How to Safely Drive in Thailand

Driving in Thailand How to Safely Drive in Thailand

If you’re new to Thailand, the idea of driving in the country can be daunting to say the least.

Heavy traffic, confusing streets, and a sea of motorbikes zooming in and out of traffic can undoubtedly be intimidating. To the unfamiliar eye, driving in Thailand can look chaotic and dangerous.

Although caution is clearly advised, driving in Thailand is not as dangerous as it is made out to be. Nonetheless, driving in Thailand is not for the inexperienced. It takes acute awareness, focus, and a keen sense of your surroundings. 

In this guide, I will answer some common questions and share some tips and advice I have learned while driving in Thailand so that you can drive as safely as possible in the country. 

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Can I Drive with a License from My Home Country?

If you plan on driving while you are in Thailand, it is best to obtain an international driving license from your home country before arriving in the country. 

Even if someone tells you that can use a license from your home country to drive in Thailand, it’s illegal and you will get a THB500 fine, at the least. Also, insurance companies in Thailand won’t cover a driver if they don’t have a Thai driver’s license or international driving permit.

Also, an international driver’s license is required to rent a car in Thailand. Some companies might rent you a car without one, but others may not. 

There are two main exceptions to this rule:

You have a driver’s license from one of the 10 ASEAN countries such as Malaysia, Singapore, and Philippines. Or you have a Thai driver’s license

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Getting Used to Driving in Thailand

Coming from another country, driving in Thailand can feel like an entirely different world — especially if you come from the West.

Although the basic fundamentals are the same, there are stark differences you need to be aware of. Let’s discuss some key differences that may present a challenge while adjusting to driving in Thailand. 

Driving on the Left Side of the Road

Depending on which country you come from, this may not be a pressing issue.

Coming from the United States, I felt uncomfortable when I drove in Thailand for the first time.

However, if you come from a country that drives on the right side of the road, such as the U.S., you might find operating a motor vehicle on the left side to be a bit discombobulating at first. 

I was challenged by not only driving on the left side of the road but also by having the steering wheel on the right side of the vehicle. Admittedly, in the beginning, this was quite disorienting for me, but sure enough, with practice, I was able to acclimate. 

Also keep in mind that if you drive a manual transmission in Thailand, you will shift with your left hand, not your right.

Road Conditions 

Thailand’s roads, for the most part, are on par with many of the roads you’d find elsewhere in the world, unless you travel deep into the country side.

road in Thailand
Road conditions in Bangkok are favorable.

Of course, this will depend on what part of the country you are in. Road conditions will vary from city to city. 

Main roads and highways tend to be better maintained. However, you should be aware of the difference in road conditions in less-developed parts of the country, such as back roads and islands like Koh Phangan and other smaller ones.

No matter what road you’re on, always be wary of poor road conditions, potholes, loose gravel, and debris.

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Traffic

In general, getting around Bangkok can be overwhelming.  

Take into consideration unfamiliar streets, narrow sois (lanes), and motorbikes zooming in and out of traffic, and your dreams of driving in Thailand may seem more like a nightmare.

If you’re new to driving in Thailand, try to avoid larger cities until you become more confident driving. 

My advice is to practice driving in smaller sub-districts and less crowded provinces before taking on the intimidating task of driving in larger congested city traffic. 

Vehicle Right of Way

The concept of who has the right of way can sometimes be left up to interpretation.

Here’s an example to illustrate that statement:

In obvious situations such as traffic lights, the concept of who has the right away is self-explanatory and follows the same protocols as any other country. 

However, in situations such as intersections without traffic lights, stop signs, and roundabouts, even after many years having a car and driving in Thailand, I still have trouble giving a definitive answer on who has the right of way. 

While there are official Thai laws that dictate who has the right of way in these situations, it is my observation and experience that no one adheres to a standard protocol.

My rule of thumb in Thailand is to never assume you have the right of way. Instead, you should wait until you are sure that it’s safe to proceed. In some occasions, you can rely on signals or other drivers’ gestures to help you determine when to go.  

