Driving in Thailand is not only safe and easy, but it also allows you to get away from the regular tourist trails and to go off exploring on your own. Quite a few of the travel articles that I have written for bangkok-daytrips.com are about places which are not served by normal local transport. Or, if they are, you will have to take a combination of different transportation methods. Renting a car while on holiday just makes everything a lot easier when talking about getting from point A to point B. The only problem, is that the price of petrol has gone up so much these days which makes long road trips relatively expensive. It now costs us about 31 baht per litre compared to 15 baht when I first started to do these road trips in Thailand. I used to get plenty of change from a 1,000 baht note when I filled up. But, not any longer. It is quite often cheaper to go by train or bus. It can even sometimes be cheaper to fly. But then, you wouldn’t have any transport when you get to your destination. I really like the flexibility of having my own transport. I also like the journey to get there as that is often half the adventure.
Finding good maps in Thailand is always a problem. It is true that they are certainly getting better compared to say ten years ago, however, you will find that there is very little detail which makes it hard to find some of the out of the way places. On most of my road trips I take just two books. The first is “Thailand Road Atlas” published by Lotus Image Advertising for 350 baht. This also has detailed maps of all the main cities in each of the 76 provinces. I also like that it has road distance guides and also samples of routes to take for the major destinations. My new favourite map book is “Thailand Delux Atlas” published by Thinknet for 550 baht. It has more detail which means that smaller roads are included. It also has more city maps which are useful to find hotels. Both of these map books are bilingual which helps when you need to ask a Thai person for directions. However, I have learned from experience, that a lot of Thai people cannot read maps. Which might also explain why good maps are hard to find.
Another good planner these days is the computer and Internet. You can buy CD-Roms by Thinknet that quite often give more detail than their print versions. Their “Road Map of Thailand” is often useful for me to find places that are not found on print versions. You can search in both English or Thai. You can also, for example, see a list of all temples for a particular province. It has a built in ruler that helps work out distances and so therefore travel times. You can also add notes to the map and then print it out for when you are on the road. They also have more detailed CD-ROM maps for particular areas such as Chiang Mai, Bangkok, Pattaya and Phuket. I also find Google Maps on the Internet useful as they have recently updated the maps of Thailand so that it has both Thai and English place names. You can also view a hybrid version which shows both satellite and road maps combined. This makes it easier to mark the exact location of places that you want to visit. You can then print these out. However, not all areas in Thailand have satellite pictures yet. If you visit my ThailandPhotoMap.com website you will get an idea of how useful this can be.
I think I have done my fair share of backpacking over the years. Travelling across Asia with only what you can carry on your back teaches you some valuable life lessons. For a start, it shows that you can really survive on the basic necessities of life. Anything else in life is just excess baggage. However, those days are gone and I am now what you could perhaps call the “lazy backpacker”. This is because when I go backpacking, I now go by car and I take everything including the kitchen sink. Well, maybe not quite, but it is near enough. As well as all the maps, I also take half a dozen different guidebooks. Then there is the camera equipment, chargers and laptop which is all necessary for me to write and process the pictures as I go along. I learned the hard way not to leave all the work for when I get back home. In a short five day road trip I just finished, I took about 3,000 pictures. I also have an Internet phone as I need to keep in touch wherever I am.
Depending on where I am going and who with, it is sometimes a good idea to take snacks and drinks as well as eating utensils. You never know when you might need them. I even take a kettle so that I can have a cup of coffee in the morning or some Mama pot noodles. On some occasions, like beach holidays, I have even taken a hot plate so that I can cook some basic meals for everyone. It is nice having the flexibility if food is not available or it is really expensive due to being a major tourist area. These days, I always make sure that I have my portable DVD player and a stack of new movies. I don’t always use it, but it is nice to have on days when we might be trapped in hotel rooms due to rain storms. Books and magazines like Readers Digest are also good.
Another advantage of driving is that you don’t need to worry so much where you will be staying each night. I don’t think that I have ever booked a hotel room while travelling in Thailand. That is not to say I can always find a room on the first try. But, with my car, I can easily just drive to the next hotel. Lonely Planet is usually quite good for finding hotels or I might resort to my map book to help find locations in a town that have a high density of places to stay. However, sometimes I just use my eyes. I don’t always stay in guesthouses these days as they are not always good value for money. Granted, you will always get a cheap price for bunk beds, shared bathrooms and a ceiling fan. However, if you ask for air-conditioning, they often just double the price for exactly the same room. One guesthouse I tried the other day wanted 600 baht for a room with air. It was a very basic room with a bed and no other furniture. I went around the corner to a hotel and they had a room with air for only 400 baht. This included cable t.v. and a fridge with two complimentary bottles of cold water. On top of that, breakfast was included in the price.
The main reason I like guesthouses is that it is a great place to share stories with other people. In my backpacking days I always found it invaluable to meet people going the opposite direction. Hotels are more solitary as you stay in your room and there is no communal area where you can meet other travellers. However, a good reason that I like hotels is the security. With so much equipment, I want to decrease the chance of someone sneaking into my room in the middle of the night while I am sleeping. Before check-in at a hotel, I always ask them if I can see the room first. Here I not only check to see if the shower and air-conditioning works, but I also check to see if there is a lock on the inside of the door and if the window locks are working. You will be surprised the number of hotels where the windows cannot be locked or even shut properly. I also always look for off-street parking for my car.
