Having been in Thailand for some time now, and being a regular road user I feel qualified to comment and provide a guide for the uninitiated.
Some basic principles:
Thais drive on the left (just like the UK), this road is an exception – because this road is actually 2 one way streets that run side by side.
At signalled traffic junctions it is common (but not exclusive) that each traffic stream gets its own go in turn (in the UK it is usual that opposing streams go at the same time), so don’t move just because the opposite side has.
This rule is sometimes suspended at weekends – and opposing streams are released at the same time – this is very exciting if you are about to turn right…
At signalled junctions you can turn left even when the red light shows, for this reason you should not block the left lane if you are planning to go straight on.
Left on red
Some junctions have a countdown feature to show how much longer you are going to have to wait, in principle this is a good idea; however when it’s red the last 10 seconds are considered moving time, and similarly the 10 seconds after the green has passed on the other side are also considered OK = 20 second free for all.
Some red lights are viewed as optional/ advisory/ hazard warning, especially if they are for a pedestrian crossing.
When pulling out of a side street in to a main road, or moving off from parking the routine is: manoeuvre, mirror, signal. The last 2 parts are optional.
If you want to turn left or right, just do it – it doesn’t really matter which lane you are in at the time.
Reversing lights mean nothing – in fairness this is because many cars are automatic and you often get the white flash as gears are changed. It can mean that the vehicle is about to go backwards (even when in a traffic queue), but can mean anything… I haven’t yet seen anyone go sideways – but I wouldn’t rule it out.
Thai cars are equipped with indicators, but they are often disabled as a safety feature. The vehicle that is not indicating is your friend because its intentions are unknown and you can react accordingly. A vehicle that is indicating is dangerous, as you may in your naivety believe its intentions to be true – you will be surprised when an alternative happens…
Cycle lanes: woohoo look, a cycle lane… They exist only to prove that someone in the traffic department has a sense of humour.
Cycle lane – hahaha 555
This is a cycle. I add it here because many drivers have apparently never seen one and it might help with recognition. Cycling is a growing trend world wide and even here – which is amazing considering…
This is a tourist cycle, they may ridden by people who understand traffic as a concept but that’s about it. They may also be ridden by tourists from countries where they drive on the right and they see no reason to change their behaviour.
Tourist bike – wrong side of road
They will also be looking at ‘the sights’ instead of the oncoming truck, and the only reason there aren’t cleaners scraping them off the roads all day is that they generally stick to the old city, pedestrian streets and pavements – where traffic tends to be lighter.
This is the favoured family vehicle here. It is huge and may be driven by someone so tiny the only view they have is one of the sky, the tops of lamp posts and those streams of wires hanging road side – which is how they navigate.
Overhead wires – drivers view
Some of these cars are equipped with rear view cameras to help parking – so at least they can see where they have been and the trail of destruction that lies in their wake.
As they are pick up trucks there can be a load in the back – a load of something anyway… often including people – lots of people, in hats. They might have been there for weeks, the driver would never know.
Utility vehicle – with people
Stuff… with added people
Thai Utility Vehicle: Before the monstrosity above became popular everybody had these. They are very flexible and can take many forms on the basic chassis: delivery truck, family limo, shop, restaurant – up to you.
Utility vehicle – limo carriage
Utility vehicle – beer delivery
Utility vehicle – restaurant
Motorbike or Scooter: most fall in to the Scooter category and there are lots of them, hundreds of them, thousands of them… You must be at least 1m high and 6 years old to drive one (some flexibility allowed). Helmets are mandatory, but again some flexibility is allowed.
Scooters can carry staggering numbers of people and goods, I did see the last passenger of 3 (plus a driver of course) facing backwards and phone texting whilst whizzing along at about 40 the other day – amazing…
Motorbikes – lots of them
Motorbikes, especially big ones, tend to be owned by tattooed and bandanna wearing Farang living out the Easy Rider fantasy. They can head to the hills any time they like; but mostly just go to Rimping (which is a bit like Waitrose).
Rickshaw: Yes they still exist, there are quite a few in Chiang Mai. Some are beautifully made and preserved, they are almost always driven by wheezy old men with stick thin legs. Frankly you can see why the passenger below is covering up – you wouldn’t want to be recognised, its one notch up from slavery.
