Driving Yourself by Car
While public transport is nearly ubiquitous, many people will still want their own car for various reasons, such as exploring on their own, driving to a seaside resort, etc. However, if you haven't made a decision yet on whether or not to rent or buy a car here, you're advised to read the section on driving tips first. Driving has considerable risks.
You must also make sure that your car is insured, whether rental or purchased. Be especially careful about motorcycles, as Thailand is full of motorcycles, and it is easy to cause serious injury or death to someone on a motorcycle. Most foreign drivers are not accustomed to looking out for motorcycles or the customary "rules of the road" in Thailand.
Renting or Leasing a Car
Renting or leasing a car is the most common option, especially for people new to Thailand.
You will need a Thai or an international driver's license (discussed later in this section), and will have to hand over your passport or other substantive collateral before you can drive away with a rented car.
Depending on the company you rent from, you might find that the condition of the cars is often not the same as with car rental companies in western countries, but the price is lower, too. You get what you pay for.
Make sure the car is insured.
You should also check the car yourself, such as the brake fluid levels, tightness and condition of belts, engine oil, tires and pressure in the spare tire.
The company Q Cars has good English speaking staff, and an impressive website for Bangkok and Pattaya car rental and leasing. Q Cars has two convenient locations: one on Sukhumvit in Bangkok near the Thonglor skytrain station, and the other in Pattaya.
Owning a Car
Nonresident foreigners legally cannot own a car, though some have bought a car anyway, got it registered, etc. The seller didn't object to receiving the money and filling out the paperwork, and the government offices didn't raise a red flag. The only foreigners who I've known to do this had a work permit and tax ID number.
Usually, a foreigner is a shareholder in a company, and the company buys the car, or else the foreigners trusted girlfriend or ceremony-married wife owns the car. If the marriage is legally registered, then the wife married to a foreigner cannot own the car. (This is largely due to a history of sham marriages to foreigners for the purpose of buying up property in Thailand, sometimes for mafia footholds, and sometimes driving up the property prices presented to indigenous Thais. The property laws in Thailand are nationalistic.)
When you buy a car, the registration process is normally handled by the dealer. However, if you are transferring a car to a new owner privately, then you do so at the Department of Land Transport, as covered in the section on driver's licenses. Registration cost is based on the engine size.
Every car must have two stickers on the windshield. One is for the license plate registration and is renewed annually when you pay tax. The other one is your mandatory car insurance. Make sure both are current, both year and date. The date will be in the Buddhist 2546+ year.
Car insurance is mandatory. Expired car insurance entails a very large fine if the police catch you. Liability has no limit if you're in an accident without car insurance.
There are car insurance vendors all over, including on the side of the road under a tent. It's suggested you bring along an educated Thai person to judge them.
A few of the private sector vendors have a deal with the government so that you can get your compulsory car insurance via mail. More information is on the web site of the Communications Authority of Thailand (CAT), which oversees the Post and Telegraph Department (PTD), specifically at www.cat.or.th/new/agent.htm
The car vendor will get your tag registration for the first year, but you will need to renew it.
You might get red temporary plates for a new car for a month, until your permanent white ones arrive. The meaning of this varies. Some say that you can drive only during the daytime. Others say you can't be on the road during rush hour traffic hours. White plate cars can drive at all times. Talk to your car reseller for the latest laws and options.
The ThailandGuru can send a young lady to assist you in handling of and/or translations regarding a Thai driver's license, car registration, and car insurance.
Many people ask "Should I bring my car to Thailand?" Usually, the answer is "no", and instead you should lease or buy one over here. Cars are subject to a high luxury tax, equal to 200% of the car's value when new, as assessed by Thai customs (actually, the combined value new of overseas price plus local price), plus tax on the transport fee.
In Thailand, you drive on the left side of the road, so cars from countries like the U.S. with right side driving are hazardous here, especially when passing.
Car prices in Thailand are higher than in the U.S., especially for used cars, but it's still far less than shipping a car.
There are large magazines which list pages upon pages of used cars for sale, as well as used car dealerships, but it's all in the Thai language. If you don't have a Thai interpreter/agent, then you're challenged. Translator/interpreter services like this are offered by www.ThaiEnglish.com
People in Thailand don't take care of their cars as well as people in western countries on average, by my experience. Therefore, if you wish to buy a used car, then you may want to bring along a fairly good car expert (which ThailandGuru can provide) and check out the car(s) thoroughly.
