Riding in Thailand is one of the ‘must do’ experiences for any motorcyclist with its amazing scenery, wild traffic and unique experiences along the way. Before you rent you get on two wheels this article will explore Thailand’s road rules and some tricks.
While road rules or better described ‘the law of the Jungle’ in Thailand are both generally common sense and full of idiosyncrasies that differ from the West.
Make no mistake, while Thailand has road-rules and a capable road system it ranks between the 1st and 2nd most deadly country for road deaths with over 24,000 dying on the road year, ~73% of those on motorcycles.
Below are a highlight of the core road rules and tips I’ve found most important in Thailand:
1. Have A Valid Motorcycle Licence & International Permit
To legally ride in Thailand you need a valid Thai Drivers Licence or International Drivers Permit booklet with a Full/Open Motorcycle Endorsement.
Simply carrying your local licence is insufficient and you WILL be singled out and fined for this.
While a rental company may rent you a bike without the paperwork, it is against the law and will likely invalidate any insurance you have.
2. Wear A Helmet
While helmet use in Thailand could be regarded as non-existent and sporadically enforced in the occasional police blitz it still very much is the law.
As a non-Thai, you WILL be singled out of a crowd and fined for not wearing a helmet. It is not uncommon to be pulled over and fined alongside several other foreigners.
Most rental stores will provide you with a basic helmet however it is strongly recommended you bring a helmet from your local country as quality helmets are hard to come across and sizes are very limited.
Every day tourists are involved in motorcycle crashes ranging from just a little gravel rash to death or life-changing injuries that may have been protected with suitable safety gear. While not compulsory to wear anything other than a helmet, a good set of gloves and clothing that covers your skin goes a long way.
3. Keep To The Speed Limit
Speed limits are typically low by international standards ranging from 40km/h to 60km/h within the city and 80km/h on open roads.
Occasionally speed limits are enforced however speeding greatly increases your risk of getting into an accident as vehicles do often pull out without warning, sufficient space or even looking. Go no more than the speed limit and keep that extra margin to react.
4. Stick To The Left Lane
From what I can gather, its an unwritten rule that motorcycles need to stick to the left lane where possible on a multi-lane unless overtaking or turning. In many cases you almost want to be hugging the left shoulder instead of the middle of the lane as that is reserved and expected to be shared with cars and trucks!
If you hang in the wrong lane for too long expect an aggressive blast of the horn or being yelled at in Thai! When in any doubt, follow what-ever the 20 other bikes in front are doing.
5. Always Double-check The Direction Of Oncoming Traffic
Officially the traffic direction is keep left, however the reality is very different on the ground.
Traffic can come at you from any direction and from places and directions they should not be.
It is ok to take a little longer to pull out from a side street. Never assume a gap in traffic is clear unless you are physically looking at it with your eyes.
6. Roads Are Used To Their Full Potential
Expect riders and drivers to simultaneously both undertake, overtake and if they could drive over the top of you! It’s not uncommon for the Thai to turn a 2 lane road into an adhoc 4 lane road to allow other drivers to overtake.
You will be tightly sharing the road in Thailand and it’s heavily expected you adapt to the traffic conditions in front of you and drive in a predictable manner regardless of what rules you think you know.
On blind corners such as winding mountain roads, hug the left-hand shoulder as other road users frequently overtake on the opposite side of the road at highspeeds without knowing whats infront of them.
Traffic will merge in from around you and in many cases dart across lanes as traffic can enter both on the left & right side of the roadway. It is expected you not crash into them or cause the 7 other bikes behind to crash into you!
7. Road Design & Conditions Are Terrible
One of the reasons Thailand ranks among the worst for road trauma is the poor state of the roads and general design. Highspeed roads and highways are among the leading locations for many of these incidents.
Examples of poor road design is on a dual carriageway where vehicles wanting to turn right need to cross to the right ‘fast lane’, then cut across multiple lanes of traffic back into the slow left lane on the other side. While this may sound straightforward on an empty road on a capable bike,
Expect potholes, missing man-hole-covers, sand across most roads. Try to manage your speed and follow the rider infront. Not rocket science, watch where you are going and ride predictably.
7. The Larger The Vehicle, The More Right Of Way They Have
Please message me if you find where this is written in the traffic law booklet, however I can guarantee you such an attitude exists!
Trucks rule supreme in Thailand, followed by cars and will typically not give way to anyone lesser than them.
8. Flashing Headlights Means I’m Not Stopping
Contrary to in most countries, a blink of the full beams of lights DOES NOT mean they are giving way to you, but rather the opposite! Do not pull out on driver’s flashing lights or spectacular results will entail.
9. Red Lights Are ‘Optional If No One’s Looking’
As the heading suggests, for anything that isn’t a major intersection a red-light is simply a rolling give way sign! Cameras to help deter this are being rolled out across the country.
Never assume just because you have a green light it means the intersection is clear, just marginally less safe! It’s quite common for motorcycles waiting at the front of traffic to preempt the green and stragglers running a few seconds behind the lights switching red.
10. You Are Allowed To Turn Left On A Red Light
“Technically”, vehicles are apparently able to turn left on the red at intersections if signposted however from the several riders I discussed the topic with this rule either does not exist, is not enforced, or such a sign permitting such an action is a myth.
Either way a left turn on a red light if safe to do so is ‘expected’ and you will get aggressively beeped and yelled at if you do not make the turn. Be sure to look for traffic from all directions and those crossing the road.
11. Zebra Crossings
Another fun topic to quiz Thai riders on was the purpose of ‘Zebra Pedestrian Crossings’.
The short answer is they are pretty street art or for Zebra to cross the road (which there are none of in Thailand) which give tourists a false sense of security.
It should be expected traffic in Thailand will not stop for you and you just need to walk out. My recommendation is to keep walking at a predictable pace and avoid making eye contact with oncoming drivers, but do keep an eye out to ensure they slow down or avoid you.
If they flash headlights at you maybe let them pass!
They are a thing in Thailand, No one seems to know how to use them or give way to anyone.
Thankfully they are often slow-moving and you just need to slot yourself in without crashing.
13. Use Extreme Caution At Night
As with basically anything, doing it at night is more dangerous and where possible to be avoided, especially on highways or rural roads. Drink Driving/ Riding is a huge problem and very frequently you see riders and drivers completely plastered riding amongst the traffic around you!
This is not helped by a concerning number of vehicles driving at night without lights for reasons including
- To save fuel and money due to the trivial amount of energy used
- Value saving $0.20 over safety
- Are scared ghosts will see the light and follow them home (genuinely a common reason)
14. Expect Poor Driving
Overall most Thai road users are quite good and adapt at dealing with the chaotic road system.
Most issues boil down to entitlement where road users will not give way however a small number of riders do not have much riding experience or are licenced.
Be on the lookout and keep your distance. Do not confront or escalate.
15. Police & Accidents
Generally most experiences with police in Thailand will be positive if you are not doing anything wrong and are respectful. If you are at fault in most cases it is best to settle with the officer on the spot which is often ~฿500 or the amount of cash in your wallet.
If a paper ticket is written it is usually payable at the police station who issued it or a conveniently located booth nearby to where the police checkpoint is. Arguing with the police officer is not tolerated and leads to bigger issues.
In the event of an accident, police may arbitrate on the spot, assign fault, and negotiate how much should be paid. While most police are fair in many accidents it will always start off as being the foreigner’s fault.
It is always advisable to first call the rental company of the scooter or tourist police for advice before signing any documentation.
Have we missed any rules or tips, let us know in the comments below