Be Aware of Motorbikes on the Road

While on the subject of traffic, be aware of many different types of vehicles sharing the road, from motorbikes to large trucks, from bicycles to tuk-tuks — it’s imperative to be aware of your surroundings.  

motorcycle in Thailand
You should be careful of motorbikes because they are everywhere in Thailand and can shoot in and out of traffic at any moment.

Due to the size of motorbikes and tuk-tuks, they can more easily go unnoticed in your vehicle’s blind spot. Make a habit of signaling and always checking your mirrors and blind spots before changing lanes. 

Using Signals

Similar to driving in your home country, you should always signal before making a turn. However, don’t expect other cars to do the same. 

You should also keep distance with other cars, especially when driving behind taxis. Sometimes, they can stop abruptly without signaling to pick up or drop off passengers.

Passing Other Vehicles

Learning when to safely pass another vehicle is important when driving outside of city areas. 

Although the law says you should use a right lane to do it, there are some drivers who do it using the left lane. 

If you’re driving in a mountainous area, don’t overtake unless you see that the road is clear. If you’re in a rural area, be extra careful of street dogs and kids. They may suddenly run into the road. 

Many truck drivers in Thailand give signals to overtake them by quickly flashing their turn signals to the left and then to the right. They may also drive slightly left in the process too. 

Driving Etiquette and Gestures 

While on the subject of gestures, although driving in Thailand can seem chaotic, Thai culture is very polite, and that usually translates into their driving etiquette. It is quite rare to hear unwarranted honking and cases of road rage.  

Of course, there is always the exception of someone having a bad day, and their etiquette may reflect poorly while on the road.

You should also familiarize yourself with common gestures drivers in Thailand use while on the road. The head nod is one of them.

Head nods will typically apply more to motorbikes, as you may not be able to see the driver through the tinted windows of their vehicle when driving a car. 

If someone nods their head up, this means they are giving you the right of way. You can reply by bowing with a simple downward head nod as an acknowledgment, as well as thanking them for the right of way. Or vice versa; you may see other motorists bowing with a head nod down to indicate that they are taking the right of way.

With the concept of who has the right of way loosely defined, I find myself mostly relying on common sense and instincts, as well as communicating with other motorists to determine when it’s safe to go.

Driving on the Highway

Similar to the massive three- and four-lane highways you find stretching throughout the U.S., Thailand’s highways are typically between two and three lanes wide.

traffic on a highway
Traffic during rush hour can move at a snail’s pace in Bangkok.

One key factor to note is the correct use of the fast lane in Thailand. Protocol dictates that the right lane (the fast lane) is to only be used for passing slower vehicles. 

However, when there is a steady flow of slower traffic in the left lane, I typically find myself using the fast lane for long stretches of the highway. 

However, according to Thai law, using the fast lane inappropriately can warrant a ticket. 

A rule of thumb is this: when you drive in a fast lane and the car behind you is driving faster than you, you should change lanes and let that car pass you. 

If in any doubt, try to follow the correct protocols of the fast lane to the best of your abilities.

Sois span throughout Thailand’s cities. 

Using sois can help you avoid main road traffic. However, there are many disadvantages and cautions to be aware of. 

Many sois are very narrow and not suited for larger vehicles. They also tend to be under-maintained with many potholes. 

The most important factor to be wary of is that they are plagued with many blind corners and intersections without stop signs. 

This is where all your experience and training will come full circle. Be diligent and aware of other motorists, soi dogs, and pedestrians sharing the lane.

Hazard Lights (Emergency Lights)

No matter what country you come from, I’m sure we can all relate to the annoyance of other drivers inappropriately using their hazard lights for non-emergencies, such as parking illegally just to run in and grab a morning coffee. 

However, I have also learned to appreciate how the Thais use their hazard lights to better communicate with other motorists while on the road.  

For example, Thai drivers will use their hazard lights to warn other drivers of potential hazards on the road or to indicate an emergency sudden stop in traffic. If you see other drivers flashing their hazard lights, pay attention to your surroundings. Chances are they are trying to warn you of potential danger. 

Some drivers use hazard lights as a way to say “thank you” by blinking them for a second. Thai drivers also use hazard lights when they park temporary or are about to pull their cars into a parking spot.

Finally, when you want to turn into a street or parking lot by cutting across on-coming traffic, drivers may slow down and use their hazard lights to let you (and the drivers coming up behind them) know that you can turn in front of them. 