Thailand has a large network of roads that take you to just about anywhere. The vast majority are paved roads in good reasonable condition. We drive on the left here which is useful for people who come from say the UK or Australia. Road distances are in kilometers which is obviously great for metric countries. The main highways connecting the provinces have two to four lanes on each side giving you fast access. On these highways, you will find that all of the roads signs are bilingual. This not only means that places names are written in Roman characters, but warning signs are often translated into English too. Anyway, most warning signs have pictures that are familiar or are easier enough to work out. The only problem I sometimes have with the direction signs is that the Roman letters are often a lot smaller than the Thai characters. Which might mean that sometimes you will have to check out the Thai first. They also often put them at confusing places which makes it ambiguous where you have to turn off. Sometimes they put it before a minor road that you shouldn’t go down or just after the road that you should! But, you get used to that.
Off the main highway you will only find one or two lanes on each side. You will still find bilingual directions signs though this is not always guaranteed. If the place you are intending on visiting is not very popular with international tourists, then you might need to consider making a note of the Thai characters for the place name. However, I have driven by many large signs in English and Thai for tourist attractions that turn out to be very small and insignificant. And so, for the majority of your trip, you shouldn’t face much problem with the language at all.
Once you are on the road, you will need to make sure that you always have enough petrol to get you around! Filling up is very easy though I would recommend that you always you use the main brand name petrol stations. Although I have had no problems, I have heard stories from other people of petrol being watered down or the attendant not resetting the counter of the pump to zero before filling up. This means that you pay for the previous person and for yourself. But, in all the years that I have been driving in Thailand, I have never experienced such a problem. If you are renting a car, you will need to ask them what petrol it takes. It can get a bit confusing as there are so many different kinds. For myself, I am now using “gasohol 95”. You don’t fill it up yourself as there are attendants that do it for you. When they come around to your window, just tell them what petrol you want and how much. You can either say “dtem tang” which means “fill it up” or how much you want to pay, like “neung pun” for 1000 baht. They will also often ask if you want a receipt. In Thai they will say something like “rub bai set”. I usually say yes.
You will find that not all petrol stations are the same. Some I go to also clean your windscreen without asking and also take out any trash you might have. There is also no problem to ask them to check the tyre pressure for you and this service won’t cost you any extra. Another reason to go to the big brand name petrol stations are the shops and other facilities. When you are on the road, it is often a good place to stop for a break. Maybe have a can of ice coffee or a meal if you are hungry. Their toilet facilities are also very good and clean. Though you will mainly find Asian style squat toilets. You will see petrol stations every where, but as a general rule, I never use the smaller ones. So, keep your tank topped up whenever you get the opportunity or just before you about to leave a main highway. It is a good idea to work out as soon as you can your petrol consumption. It is easy to work out a rough estimate. Fill up your tank and reset the distance counter. Then, the next time you fill up, make a note of how many litres was needed to fill the tank and how many kilometres you travelled. Then just divide distance by litres to find out how far you can go on one litre. Obviously this will vary with your speed and terrain.
Driving in cities like Bangkok can be nerve racking for the most experienced of drivers. It takes time getting used to it. One thing you should know is that it is every man for himself on the road. That includes pedestrians. Don’t stop at pedestrian crossings because the car behind you won’t expect you to do that. He will probably just overtake you and then as you are blocking his view of the pedestrian, he will probably run them down. The same goes for lights that are changing to red. Think twice before you prepare to stop for a red light. The car behind you is probably speeding up and won’t realize that you are going to stop. I have had several cars nearly hit me from behind even when I slowed down gradually. Their eyes were on the lights and not me. Then again, you need to be aware that the people going the other way will be watching your lights turning red and not for their lights going to green. You will find that they often start coming before they get a green light. Motorcycles are the worst. They often don’t take any notice of red lights and you will also find that they drive down the road on the wrong way facing oncoming traffic.
Don’t get me wrong, Thailand is not a lawless country. There are policemen. However, in places like Bangkok you will only see them in their air-conditioned police boxes at major intersections. These guys ride motorcycles and so you won’t see any police chases in the city. For most of the time, they set up road blocks just for motorcycles. They check to see if they have licenses, registration and are wearing helmets. But, they also stop motorists for traffic violations. Though not as often as I would like. Many drivers are very dangerous. Like changing lanes without signaling or going into the left lane to do an illegal u-turn. I have actually been stopped twice by police in Bangkok. Once for going through a red traffic light (I was confused where the line was to stop) and once for going the wrong way down a one way street (Bangkok has some roads where only buses are allowed to go). Both times they asked for a bribe but I insisted on getting a ticket.
On the inter city roads, you will sometimes see highway police cars. They don’t drive around that much as they don’t always have enough money for petrol. I usually see them parked by the side of the roads pulling over trucks for some violation. You will also sometimes find police checkpoints on the main highways. In particular in the north and border areas. Some of these are unmanned. But others you will have to pass through slowly. I usually find it a good idea not to make eye contact. That lessens the chance of them pulling you over. That is a good rule for when travelling as sometimes officials cannot be bothered to try and attract the attention of a foreigner. If you do get pulled over, they will probably ask to see your driver’s license first. An international license is fine if you are a tourist. They may also want to see your passport. It might be a good idea to have some one hundred baht notes handy. I don’t normally condone bribing, but there was one time when I was pulled over by what I can only call highway robbers. They said that I was speeding even though they had no speed gun.. I wasn’t the only person as they were stopping all the cars behind me too. They could tell from my number plates that I was out of state. So, they said that they could make it easy for me and allow me to pay the fine on the spot. The alternative was to go to the police station the following day. As I was on holiday and in the middle of no-where, I felt I had no choice. So I gave them 200 baht.
Having said all of that, driving in Thailand is safe and I have never experienced any major problems. It is very rewarding so do consider for the next time you are on holiday in Thailand. But make sure you read the rental contract properly before you sign it. Find out about liability and how much the insurance really covers during an accident. On most days I pass cars that have been involved in an accident so don’t make the mistake in thinking that it won’t happen to you. If you feel that you are not up to driving yourself, then you can always hire a car that also comes with a driver!