Planet Magnus

Riding Scooters in Thailand

I’ve wanted to write this post for a while to help my friends be safer on scooters in Thailand, or anywhere else in Asia.
Firstly there seems to be this myth that sooner or later you will have an accident.  I think it’s important to assume that you could have an accident at any time, but at the same time, if you proceed with that assumption it can make it very, very unlikely, particularly if you:
1. Don’t drive too fast.  You might notice that most Thai’s drive very slowly, particularly around town.  Traffic in Asia is usually pretty crazy and unexpected things can happen.  Every mph that you subtract from your speed multiplies the time you have to think, brake, and avoid an accident.  That’s an inverse-square relationship, just to make it clear – driving a little bit slower makes you a LOT safer.
So change your mindset – don’t be in a hurry.  By all means open up the throttle on a nice straight road, but focus on driving relaxed and chilled.  When I first started driving in the UK I noticed that most of the time when some idiot takes an unnecessary risk to overtake you, you catch up with them at the next junction or traffic lights anyway.  So who gives a shit, it’s just not worth risking your life and everybody else’s because you think it’s going to get you somewhere quicker, because in practice it’s probably not.
2. Develop Super-Driving Awareness.  It goes without saying that you shouldn’t try to use your mobile phone while moving.  Even if you’re not using it, don’t let your mind wander.  Most accidents happen close to the home probably because peoples mind is on other things, and because when you’ve made the same trip hundreds or thousands of times you start to make assumptions about traffic.
Get in the habit of looking further ahead, checking your mirrors every few seconds and noticing what people are doing coming out of side streets, etc.  Anticipate what people are doing.
In Thailand people are not used to you giving them space or letting them out of junctions, so I don’t generally bother any more unless it’s a Farang!  Thai people are so surprised they don’t tend to move fast enough to make use of it anyway.  The exception seems to be when there is a whole family on a scooter, they are usually paying more attention.
3. Drive Defensively.  If you’re worried about sitting in the middle of the road to turn right, listen to that worry and pull over to the left until the road is clear enough to drive straight across.
Don’t do things that people don’t expect.  If you’re waiting to dart through a gap in traffic, start moving earlier and slower so people can work out what you’re about to do.  If you’re going to do a U-turn put yourself somewhere that people can see that you’re obviously going to do one.
Gang up with other scooter riders and wait for cars to slow down for you, or take up a position behind a bigger vehicle and let them make a gap in traffic for you.
4. Communicate with other Road Users.  Use your indicators, get eye contact, use hand signals if necessary.  Bear in mind that looking over your shoulder also indicates to other road users that you’re about to move somewhere.
How to Learn to Drive a Scooter
The first thing I’d suggest, particularly if you don’t have a driving licence at home, is don’t.  Technically you need a driving licence in your home country to drive as a tourist and you can get by in Thailand just fine without.
The Red Trucks will take you wherever you want to go for cheap, and other colours have set routes outside the city centre which you can learn quite easily if you are using them every day.  Every time you find a friendly Tuk-Tuk driver with good English, take his number and make sure he remembers where you live to pick you up next time.  Make friends with someone whose scooter driving you trust :)
Especially in Chiang Mai it’s pretty easy to arrange your life so that you can walk to most places you need to go.
OK, so if you really want to learn, consider it in three steps:
1. Get Confident Controlling the Bike.  Do this off-road, in a car park or at least a very quiet street.
2. Learn the Rules of the Road.  There are plenty of YouTube videos and websites on this.  You might also go for a ride with an experienced driver and get them to share their stream of consciousness as they are driving around.  You will be amazed at what they point out that you weren’t noticing.
3. Put the two together.  Don’t do what you’re not confident to do.  Go back to steps 1 & 2 until you’re really ready to go on the road.  If you have too much trepidation about going on the road, work out exactly why and handle it first.
One non-obvious tip for safe driving is that if you notice the road you need to take too late, just sail on right past it and do a u-turn or take the next turning.  Whatever you do don’t suddenly brake and do a sharp turn, that’s how accidents are caused because you’re not doing what people are expecting you to do, and you won’t have looked around to see what other people are doing.
A friend of mine gave me a cool iPhone holder that attaches your iPhone to your wing mirror, I use that if I’m going somewhere new.  Otherwise, pull over to check the map!
Obviously, Don’t Drink and Drive
One drink with a meal, is probably fine.  Any more than that and you’re pretty much a twat.  I’m not sure where people get the idea that it’s any different to drink drive in Thailand than at home but there you go.  It’s so unnecessary and you’re just as likely to wreck someone else’s life as your own.  I mean really?
The Police
If you drive around Chiang Mai, at some point you’ll probably get stopped by the police.  The good news is, Farang wearing helmets are almost always waved through police checkpoints.  If they ask for your driving licence your home one is fine.  If you don’t have one you can probably get away with saying you left it at your hotel.
Even if you speak good Thai, it’s probably best to pretend you don’t.
If you’re unlucky enough to have been caught breaking a law – for example not wearing a helmet, or driving straight over one of the moat junctions – you can expect a fine.  Don’t be intimidated by the police taking your licence and not giving it back for a while, or threatening you with whatever else, it’s basically a shake-down at this point to get you to pony up some cash.  One strategy is to keep insisting that they write you a proper ticket that you can go to the police station to pay, and then at the last moment ask how much it would be to pay now.  You’ll find that the original pay now price has reduced by quite a lot!
Enjoying Driving
One great move I made was to buy my own helmet.  It was only 200 baht and is cleaner and fits better than the rental helmets, and I still keep the rental helmet in my seat for passengers.
My favourite bike is the Honda Click, be careful to get a 125cc one and ideally get a newer one with a digital display.  Automatic bikes are far, far easier to drive than those with manual gears.  The Honda Click has nice features like the engine switches off when you put the stand down, and there is a clip on the left brake handle to lock the back brake if you leave it on a hill.
If you drive to Pai bear in mind that in certain seasons it can get really cold on the road up in the mountains and there can be a LOT of insects hitting you in the face – most helmets have detachable visors.  Gloves are great to avoid cold hands.  I keep a raincoat under the seat.
I hope I’ve made you think carefully if you were unsure about driving – there is an average of one scooter death on the Thai roads every day, which is really one too many.  In the west there are so many hoops to jump through to get on the road most people hopefully realise that driving is a big responsibility and you are literally taking your life and that of others into your hands – easy to forget in Thailand where you can drop a few baht and get a bike for the day.