Driving in Rural Thailand

A guide for visitors on what to expect when facing local drivers

Driving in Thailand is very loosely based upon a Highway Code of sorts. The majority of motorists in Thailand drive on the left. However, this is not always the case, particularly in rural areas. Thai drivers will invariably look for the easiest and quickest route between two points, and you will experience many cases in which a motorist, be he/she in charge of car or motorcycle, will be driving towards you on the hard shoulder; and in extreme cases, the central reserve shoulder on a dual carriageway.  

Driving in Thailand is an art. Many drivers do not have licences or if they do, they have not necessarily passed a comprehensive driving test. Road sense is virtually unknown here. Perhaps the best advice for non Thai drivers driving in Thailand can be found in the United Kingdom Highway Code:
Be considerate. Be careful of and considerate towards other road users. You should:
  • try to be understanding if other drivers cause problems; they may be inexperienced or not know the area well
  • be patient; remember that anyone can make a mistake
  • not allow yourself to become agitated or involved if someone is behaving badly on the road. This will only make the situation worse. Pull over, calm down and, when you feel relaxed, continue your journey
  • slow down and hold back if a vehicle pulls out into your path at a junction. Allow it to get clear. Do not over-react by driving too close behind it.
Application for Temporary Driving Licence for Car or Motorbike (See also)
If you are Driving in Thailand you will need a driving licence. Applications are processed at the local licence offices. When applying for your driving licence ensure that you have all the necessary documentation to avoid delays. Expatriates from certain countries (UK and USA included) will need the following: 
  • A current valid home country driving licence with more than one year to expire;
  • A passport with a non-immigrant 12 month visa, or a 12 month extension to a visa, and copies of the relevant pages;
  • Proof of address (obtained from the local immigration office);
  • Photographs of the correct size (25 mm square);
  • A medical certificate obtainable from most clinics (some provinces).
Depending upon the province, it may be necessary to take a colour blindness test and a reaction test. Should you not have a current valid home country driving licence (or a licence from a country not on the transport authority's list), then a test will have to be taken. The test consists of a written multiple choice exam and a short practical drive around a private area or car park. The documentation requirements are as above with the exception of the home country licence.
You must be over 18 years old to apply for either a car or motorcycle license except in the case of a motorbike of engine capacity not more than 90 cc in which case the age limit is 15 years old.


Traffic Lights
General Rules
Motorcycle Riders
On all journeys, the rider and pillion passenger on a motorcycle must wear a protective helmet. Helmets must be fastened securely. (note: certain provinces require only the rider to wear the helmet).
You are not to carry more than one pillion passenger and he/she should sit astride the machine on a proper seat and should keep both feet on the footrests. (note: these rules are rarely enforced - it is common to see three persons and sometimes more on a motorcycle and the passenger(s) may be riding 'side saddle').
Whether driving in daylight or at night, headlights and tail lights must be on at all times.

All Vehicle Drivers
You must use a seat belt in cars, vans and other goods vehicles if one is fitted.
Do not drink and drive as it will seriously affect your judgement and abilities. You MUST NOT drive with a breath alcohol level higher than 50 milligrams/percent. It is advisable not to drink alcohol at all if you intend to drive.
You MUST NOT drive under the influence of drugs or medicine.
You must obey signals given by police officers.
You must obey all traffic light signals. In most instances turning left at a traffic light showing red is permitted provided it is done with caution and other road users are given priority. Because of this, lanes at traffic lights are frequently designated right and straight on for the right (outside) lane and left only for the left (inside lane). If turning left on a red light is not permitted, a sign will indicate this *(see above).
You must obey all traffic signs giving orders, including temporary signals & signs.

Flashing headlights: Only flash your headlights to let other road users know that you are there. If another driver flashes his headlights never assume that it is a signal to go. Use your own judgement and proceed carefully. (Local drivers are renowned for using flashing headlights to warn other drivers that although the flasher is in the 'wrong', he/she will be continuing anyway).

You must use headlights at night and when visibility is seriously reduced.
You must obey speed limits at all times. Unless there are signs showing another limit, the speed limits for cars, vans, pick-ups and motorcycles are generally:
Open roads - 90 kph
Towns/villages - 50 kph

Speeds should be reduced depending upon traffic/weather conditions. 

Police Signals
If the traffic lights are not operating or the traffic police have over ridden the controls during peak times. 

