There are no rules of the road in Thailand. Ok, well technically there are some written down somewhere. But unless the police have been specifically ordered to enforce one of those rules, which doesn’t happen all too often, you can get away with just about anything when driving on Thai roads.
I started renting my motorbike about three weeks ago. My red, white, and blue Yamaha Mio (called Mimi when I’m feeling particularly affectionate), has been one of the best additions to my life here. During my first five weeks in Chiang Mai, I got to know the city by walking around it. There was the option of the songthaews or tuk tuks if I had to go further, but for the most part I was limited in where I was able to go. The walks were great overall. I got to experience the city close up, and take in all the new sights, sounds, and smells. I needed it at the time. But when I finished my TEFL course and had to start looking for work, I realized how much I needed a motorbike. The city is big, and there’s just no way to get around all of it on foot. And if you want to leave the city, the most convenient way to do it is by motorbike. Some of my friends and family back home have insisted that my Mio is technically a motor scooter, and if Mimi was in America, they’d be right. But here, motor scooters and motorcycles are all lumped into the category of motorbikes. Besides, motorbike sounds cooler than motor scooter, right?
The roads here are dangerous, mostly because of the lack of adherence to safety rules. Many people don’t wear helmets (yes, it’s against the law to ride without a helmet), and I’d be willing to guess that that particular practice causes the most traffic fatalities here. I’ve already witnessed one motorbike crash since living here. Luckily both parties were wearing helmets and left the scene with only minor scrapes and bruises, and one busted lip. In this case, it was the cause of one driver not looking before crossing a street and T-boning another motorbike. From what I’ve gathered, Thais are notorious for not looking before entering traffic. The explanation I’ve received for this gives Buddhism credit for this bad habit. In Buddhism, the future doesn’t exist. The only thing that exists is here and now, so you shouldn’t worry about the future. So Thais don’t worry about if there’s traffic coming or not, because that’s in the future and it doesn’t matter. It may not make sense to you, but there you go. But there are ways to keep yourself safe on the roads: driving at a reasonable speed, keeping an eye on the person driving next to you, glancing in your rearview mirrors every now and again, staying in the correct lane, and yes, wearing a helmet.
Thais drive on the left side of the road, the opposite of the US. I thought it would take me a while to get used to it, but I somehow adjusted to it within the first hour of riding (I guess the inevitability of an accident if I didn’t adjust to it was a good motivator). I think some Thais are still confused about which side they’re supposed to be on though, because every time I go out I see at least one person driving the wrong way down the highway. There is usually a lane dedicated to bikes and motorbikes on the major highways, but if there’s not, motorbikes are expected to stay in the far left lane or the middle lane if they can keep up with the cars. If it’s a one lane road, motorbikes are expected to use the shoulder as their lane, and we are happy to do so since the motorbike traffic goes much quicker than the car and truck traffic.
At many of the major intersections, and even some of the smaller ones, the traffic lights will count down, so you know how long you have to sit and wait for the light to turn. This is very convenient in some ways as you know if you have time to check your phone, do some light stretching, eat a snack, etc. The traffic lights here take forever to turn, in case you couldn’t guess. There have been times where I’ve sat at an intersection for close to five minutes. Because of this, people will do everything they can to avoid having to stop for a red light when it turns because if you stop, you can be sure you’re going to be waiting for a while. So instead of being treated as “You must stop now,” red lights are generally seen as “You should probably stop in about ten seconds.”
Mimi and I completed our longest ride yesterday. It was a total of about five hours of driving time. The woman I rent my motorbike from, Leslie, organized a convoy with about 25 of her clients to go up to a Burmese camp near the Thai-Burma border. I and the other riders met at 700 Stadium around 8 am and headed into the mountains north of Chiang Mai. We took our time getting there, enjoying the beautiful scenery of the Thai mountains and a few coffee breaks. The only mishap that occurred during my ride was an unfortunate neck stinging by a still unidentified bug. Other than that, we only lost a couple of riders from the convoy once, and they were quickly returned to us thanks to technology and GPS. The long ride was actually very enjoyable and completely worth it since our final destination was a Burmese camp, Muang Na, where we got to spend a few hours playing with the children living at the camp and handing out donations to the families. We were all hungry and tired by the end of the day, but our trusty motorbikes got all of us back to Chiang Mai without a single flat tire or accident.
For those of you who are now worried for my safety as I drive on the Thai roads, don’t be. I play it safe on the roads and have a reputation for “driving like a grandma,” as we would say in the US. Yes, I do get impatient and slowly weave my way through the sitting cars when traffic is dense, and I occasionally get honked at because I forget to stay in the far left lane, but overall I’m a stickler for the non-existent rules of the road.