The stinging in my eyes rivals only the burning in my throat. The fumes from over fifty exhaust pipes comingle with the wood and oil smoke wafting from nearby eateries. If I were in a car, my air conditioning would filter most of this special cocktail of pollution from the atmosphere of my little steel and glass bubble. But I’m not in a car. I’m on a Honda Scoopy-i—a 110cc, Vespa-wannabe motorbike. And I have only a three-quarters helmet with a face shield to protect me.
Around me growls the collective idle of some 20 motorbikes. Bike models range from little mouse wheels like mine to beastly Ducati. Drivers include middle-aged Englishmen, young athletic Russians, schoolchildren, a family of three, two bar girls, an old American with a girl on the back, and many other variations. We all wait patiently for the green light, while a giant, white coach bus purrs behind us.
Every day I drive the dangerous streets of Pattaya and marvel at its diversity of hazards. It’s not enough that, unlike my British peers, I’m on a completely different side of the road. Everything is backwards for me. It’s also not enough that I’ve never driven a motorbike in my life, and never taken a proper class. Why foreigners like me think they can come to another country and straddle a motorbike without any safety training at all, let alone a motorcycle license, is a complete mystery. Why we also think that Thailand—a country that boasts the sixth highest accident rate in the world—is the place to do this, is simply astounding. That some of us don’t even bother to wear helmets is pure madness.
We foolish farang are only contributing to a collective problem. In this province, there are an average of three deaths a day from motorbike accidents. Many of our bad driving habits are mere mimicry of what we see Thais doing, like driving on sidewalks to beat the traffic light, or cutting off another cyclist to squeeze through a narrow passageway between two vans. But there are a plethora of contributors to the danger and frustration of driving the Thai motorways. The following are but a few.
Every day and night, hundreds of coach buses packed with Korean and Chinese tourists barrel down Pattaya’s streets. One would think that the drivers responsible for wielding these double-decker juggernauts would need a special license, or at least demonstrate some driving skills. But they don’t. They’re rude, dangerous, and completely indifferent to the rules of the road and the safety of other drivers. They run red lights, turn where it’s too tight, change lanes without signaling or even checking if another motorist occupies that lane, and block intersections by turning during passive greens. And sometimes they follow motorbikes so closely I’d swear the bike is towing them.
And they breed. Seriously. Every day there are more and more of them. And there’s no limit to where they’ll go. They love to squeeze and wind through impossible alleys and side roads, farting their black, oil-laden exhaust fumes. (What’s maintenance again?) So if you’re on a motorbike and value the health of your lungs, don’t follow these behemoths too closely.
If there’s any kind of driver more aggravating than coach bus drivers, it’s the songthaew driver. A songthaew driver’s sole concern is revenue: picking up and dropping off passengers. He doesn’t care about the safety of other motorists, or even his own passengers, and cares for none of the rules of the road. When he sees potential passengers on the side of the road, he’ll cut across all lanes of traffic to get to them. As the passenger boards, he idles with his diagonally situated ass blocking all lanes of traffic from proceeding. Only motorbikes dare to squeeze by, and only at the risk of nearly being hit when he speeds carelessly back into traffic.
If you’re between him and a potential passenger, you’d better move or he will hit you. If you’re filtering on a motorbike, your most frequent obstacle will be a songthaew trying to reenter traffic from picking up or dropping off a passenger. If you’re driving fast, a songthaew will inevitably be driving slowly across all lanes. If you’re driving slowly, a songthaew will usually come speeding and honking behind you, and just brush your mirror as he passes. The only warning you can hope for is the whistling alarm passengers push to notify the driver of their stop. When you hear that, get the fuck out of his way.
It’s hard for me to be mad at anyone who is toiling to make a pittance, so it’s taken me a while to find fault with motorbike vendors. These are vendors who have had a crude sidecar welded to their motorbikes. Some of them house cooking gear, some of them carrying clothing, and some of them are empty skeletons in which wares and passengers are hauled. The problem is that they don’t really know what kind of vehicle they are anymore. They feel like a motorbike, but they’re almost as wide as a car. They demonstrate this ambivalence by playing Pac-Man with the lane lines. Cars can’t pass without overtaking, and motorbikes can’t filter. Sometimes, they also like to drive the wrong way down the road for a short distance. To their credit, however, they’re usually as aware of their awkwardness as a fat nerd at the prom, so they try to get out of the way as soon as is safely possible.
As if we drivers don’t have enough to think about between motorbike vendors, coach buses, and songthaews, jaywalkers add even more unpredictability to the mix. You maneuver around that accursed coach bus, filter past the motorbike vendor, and just as you’re about to overtake the songthaew dragging to the side for a passenger, there’s a fucking farang and his girlfriend standing awkwardly in the middle of the street, throwing off your whole maneuver. They’re really bad on Beach Road, to the point where you have to just keep scanning the sides of the road. And they also drive the songthaews crazy because they look like potential fare. But we all jaywalk, so who am I to complain?
Thailand doesn’t exactly spend a lot of money on its roads. So with all the traffic, especially the heavyweight coach buses, you’re bound to come across all order of cracks, pits, potholes, drains, and bumps. In a car these are manageable. On a motorbike, you’re likely to lose your girlfriend off the back if you’re not careful.
These are motorbikes in jumbo size. They’re just as unpredictable, impatient, and careless. And their humanity is almost completely masked by their heavily tinted windows. They’ll pull out from a side street to cut you off, even though there’s no one behind you for 700 meters. They hate the coach buses and songthaews as much as anyone, and they’ll pull any maneuver, however reckless, to get around them. And some of them are just assholes. They deliberately hover over the lane line to discourage motorbikes from filtering around them. One car nearly wedged me between him and a parked coach bus because he didn’t want me to get around his slow-weaving ass.
So how does one drive safely in Thailand? Well, basically you don’t. But if you want to increase your life expectancy, drive slowly enough to be able to react to the unexpected, and fast enough to stay with the flow of traffic. The safest place for a motorbike is in the main lane of traffic in line with other cars. Don’t attempt to overtake, and only filter when traffic actually slows down. Keep scanning all parts of the road to anticipate hazards, and keep checking your mirrors so that you know what’s behind you when you need to react. Most importantly, keep your cool. Don’t get impatient, don’t get too frustrated, and take your time. Mai bpenrai!