t want to be involved in, so they aren’t worried about you, police officials, anything. Keep a wide berth.

The sand truck – Isn’t there enough sand in and around Thailand? Why are we
Oh the places a bike will take youOh the places a bike will take youOh the places a bike will take you

The mountains of Phang-nga from a nearby overlook.
constantly moving it? Driving behind a sand truck is like driving in a cloud of small knives. They’re more common than you think – there is a sand quarry between Phang-nga and Phuket. Unlike the van or fancy car driver, the best move here is to get in front.

The truck laden with rubber trees – You’ll notice these trucks from a mile away, stacked impossibly high with trees that don’t quite seem to be strapped in as well as they should be. If you don’t see them, you have these overloaded flatbeds to thank for the 6” tire depressions in the road's asphalt patches. I especially like the 5-6 sunburnt men in nothing but flip-flops and cargo shorts that you often see "shooting the shit" on top of the stack. “What’s the view like up there gentleman?” Get around the rubber truck. They’ll slow you down and remind you eerily of the plot of that Final Destination movie (FD2 to be precise).

The truck full of durians – If you don’t know what a durian is, you have a new fear to cope with here. Imagine a truck overturns,
Oh the places a bike will take you (2)Oh the places a bike will take you (2)Oh the places a bike will take you (2)

The rivers and streams of Phang-nga.
but its contents are all spiky oblong balls that look like a middle-age torture implement or an organic caltrop. For this reason and the exhaust fumes, get in front, get in front, get in front.

Any driver on the road in Chiang Mai after 12:30 am – There is a possibility they are drunk. Take avoidance maneuvers regardless.

Farang on a motorbike – Farang/falang is the Thai word for foreigner from a western country. In some cases it’s derogatory, and riding a motorbike is one of them. Ivan wants to show off for his girlfriend, and he thinks driving a motorbike for the first time in heavy traffic is the way to do it. You just never know what they are going to do or what kind of a driving culture they come from.

Dogs – They may not be a vehicle, but they factor in. Strays are the most likely thing to kill you on the road. They’ll sleep on it, they’ll step out in front of you. There’s just very little you can do about it, but wary, watch your speed around dogs, and honk like the dickens.

The ‘Other Guy’s’ – Yellow Flags

The Monster bus – Riding behind these guys can result in excessive exhaust inhalation, and being sucked left and right by air gusts. However, they tend to drive pretty steadily. Just don’t ride in their blind spot, particularly on the left - remember, drivers sit on the right - as they might cut you off to pick up passengers. If vans are the kings, these guys are the queens of the road. You don’t mess with them for obvious reasons.

The lone motorcyclist (male)- There’s a good chance you won’t see him until he passes you on the left. You’ll pass him later and then he’ll pass you on the left again, slow down and maybe pass you on the right. Don’t expect him to make sense, and you’ll be all the better for it.

The lone motorcyclist (female) – You’re either passing her or she is passing you at 90 km per hour. In either case, you probably won’t see her again, unlike the male.

The family motorcycle – Mom, Dad, little Saranaporn, and Akdet** are all out for a joyride on the family 100 cc cycle. How they all fit and how the thing can run with the weight is beyond me. Sometimes, they think they can keep up with you at top speeds and this isn’t good for anyone. Family rides might be considered reckless endangerment of a child in America, the whole no-helmet thing and all.

Three kids in school uniforms on a motorbike – if you pass them, they’ll take it as a challenge and outgun you, hell be damned. Exactly like this, but older, are three guys in thrift-shop U.S. army shirts on a motorbike.

Side saddled skirt-wearer – You’ve got two people on a motorcycle, one of them is driving (probably female), and the other one is riding with her legs hanging off one side of the motorcycle so that she doesn’t rip her long skirt. Can I admit that I think these girls are really hardcore? Behaves like a normal motorcyclist.

The ‘Sheep’ – Green Flags

The motorbiker with sidecar – These guys are on a 100-125 cc engine like you, but they’ve got a rickety wooden flatbed supported by a metal frame sticking out of their side. Contents of said flatbed may be their market stall, with meat sticks cooking and throwing coal smoke in your face, or their whole family. In either case, these guys are really slow and don't appreciate their girth. Getting around them is paramount to safe driving.

Regular cars – Cars are expensive for Thai people, not everyone can afford them, and if they hit a motorbike, they are at fault, not matter what (or so I've been told). For these reasons, regular cars drive conservatively and you can ride circles around them with less to worry about than from a side-saddled skirt wearer.

Driving in Thailand is hectic, but with some ideas of what the other guy might do, you’ll have a much more pleasant driving experience. Just remember – even if the other guy cuts you off, s/he’ll be smiling. It’s nothing personal dude, it’s just a free for all.

Note for my Thailand friends. Have any other sorts of drivers I’m missing and desperately belong on the list? Have any driving anecdotes to share? Add your comments. Just keep it light hearted for the folks.


* The first time I sang along on my bike I thought I was going to fly off and die when I hit a speed bump. Being pressed into the seat of your bike just doesn’t do good things to your air support. My favorite songs to sing include: the 90’s rock band Sugar Ray’s “I Just Want to Fly” and the earlier 90’s rock band Nirvana’s “All Apologies.”

**I swear, these are real names. I’m not trying to be offensive here.


5th December 2013

Good Stuff!
An excellent read! I'll be back in Thailand again over Christmas making notes to possibly add to the list. :-)

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