The good news is that car repairs, including major car work, are much cheaper in Thailand than in western countries due to the much lower labor costs. On the other hand, getting quality parts is a challenge, including at many official car dealerships. Before you agree to have work done, you should get a good referral from someone you trust in your region. ThailandGuru knows a few quality repair places in some parts of Bangkok, and who allow you to remain with your car in the workshop in order to oversee the work performed and the parts installed.
When you buy a car, the vehicle must be manually inspected by a government officer, who checks the engine and chassis serial numbers against those on the existing registration and on file (vs. forgery). If they match, then the transfer is routine. If the seller has failed to pay their taxes over the years, then someone must pay those.
There are some reports of stolen cars being sold to unwitting foreigners and Thais alike for cash, whereby the car is discovered as stolen and is confiscated by officials. Therefore, it is advised that you actually pay for the car at the same time you go with the seller to transfer ownership. If you buy the car from an official used car dealership, then the official receipt from the custom-printed standard car dealership invoice books might be acceptable to you (as it has been for me).
Once you own the car, it is strongly advised that you get a visible lock bar for the steering wheel and have a good security system. Car theft occurs in Thailand, especially new and valuable models, though it's not significantly more common than in many other western countries. Many official measures have been taken to suppress car theft in Thailand, but corrupt government officials in some parts of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have facilitated some sophisticated theft rings, and on the other side of the spectrum are petty car thieves who don't consider the future consequences of their shortterm actions.
IMPORTANT: Remind every passenger to not open a car door on a street until they have looked behind to make sure a motorcycle is not coming. It is very common for passengers to open a car door and have a motorcycle hit it. This can cause serious injury to the motorcyclist and/or the car passenger, as well as considerable property damage. The passenger or car owner is liable for all damages. It is perfectly legal and normal in Thailand for motorcycles to drive in the spaces between cars, lanes, and the curb.
When you are heading for a particular destination, you may want to consider whether to drive your car or just take public transport instead. Some of the reasons for using public transport:
During times of traffic, I usually drive only when I have heavy weight to carry around or am going to an off-the-beaten-track place where public transport would not be convenient or feasible.
The traffic signs are in Thai, but the important ones you can decipher because they follow international standards of pictography -- shape, color and style. Besides the obvious stop, yield, etc., there are a few, however, that people are not familiar with. One to take note of is the blue ones with the triangle, which means that during rush hour (as defined on the sign by numbers) there must be at least 3 or 4 people in the car to take that route.
It's usually recommended that those new to Thailand ride in taxis for awhile and get used to the way people drive in Thailand, both the written and unwritten rules of the road.
The biggest challenge is motorcycles which drive between the lanes of cars. You must be aware of them around you! You must anticipate their possible driving behavior! Never make quick decisions and action to change lanes. Never let a passenger open a door without looking for motorcycles coming up from behind. Always use your blinker/indicator long before you turn.
The biggest risk is hitting one of the motorcyclists who are really reckless, the kind who speed (many on amphetamines) and have a remaining halflife on the order of months. If you are the unlucky driver to meet their imminent fate, and there's a good chance you'll be hit up for at least some money regardless of the fault of the reckless motorcyclist. Driving is like a video game with "gotchas", you get stung once, you lose a lot of the earned income benefits of driving.
Commercial vehicles such as taxis and buses (including many minivans) often have aggressive drivers, so be ready for them to make sudden lane changes or pull out in front of you.
Avoid sudden slowdowns or stops. In Thailand, cars drive closer to each other. Rear end collisions are the most common accidents.
I've known Thais who drive without ever having gotten a driver's license! If the police stop them, they just say they lost it or forgot it at home, and may pay a bribe.
There are a lot of aggressive drivers in Bangkok and on the highways. This will require that you notch up your level of defensive driving.
One convention is the opposite in Thailand: In the west, if you are at an intersection or U-turn place, or just changing lanes, if someone flashes their lights, it means that they are courteously signalling to you that they will wait for you to turn in front of them. In Thailand, it's the OPPOSITE -- it means "GET OUT OF MY WAY!" These drivers are extremely aggressive, and sometimes I do the community service of calmly rotating my finger around my ear in the "you are crazy in the head" psychological gesture. However, be careful about road rage.
You should never need to hurry too much. Safety first. One accident and it's all not worth it.
If you come from a country that drives on the right hand side (like myself), then you will need to get used to driving on the left hand side. The most common confusion is when you first start off on the road, and when you make a turn and habitually head for the wrong lane. What I initially did was keep in mind that the driver's side of the car is closest to the middle line of the road. It took only about half an hour to get comfortable driving on the left, but it took a while longer to break the habit of hitting the windshield wipers when I meant to turn on the blinker/indicator before a turn.
