Riding Motorcycles in Thailand: Nirvana or Death Wish?

Evan Rally
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This is a guest contribution by Ryder Goldman, an avid motorcycle enthusiast for just over 30 years. He’s owned close to 50 road bikes and a few dirt bikes in that time, currently riding a Yamaha GT9 and Ducati Monster. He’s originally from Melbourne but lucky enough to do multiple overseas riding trips to India, Vietnam and Mexico. He resides in Thailand.

This document is for entertainment purposes only and is written from my personal experience and views. It is not intended to be taken seriously or to make fun of any drivers or riders in Thailand. For the most part the driving practices work well in Thailand. It’s only when you add distraction, alcohol, drugs, lack of helmets and poor vehicle maintenance into the mix that bad things – very bad things – happen.

Leave your white privilege at the door because you ain’t in Kansas anymore Toto.

By the numbers, traveling by road in Thailand is one of the most dangerous things you can do: there are on average 40 deaths on Thai roads… per day! This is the wild west of driving.

So why on Earth would you even consider such a crazy thing? 

Well the short answer for me is: how the hell am I supposed to get to the 7/11 to buy beer and a toastie without driving? 

If you know, you know. (Image Source)

Sure I could take a Grab (the Uber of Thailand), but there is no better feeling than getting yourself to your destination under your own steam. Thailand is an extremely beautiful place and it needs to be explored.

So the following are some tips and observations to make your experience in Thailand safer and more enjoyable. That said, if you read this then come and drive in Thailand and get injured or die: it’s nobody’s fault but your own. I just want to share some experiences that kept me safe. 

First the Legal Stuff: Licensing

Do you have a license to operate the vehicle you wish to use? 

To legally drive in Thailand you need to have the appropriate license from your home country and also an IDP (International Driving Permit), which you can get in your home country. You can’t get it in Thailand unless you have a 5 year Thai driver’s license (which you can only get after first getting a 1 year!) so don’t wait! Do it now. 

Insurance, including travel insurance if you are just here on holiday, isn’t compulsory. That’s where Go Fund Me comes in… almost everyday I see Go Fund Me’s set up for people that come to Thailand, rent a scooter and go off exploring with the throttle wide open thinking they are invincible. They quickly find out they are not, and end up wrapped in bandages for the rest of their trip. 

Don’t be an idiot: pay the money for some insurance. If you can’t afford it, at least run a Go Fund Me for the insurance before you leave for your trip to Thailand. 

Rules of the Road

Well what about the road rules, I hear you say… Yes, Thailand has many road rules just like every other country. The difference here is they are mostly treated like guidelines.

Here’s a common sight: You are at a red light, there are no other cars/bikes around so it is safe to continue through the red light. In the West, nobody moves. If you do, you’re usually caught on camera and fined. In Thailand, you’ll often see people just go – even when there is a camera. Which honestly makes sense (if you truly can see there’s no traffic) because in the end aren’t we all adults capable of intelligent thought?

Driving on the Left… Mostly.

It is important to always remember to stay to the left as that is how it is done here in Thailand, usually. Quite often you will see cars or motorcycles traveling down the wrong way of the highway – this is something you just need to accept. Fact of life. Move along.

Now when I say drive/ride on the left it sometimes needs to be the extreme left of your lane as drivers here love to overtake slower vehicles. Especially if you are riding a motorcycle it is in your best interest to move over and create space. A passing truck might use all of it. 

If someone is too close behind you, they are saying something loud and clear: MOVE OVER. You are holding them up, and they are too polite to honk or flash their lights. So they’re waiting for you to notice them. 

I suggest you make some room and let them pass, because if you need to brake suddenly you may find you have a pick up truck trying to make sweet sweet love to you without your consent. You can’t always trust their brakes will work or their eyes are on the road. 

Now for those of you from the West (remember I said check your privilege) this can seem scary, rude, and inconsiderate but it’s how it works here. Move over and create some space, for your own good. Once you have been driving here for a few months you don’t even notice it and just move over so everyone can get where they are going at whatever speed they choose to do it at.

Which brings me to my next point…

Driving and Riding Speeds

“I feel the need, the need for speed…….”

Yes there are speed limits on Thailand’s roads. Some are clearly marked, but others you won’t have a clue what that is. My guess is the powers that be think you are smart enough to travel at a safe speed for the conditions.

You will find in your explorations that there are essentially 3 speeds that people in Thailand drive at.

First: Slow AF. I am always surprised by the amount of people that will travel at half the speed limit. Sure Thailand is a relaxed place to live, but some people go so slow they are almost going back in time. Be aware of them as they can cause other road users to brake suddenly or overtake them aggressively.

Second: The speed limit. Welcome, normal people. They do sometimes seem to be the minority but good for them being “responsible” citizens and following that rule.

