As you make your way down the highway, a Red Bull fuelled minibus driver flashes his lights at you, you'd pull over but in your mirror you notice half a dozen scooters weaving through the traffic, bearing down on you, some with passengers riding side saddle, some clutching newborn babies whilst playing angry birds on their phone.
Your first experience of driving in Thailand may feel a little bit like you've become an unwitting extra in a Mad Max movie, but there are a few pointers that can help you, some involve lowering your expectations, some things are simply done differently in Thailand.
Definition of a Road
As a westerner, you might want to re-think your definition of a road: Thailand does have its fair share of great, well maintained highways, however, take a wrong turn on to a side road and things can deteriorate quickly. Even on the highways a random six inch changes in the road surface height can be the norm.
Ever wondered why there are so many pick ups on the road in Thailand? Your driving along and google maps offers you an alternative route, being the adventurous type you tap accept, huge mistake, what looks like a nice solid blue line on the map is in actual fact 500m of tarmac that quickly descends into an undulating pot hole filled dirt track, complete with large channels cut by torrential rain, and if you're up north, you're probably now heading up the side of a mountain.
Right of Way
Right of way, yielding, whatever you want to call it, considering the Thai driving test consists of driving round a car park, an emergency stop and reversing into a parking space, it simply just doesn't exist. Whilst larger junctions are generally traffic light controlled, smaller crossroads are generally done on a first to approach goes first basis, just remember to drive defensively.
Not Enough Lanes
In Thailand lane markings seem more of a guideline than anything else, if there's space in the hard shoulder to create an extra lane, you bet that space will be filled with eager drivers desperate to get in front of you before the next set of traffic lights turn red. Additionally, if you're in the right hand lane and there's a car next to you in the left lane, Thai drivers are not above straddling two lanes to squeeze in between you and the car you weren't overtaking fast enough for their liking.
Rush Hour, Push Hour
Pretty much everyone knows about the rush hour traffic in Bangkok, but even the quietest of towns can be transformed to turbocharged free for all's at rush hour. It almost seems that every working age Thai is on their final warning for being late to work. Be prepared to be flashed, cut up, and have multiple scooters turn in front of you as you make your way to your destination.
A Motorbike is...
Among other things, a mobile snack bar, apparently big enough for a family of four, a totally cool way to get your live chickens to market, and of course a safe way to deliver canisters of LPG.
Learn How to Merge
Thai drivers are expert at merging lanes at speed, if you leave a safe stopping distance behind the vehicle in front, you can expect buses and pick up trucks to fill that gap as they weave in out of the lanes. If you need to change directions on a highway, most if not all of the larger roads in Thailand have U-turns situated off the right hand lane, so if you want to make use of one of these you may need to learn to merge lanes at 120kph.
Aligning on the Left with Right Indicator on
Rather than risk a gruesome death at the hands of a bus driver that has driven from Chaing Mai to Hua Hin without a break, many motorcyclists will wait in the hard shoulder on the left with their right indicator on. It can be confusing at first but actually makes a lot of sense considering the alternative.
Despite all the light hearted negativity, Thailand is an enjoyable place to drive, and if you're planning on going anywhere remote, having your own transport is pretty much essential. Although a car rental place will almost never ask for a drivers licence here, it is advisable that you obtain an international drivers permit before embarking on the roads here, the police often set up check points on major and minor roads alike, and will not hesitate to write you up a ticket for not having the correct paperwork, they won't stop you driving off afterwards, it'll just hurt your wallet.
Photo Credit Bernard Spragg: https://www.flickr.com/people/volvob12b/