Notes from Gotpassport’s Driver: Taking on Thai Traffic!

By Bubba, our fearless Navigator:

Yes, Thailand, bring it on!We mean business!

Visit our photo album “Views from the Back of our Rental Motorbikes” on Facebook.

I hope scooting around on a motobike for a few days in Chiang Mai hasn’t created a false sense of overconfidence in my ability to navigate the local traffic.

As a young teen growing up in Taipei, I was always hypnotized by watching the local traffic scene.  In particular, there was an intersection adjacent to my maternal grandmother’s home (typical city dwelling – 1st level is a business, 2nd through 5th was residential), which did not have any signals or signage whatsoever.

As a young American living in Taipei at the time, I was expecting carnage at any moment; yet nothing bloody ever happened under my watch.  People just seemed to have a way of communicating and yielding to get through.  Many have observed & written about this, and basically you have the right of way if you either 1) honked first while approaching the blind intersection, or 2) your vehicle is larger than other oncoming vehicles.  So, if you are approaching, and ring your bicycle bell first, then a truck honks their horn, you and your bicycle better yield or you will be toast. I saw this rule applied repeatedly at this and other intersections, and it seemed to apply to general traffic as well here in Chiang Mai.  The look of traffic from afar reminds me of the Discovery type videos showing red blood cells traveling through our veins/arteries – it’s chaotic, but just flows….

Assortment of vehicles share the road

After a month in Thailand this summer, I’m reminded of those memories, as traffic here seems to follow a similar organic flow.

East v. West:  Rules of the Horn

Honking one’s car horn  in the U.S. is typically (in my observation) a hostile gesture, a reaction after an event has occurred; to display one’s displeasure over someone violating your personhood.  It is quite cathartic, and traditionally American cars placed the horns – like a punching bag- in the middle of the steering wheel.  You had to use force for the deep sound to bellow.  In many parts of Asia (and elsewhere), the horn (and high beams at night) is actually a communication device, alerting the vehicle or pedestrian in front of you know that you are about to pass.  Since the traffic is so dense, it made sense that many Asian vehicles had little buttons on the steering wheel, within easy reach of either thumb, so you don’t need to take your hand off the wheel to honk the testosterone-challenged “beep” sound of the horn.

Bicycle–> motobike–> car:

Like many tourists, we started with rental bicycles (typically 50 Thai Baht per 24 hrs, less than $2 USD) provided by the guest houses.  They are extremely convenient, and cheap, to see the variety of markets and temples (called Wats). They are simple cruiser 1 speed bikes with a cute basket in front (warning, we’ve heard of valuables being snatched from the basket while riding so be careful–although people seem to leave many items in their parked baskets, like food or jackets, and bike helmets).   You can even ride opposite of traffic flow and people won’t give you the finger; they just ride around you.  The downside is that you may feel somewhat debased since you are the slowest vehicle, and the margins for cars and motobikes passing by is quite small by American standards, which can be scary.

Next, we rented scooters and motobikes–typically 100 to 125CC bikes, either automatic (scooters) or semi-manual (clutchless 4 speed bikes).  They tend to range from 100B to 250B per day, depending on size and transmission of the bike.  Since I have never had motorcycle training, and in fact not ever driven one ( being a passenger does not count), we rented a 110CC Honda Click scooter, which was easy to ride – just accelerate, and brake like a bicycle with the handle brakes.

Jack's favorite rental thus far - note helmets for three!
Bubba's favorite rental thus far - note helmets for three!

For some reason, I’m very comfortable riding with traffic at speed- I can even make the daring right turns that natives do– but am very unsteady at slow speeds (say, in a parking lot, or just making a U turn), b/c I’m still adjusting to the power and weight of the bikes.  I was two for two in biking incidents with my first 2 rentals.  The first day, I dropped the bike as I tried to park it outside a temple.. No damage or injuries, just damaged pride… The second was worse.  As we departed the rental shop, I gave the throttle a bit too much juice and could not turn in time, knocking over a parked motobike and nearly hitting car… Luckily we did not fall (three of us on board), but again, just very embarrassing to have that happen (at all) in front of the rental shop.  The owner of the bike, a noodle shop owner, came out to assess the damage to her bike.  I was expected some huge legal process, and getting yelled at etc., but basically the rental shop and noodle shop owners looked at each other, and estimated the damage (broken brake handle) to be 250 Thai Bahts (just over $7.USD), and I just gave her the cash on the spot.  I’ve heard from other local Thais (and Burmese Thais) that often these incidents are resolved between the parties, or an “understanding,” rather than the scripted steps we have in the U.S.  Who knows, perhaps they ripped me off, but I wasn’t about to haggle over $7 when I knocked over and damaged someone’s bike.  We still were able to keep the bike that day, too. 😉