Third: Warp speed. Not only reserved for the 1000cc sport bikes enjoying the racetrack-like roads in the North of Thailand, pickup trucks delivering goods will also compete for fastest road warrior. 

The Warp Speed drivers will drive 50% or more over the speed limit on bald tires while massively overweight carrying watermelons. You might even see one of these trucks on its side on a twisty mountain road. The small bonus here of course is free watermelon.

The sad topic of crashing brings me to my next point. When you’re riding a motorcycle in Thailand, what should you wear?

Protective Gear when Riding a Motorcycle in Thailand

Thailand is full of squids… (if you know, you know)

In the West you constantly hear ATGATT (All the gear all of the time). Where that of course is the goal in a perfect world, it’s just not practical in a country as hot as Thailand or for those five daily short trips to 7-11.

You’re likely to find the norm here is T-shirt, shorts and flip flops. Helmets are an optional accessory and worn even less in the evening after the traffic police have finished for the day. My guess is around 50% of people wear helmets, that percentage drops to about 25% for children riding on the back of bikes. 

Now you might freak out about this but remember people here have been riding ALL of their lives and for many it’s their only form of transportation – so they are pretty good at it. You have to be when you’re bringing home the weekly shopping from Makro (basically Costco) on a 110cc scooter. 

If you are a visitor here with little or no riding experience the idea of riding free without a helmet or even shirt may sound romantic but… Apart from the sunburn, the road here absolutely loves to chew up tourists who forget their riding a small rocketship for a split second and come off. 

Just go for a walk along the Pai walking street in the evening and see all of the tourists wrapped up with white bandages. 

Please wear at least a helmet and gloves, but hey, you’re an intelligent adult and can think for yourself.

Traffic Police

Traffic policing here is an interesting mix of genuine policing and topping up of monthly earnings. If you look like a tourist and you are riding in one of the many popular tourist destinations, prepare to come across a traffic stop or two. 

If you aren’t licensed you will be fined. If you are licensed but don’t have an international driving permit… fined. If you aren’t wearing a helmet… fined. 

Seems simple enough yet many people come to Thailand without proper licensing. And of course lack of proper license invalidates your travel insurance if you were smart enough to purchase that in the first place.

The best way to deal with the police should you be pulled over is to remain calm and polite. As they say, “you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.” The Police are quite nice and are extremely polite if you are doing the right thing. 

Also note, there is no value in pointing out to the policeman all of the people going passed not wearing helmets, no license plates and bald tires. After you’re pulled over, the police are only focused on you.

If you aren’t doing the right thing it’s time to pay your due. Some police will ask you to pay the fine on the spot, others will write you a ticket. What you choose to do in these situations is on you.

Blindly Entering the Road

Well if I look to the right I might see what is about to hit me!

This is such a constant here: drivers and riders, many without helmets or even closed-toed shoes, just don’t seem to look to the right before entering a road. They just go for it. Cajones. 

So if you see a vehicle poking out of a driveway on your left seemingly about to turn left, assume they aren’t “about to turn left” – they are actively turning left and merging into your lane. So you need to brake or go around them. Which leads me to my next point.

Overtaking and Undertaking

In the West we don’t tend to pass people on the left (or right if you live somewhere that drives on the right (wrong) side of the road), but here you’ll find it’s normal. Don’t be surprised when a teenager goes flying past you on the left; especially if you drive like you’re carrying a month’s worth of groceries on a 110cc scooter.

Basically if someone wants to pass you and there is a gap – anywhere – they will pass. Let them. Don’t get your panties in a bunch over it or any other weird practice you find here. Just like honey and vinegar with the police… anger won’t help. 

A nice thing I’ve noticed: when you’re following a slow truck on a small road and looking to pass, they may flash their left indicator if it’s safe to overtake and flash the right if unsafe. Of course don’t take their word for it blindly: check for yourself too. 

Road Conditions

Thailand has some of the most enjoyable roads to ride and drive on, ranging from racetracks to goat tracks. Generally the roads are very good – well paved and marked. 

However some of the roads are so heavily used that they get very smooth and shiny – and therefore slippery, no matter how good your tires are. Personally I’ve had my back wheel spin taking off from traffic lights and I use quality tires.

You may also find on major highways that asphalt ripples at the edges of the road due to the weight of all the trucks barrelling down them day and night. Be careful, especially on a motorcycle. At high speeds, those ripples and throw you off the road.

Traffic Lights

Red means stop, green means go….. kind of.

