A Thai holiday is exhilarating and colourful – and so is some of the driving! What do you need to know to keep safe and out of trouble, from congested city centres to mountain roads?
Driving in Thailand
Some Thai roads are great and others much less so. Thailand’s a developing nation with a wide range of vehicles on the road – including farm vehicles containing animals.
Overloading is common. As are potholes. So, the potential for surprise is everywhere! As a rough rule of thumb, it’s best to play it cautious and drive defensively.
But first, let’s get a sense of what’s out there:
Motorcycles and scooters are all about! For many Thai households the moped is the main form of transport.
Local drivers interpret traffic rules loosely, especially out of the larger cities and towns. Traffic’s frequently chaotic.
Driving at night could be high risk, particularly from truck drivers on faster A-roads.
Most Thai major road signs are in English. But some signs can be hidden by Thailand’s lush vegetation or sprawling commercial signage.
Downtown Bangkok, traffic-wise, tends to be extremely busy, especially in rush-hour. The same goes for other major Thai cities and towns.
Watch out for intersections as not all of them have stop signs. Always signal and move cautiously, checking mirrors and blind spots.
Which side of the road do they drive on in Thailand?
Thai drivers drive on the left-hand side of the road, like the UK. So, the steering wheel’s on the right too, which is good news if you’re planning on hiring a car.
People in Thailand tend to speed and zip about. They give you leeway on most roads if you stick left and give them room to nip past.
Speed limits in Thailand
Around Thai towns and city centres it’s generally 80 km/h or less for cars. On open roads and rural roads the speed limit is 90 km/h while on motorways the limit is 120 km/h.
The upper 120 km/h limit was raised in December 2020 from 90 km/h. There’s also a 100 km/h minimum for all highway fast lanes.
There are speed cameras and regular checkpoints. But there are question marks over how reliable enforcement is.
Locals and tourists alike are regularly stopped. The Royal Thai Police claim they doubled the number of speeding tickets from 2.4 million in Oct-Dec 2017 to 5.6 million in Jan-March 2019.
Can I drive in Thailand with a UK licence?
Yes, no problem. However, you need an International Driving Permit, easily bought at most UK Post Offices beforehand.
Take along your photo-card licence plus a passport-style photograph. If you’ve only a paper licence you’ll need your passport too.
Make sure that your car insurance policy covers you to drive abroad, too.
If you’re going to be in the country for up to a year or beyond it might be a good idea to get a Thai licence. It also makes life easier dealing with the day-in, day-out officialdom.
Compare car insurance quotes
How to get a driving licence in Thailand
Your starting point here is an International Driving Permit as well as your UK photo-card. Having both makes it easier for Thai authorities to speed up the process when you’ve got both.
Depending on your residency status you might be able to get a Thai driving licence within a day via the Thai Department of Land Transport (DLT). But you’ll need to be prepared.
The queues can be long, so get to your nearest DLT branch early!
Your work permit paperwork
A doctor’s certificate confirming your state of health (a local clinic might be able to provide this)
Two recent photos not more than one inch by one inch in size.
Usually you’ll watch a one-hour training video of traffic laws. Your eyesight and reaction times might also be tested. You’ll need to confirm if you’re a temporary resident or not.
As motorcycles are everywhere it might be sensible to get a licence for both motorbikes and cars.
However, if you’ve got only a UK driving licence, you’ll still need written and practical tests for a Thai motorcycle licence.
Some tourist shops will offer to organise a licence for you, but at a massive mark-up.
How safe are Thailand’s roads?
The honest truth is that they’re not that safe, relatively speaking. Thailand has a population of around 70 million – a bit more than the UK. But around 60 Thais lose their life daily in road accidents, on average.
That’s 22,000 deaths a year.
By comparison there were 1,580 road deaths in the UK in the year to June 2020.
Public holidays, particularly the two New Year holidays, regularly see a toxic mix of drink and driving casualties.
The two most dangerous times of the year to drive in Thailand are Songkran Festival in April and New Year.
