For this series I’m featuring a guest writer, Reid O’Brien-Lambert, a motorbike extraordinaire and personal chauffeur to yours truly. After riding motorbikes through various Thai cities, towns, jungles, and islands over the last 2 years he is an expert in moto culture and the rules of the road. See Part 1 of the series here.
In Bangkok, the roads are alive. They are not the surreal lanes you may know in America, where people drive inside the lines at around the speed limit so that they don’t have to pay attention to the fact that they are hurtling down the pavement in a metal can at spine-snapping speeds. These American drivers imagine that laws should dictate behavior, that violating convention is shocking, and that any momentary personal inconvenience caused by a deviation from the expectations of the driver is an inexcusable offense revealing the offender’s infinite stupidity.
In Thailand, we’ve woken up from such egoistic dreams. We know the streets are not two-dimensional abstractions but rather a terrain that can be navigated in an infinite array of vectors. Superior to the formal rules are the needs of the individual in this moment. Violating convention usually provokes smiles, nods and cooperation rather than embarrassment, fear or anger. Drivers are aware of the unpredictability of human behavior, and thus stay alert and prepared for surprises.
Obviously, it’s not all that rosy. The mai pen rai attitude discounts the importance of safety, and the consequences are dire for the thousands who are injured in accidents every year. Drunk driving is common. Over a third of Thai drivers are unlicensed. Wearing seatbelts in cars and helmets on motorbikes is more dependent on the presence of a police check than any concern for safety. Bangkok has some of the worst congestion in the world due to the lack of urban planning and overreliance on private transport in cars. Every day I see drivers tempt death with reckless maneuvers.
Understanding the benefits and dangers of Thai driving culture is crucial to saving your skin on the road, so I’ve compiled a short list of guidelines for riding a MOTORBIKE in Bangkok (please don’t mistake this for cars…). Like most sets of rules in Thailand, these are malleable and often applicable only in certain contexts.
- Drive on the left side of the road!! …except when it’s convenient to drive on the right. You can ride against the legal/conventional flow of the lane. This means you can go the other way down one-ways, or drive on the right side of the road against oncoming traffic when necessary/convenient. When riding against the flow, always hug the curb whether you’re on the right or left. Proceed slowly and watch out for vehicles turning into the street as they will probably not see you.
- When driving with the flow, motorbikes generally want to stay to the left. Vehicles pass in the right lane. Larger vehicles won’t allow your presence to obstruct their acceleration; so if you hear a little honk and see a menacing bus or minivan rapidly expanding in the rearview, move over and let them pass. If you’re a passive aggressive like me, don’t worry: in less than 200 meters you are sure to filter past all those caged fools as they wait in line at the light. Everywhere but the expressways, the motocy will win the war of attrition.
Prepare for the unexpected. Anywhere you can’t see is a hiding space for motos, pedestrians, food carts or taxis swerving out to slam into you. If a group of vehicles is slowed or stopped in a seemingly random stretch of road, there is probably a reason. Approach such situations with caution.
- Honking is not rude. Honking is how people let you know that they are coming up behind you, merging over to your lane, letting you in, running a red light, etc. Let go of your ego and don’t take honking personally.
- Traffic lights, road signs and lanes serve as guidelines rather than rules.
- When there is a line of waiting vehicles before a traffic light, motos filter to the front and wait in front of the foremost vehicles. Make sure you’re not blocking the left lane because…
- You can turn left at a red light.
- At four-way intersections, it is common for groups of motos to run red lights during the intervals between green-lighted traffic flow. This can be dangerous but it is well-known behavior, so other drivers are aware that it will happen. Stay in the pack when doing this. There is safety in numbers!
- In general, you must assume that people won’t look before turning or merging into your lane. This is because most of the time they don’t look behind them. In Thai driving culture, what is in front of you matters more than who is behind you. “Cutting off” other vehicles is normal. Don’t take offense.
- Filtering and lane splitting are integral to the Bangkok motorbike experience.
- If you need to U-turn, you can do it anywhere! On roads with medians, it can be useful to keep an eye out for No U-turn signs – these are sure to point out your nearest location for a U-turn.
- You can ride on the sidewalk for short distances if there’s a ramp up to it. Watch out for pedestrians!
- Sometimes, you have to accelerate for safety. You can accelerate more quickly than cars but at top speeds (80 kph – 120 kph) you are less stable. Understand the relation between speed and mortality.
Remember: This is not a competition. This is not a movie. This is not a game. The question is not if but when will you get in an accident. Remember that you are made of flesh and skin and bone that will slide off and split and crack against the metal and pavement. Be smart. Learn the culture of moto-riding and practice outside of Bangkok before taking on the chaos of the big city.