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Driving During Heavy Rain 

If you live in Thailand year-round, or plan to visit Thailand during the monsoon season, driving in heavy rain is inevitable. 

drive during rain in Thailand
Be extra careful when driving in the rain because accidents can happen easily.

Heavy rain fall in Thailand can cause poor visibility, flash flooding, and poor road conditions. 

Besides being cautious while driving in these conditions, my advice is to drive slower, take extra caution, and always check to ensure that your vehicles windshield wipers are in working order. This especially applies if you’re renting a vehicle. 

Emergency Vehicles

In most Western countries, when it comes to emergency vehicles, the law says that all other vehicles must pull over to let the emergency vehicle pass.

Here in Thailand’s cities, the law is not always upheld, simply because traffic gets so bad that drivers have no where to pull over to. 

From my observation, emergency vehicles are well trained to maneuver through congested traffic. Even if you can’t completely pull over, do your best to get out of their way.

Soi Dogs

Not only do you need to be aware of other vehicles on the road, you should also be aware of soi dogs. 

Although most soi dogs are aware and manage to avoid oncoming vehicles, I have also observed odd behavior with some dogs.

Some have an unusual habit of laying right in the middle of the street, and sometimes can be very stubborn and will refuse to move.

A few honks of the horn should do the trick, however, don’t always assume they will move. Its best to try to drive around them when possible.

Traffic Laws, Rules, and Regulations 

Like all countries, there are traffic laws, rules, and regulations that need to be followed to keep everyone safe on the road here in Thailand.

Highway Speed Limits

Depending on what section of the highway you’re on, the speed limit will range from 80km per hour to 120km per hour.

In the fast lane, you need to drive faster than 90km per hour or 100km per hour, depending on the highway. 

If you’re unable to keep up with the speed limit, avoid using the fast lane.

City Speed Limits

Although not always clearly marked, in large cities such as Bangkok and Pattaya, main-road speed limits are typically 80km per hour. However, you shouldn’t exceed 30km per hour on residential and smaller streets. 

In practice, no one really pays attention to speed limits when driving in the city. And you won’t be able to drive faster than 80km per hour anyway because of traffic. 

Lane Markings

Like most countries, lane markings indicate protocols, such as u-turn lanes and passing lanes. Be aware of solid line lane markings as they prohibit lane changes and passing. However, some drivers don’t adhere to this.

Stop Signs

Unlike my home state of California, where you can get cited for what is called a “rolling stop” at a stop sign, Thailand stop sign laws are loosely defined.

From my experience, a stop sign in Thailand is more or less of a suggestion, and you should always exercise your best judgment when approaching a stop sign. 

Intersections Without Stop Signs 

Many sois and small streets don’t always have a stop sign present. In this case, it’s imperative to always use your best judgment when approaching these intersections.

Learning to drive in Thailand is only half the battle. The challenge of navigating unfamiliar roads, not to mention the never-ending matrix of small sois and back alleys, all while paying attention to other potential hazards such as potholes, pedestrians, and motorbikes, can be demanding.

small rural road in Thailand.
Don’t always rely on Google Maps; it can lead you to small roads like this one.

Fortunately, I find Google Maps to be very helpful. But it does have its limitations. Yes, Google Maps will help you get to your desired location. However, it may not always take you on the best route. Google Maps’ algorithm will try to pick the fastest route available. However, the fastest route isn’t always the easiest. 

And because some tollways and highways are built over main roads, Google Maps may have trouble determining which level you’re on and ask you to either enter or exit roadways where none are present. In other cases, Google Maps will ask you to exit a highway, only to ask you to re-enter it later on.

In Thailand, even the sois are considered streets on Google Maps. Many times, I find Google sending me to challenging narrow streets that are not well suited for larger vehicles. 

This can be remedied by checking the Google Maps settings and making sure that it is set for vehicles and not motorbikes. You can also set Google Maps to avoid highways and tollways. 

However, even with the correct settings, Google Maps is still prone to sending you down unfavorable sois and back-alleys. 

My advice is to always double-check Google’s suggested routes and, if possible, stay on the main streets and avoid sois, especially if you’re driving a larger vehicle. 

