Recently we flew to Bangkok airport, hired a rental car and drove over 2,000 kilometres around Isaan in the north east of Thailand. We followed the Mekong River and met many hospitable people, saw some magnificent scenery and stayed in cities and towns not often visited by foreigners.
Although in many western countries, a self-drive holiday is very popular, few overseas visitors venture behind the wheel in Thailand which has a reputation for crazy drivers and one of the world’s worst per capita road tolls.
Considering the negatives, it’s not surprising that for most visitors, self-driving is quickly dismissed in favour of joining a tour, or taking internal flights or trains and buses.
Self – drive is worth considering
However, if you look further into the statistics about 70% of road fatalities occur on scooters, about 10% are pedestrians and only 20% are in vehicles. I wouldn’t ride a scooter in Thailand. Ever. Nor would I step onto a pedestrian crossing.
With a population of about 69 million people and 180,000 kilometres of roads there are a lot of people travelling on the roads and most of the major roads are well maintained and easy to drive on.
If you are considering the freedom to explore this incredible country at your own pace and driving yourself there are a few things to consider.
In Thailand you will drive on the left hand side of the road which is fine if you’re from Britain, Australia, New Zealand etc but it will require adapting to if you’re from Europe or America or other countries that drive on the right.
Most drivers are courteous
The first surprise is that most drivers aren’t crazy and there is very little road rage. People don’t tend to honk their horn often unless they’re letting you know as a courtesy that they’re nearby.
You’ll also notice that on the major roads, trucks keep to the left lanes and cars will change lanes constantly to try and make faster progress. It doesn’t provoke outrage – it’s what they do.
There are some crazy drivers living dangerously but no one gets upset and the trick is to ease off and let them go. You’re on holiday. Often, you’ll catch up to them at the next set of traffic lights.
Because some roads are busy, at times the traffic will be a lot closer to you than you’re used to which can be a little unnerving initially.
Towns present their own challenges
When passing through towns, a good tip at traffic lights is to sit back slightly and leave room for scooters to come around you and line up in front. They tend to accelerate away when the light turns green (or slightly before) and they’re out of your way.
Thai drivers have a (bad) habit of randomly stopping without pulling over. Keeping your eyes to the front as much as possible makes sense.
U-turns are a big thing here and you’ll get used to travelling in the right hand (fast) lane and have vehicles waiting to do a u-turn from the opposite direction. It can be disconcerting.
Most of the road signs certainly on major roads are dual-language. Because the signage is clear, you’ll seldom be confused by the directions and navigation on major roads is easy.
Of all the countries I’ve driven in, Thailand certainly isn’t the most stressful. In my experience, the South of France and Italy were more challenging to me. If you’re not a confident driver however, you might not want to tackle the roads.
Overall you’ll find that common sense will play a large part in an uneventful road trip.
And remember it’s Thailand so just go with the flow.