If you are stopped by the police for a driving infraction, the standard procedure is to hand over your driver's license (you'll be driving without one for a little while) in exchange for the traffic ticket, and to go to the police station to pay the fine and get your license back. That means finding the police station and losing time...
... However, to say the least, there are common reports of instead settling the fee with the individual policeman and getting your license back on the spot, e.g., 300 baht. This would need to be done before the policeman even starts to write up your ticket. According to these reports, have 300 baht handy, e.g., in your ash tray, but hold it low out of view of pedestrians but where the policeman can see it in your hand. The policeman will discretely take it, e.g., with a hand hidden under the ticket tablet, reach into your car. DO NOT hold money out the window, as giving a bribe must be done out of view of others!
(Yeah, I know, people say to pay 200 baht, or 100 baht, and sometimes boast about how they got the best deal, but is it really worth haggling or being disrespectful or taking a risk that the policeman will just shake their head and write you up, you greedy and cheap farang?)
If you've broken the law, then be understanding and respectful of the policeman. They stand out in the heat and pollution every day during rush hours, and I don't think many foreigners could "keep their cool" after years in such a job. Most Thai policemen are quite polite and cool-headed despite their working conditions. I much prefer Thai police than some of the redneck cops I've dealt with in the USA.
On the other hand, if you become aggressive and disrespectful like an ugly farang, then they may refuse to communicate further with you and you may well just be handed a ticket of 1,000 baht or more, to be paid at the police station that day, and/or much worse if you just drive away. On the other hand, the policeman might just walk away and not deal with you any more, according to the stories of many farangs who stonewall with the "no speaka da Thai" routine. I don't agree with that karma, and it's not a big deal to be pulled over by a policeman for a driving infraction. Just find out what you did wrong and deal with that. Don't be impulsive and do something stupid.
I've been stopped by police for several things -- following other cars down restricted lanes without knowing the 3 person per vehicle law during rush hour, following other cars thru a red light in the far left lane at a T intersection (just because others routinely do it doesn't mean it's legal, and sometimes we all got pulled over by a happy policeman), following a bus thru a red light on Ramkamhaeng (radioed up to the next cop, but I had only 60 baht on me, so the policeman just smiled and said I could help him only a little bit, oh well...), running a red light that I didn't see (heavy duty lecture by the policeman but no ticket and no fine; mostly since it was a minor T-intersection), and probably the worst -- expired insurance sticker, something they take very seriously.
The expired insurance was quite a trip. The policeman on a motorcycle pulled me over on a comfortable road, and got off his motorcycle opening the ticket tablet, like we was going to write me up anyway. I had no idea what I'd done wrong. I quickly interrupted him and got out of the car. He just pointed towards my windshield sticker. I started speaking Thai and that got his attention. After all, I was driving with a Nakhon Pathom license plate, so what did he expect? He said "insurance, expired". "Really?" He authoritatively walked over there and thumped on my windshield. I was pissed, at myself, my sabai wife, my secretary... I know the months because I check grocery expiration and packing dates. It was just an old habit of depending on others, but they didn't really back me up. Wouldn't happen again, but this was now. So I was pissed at them, then myself for not double-checking, but a little displaced seriousness wasn't such a bad thing. It dawned on me to ask him, "How did you know?" The date is just typed in small print on the paper. The big year is right, but the month is just typed on the paper, very small. He was a bit sensitive to the fact that I didn't know him from the expressway exit, where he is every day. Maybe he saw my sticker before it expired and was counting the days. Anyway, to make a longer story short, I supported him exceptionally well with money, and left with a trustworthy promise to pay the next year of insurance pronto.
I've never had a totally bad experience with a policeman. Once, I was pulled over by a provincial cop for allegedly making an illegal right turn, but 100 baht made him so happy that I felt sorry for him more than anything else.
I'm sure that I'm lucky to not have run into a bad cop. However, I believe that the bad cop stories are more often a mix of bad cops and bad farangs, not all bad cops. Sometimes, people with big egos get very defensive and hurt when they're caught wrong, and lash back.
I've ridden in the car of other farangs and Thais who have a bad attitude and flagrantly violate the law routinely. If they're not a threat to other people, then never mind. However, some are very aggressive and dangerous drivers, and reforming them as a friend isn't easy.