When you’re driving outside of Bangkok, unless you are familiar with that area, you should avoid using a route with four-digit numbers. These numbers indicate rural roads, which might not be well maintained. 

Bangkok Expressways

Bangkok has a paid tollway system that connects the metropolitan region with the surrounding sub-districts and provinces.

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Tollways can cost anywhere from THB10 to THB65, depending on the distance of the toll road. In general, using a tollway will help you reach your destination faster than a regular road.

But this isn’t always the case during rush hour. During these times, always double-check with Google Maps. 

Easy Pass

If you take tollways regularly, you may want to get Easy Pass, a prepaid ETC (electronic toll collection) card that offers a more convenient way to use tollways. 

You can slowly drive though toll gates and the cost will be deducted automatically from your Easy Pass account. 

The card can be topped up with your bank app, under “Top-Up” > “Easy Card” menu. Just enter your Easy Pass smart card number (S/N). 

At many toll booths, you’ll see a building on the left where you can buy Easy Pass. You just need a passport and an initial deposit of THB300. You’ll get an Easy Pass card, a smart card number, OBU number, and a small card that you can install in your car.

However, keep in mind that Easy Pass doesn’t always work. Often times, you’ll come across cars backing out of highway toll booths because the Easy Pass in that lane is not working.

M Flow

M Flow is a new system introduced in 2022 that allows you to access tollways without the inconvenience of having to stop or slow down and pay. 

It uses video cameras to capture your car’s license plates while you’re driving through an M Flow gate. M Flow is currently available at major expressways that connect Bangkok to surrounding districts only. 

The easiest way to use M Flow is to upgrade your Easy Pass to an Easy Pass Plus account by creating your account at Thai Easy Pass website and add your car information, phone number, and email. 

You also need a smart card number and OBU number that come with your Easy Pass card. 

Since it’s a new system, all processes are only available in Thai. So, you may need help from your Thai friends to set it up — if you can’t read Thai. After that, every time you use M Flow, it will be deducted automatically on your Easy Pass.

Police

If you come from a western country, you’ve probably experienced the sinking feeling of spotting bright flashing police lights lights in your rear-view mirror. 

In America, even the smallest of infractions can be costly and lead to other consequences, such as getting points on your driving record and increasing your insurance rates.

However, Thailand has a different approach to enforcing traffic laws. Rather than pulling vehicles over, law enforcement will set up police checkpoints throughout the city and on major highways. 

They are good at their job, and they usually place checkpoints around blind corners that make them very hard to spot and difficult to avoid. 

On the highways, they usually place them on province borders. 

If you see a driver in the opposite lane suddenly flash their high beams a few times, it’s an informal gesture telling you that there’s a police checkpoint up ahead. 

You can identify what type of checkpoint they are by the color of the officer’s helmets. White helmets are worn by traffic police, and gold helmets are worn by officers enforcing other laws, such as illegal substances, paraphernalia, and other, more serious infractions. 

The best way to avoid any issues with the police is to always follow traffic rules to the best of your ability, and always be polite to the officers. Courtesy goes a long way and will certainly have a positive influence when interacting with the police.  

Dealing with Tickets

If you plan on driving in Thailand often, you are bound to get a ticket eventually. Typically, traffic tickets range from THB500 to THB2,000 depending on the infraction. And you will have seven to 14 days to pay the ticket.

You can pay at a police station, post office, or use your bank app under “payment” menu and choose “Royal Thai Police – Police Ticket.”

Please note that trying to pay off a police officer to avoid a ticket is illegal, and if someone records the transaction and shares it with the right outlet, you could get into trouble.

If you get a ticket and have the option to pay it on the spot — like at highway checkpoints — always be sure you get an official receipt for the transaction. Police officers can print it out of a machine on the spot in most cases.

Plus, if you’ve gotten a ticket for, let’s say, not having a Thai driver’s license, and you get pulled over again for the same offense on or around the day you got the ticket, you can show it to the police officer and they most likely won’t give you another ticket.

Just let them know you’re in the process of resolving whatever issue you got a ticket for, whether that was not having a driver’s license, not having an up-to-date inspection sticker, and so on.