If the police use a whistle:

One long blast, you must STOP

Two short blasts, you must GO

General Advice 
Whilst most Thais are perfectly capable of operating a motor vehicle in a forward direction, the majority of those in the more rural areas do not possess any road sense whatsoever. Correct positioning on the road is not something that has ever been taught or learnt.
Thai people rarely have a formulated plan. It is common for any outline plan to change dynamically. This can be witnessed in driving when a manoeuver is amended part way through, e.g. although a right turn indicator is flashing, the driver decides that a left turn may be more appropriate. Planning ahead also appears to be missing from the Thai language therefore manoeuvers are likely to be undertaken at the last minute.
Motorcyclists are a major concern. They appear to consider themselves invincible which is strange considering the number of road deaths in Thailand in 2005 was between 13,000 and 20,000 and approximately 50% involved motorcycles. Watch out for the driver (or the passenger) with an arm out at full stretch; it rarely means that they are considering turning left or right but only that they are pointing out something to their friend.
Insurance: Many local vehicle drivers do not carry insurance, or at best carry only the basic 'Government Insurance' (CTPL). It is mandatory to carry CTPL insurance cover however, it is considered prudent to also carry the top 1st class voluntary insurance when driving in Thailand. Click here for insurance cover/liability.

Taxation: It is a legal requirement that all vehicles in Thailand are taxed (Road Tax). The cost of the tax varies between different types of vehicle and is based upon a complicated system of vehicle weight, engine size, number of doors, number of seats amongst others. It should be noted that if any modifications or additions are made to the vehicle subsequent to original purchase, the taxation office must be informed as there may be tax implications.

Roadworthy tests: If a vehicle is in excess of 7 (seven) years old (cars and pick-ups) or in excess of 5 (five) years old (motorcycles) then it is mandatory to have a yearly roadworthyness test before the vehicle can be taxed and insured (CTPL). The checks include, inter alia, tyre condition, brake condition, bodywork condition, lights and indicators, exhaust emissions and noise levels. A check will also be made to confirm the engine and chasis numbers and the vehicle colour are as detailed in the registration book

Driving at night: Great care must be taken driving at night particularly in unlit areas. Locals may be driving with broken lights or maybe just haven't turned them on. Always drive at a speed consistent with the beam of your headlights.
Traffic Lights: In rural areas, where there is little traffic, it is common for local drivers to ignore traffic lights. Always take care when approaching traffic lights which are displaying amber or green.
Right of Way: Although the 'rules' state that drivers give way, in most instances, to traffic from the right, local drivers operate on the premise that the larger the vehicle, the more right of way it commands. However, sam law drivers (three wheeled bicycle taxis) consider themselves exempt from such rules and 'drive' as though they have the right of way in all situations. Mahoots in charge of elephants also consider themselves to have priority.
Beware at police road checks - motorcyclists without crash helmets or the necessary documentation may suddenly 'U' turn to avoid the law. It is unusual for them look behind first.
When traveling straight through at green traffic lights, beware that if one motorist thinks he has time to turn right across your path, there'll be others following behind him. A similar scenario also occurs frequently on a six lane highway where drivers are required to effect a 'U' turn across your path. Six wheel trucks with trailers are particularly dangerous in this situation.
Motorcyclists (and some car drivers) are generally under the impression that they may join a major road whilst turning left with impunity. It is unlikely that they will check to see if the road is clear.
Turn indicators: For some inexplicable reason, local drivers use their hazard warning lights to indicate that they are proceeding 'straight on' (particularly at traffic lights). Beware that some vehicles may not have all bulbs working and therefore give a false indication of their intentions.
One way streets: Take great care when driving along one way streets. Local drivers may consider that the law does not apply to them if driving the wrong way down a one way street saves time.
Roundabouts: At roundabouts the traffic to the right has priority. However, it is doubtful that local drivers are aware of this as there always appears to be confusion when approaching or negotiating a roundabout.
Dual Carriageways: Drivers should always keep to the left hand lane on a dual carriageway. However, it is permissible to overtake another vehicle on either the left or right side, although weaving is inadvisable. It is also a sensible precaution to audibly warn the other driver. On 4 lane roads in towns and cities, local drivers tend to drive in the right lane thereby avoiding slow moving hand carts and sam laws, double parked cars and motorbikes joining the main road from the left.
When turning right, local drivers will take the shortest route possible, i.e. cut the corner at an acute angle.
Overtaking: Tail-gating is normal in Thailand. As a result, accelerating to overtake (probably in too high a gear) is painfully slow. It is advisable not to follow another vehicle that is overtaking until it's manoeuver has been fully completed.
Breakdowns: Very few vehicle drivers carry warning triangles in case of breakdown. The accepted method of warning other drivers of a breakdown hazard is to utilise broken tree branches scattered in the road prior to the obstacle. This can be quite perilous at night.

In addition to the maximum load which can legally be carried by a pick-up truck (as detailed in the registration book), there are limitations on the height and lengths of the overhangs. The width of the load must not exceed the width of the vehicle.


Common Manoeuvers

The Rose of Suthep

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