How to Survive when you ride a Motorbike in Thailand
Driving a motorbike or car in any Asian country is one of those experience that if survived becomes stories you tell your friends over a beer. In Thailand many westerners often wonder how most of the people driving managed to get a driver’s license. The reality is most of them don’t!
If you ride in Thailand you are very likely to have an accident. It happens to everyone at some point. Whether or not you survive with your life will depend greatly on following the suggestions and guidelines detailed below. I would go as far as stating … Make them your Rules!
A common mistake people make is that Asians are bad drivers. They are not. They manage to survive in a chaotic traffic system with more hazards than a reality TV show. It is more accurate to say that they are inconsiderate drivers, but even saying this is based on making false assumptions, based on western culture.
Important: Understand Thai Drivers Mindset
One of the biggest factors (in my humble opinion) that plays a part in how the Asian population drive differently is rooted in the language and lack of time tenses. Bear with me here, as your understanding of this point will allow you to remove your internal common sense expectations of how people ‘should drive’. Your past expectations of how others should act on the road allows you to drive or ride on auto pilot. If you do not adapt and change this assumption here in Thailand you seriously increase the risk of having an accident.
In Asian language, it is rare to define a sense of past, present or future tense. In the English language we state everything in an exact frame of time. In Thailand if someone was to say “I am a Teacher” it could mean they used to be, they are studying to be, they are currently, or they will be in the future. The language we use contributes greatly to an individual’s conscious thoughts and makes up our reality. When your primary language system does not place an emphasis on time as a major construct – your ability to grasp future consequences from a single past or present experience, is reduced.
How does the lack of ‘time’ constructs affect Thai drivers?
One of the biggest hazards you will find driving on Thai roads is that almost no one will look for on coming traffic before pulling out of a street, turning a corner or changing lanes. If you (or I) were to turn from a side street into a major road and have an accident or near miss. Anxiety kicks in and we will adapt our behavior and in future slow down, look for on coming traffic, use your turn signals and proceed with warranted caution.
If a Thai person was to do this (and they do all the time) there conscious process (due to the lack of time concepts in the language) is … “I could have died, but I did not. I have good luck” and that is the end of it. Next time they approach the same situation the anticipation of it happening again is just not there.
Please note that this is a blatant generalization and I do not mean to apply it to every Thai person. But if you assume it does apply you will always be aware of what to look for when riding here.
So let’s examine how to ride a motorbike in Thailand to survive.
1) Have a Safe Motorbike
Many places that rent motorbikes in Thailand are run by under paid and unskilled staff. The maintenance on the bike and especially the brakes can be lacking. Older motorbikes you hire will have a reduction in it’s ability to accelerate with speed and stop quickly. Many places also never change the mirrors from stock which are suited to smaller framed people. The difference in rental price of an old and smaller cc rating bike compared to a new and larger engine is about 500 baht a month. Pay the extra $15 and get a good, new, bigger and safer bike. If you are in Chiang Mai, check here for exactly this
What to look for when you hire a motorbike:
125cc motorbike. Westerners are bigger and heavier and need the extra power
New vs Older Bike: Older bikes not only use more gas, they lack acceleration power and sometimes you will need it to avoid an accident.
Extended Mirror: Not many Thai people even use the mirrors. They just do not check behind them before swapping lanes. We do, make sure you can see behind you.
Check the brakes: This is an essential requirement but not one many rental places are able to comprehend the importance of.
Thicker tires: A common reason many people have accidents is when the wheel slips from under the bike when riding over sand or gravel on the road. Using a thicker wheel helps maintain stability and prevent this.
2) Wear your Helmet!!!
You will notice that many local people and tourist do not wear helmets when riding a motorbike in Thailand. If you get stopped by the police the instant ‘gift’ fine is only 200 baht (about US $6) and it is tempting to justify ‘when in Rome….’