Just because others are aggressive drivers, that shouldn't be taken as a license for you to do the same.
Whenever an aggressive driver cuts you off, just feel sorry for the miserable son-of-a-b****. Think about their state-of-mind. Is that how you want to be? Don't be stupid and let someone suck you in to their miserable mindset -- misery loves company. Just ignore them, they're probably hopeless in their habits, and practice an enlightened way to transcend such a mechanism. (Or, if you can't feel sorry for them, then at least laugh at their relative idiocy. Who cares if a stranger thinks they "won" in a road battle? Is your ego that fragile? In the long term, they are a "loser" in life in this way.) Let them honk. Let the sound pass you by unruffled. Just feel sorry for them and let it go. Don't provoke them into road rage. For what? The world is full of crap and you can't change people like that. What result do you expect?
It might take you 30 minutes to reach your destination by driving aggressively, or 40 minutes by driving relaxed. Turn on the radio or your favorite music and get comfortable in your car. Appreciate the free time away from office and home distractions to think about other things in life. Enjoy your time. ... But don't run a red light while lost in thought!
I've created a separate page about getting a Thailand driver's license
Just like most places in the world, if you have an accident, then you are required to not move the vehicle until the police come and document its position, and you should immediately call your insurance company. The insurance company might send an agent to the scene to talk with the police and the other party, depending on the situation.
If nobody was injured and damage is minimal, then you might want to try to settle on the spot with the other driver. If you feel that you cannot trust the other driver, then don't do this. If you have a camera with you, then consider using it extensively.
Do not flee the scene, because those who do are guilty of a serious infraction of the law. Secondly, you would also lose much if not all of your ability to argue your side of the case at the scene, about who was at fault and compensation. Overall, you will probably find yourself in much worse circumstances if you flee. This is contrary to advice I've heard given many times.
Thailand is not Iraq or Congo or somewhere where you must fear a crowd will come to surround the accident, they will look at you like an alien, form a mob, and you must shift into 4-wheel drive and mow down everybody between you and your embassy's gate. The Thais are not out to get the westerners, I can assure you. If you've heard otherwise, challenge them.
If you keep your cool, then you'll usually be dealt with fairly. While I've heard horror stories by farangs who say they've been ripped off by Thais, some of the speakers strike me as aggressive types driven to "win" against others, and otherwise complain about the world, how all their problems are due to other people, just like in court cases. I've ridden as a passenger with aggressive drivers, several of whom have gotten into accidents and blamed others in questionable ways. Nonaggressive drivers rarely do get into accidents. People often blame the other guy without truly considering both sides of a case. This is even moreso when recounting the story to a friend or colleague. My advice: Think by yourself and do what's right.
A couple of phone numbers to keep handy in the car:
Highway police: 1193
I have seen so many accidents in Thailand. In my 35 years of living in the U.S., I had never seen a fatal accident happen right in front of my eyes, though I'd seen some after the fact by driving past later. However, in Thailand I have seen several people killed in separate accidents, right in front of my eyes -- seen them go from living to dead right in motion in my eyes. (Three were reckless motorcycle drivers.) I have also seen far more dead bodies after car accidents, on the side of the road and in vehicles, in which I did not see the accident occur. It doesn't happen every day or every month, but I lost count a long time ago of all the dead bodies.
One particularly upsetting accident occurred at Victory Monument. A man was driving a motorcycle with his wife on the back, driving normally. A reckless, speeding taxi, the sort that honks a lot and jumps from lane to lane cutting off people, was trying to rush thru the light which was turning red and hit them from behind. His wife on the back was killed instantly when her head crashed back onto the taxi, and he was badly injured. The taxi fled the scene. His wife bled profusely out the back of her head and her brain clearly was destroyed upon impact, but in his grief he refused to leave his deceased wife, resisting the ambulance crew's pleas to get him to the hospital. From her clothes and appearance, it looked probable that there were children whose mommy would not return, ever, to raise them. It was heart-rendering to all observers (and the elevated walkway and ground swelled with viewers). Eventually, the husband gave in and let them take him away. The bystanders covered his wife in newspaper, later replaced by an official white sheet, as she lay on the street for approximately the next 30 minutes until the police photographer arrived and took all the standard photos.
It is experiences like this which give me more resolve to tell people to drive carefully. This is particularly applicable to some taxi drivers who pick me up, and a few of my aggressive driving Thai and farang friends and associates. You have to try different styles with these different kinds of people to get significant results in reforming their driving.