The Songkran Festival is Thailand’s equivalent to the Chinese New Year and is celebrated annually. It also marks the Buddhist New Year and is a time of family reunions.
But drink-driving incidents are common. It’s also the time when many city-dwellers return to the countryside, often on two wheels with little protection.
The other ‘New Year’ holiday runs between 27 December and 2 January. The biggest problems are intoxication and speeding. Being distracted while on a mobile phone is also a fast-rising problem.
Thailand driving checklist – what to do, what and not do
Sort out your insurance documents
If you’re unlucky enough to have a road accident you might need hospital treatment. Your EHIC or GHIC card won’t cover you here.
It could be worth calling your travel insurance company for advice. A good single or multi-trip policy should protect you for emergency medical and expenses support.
Try and make sure you’ve got their contact details written down.
There’s no central emergency healthcare service in Thailand. Much of the first response system is supported by volunteers – but their training level isn’t high.
If it’s a road emergency do get a full report from the Royal Thai Police. Keep all receipts and paperwork from any treatment you receive.
Most Thai doctors are specialists. Medical and dental care in Thailand has improved enormously in the last 20 years. But treatment can vary hugely.
If you don’t have a good level of insurance then the government hospital experience could be different.
Also, a word on medication. Some prescription medications can have legal issues in Thailand.
It’s a good idea to have a doctor’s note that explains any meds that may carry drug penalties. Thailand has extreme penalties for drug possession.
Take care when renting a car
There are a ton of Thai car hire businesses out there so you won’t have any trouble renting some wheels.
Take plenty of photographs before getting underway so you’ve a record of your car’s bodywork before renting it.
When out and about, keep your licence and rental paperwork close to hand. Local Thai police forces can be hardline or easy going – it’s a bit unpredictable.
Try not to give them the excuse to hand you a fine.
It might be worth looking into car hire excess insurance before you travel, just in case.
Seatbelts are compulsory
Seatbelts are compulsory and if you don’t wear one you could be fined. Since April 2017 rear passengers also have had to wear seatbelts. This applies to taxis, coaches and mini vans.
Regular overcrowding to maximise earnings and lack of enforcement on more ‘informal’ modes of transport means that there are some mixed public messages.
Thailand has had a compulsory seatbelt law for almost 30 years – yet it’s had relatively little impact.
Mobile phone use
As in the UK (and elsewhere) using a non-hands-free phone is illegal. If you get a ticket for this behaviour then you may have your licence confiscated.
That means a visit to the police station to pay the fine and retrieve your licence.
U-Turns on main roads
Built into many Thai main roads are U-turn exits. Highway U-turn exits mean queues of traffic building up in the right lane to legally change direction.
This means bigger, heavier vehicles dragging themselves into the middle and right lanes to make an exit. Not good news, especially when it’s raining.
Cheaper to build than roundabouts, these public highway U-Turn could be intimidating if you’re not prepared.
Keep checking mirrors and blind spots
Be aware that local drivers might zip past you without much consideration or indication of what they’re doing. But, rather than trying to match their driving style, play things a bit more reserved.
Keep checking those mirrors. When you pull out, heavily advertise your intended direction!
In towns and city centres it’s a good idea to avoid the left lane. These might regularly be filled with street vendors, parked cars and people loading.
Despite driving on the left, many Thais also give way on the left. Or, the vehicle that has least speed at the time gives way. So it might be a bit unpredictable.
Take care on intersections here too. Most cars wanting to turn right might simply make a dash for it!
Watch out for roadworks
These are quite improvised, often. So take care when driving through, especially if the road warnings are in Thai only. Regular traffic cones can be few and far between.
What’s the drink-dive limit in Thailand?
Thailand’s legal blood alcohol limit (BAC) per litre of blood is 0.5 grams. Any driver who’s held a licence less than five years can’t exceed 0.2 grams.
It’s thought more than 25% of all Thai road accidents are related to drink-driving. Always err on the side of caution. Drinking in any vehicle is banned.