This abundance of freedom (that makes western road rules and law enforcement seem like a nanny state) is alluring to some. The more adventurous (I will go as far as weak minded and easily influenced) gravitate towards experiencing this new freedom and ride without a helmet. If you do this your an idiot – plain and simple. Remember, chances are high that if you ride a motorbike in Thailand you are going to have an accident. Not wearing your helmet IS the difference between a few scratches and your loved ones having to arrange for your body to be shipped home.
Bear this in mind: The Thai transport cleanup crew does not like to touch internal organs (it is a cultural thing). As someone living here I can guarantee you, pieces of your brains will remain on the lamp post you hit until they dry up, rot and blow away. Try Goggling an image search ‘motorbike accidents Thailand’ to see pictures of brains and body parts splattered around the road to reinforce this point. Just wear your helmet!!!
Many people look around them and can justify not using common sense because it seems as if ‘everyone else does it’. Despite any justifications you can tell yourself, for those people who have lived here long enough to see the result of westerners not wearing a helmet .. you might as well be wearing a t-shirt that says “I am too stupid to live” because that’s what most people are thinking when they see you.
3) Drive at a reasonable speed
We all know speed kills, this is nothing new. It is very easy on the automatic scooters in Thailand with the room to ride through traffic to do it at speed. I have a bigger bike, and I am constantly looking at my speed and asking myself “If I crash now will I live”? And I do this because I have seen the end result of people who are too relaxed when they ride. You need to remember that the chances of someone else pulling out in front of you or switching lanes without looking or stopping mid traffic are many many times higher in Thailand than what you are used to in your home country.
The ability to swiftly zip in and out between cars is easy here. The motorbike gives you much more opportunity to bypass the congestion of cars in traffic. In fact doing this will become second nature to you. Just always be aware as you are riding between cars, chances are someone else will pull out in front of you as they move into the space between cars. And they will not be looking for you coming.
No one in Thailand is in a hurry. You do not need to be either.
4) Drive next to the center white line
On a two lane road, in most countries it is suggested that you ride on the left side of the lane. This is to avoid cars coming up behind you at faster speeds and being hit from behind. In Thailand this is dangerous because (not sure I mentioned this or not before) people will pull into your path without looking. They will come from the side streets on your left and pull out from parked positions from your left. Riding on the left side of the lane makes you a closer target, and gives you less room to avoid them.
Riding the center line gives you the opportunity to look ahead and see potential danger. It also allows you to smoothly transition between and around cars on the road. Most Thai vehicle drivers will leave enough space on the left and right hand side of their vehicle for a motorbike to get by. And at stopped traffic they will usually leave room between the cars front and rear for you to zig zag your way around the cars and through traffic.
Do not ride the center line when ….
When you are on a major freeway – Freeways seldom have cross streets where someone can pull out on your left. The cars are going faster and there is no reason for you to take up a whole lane. The far left of the road is the safest place to be.
When you are on a single and narrow road with curves you can not see around. Expect cars and motorbikes coming in the opposite direction to be in the middle of the road. Give yourself room to be out of the way.
Other hazards to watch for
Riding a motorbike in Thailand is not a time or place you want to mentally relax and enjoy the view. You will need to be 100% consciously aware of everything happening to you and within the next 100 meters. You will soon realize once you start to ride here that things are different. The traffic while chaotic has a flow and a system about it. You will need to focus on what is ahead and anticipate several possibilities.
Lack of Accident Media Coverage: They do not like to report in the Thai media anything that might hinder the tourist perception of Thailand. Road accidents (especially non Thai’s) are not reported so it is easy to forget that this country ranks in the top 5 of most dangerous places to ride. Don’t let the lack of you noticing the accident rate fool you into a sense of security.
Painted Lines on the Road: When it rains or a shop owner has washed the front of their store and the road is wet – the painted road markings become very slippery. Avoid riding close to them and if you are turning and crossing the path of a a painted piece of road, slow down and use as gradual turn as you can manage.
