Driving In Thailand: Welcome To The Wild Wild East
Driving in Thailand can be likened to war: long periods of boredom interrupted by moments of pure terror. I don’t mean to scare you, just to impress upon you how very different it is to operate a motor vehicle in Pattaya or Bangkok than, say, New York before you go and hire a car in Thailand. Don’t get me wrong, it’s a damn good idea to rent a car for an extended stay in the land of smiles but you do need to be prepared before you get behind the wheel.
Naturally the most glaring difference, and the one you will adjust to very quickly, is the proper side of the street to drive on in Thailand is the left side. Don’t worry, you’ll figure that one out fast or you won’t have a vehicle long enough for it to matter.
Now, both Bangkok and New York seem to have more cars than road. Both Pattaya and New York have rush hours with crazy traffic. But in Pattaya, Bangkok – really, anywhere you can rent a hire car in Thailand – is populated by a sputtering, buzzing, zipping legion of motorcycles and scooters that completely and utterly ignore the rules that govern how larger vehicles must drive. Indeed, these little bikes are purchased specifically because they can (legally, or at least seemingly legally) cut between lanes of traffic. Quite often they do so at rates of speed that renders them a blur, a gust of wind and a whiff of oil.
And speaking of speeding psychos, traffic laws are… well, they’re often just a suggestion. It is not at all uncommon to slow to a stop at a light while it is turning right only to have two or three cars squirt through just as it turns and two or three more shoot through quite a few seconds after it’s already turned. Furthermore there are several ‘special’ classes of vehicles that just flatly refuse to follow the traffic rules, especially speed limits. This is hardly surprising when you consider how few and far between highway patrols seem to be and the persuasive power of a well placed baht. The charter vans that operate between cities, especially, are notorious for zooming along at tremendous rates and swerving between lanes as if the driver forgot he wasn’t on his private motorcycle. Just another reason to hire a car for your trip – you don’t have to rely on a man with unrequited dreams of flying a fighter jet to get you from Pattaya to Bangkok.
Let’s get back to traffic for a second. Sometimes the only way to get from A to B is on the road. This is usually the case in Pattaya, and even with Bangkok’s excellent public transit system the skytrain and subway don’t go everywhere. When you do have no other option than to put rubber to asphalt you may be surprised at the traffic. At popular times of day to drive, say from 7:30 – 10:30 and 1700 – 1930 you may take a half hour to go the distance it took you five minutes to move outside of rush hour. Bangkok, especially, is famous for its insane traffic. Imagine spending ten to fifteen minutes on one short city block to get most of the way to the traffic light only to find the intersection mostly blocked. And then doing it again. Now imagine doing that on a standing-room-only, sardine-packed, grumpily-silent, non-airconditioned bus. Seriously: Hire yourself a car and make sure the aircon and radio work.
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