It's better to relax and enjoy your drive for 20 minutes, instead of joining the aggressive drivers on the road trying to "win" at who is more crazy in order to get to your destination in 15 minutes. What a state of mind... 20 minutes of peace is better than 15 minutes of stress.
Have you ever noticed the long lines of cars at entrance ramps, exit ramps and toll booths? About 70% of the people patiently wait in the longer line while about 30% drive around and then force their way in ahead ("cut in" or "break the line")? Who is smarter and who is stupid? (They all own cars so they aren't too stupid.) Those forcing their way in may think they are smarter and everyone else is stupid, but I think the aggressive drivers are in a less pleasant state of mind. I wouldn't switch states of mind or lifestyles with them! You'll find me in the queue.
If you ever hurt anyone due to aggressive driving, then you will have to live with that the rest of your life, what you've done to another person's life and that of their children, spouse, siblings, parents, friends and coworkers. If you think it's bad to spend a few more minutes on the road during your daily commute, let me tell you that there are worse things which you could be responsible for.
In US cities, car mechanics are often rip-offs, and if you want something done right, you must either do it yourself, or else closely supervise it. In Thailand, the typical car mechanic is honest, especially in the suburbs and provinces, but I've nonetheless experienced some real ripoffs and bad service, especially in the center of Bangkok.
Some of the benefits of car repair in Thailand are:
The challenges are:
The skills levels are approximately the same between the US and Thailand (just my experiences).
If your mechanic doesn't speak excellent English, then your Thai vocabulary will be stretched in talking shop. As our company has a translation and interpreter division, and also engineering dictionaries, it's not too difficult for me, but I can imagine difficulties for others.
This time, I went in for engine work on my old 1994 Ford Festiva, because smoke was coming out of the exhaust, enough to be irritating to people behind and in the environment of my car. Further, being a foreigner, it's an exceptionally bad example to be contributing to the air pollution in Thailand.
Being busy, I had made some mistakes before by delegating car repair to people who knew just enough to be dangerous -- two referrals to hotshot Thais, in turn with strong recommendations to particular garages. Both had come back with bad news and 30,000 baht quotations to stop the smoke. One shop had a fluent English speaking technician call me back, but I refused the engine work when I sensed some dodginess in his responses to my detailed questions.
A couple of months ago, I had stopped into car repair shops to get my air conditioner fixed, rather urgently. Based on the hot shots' recommendations, two previous shops had "fixed" the air conditioning -- and failed (air conditioning worked for only a few days with one, and two weeks after the other). I went out myself and found a shop and owner I liked, their processes were fairly proper and systematic, and they fixed the air con. They also said they could probably stop my smoky exhaust for just 8000 baht, and started by saying that major engine work was usually NOT required. After two months, the a/c still worked, so I went back to consider the engine work, too.
Taking apart an engine is a lot of fun -- when someone else is doing the hand and muscle work. (It reminded me of my fond memories of working on my cars during my university years and early professional life when finances were tight but I had more time.) Nonetheless, it is always a bit scary when your engine has been taken apart and spread out. (I was glad to not need to remember how to put it back together.)
Upon inspection, it was clear all I needed was new piston rings and valve work. Add on a few other things while everything's taken apart (including timing belt), and the total was 10,000 baht. The other shops had grossly exaggerated the engine repairs needed. Three of the 4 cylinders were smooth, and one had just a very slight scratch (groove) which you could barely feel with your finger, not significant. No need to rebore, no need for inserts, no need for new pistons...
A couple of days later, the engine looked and sounded beautiful, and once on the road I was amazed at the extra power! I had totally forgotten about the power from the early years, after it had slowly slipped away.
Before I met this shop, I had replaced my wheel bearings (I had one loose wheel) at a shop near my home, only to have them go bad again 6 months later. Probably cheap Chinese parts and BS, or bad lubrication. The Thai salesperson spoke fluent English, having lived and worked in the Middle East for many years for an American company.
I've had some really bad attempts to rip me off. For example, I brought my car into the official Ford service center to get the belts replaced, which were worn, loose and squealing, but nobody spoke English. A few hours later, I was called by someone who speaks English and told that I need a new alternator, at just under 10,000 baht total. I said "No", to just replace the belts (at a tiny fraction the cost), and that I knew my stuff -- the belts were just worn out and loose. The alternator's still fine 5 years later, so it was total BS indeed.
My wife has a Toyota and her Toyota service center has never tried to rip her off, always good service and reasonably priced. I trust them and they save me time.
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