Chinese Tourists: Watch out for Chinese tourists, easily spotted because the woman on the back of the bike will have an open map and they are all over the road looking for sites to stop at. The Chinese tourists have a tendency to just stop where ever they want, including right in front of you without looking. When you spot them, move to the left or right and do not follow directly behind them
Do not look at the view: When riding (especially in Chiang Mai) there are many things that can distract your attention. Temples are everywhere, the 3 or 4 cute child monks walking along the road. The incredibly beautiful women on the side of the road or on the motorbike next to you. The food stalls, and the Elephants and Buffalo that can be on the roads. You need to focus 100% on what might happen on the road in front of you – not how amazing everything is on the sidelines.
Gravel and sand: One of the biggest causes of non fatal accidents in Thailand is when the motorbike wheel skids out of control and the bike skids. This usually happens when riding too close to the left side of the road or when pulling over to stop somewhere.Look out for the condition of the road and especially watch out for sand and gravel on the sides of the road and entrance ways to parking lots. A lot of sand or stones tends to be safer than just a little bit. Be careful either way.
Use your Mirrors: Thai people as a rule do not use them. You should monitor behind you on a regular occasion. But also be aware than the person in front of you will not. They will not see you coming if you decide to pass them. Give yourself enough space to avoid them moving directly into you as your passing.
Do not assume green means GO: The general rule seems to be a yellow light means speed up, and when the red light turns on it means the 5th car behind you will have to stop – but you are OK to go. Again no one looks, they will keep going through a red light. If you are in the front of the cue and the light turns green, just look and make sure no one is coming. Chances are they will be.
Lane changing without turn signals. It is very common for both car drivers and motorbike riders to change lanes without signaling. For the motorbike rider you are constantly swapping lanes and driving between cars because you can. Often the blinker light will stay on because the turn was not sufficient to auto switch off, and it becomes easier to not use the indicators for lane changes. Cars will often switch lanes or just drive in the middle of one for a while and then move over.Be aware that anyone in front of you or to your side can and probably will move without looking or warning.
Tuk Tuk’s and Songthaews: These will stop anywhere suddenly to pick up passengers. If you see a Tuk Tuk ahead of you that is empty expect it to stop suddenly or slow every time it passes people on the side of the road. The same is true for the two row trucks (Songthaews). Often the reason cars are driving in the middle of the road or traffic comes to a stop is because of the public transportation.
Police: Not sticky a hazard, the police in Thailand do not get paid much, and it is common for them to supplement their income with ‘instant fines’ at road side check points. Westerners are targeted simply because we have money and are likely to be breaking the law.
Not wearing a helmet is an instant 200 baht fine (US $6), not having a valid drivers license 400 baht. Possession of drugs – instant jail for a very very long time. The police will usually ask for more, but these figures are usually accepted unless you have a wallet full of cash.
Police checkpoints are just part of the scenery here, and after the Coup more common. You will no doubt feel indignant and feel like you are being singled out – smile politely admit your wrong doing, apologize and bear it.
Western Attitude: We in the west have a culture that inflates our perception of our own importance and rights. As such we naturally tend to take almost anything as an attack on our sense of ego, and we attempt to defend ourselves. In Thailand, this attitude is seen as a sign of an immoral and disgusting person. Here you do what you can to avoid losing face (embarrassing yourself or others). Raising your voice, disputing statements made (calling someone a lair) pointing, arguing etc are all behaviors that quickly erode any respect Thai people will give you. And they show their contempt by smiling and laughing (they will not lose face displaying conflict or anger).
If you are pulled over at a check point, or involved in an accident, or have someone cut you off, your fault or theirs the response is always the same. You politely nod your head (to younger people) or perform a Wai (hands to the head and bow) to older people or officials and say “Mai Ben Rai”. This roughly translate to No problem, No worries, It is OK, and once it is spoken, it ends the matter.