Though being behind the wheel in any foreign place takes a little getting used to, once you get out of the capitol of Bangkok and the big cities—where traffic, tailgaters, and navigating your way around can be challenging—you'll find tropical Thailand in Southeast Asia is actually a pleasant place to drive, as well as a beautiful area with friendly people. Overall, highways in this country are well maintained and serve most of the country, and road customs are not too difficult to understand. There are many additional transportation options you can make part of your trip, including tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws), trains, motorcycle taxis, buses, and more.
Nevertheless, renting a car in Thailand can be a convenient way to explore the country and will give you more control over where and when you travel. This guide will show you how to safely and effectively make your way through the roads of Thailand.
To drive a car in Thailand, you must be 18. If you plan to rent a car, you'll need to be at least 21, though the minimum age varies by company; you will also need to have had a driver’s license for a minimum of a year and carry your passport with you. The driver’s license from your home country might work, especially if it is in English and has a photo. But since there is a risk of not being covered by insurance, you may want to get an International Driving Permit (an IDP, from your local automobile association).
If you are in Thailand for more than six months, you should either have an IDP or a Thai license. Always carry your driver’s license along with your passport when hitting the road—if you forget to bring these documents and are stopped by the Thai police, you can end up with a big fine.
Rules of the Road
One difference from other parts of the world is that in Thailand, like in the United Kingdom, you drive on the left side of the road, and the driver's seat is on the right, so if you're visiting from the United States or another country where people drive on the right side of the street, initially this may feel awkward. In addition, it's helpful to familiarize yourself with some rules before you set out on the Thai roads.
- Speed limits: On urban roads, the speed limit is usually 60 kilometers/hour (37 miles/hour). Rural roads are 90 kilometers/hour (56 miles/hour), and on the highway you may drive a maximum of 120 kilometers/hour (75 miles/hour).
- Seat belts: Drivers and front and rear seat passengers are required to wear seat belts. Those who don't comply may get a fine.
- Car seats: In modern taxis or cars, car seats may be able to be properly fitted. Unfortunately, older model cars may not have rear seat belts or the correct setup for attaching a car seat.
- Aggressive driving: Be aware that there are differences in driving etiquette before you get behind the wheel in Thailand. Tailgating and cutting people off is much more common and somewhat acceptable.
- Drinking and driving: The legal blood-alcohol limit for drivers who have had their license for over 5 years is 0.5 grams per liter of blood. Those breaking the rules may end up with fines and/or prison time.
- Cell phone use: Unless you have a hands-free phone, it is illegal to use your mobile phone when driving in Thailand. Not only are there many things to pay attention to as you drive, but if you are using a phone at the same time, you risk getting a ticket and having your license confiscated.
- Petrol (gas) stations: Usually an attendant will fill your tank, take your payment, and clean your windscreen if needed. Credit or debit cards can be used at the bigger gas stations and in most Thai cities and towns, although in some more rural areas only cash is accepted.
- Toll roads: Some of the expressways in Thailand charge inexpensive tolls on roads. The fee is worth it, as the roads help you connect more quickly between the different parts of the country.
- Flashing lights: In Thailand, when a driver flashes their lights, they are letting you know they are not planning to stop and would like you to get out of the way. This is yet another reason to drive defensively.
- Honking: Despite the traffic in some areas, you won't hear frequent honking in Thailand other than some quick friendly beeps making drivers aware of another driver's presence. However, don't be surprised when locals often honk their horns as they pass shrines or religious areas.
- In case of an emergency: To call the police for a general emergency, dial 191. If you have an accident, the Thailand tourist police 24-hour national call center is reachable by dialing 1155. For ambulance and rescue services, dial 1554.
Thai road rules are probably much different than you're accustomed to. Since local roads are often filled with unpredictable traffic patterns and motorists, especially in the bigger cities, always be watchful of your surroundings and other drivers. Follow these tips to stay safe on the Thai roads.
- Make changes slowly—It helps to change speed or direction slowly and carefully when making a turn or switching lanes.
- Be alert for motorcycles and bicycles—Motorcycles, a common method of getting around in Thailand, will suddenly appear from all directions, zipping in front of you or between cars and sometimes passing dangerously. Likewise, keep an eye out for bicycles.
- Dogs on the road—Since stray dogs sometimes wander into the road (or sleep on the street), keep your eyes peeled.
- Avoid night driving—If possible, avoid driving in the dark, especially in the countryside, as more trucks and vehicles carrying heavy goods typically travel at night, and it's generally harder to see the obstacles in the road.
- Two-way and one-way road changes—Be on the look out for roads that become one-way roads during certain hours of the day.
Renting a Car
Some major rental car companies operate in Thailand and have offices in the airport and most common tourist areas. There are also local car rental agencies. The cost will vary depending on the location in Thailand, as well as the size and style of the car. Make sure to specify you'd like an automatic car if not comfortable driving stick shift.
All drivers must have third-party insurance at minimum, but it is advisable to have comprehensive insurance. Confirm that your personal car insurance will cover for any accidents or damage that could happen if driving in another country. If you'd prefer to rent a motorbike, you'll have a fun adventure, but you'll need to be aware of certain safety issues.
Typically in the big cities, especially Bangkok, it is difficult to find parking so you may want to park your car a bit away from the city center and take public transportation to your destination. Many shops, malls, restaurants, and hotels offer parking, and it is typically not expensive (if not free). In very crowded areas—such as Siam Square in Bangkok—drivers are expected to leave their cars in neutral so that they can be pushed out of the way if necessary. Pristine bumpers are difficult to maintain under the circumstances.
Take note it is illegal to park beside curbs painted red, yellow, or white.
Handy Words to Know
Though some people speak English in Thailand at varying levels, when you are driving and traveling it comes in handy to know a few key phrases before starting your trip to Thailand.
- Where is the police station? - S̄t̄hānī tảrwc xyū̀ thī̀h̄ịn?
- I have a flat tire - C̄hạn mī yāng bæn
- I have been in an accident - c̄hạn dị̂ rạb nı kār keid xubạtih̄etu
- Where is? - xyū̀ thī̀h̄ịn?
- Where can I buy petrol? - C̄hạn s̄āmārt̄h sụ̄̂x n̂ảmạn thī̀h̄ịn?