Over the last decade that I have spent residing in this tropical paradise, there is one thing that grates my nerves day in and day out. Very simply put, I have a passionate hate for Thai drivers and I would like to offer some advice to any newcomers to these distant shores. If you take heed of any of my observations, it could lead to your survival and lessen your chances of become flattened and mutilated on the tarmac like so many of those discarded rats that you see from time to time, And of course going home in a wooden overcoat.
A second chance?
You have to understand that most Thais do not have any coherence, understanding or desire to learn road safety. If you grew up in my generation you had Tufty and his gang drilling the green cross code into your brain, and those lessons never get deleted as the years pass by. But in this part of the world they do not have the idea that we only have one life - and life should be cherished just as Westerners think it should.
The Thai understanding is that there is a continuous cycle of birth, death and rebirth, yet it seems very few spend their days trying to break from this cycle and are happy to return in some life form or another; be it a human or non-human.
The first lesson I'll give should be common sense to anyone. Do not drink and drive!!! You know you'd lose your license back home, but it doesn't matter over here because you're on holiday or you can pay the police to turn a blind eye. That doesn't work with me. A loaded gun on a table is not dangerous at all, it cannot shoot itself, so cannot harm anyone. The same goes for a parked car; it is not dangerous until an idiot gets behind the wheel. In my opinion; if you drink drive and kill someone it should be put down as class one murder. So if you plan to have a night drinking with your friends arrange for your transport home at the evening's end.
Keep a lid on it
The second lesson is also an obvious one, but if you don't pay attention to it in the tourist areas you will face a fine (a minimum of 300 baht, which could rise depending on the mood of the officer that stops you) Wear a helmet! Some of the helmets you can buy are very thin plastic and you'd be just as well protected wearing a banana skin, so fork out and pay for a decent lid.
If you do fall off and bang your head, you could be lucky and survive - or spend the rest of your life with severe brain damage. I had to attend a funeral of one of my students once that fell under a bus and had his head crushed as the bus pulled away and the driver hadn't noticed the accident behind him. I do believe he might have survived had he been wearing a decent helmet. The same goes for riding a bike around in your swimsuit. Are you crazy? Get your tan by the beach, but protect yourself on the roads. If you don't believe me just check the statistics of road accidents in this country.
Now I'll try to explain some of the ideas that Thai people have about the road. Not so long ago Thailand was a feudal state. The common people were slaves and had to make way for the village chief as he strolled along the streets. Some people still have this mentality and feel that as you are of a lower class you should get out of their way. So when someone pulls out onto a main road from a subsidiary road right in front of you while you're screeching on the brakes and pounding on the horn, you have to understand that he feels he has the right of way because he is a government official or comes from a wealthy family. A lot of Thai citizens are aware of this and that is one of the reasons that they drive on the outside lane, even if they are just cruising and not trying to overtake another driver.
Keep your distance
The next bunch of road-hogs to look out for are those that drive for a living: tuk-tuk drivers, songteaws, taxis, motorbike taxis and the numerous delivery boys. Because they drive all day long they feel that they are kings of the road and can do what they want. So my advice is to keep a safe distance and look out for someone standing by the side of the road calling for a tuk-tuk because the driver will swerve across the road to pull in before he looks in the mirror or bothers to signal. The same for the songteaw; look out for someone ringing the bell to stop the vehicle and this will give you enough time to slow down and avoid an accident. Anticipation is key.
The early morning traffic is another thing to watch out for. Many Thais who work for a company will be fined if they are late for work. This explains why the guy in his car is right up your backside and trying to pass you so that he can just sit behind the car in front of you and fill the gap that was your safe breaking distance. The simplest thing to do is just let him pass and create the space you had before. Don't flip the bird at him, as you have nothing to gain (I know it's tempting, but that can lead to some serious confrontations and a lot of drivers carry guns).
I'd only been here for a couple of months before noticing how awful life on the roads was. I made a very quick assumption that the Thai populace learns how to drive by watching the formula one Grand Prix. And that is the very reason why they like to overtake on the corners. A simple fact (I can verify this by the hours I've spent quizzing my students about road signs) is that 99% of Thais don't know the meanings of the road signs and street markings.
They don't know the meaning of a no-entry sign, one way street, give-way signs or the fact that a red light does actually mean stop and to wait for the green light. Most drivers seem amazed when you approach a roundabout and let them go rather than try to go for it and get in front of them; as in my understanding and education they do have the right of way, so I adhere to the rules I have learnt.
Learning from an early age
The main conclusion I have come to over the years is that the problem lies in the simple fact that in the villages, an eight year old boy is encouraged by his father to learn how to ride a motorbike so he can buy his dad's cigarettes or bottle of beer. They learn that the throttle makes them go and the break makes them stop, but they can't actually stop because their feet can't touch the ground.
Forget about looking in the mirrors because in Asian beliefs mirrors are used to catch ghosts and spirits (that's why they have mirrors on the fronts of their houses). So once they've learnt how to operate their mode of transport they don't pick up a book to learn any road signs and this will not change until the government takes responsibility and adopts Tufty's messages to educate the masses. Or the police start to stop underage motorists and impose strong fines to deter all of the country's citizens for not adhering to the rules of the road.
There are many other points that make driving a car or riding a bike in this part of the world dangerous. An entire family of three or four generations on the same two wheels, blabbering on the phone or sending text messages whilst speeding along at 100 kmph, a lack of a serious driving test or the unmotivated police to enforce the law, unless it's at the end of the month and they need a few extra baht. But I advise you to always stay calm and avoid conflicts, it's not worth risking your life for.
What you can do is either drive or ride as crazily as they do, which will give you a larger chance of never returning home in one piece or the better solution is to lead by example and show them that there is a better and safer way. If you do feel yourself getting vexed it is much better to pull over and let everyone else speed on to their destinations. Take five and just chill.