So even the dumbest road users understand the concept of traffic lights and that is no exception here in Thailand. However, there are some subtle differences……

Green means go, but don’t be so gung ho. If you are at a red light and it turns green, give it a second before you speed off or else you might find yourself T-boned by a driver running the newly red light. Orange/Amber (for God’s sake at your Thai driving test don’t call it amber – you will fail as amber isn’t a color in Thai. It’s orange, ok, got that?)… I digress.

Orange, to many drivers here, means speed up before it’s red or speed up so it hasn’t been red for long.

Red means stop, but….if it’s clear and there are no cameras or police it can also mean go.

Lights with turning arrows are always fun here too: so you want to turn right and the light and right arrow turns green. Careful… the same may have happened on the other side so you now have oncoming traffic even though you have a green arrow. Remember you checked your white privilege at the door? It’s just the way it is here so ALWAYS proceed with caution.

Headlights, Tail Lights, and Turn Signals

If I had a dollar for every car or motorcycle I have seen at night without headlights or tail lights I would be a very rich man. Some say this is a deliberate act so the ghosts can’t follow them home but I think it comes down more to poor maintenance. 

Keep your eyes wide open at night. Also useful to keep them open for the drivers that have had a few too many lao khao (rice whiskey) shots on their way home.

As for indicators, if you drive a BMW you will fit right in…

Something I have noticed is that many riders and drivers either 

a) Do not indicate before changing lanes or turning

b) Leave one indicator on constantly so they are doing the right thing 50% of the time 

c) Indicate for the wrong direction. 

This is important to be aware of: you can never trust an indicator here. It is instead best to watch to see if the bike or car is slowly changing lanes or slowing down to turn. This isn’t a ‘sometimes’ occurrence – like eating a whole tub of ice cream – but a common one, to the point that now I just ignore peoples’ indicators completely.

Gargantuan Truckloads

It is truly astonishing how much can fit in a truck, pick up or scooter here. I’ve ridden in many countries around the world but Thailand wins this prize. 

It isn’t unusual to see loads so high that they need a person on top to lift power lines up so they can continue on, or carry so much weight the suspension is compressed all the way down. Loads sticking out the back are also very common and if you are lucky they will attach a red cloth or old t-shirt as a warning.

Caption: No red cloth. Come on!

That doesn’t make it any less scary when you notice the load is a couple hundred slash cut lengths of bamboo waiting for a Final Destination moment. 

I personally give them a wide berth as it is only a matter of time. Be aware that these vehicles will need a little more space, and be careful overtaking them on bends as their cargo might stick out or they may roll on their side. 

How Many People Fit on a Scooter?

Five is the most I’ve seen so far, but I am patiently waiting for someone to break that record. It’s 28 in the back of a pickup. They make it work: the family needs to get to the temple and make merit. 

Personally I rode three-up with Western sized folk and wouldn’t recommend it. But it is a common sight to see three people and maybe a dog as well. 

Every Animal in the Road 

Live free all beings, but maybe stay off the road. 

Sadly the roads, especially near villages, are favorite sunning spots for dogs and crossing paths for livestock. Interestingly most animals have developed some road sense and will move out of your way, but not all. 

How embarrassing would it be for your trip to be cut short because you hit a chicken? 

He’s coming for you.

Thailand is a place where you must take responsibility for your own actions: “It’s not my fault, a chicken ran out on the road” doesn’t make for a good argument here. Drive and ride to the conditions always, and never expect the road to be clear around the next bend. Someone’s dog might be getting their tan on over there – and they for sure will not move for you. 

Distracted Driving

Mobile phones and obscured vision due to overloading are common distractions here. Yes, mobile phone use while driving is illegal, but that doesn’t stop people from watching videos while driving. So again, pay attention to what is around you and never assume they have seen you.

Bloody Tourists

I touched on this earlier: tourists are some of the most dangerous road users here as they are not used to the conditions or “etiquette” here. 

Very little experience and riding as fast as their scooter will go, cutting corners and having little regard for what’s going on around them is a dangerous combination. 

Evan has been there, done that. 

I find them more dangerous on the roads than errant water buffalo, but hey, their GoPro video will make for a great Tik Tok that no one cares to watch.

Driving in the Rain

I was surprised to see that wet roads do not slow anyone down here… Even after the first rains following the dry season, when the roads are slick with months of oil build up, Warp Speed is still a popular option. 

Add that to possible bald tires and now you need eyes in the back of your head. If it’s raining, proceed with caution and keep an eye on your mirrors.

Still the BEST Place to Ride

That all said, I moved to Thailand to enjoy some of the best motorcycling roads in the world and wouldn’t have all of the madness any other way. 

Everywhere you go, it’s simply stunning.

It can be a truly magical place to ride due to the freedoms, scenery and road quality. But you have to always remember: you are responsible for your own safety. There is no overbearing government “looking after you for your own good”. Take that responsibility and enjoy all the freedom that comes along with it!


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