My wife, the social worker that she is, was very empathic that day after the ‘crash.’  She kept whispering words of encouragement while we scooted around town (Rated G kind…).  Before long, I had put the incident behind me and zoomed forward… I love my wife (and I’m not just saying that because it’s a public blog…)!  Now, filled with overconfidence, we recently rented our third bike, a 4 speed semi-manual 125CC Honda Dream for several days.  Normally I would not have chosen a non-automatic bike, but the owner of the small rental shop only had the semi-manuals (no clutch, but had to shift gears the usual way) to offer, & he surprisingly took the time to take me to a small alley (okay, that sounds scary) and taught me how the bike works.  I know how a motorcycle worked in “theory” and I know how to drive a stick shift automobile, but driving a new type of motobike (remember- NO experience or training prior to this trip!) in CM traffic, with child and wife aboard seemed daunting to me.  But, the guy was persistent in teaching me, and very encouraging (must have studied Carl Rogers, too) and very patient.  Of course he may have been motivated by the mighty Baht, but still, I would not send a tourist off on a bike they didn’t have experience in riding.  He allowed me to ride around the block a few times, and being overconfident & foolish, I said, “Let’s take it!”

Third time was a charm.  Zero incidents.  At any speed!

Hmm... shiney motobikes....Overall, riding a motobike (or scooter) in Chiang Mai (don’t think I have the balls to ride in Bangkok…that didn’t sound right) is quite exhilarating.  The motobikes flow through the 3 ft wide seams between the larger, sluggish whale shark-like cars, like schools of small fish.  It feels great to get from point A to B with little resistance.  I’m surely underestimating the danger involved, and haven’t seen the official accident or death rates by motobike, but it feels good to know how to navigate amongst the locals, from small alleys to the fast speed highways (there is a motobike lane, fortunately).  It’s much more liberating than a bicycle, and it “feels” safer to be at similar speeds as the majority of traffic.  You should see my merging technique!

Next, we rented a car (yes, with four wheels! A Honda City – one size down from a civic, sedan shape), and drove from Chiang Mai, through the curvy mountain road (1095) and are in the small community of Pai.  I think it was fortunate that both my wife and child were asleep during this drive, as there were countless turns, up and down hill…I’m sure one of them would have turned purple had they been awake.

My poker face as I navigate Thai traffic
My poker face as I navigate Thai traffic

The adjustment from motobike to car was interesting.  First, I haven’t driven a car since we left the states in early June.  Second, the car was right hand drive (luckily an automatic, 7 speed at that!), but as you can imagine all the switches are mirror image of the typical American car.  I must have turned on the wiper 10 times today as I attempted to activate the turn signal…  I’m sure that’s how locals know that a tourist is driving– when the wipers are on during a sunny day.  At least the throttle and brakes were in the same position.  The third adjustment was the lack of freedom to go into any seam as on the motobike.  I’m the whale shark now, and my mission was to avoid smashing into motobikes or pedestrians.  Plus, I needed to lean the car to the right hash-mark, to give room for motobikes on the left.  While I felt ‘safer,’ I felt more constrained in a car.

My future ride!
check out the MB rims!

I wonder what I can drive next… I’m eyeing aTuk Tuk…


-Bubba, the @gotpassport Driver


12 thoughts on “Notes from Gotpassport’s Driver: Taking on Thai Traffic!

  1. We’ve only been brave enough for bicycles so far in Asia, traffic is scary…. maybe Chaing Mai will be the place to change that.

    1. CM is great for bicycles, within the old city. The motorbike is a great tool for getting around to every part of the outer rim. With enough experience and caution, it can be very pleasant way to get around..

  2. I’ll leave you with the motorcycles! I do plan on starting to drive again when I move to CM, but it will be a car. I’ve only driven a couple of times in the past 10 years, and never on the “other” side of the road, so I think I’ll be taking some lessons.

    1. Hey Nancie,
      Yeah, driving on the left took some getting used to, but it wasn’t that bad really. Oddly, it’s when no vehicles are around is when it’s worst, since you’ll have the reflexes of the right side driver… When there’s traffic, it’s easy to follow the crowd. =)

  3. really great guide to getting around over there — did it a bit in Chaing Mai myself and luckily never got into an accident!!

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  5. Ha! I expect to see you driving Tuk Tuk on your next post. Such a quick learner, Jack! Good for you.

    Yeah. I don’t think riding motorcycle in Bangkok will be a good idea. They weave in and out of traffic and there is no rule. On one of our visit, my husband got knocked down when we got out of our taxi. The thing was he was warning me to look at the traffic as I got off from the right side of the taxi (the side that face the incoming traffic). But he got hit from the bike that tried to pass on the left-side which next to the side walk. So the term ‘Look both ways’ is really a must when walking in Thailand. 🙂

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