Last Sunday, David and I rented a motorbike in Thailand for the first time, and let’s just say that I was not excited. Thailand has one of the highest traffic-related death rates in the world and I’m already quite a baby when it comes to driving in general. After a car accident at age 16 (I was not at fault), I feel like I have had a constant anxiety when it comes to getting out on the road. David has graciously taken over the role of primary driver in our relationship (thank goodness), so I usually can relax and let him do his thing.
But driving in Thailand? No relaxing for me. I was terrified. On the morning we planned to rent a bike, I kept having visions of us swerving off a cliff, getting squished by an inattentive semi-truck driver, or frantically dodging wayward pedestrians.
My only experience on a motorcycle up to this point was one trip through Utah’s Wasatch Mountains on the back of my step-dad’s Harley, but even then, his bike is a beast and he had enough confidence behind the wheel to make me feel safe. David too has only had one prior experience on a motorbike and that was just a 10 minute drive on his friend’s scooter once in college.
So we weren’t experts when we hopped onto the back of a motorbike near our hotel in Kata Beach, Phuket. After a full day of riding, we’re still not experts but I already feel much more confident and wanted to share a few first impressions on how to stay safe while driving in Thailand…
Stay as far to the left as possible.
This actually turned out to be easier than we expected. As Americans, we were intially worried about driving on the “wrong” side of the road, but since we spent the first few months of the 2014 living in London, our brains seemed to easily adjust to the “stay on the left” mentality. If you stay to the left (and I’m talking practically on the shoulder) it gives other drivers ample room to pass you — and trust me: hundreds of drivers will pass you.
But if you’re in the far left, watch out for rogue drivers who pop out of side streets or travel in the shoulder.
We have noticed that drivers pop out of side streets without a second glance all the time. I guess they just assume that other drivers are paying attention. Watch out for this. Also watch out for motorbikes driving the wrong way in the shoulder (or even in your lane!) and for people’s parked cars blocking your lane. You’ll have to squeeze around them by either merging into the right lane or sometimes pulling into oncoming traffic. This can be pretty scary at high speeds, which is where my next tip comes in…
Don’t go too fast.
You’re not in a race. As long as you’re traveling fast enough that you’re not endangering other drivers, it’s okay for you to drive at your comfort level. People are used to passing slow drivers. At least on your first ride, please don’t feel pressure to keep up with some of the speedy Thai drivers out there. Better safe than sorry.
Practice once in a parking lot or road with little traffic.
Before we started out on our journey from Baan Karon to Phuket town, we took a detour up a quiet mountain road to get a better feel for the bike. It was nice to do a practice run once without having buses and bikes zipping by us.
Always look both ways before pulling out at a green light.
We were eating dinner near a busy road yesterday, and suddenly we heard a big truck blast its horn three or four times and then fly through a red light at probably 50 mph. He didn’t even tap his brakes. And we’ve noticed a lot of other drivers, especially motorcyclists, do the same thing. So before you pull into an intersection when you get a green light, it doesn’t hurt to look both ways first.
Roundabouts are free game.
I’m sure there are official traffic rules for going through a roundabout, but drivers sure don’t follow them. From what we can tell, no one has the right-of-way. It’s just kind of a mad house. If there’s a space for you to get through, take it and keep moving.
Wear a helmet. Always.
You’ll see a lot of locals without helmets, but that doesn’t mean you can get away with not wearing one. Not only is it way safer to wear a helmet, but you’re much more likely to get pulled over and ticketed if you’re not. And while we’re on the subject of getting pulled over…
Carry your license and passport at all times.
I’ve heard that police have a tendency to pull farangs over, so if they do, make sure you have proper ID on you. In our case, the motorbike company kept my passport as collateral, but let us take David’s (the driver’s) with us. We both had our Hawaii driver’s licenses with us because getting caught without one can result in fines. I haven’t heard of someone getting in trouble for driving without an international license or a motorcycle license, but that doesn’t mean it never happens. It definitely couldn’t hurt to get one or both of these.
Sometimes it’s easier to make three lefts, rather than a right.
I don’t know about you, but when trying to make a right turn, I don’t love the idea of merging into the fast lane, stopping, and waiting for a gap in oncoming traffic. I’m not as brave as the Thais. If you’re from a country that drives on the right side of the road, rather than trying to navigate the right-turn chaos in Thailand, take a few easy left turns.
And a few bonus observations…
Thais leave their helmets with their bikes and apparently don’t worry about them getting stolen. We did this without issue.
On the same token, nobody locks their motorcycle/bike up.
Your key has to be turned to the “opener” position in your ignition to get your seat open. Duh. We definitely looked like tourists when we couldn’t figure this one out.
You might be charged more at the gas pump because you’re a farang. If you’re confident enough to protest, you can try, but we just went with it.
Passengers should try not too move around too much, since it can cause the bike to wobble.
Your kickstand has to be up before you can start the bike.
To avoid any unexpected jolts forward, always hold down the brake when you’re starting up and turning off your bike.
If you don’t have a faceguard on your helmet, glasses are essential to avoiding bugs and dust in your eyes.
Oh, and David would like to add: Try not to stare at the beautiful sunsets too much while you’re driving 🙂