BANGKOK – The first time I drove a car in Thailand, I had lived there – as an English teacher on a tiny island off Phuket – for years. On the island, I walked everywhere, but when I got a new job at an expat newspaper on Phuket, I needed to commute. I had no choice; I had to drive. And I was terrified.
The World Health Organization had yet to rank Thailand’s road fatality rate the third deadliest in the world, but four of my Thai colleagues had already died in motorcycle accidents. I wondered how I’d manage to navigate among barreling 22-wheelers, pickups stacked with hogs, cement trucks hurrying to keep up with the new housing estates and condos, tourist buses, vans and taxis, not to mention the motorcycles, as plentiful and omnipresent as the plastic bags used by vendors in the local fresh market.
When I first got behind the wheel, for a test run down quiet early-morning streets, I had two fervent wishes: that I not kill anyone and that I remember to stay on the left.
A year and a half later, when I quit the newspaper job, I’d racked up three minor accidents (but no casualties) and driven on the wrong side a handful of times. I’d also edited dozens of accident stories – many gory, some miraculous, most sad – and routinely associated locations in Phuket with the accidents that had occurred there: The wide road with the pretty mountain view was where three boys on a motorcycle rammed a pickup truck. The noodle restaurant near my apartment was where a woman was struck while crossing the street. The bottom of the hill in Patong was where an out-of-control bus crushed a car.
Yet, strangely enough, I’d also come to enjoy driving in Phuket. I loved wending along curving roads through rubber plantations, past small hamlets where I’d see neighbors gathered to buy food from a traveling vendor or drinking together at a corner shop. I liked having the freedom to visit different west coast beaches or calm Yon Bay, on the southeast side, where I went kayaking with a friend.
“There’s a good flow,” an American friend said of traffic; drivers tend to be courteous and accommodating; and in a country where so much happens outside, every excursion brings a lot to see.
Still, I never lost track of the fact that driving was dangerous. The US State Department’s Web site says that “speeding, reckless passing, and failure to obey traffic laws are common in all regions of Thailand,” which is why visiting friends often assumed there were no rules of the road at all.
There are rules, of course, but it’s true that some are routinely broken. What I soon realized was that they’re often broken in predictable ways. To stay safe on the road, I set about learning how to predict the unpredictable.
U-turns, for example, are improperly made in regular ways. There is the “forced pull-out” of motorists who inch forward into oncoming traffic until they block the lane and must be allowed to turn; the “tandem turn” of drivers unwilling to wait in line who rush to the head of the queue to turn with the front-runner; and the “crowd push” executed by a swarm of motorcyclists who mysteriously communicate the moment they should all turn in front of traffic together.
Motorcyclists make up almost 75 per cent of road fatalities in Thailand, and I was always alert for them, especially when I changed lanes or made turns. They, too, could be counted on to be unpredictable in predictable ways, but not unerringly predictable – they were involved in two of the three accidents I had. They pop out of side streets onto main roads without stopping, dart around blind corners in residential areas and in parking lots (my second accident) and drive against the flow of traffic (my third).
Vehicle speed is another aspect of road culture that is reliably inconsistent. On Thepkrasattri Road, Phuket’s north-south artery and the main route from the airport, motorists reach high speeds on the long straightaways past rubber and pineapple plantations. Speed cameras set up there at the end of 2013 were programmed to photograph cars going faster than 120 kmh but soon had to be rejiggered – the images of license plates from the cars going 200 km were too blurry to read.
Exactly how these speeds could affect me became clear one day as I drove home along a fast section of the road. I had just moved into the passing lane to overtake a vehicle when I heard a prolonged shuddering and long honk behind me; the van that I’d seen in my rear view mirror as a speck on the horizon had narrowly avoided rear-ending me.
It was one of the few times I was honked at in anger. I rarely heard Thais use their horns to express frustration or send aggressive messages; their main purpose is to give warning. The tinny beep of motorcycles means, “Hey guys, I’m over here, be careful please.” The ponderous bass of mega-wheelers as they barrel towards a stale yellow light says, “I’m going through this intersection, don’t make me run over you.”
Not everyone is speeding, though, and puttering vehicles pose their own risks. Usual suspects are ice trucks on delivery runs; small local buses trolling for passengers; and the ones everybody loves to hate, motorcycles with sidecars. Whether toting people, mammoth pancake griddles or huge half-barrel barbecues, these saleng never seem able to reach the median speed.
It wasn’t only motorists that I watched for the unexpected, but the roadways themselves. Road hazards may not be marked: During a recent rainy season, after a huge pit dug for drainage pipes in Patong was left improperly marked, two motorcyclists rode into the flooded hole and had to swim out. In some places, power poles extend into the street. One in Phuket Town may still bare traces of the silver paint of my rental car, not yet a month old when I scraped along it as I parallel parked (the first mishap).
But it’s not all horror stories on the streets of Phuket. There’s that flow that my friend mentioned, the product of a driving style that values “Yield” over “Stop”. Signage is good, in both English and Thai. Gas stations are full-service, and car wash staff members do an excellent job, even removing hubcaps to get to the grime underneath, for less than NZ$8. And if you do have an accident, it will likely be handled well – insurance reps will come to the scene, usually within half an hour, and investigate, attribute blame, settle and fill out all the paperwork. Most important of all: There’s so much charm and loveliness to see if you get out and about.
Some of my favorite drives are the coastal route stretching from Kata Beach in the southwest to Surin Beach in the middle, which winds through lush greenery and back out to the sea, looping along cliffs; Route 4027, which meanders through charming countryside in the relatively undeveloped northwest quadrant; and routes 4023 and 4129, which lead away from the hustle-bustle of Phuket Town to the peaceful and less frequented areas of Cape Panwa. There are plenty of tourist sites to visit as well: temples, vistas, botanical gardens, a bird park, cashew factory, aquarium.
But you’d see plenty even if you missed the beaches and every tourist spot. If you drive out very early, about 6am, you’ll find grandmas and grandpas exercising in small local parks. You may pass monks blessing devotees kneeling by the roadside or catch the flicker of a rubber tapper’s headlamp as he finishes work before breakfast. In the dry season, you might glimpse rows of bird cages suspended in empty roadside plots: a bird-singing contest in progress. And you’ll be sure to start a mental list of wondrous things seen on motorbikes: whole families, men carrying large panes of glass and ladders, and my personal favorite: two women, the driver pressed forward against the steering column, the passenger leaning far off the rear of the seat, spread-eagle against the huge TV that separated them.
If you look carefully at the vehicles around you, you’ll notice religious icons dangling from rear-view mirrors or mounted on dashboards: representatives of the divine protection many Thais seek from road accidents. The best insurance for the foreign driver, however, is to be alert, always, to the unexpected.
By Leslie Porterfield