Tuktuk (motorised rickshaw): These are the backbone of the paid for travel system and true masters of the road. Anyone who drives one of these for a living has the finely tuned instincts of a Jedi Warrior and the lungs of a 60 a day smoker.
Tuktuk – King of the road
A journey by Tuktuk is almost always terrifying; in heavy traffic they will weave about between the hundreds of bikes and larger vehicles, and at junctions and traffic lights usually manage to find a spot next to the exhaust of lorry that was last serviced during the Korean war.
In light traffic they can achieve warp speed in about 10 seconds, and to add to the roller-coaster sensation some are equipped with party lights and boom boxes – the volume of which at least drowns out the screaming.
Tuktuks can be flagged down almost anywhere and at any time of day or night, so they are very handy. Price will depend on distance to destination, traffic, time of day, political rallies and/ or other disruptions, how many passengers, can you say the destination, can you say the price in Thai, your nationality, how many bags you have and what number the driver can say without smirking. Halve it and start from there.
Some of the newer ones are LPG powered which is nice, and must reduce pollution – I have no idea how big the fireball might be in an impact.
If I buy a vehicle here I might get a Tuktuk – no one fucks with a Tuktuk.
Rod Daeng (Red Vehicle), not always red so also known as a Song Theow (2 row, because they have 2 rows in the back).
They behave erratically, will stop suddenly, pull over without warning or just slam the brakes on in the middle of the road. The red ones tend to service city routes, yellow, blue, green and white ones go further afield to outlying towns and villages. They head across town on semi organised routes and to use them you need to have a map of the city in your head – so you can stop one going in the right direction.
To stop one you just wave and it will pull over if the driver fancies the look of you. You now need a knowledge of Thai, to describe your destination, and UN level negotiation skills to get a reasonable price – even if you have the faintest idea what that is anyway. If all is agreed, climb in the back and off you go. The driver will accommodate variations to the route to drop people off, so you may get a tour of the back streets on the way to your destination – don’t worry, you will get there eventually. On arrival you pay the driver the agreed fee and you are free to go.
If it’s not busy they may just take you to your destination without route deviation, prices negotiated are per person unless otherwise stated.
Do not be fooled by the size of a Song Theow, they have a loading capacity similar to that of an intercontinental 747.
Taxis: Blue and yellow in Chiang Mai. Best pre-booked, sometimes you can go for days without seeing one. Available from the airport taxi counter, a reserved one will cost about 180Bht from the airport to the other side of Chiang Mai (Jan 2014). Have that figure in mind when dealing with Tuktuk drivers.
Tourists in hippie gear: These people have been here at least 2 days and have blended seamlessly in to Thai society, they are chilled and very comfortable on the one street where they live (which I won’t name). Outside of this area they get confused and stumble into traffic – which is why their street is pedestrianised (sort of). No one wears clothes like this apart from this crowd – these clothes are imported from the UK, where they are made in an industrial unit just outside Scunthorpe.
Drunk tourists: Often topless and wandering aimlessly. A danger at any time, but especially after noon.
Markets and other facilities: Whilst not always vehicular, markets are technically road users as they spread across a few lanes. Usually this is at particularly tight road junctions and bus stations – quite spectacular bottlenecks can then be enjoyed by all.
Market – Chiang Mai Gate
Market set up traffic: Ninja guided, motorbike propelled market carts – the wobbly wheels add interest to the trajectory.
Market stall on the move
Market stall on the move
Assorted other road users: could be anything really; anything at all…
Assorted road users
Assorted road users
Soi Dogs: The Thai system of road naming is to use the Soi number system – its quite a good idea and helps you locate places easier than if they used conventional road names. So, for example part of the Moat ring road in Chiang Mai is called Moon Muang, and the roads off it are Moon Muang Soi 1 etc… Many of these Soi are surprisingly tranquil when you turn off the main road.
Regardless of property values in the area, busyness or thoroughfare, the Soi Dog owns this land, and the Soi Dog decides who is allowed access. They also operate a curfew system, when visitors are less welcome after a certain time. The Soi Dog decides when this curfew starts – you have been warned.
So, given all the dangers, inconsistencies and other frustrations, you may be startled to hear that road rage is unheard of – I have never seen anyone show the slightest flicker of anger when the most appalling road crimes are committed.
The other thing is; all this madness is actually quite exhilarating… just keep your eyes open.