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Is Traffic in Thailand Chaotic?

Thailand Traffic
Traffic in Thailand - there are motorcycles everywhere, and car drivers need 360 degree vision

Many first time visitors to Thailand are complaining about the chaotic traffic and tell me they would not dare to drive here. Yet I have been driving in Thailand for many years and I do not see any chaos. Why is that?

The answer lies in your expectations. In the west traffic rules are strictly enforced, fines are very expensive, and people mostly follow the rules. Therefore when they drive, they expect others to follow the rules. Anyone breaking the rules makes people upset.

Someone cuts them off and they honk the horn angrily. Someone does not give them their ‘right of way’, and they feel like their rights have been violated. A driver makes a blunder of some sort, and everyone gets mad at him. “Where did he learn to drive!” “Can’t you read the sign?”

Everything is fine as long as everyone follows the rules. This system works very well in western countries, aside from occasional road rage attacks.

But – what if there were no rules? Or if nobody cared about them? Here in Thailand nobody expects everyone to follow the traffic rules to a T. They do exist, but they are more a guideline than hard and fast rules.

motorcycle parking at the mall in Chiang Mai, Thailand
motorcycle parking at the mall in Chiang Mai, Thailand

A Thai driver knows that at any time a  motorbike might be on his right, or on his left, or on his rear bumper, and probably within a couple of inches of his car. He does not think it should be any different. He also knows that his ‘right of way’ will be violated sometimes, so he expects it and does not get all bent out of shape when it happens.

Normally nobody gets angry when they get cut off, because sometimes it is not  so clear who exactly can go first, so it is better to be polite. It is totally against Thai culture to show anger anyway.

There are not so many traffic signs, so you cannot break so many rules. Everyone knows that some people don’t stop when the light turns red, so better let them go first. Nobody gives you the finger because nobody gets upset at anyone. Nobody honks their horns much either.

Mind you, this only applies to Thailand. If you go to Vietnam, for example, everybody honks their horn about every 5 seconds for reasons that I could never understand. It is like a bad habit. If any other vehicle is within 50 meters, they start honking. Even if nothing else on the car works, the horn is definitely working. It is the most important part of the vehicle. And it does not help them avoid accidents either, I have noticed. If everybody is honking at everybody else, it just becomes background noise. It is not a warning signal anymore.

Riding side-saddle for mini skirt wearers
Riding side-saddle for mini skirt wearers, but isn't that helmet supposed to be on her head instead of on her lap? No, the hair might get messed up, so she keeps the helmet ready in case there is a police check.

But back to Thailand. The chaos only exists when you expect that there shouldn’t be any. But if you accept that things are more fluid and that rules are not always followed, and if instead of relying on hard and fast rules, you just use your common sense, you will be just fine driving in Thailand.

Three people fit on a bike easily, especially if one is a baby
Three people fit on a bike easily, especially if one is a baby

And don’t forget that a motorbike, or a dozen of them, can be on either side of you. If they are not there now, they will be soon, you can be sure. There are thousands of motorcycles everywhere in Thailand.

Someone will cut you off, and someone will go the wrong way, and someone will be in your ‘right of way’. Motorbikes will be weaving in and out and they will squeeze through the lines of cars to get ahead of them. If you never expect it to be any different, it does not appear chaotic at all and there is no reason to get upset. As the Thais say: “maipenrai” – it’s no big deal, no problem.

Here is the mindset for driving in Thailand: Instead of calling the traffic ‘chaotic’, you can call it ‘fluid’. Instead of insisting on your ‘rights’, you can just go with the flow. Instead of expecting discipline from others, always be ready for the unexpected. Instead of getting upset at any driver, try smiling instead. You will fit right in and the traffic will miraculously look quite normal rather than chaotic.

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