Traffic Cameras

Traffic cameras are placed throughout Thailand’s cities and on highways.

Tickets will be mailed to the vehicle’s registered address and can range anywhere from THB500 to THB2,000, depending on the infraction. 

I have fortunately not had any personal experiences receiving a ticket in the mail, but you will have anywhere from seven to 15 days to pay it. 

Parking

Many shopping malls offer free parking for the first 15 minutes to two hours. After that, you are charged around THB20 to THB50 per hour, depending on a location. 

automated parking system in thailand
Automated parking systems are becoming more popular in Thailand.

You can get extra hours of free parking if you spend a minimum amount inside the shopping mall. Just be sure to keep your receipts. 

In less-congested cities and provinces, parking can be a bit of a free for all.

Red-painted curbs are restricted for parking, black-painted curbs are designated for parking, and yellow-painted curbs are designated for public buses and 15-minute loading and unloading zones.

There are also no-parking signs that allow parking on certain days (like odd or even numbered days) or certain times of the day (mornings, afternoons, or evenings). But it’s only written in Thai. If you can’t read Thai, it’s best to follow what other drivers do. If they park there, it’s likely that you can park there, too. When in doubt, ask someone who works at one of the shops on that street.

Not all drivers respect no-parking signs. They may park in a no-parking area. So, follow them at your own risk. 

Also, it’s not out of the ordinary for someone to come up to you and ask for THB10 or THB20 for parking on the street. Thais like to call these people the “parking mafia” (although they are harmless). Most times, there long-term residents who look after the parking on the street.

Use common sense and pay attention to parking signs and other parking regulations. In larger crowded cities, parking your vehicle can be a nightmare. With less space to park, make sure to pay attention to regulations such as no-parking signs, red-painted curbs, and avoid blocking business and residential driveways. 

Parking Tickets

Parking tickets are not common. However, police do issue them when warranted. 

Parking tickets are usually accompanied by a police tire lock. This once happened to me in Phuket, where I parked my car in a no-parking zone, and to my unpleasant surprise, I found a lock on my tire.

This is Thailand’s method to ensure that you pay the parking fine. You will have to contact the local police station that issued the ticket and pay it in order for them to remove the lock.  

If memory serves, I believe I had to pay THB500 for the ticket. Financial concerns aside, it can be a very stressful and inconvenient experience. Therefore, it’s always best to follow parking regulations to avoid the expense and inconvenience.  

Additional Driving Tips and Tricks

You must follow all laws, rules, and common sense when sharing the road in Thailand. 

relaxed driving in Thailand
After a while, you can easily drive in Thailand and enjoy all the beautiful scenery the country has to offer.

You should always adhere to the fundamentals, such as traffic lights, speed limits, and common courtesy.  However, In Thailand, some nuances, such as who has the right of way, can sometimes be up for interpretation at best.

In other words, rather than relying on everyone to follow a definitive set of rules, driving in Thailand is best done by knowing common driving practices while using common sense and having a keen sense of awareness. 

Drive with the flow of traffic and stay diligent and aware of other smaller vehicles such as tuk-tuks and motorbikes. 

Furthermore, it’s important to recognize that different cities and provinces embrace different styles of driving and etiquette. 

For example, Bangkok drivers tend to be more aggressive, and they exhibit more of a rushing big-city mentality.

While drivers from other cities like Chiang Mai have a more go-with-the-flow nonchalant driving style. 

If you plan on traveling from city to city, try to match the style and mentality of the particular city you’re driving in to avoid disrupting the flow of traffic.   

Although driving in Thailand can be chaotic, as you become more familiar with it, you can’t help but feel that perhaps there is order in the chaos.

Now, on to You

As I mentioned at the start of the article, driving in Thailand is not for the faint of heart. However, with practice, a confident and motivated driver should have no problem driving in the country. 

Although driving in Thailand is not impossible, at the same time, the challenges shouldn’t be underestimated either. Your success driving here ultimately depends on your confidence, abilities, and determination. 

Jonathan is an ex-pat living in Thailand who is originally from the United States. He moved to Thailand with his wife and dog and is looking forward to many new experiences and all the beauty and joy Thailand has to offer.

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