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Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Dying to get around - Driving in Thailand

Many people will have read the sad story of the British couple who were killed in a crash in Chachoengsao, Thailand two weeks ago. The couple had been cycling around the world for two years, and had travelled through Europe, the Middle East, China and 23 other countries without incident before coming to Thailand. A Thai pickup driver, Worapong Sangkawat, 25, crashed into them and the police charged him with reckless driving causing death.

 (Photo: Mary Thompson and Peter Root)

The news prompted a Thai academic, Assistant Prof Thaweesak Taekratok from the Crash Scene Investigation Project at Naresuan University to say, "[Foreign tourists] should know that travelling in Thailand is often different from their countries... A handbook should be distributed to guide [all tourists that visit Thailand]. We have to warn them of the improper or risky behaviour of Thai motorists, risky areas on roads, and how rescue workers and medical officials assist with injuries."

The death of the British couple was not an isolated incident. Thailand has become extremely dangerous for tourists over the years. This is what the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office says about travel in Thailand, "Serious accidents involving other vehicles including cars, coaches and mini-buses also occur. Many accidents are due to poor application of vehicle and driver safety standards.

There have been a number of accidents involving overnight coach travel. In June 2011, 3 British nationals were killed in an accident involving overnight coach travel, on 3 July 2012, 2 British nationals were injured in an overnight coach crash and on 6 February 2013, 3 British nationals were injured in an accident, again involving overnight coach travel. Seek local advice if you are in any doubt about the safety of your transport provider."

What's surprising for me, having lived in Thailand for most of the last 15 years, is that only now are the authorities thinking of giving out travel warning information in a handbook. After all, we get horrific and graphic images of lung cancer patients emblazoned all over cigarette packets in Thailand, so why no warning about the dangers of driving in the country? According to the World Health Organisation, Thailand ranks 11th in the number of road deaths per capita and the website lists Thailand as high as 6th in the world for the number of road deaths which is a shocking statistic.

Getting assistance

When I first touched down in Bangkok one rainy day in 1997, Thailand was just beginning its first Amazing Thailand promotional campaign which has been unbelievably successful over the years. With tourist numbers growing steadily, year on year, one would have assumed that consumer watchdog organizations would have been set up to give advice and guidance to travellers to Thailand as they would in other countries. Personally, I don't know many such organizations that do this in Thailand which is why there are often repeated calls for them to be set up.

Other than the embassies or respective consulates in the various Thai cities which offer their citizens consular assistance, the services for tourists that I know of are the Thai Tourist Police who, in many situations, are about as useful as a tin opener at a fresh seafood restaurant. From what I've heard, in many cases, they merely employ their language skills to help the Thai vendors negotiate a better price from the innocent foreigners when there's a conflict. This may be unfair, but I rarely hear any good stories that come from these encounters with the Thai Tourist Police.

There are also the Volunteer Tourist Police officers in Pattaya who are native English speakers as well as native speakers of other languages e.g. German and French. From what I hear, they do a very good job in often difficult situations and thus make a real difference. Then there's the English speaking Bangkok Free Ambulance Foundation service run by Marko Cunningham, a New Zealander, that operates from Bangkok. No doubt there are other outlets which have a specific mandate to help struggling foreigners, but these are few and far between.

On the road...

Having driven in Thailand myself for many years, I can attest to the difficulties faced by foreign drivers in Thailand. For one thing, the rules of the road, what are called in the UK - The Highway Code - are followed in Thailand in the same way other rules are followed by Thais in general life. In other words, they are not followed at all. There are a number of reasons for this because Thais, as I wrote in my book, Watching the Thais, have considerable scope or freedom to interpret the rules as they see them, on a case by case basis.
For example, when Thais are stopped by the police on the road, many will already have placed a banknote or two inside the plastic cover of their driving licenses just for such an occasion. This corrupt practice allows Thai to do whatever they want on the roads safe in the knowledge that, if they get caught by the police, they have a means of escape.

The general tariff is the following: taxis - 40 baht; regular saloon cars - 100 baht; 4X4 or high-end cars like BMWs or Mercedes - 200-300 baht. Obviously, if you are a foreigner, the cop will rely on your ignorance of this system and invariably try to get as much out of you as possible. (I once had an argument with a traffic cop who stopped me at a pedestrian crossing in Rama IV Road and demanded 1000 baht which I negotiated down to 200 baht. I had only stopped because he had walked into the road to usher an old lady onto the pedestrian crossing and, seeing me, ushered me into the kerb for questioning.)

Most Thai people are also very fatalistic and believe in a higher power at work. This leads them to be very slack in matters of personal as well as road safety. Ratanawadee H. Winther, of the Bangkok-based Asia Injury Prevention Foundation (AIPF), explained this recently in an article in The Guardian newspaper, "Thai people still lack awareness and take safety very lightly. They're also very superstitious when it comes to death - for example, they believe someone will not die if they're not 'meant' to.

Another problem is that Thais will sometimes ignore red lights, so if you happen to be a foreigner approaching a traffic light or intersection, and you press on the brakes, if there's a Thai behind you, it's quite possible he or she will rear end you as there was never any intention to actually stop at said lights. As reported in The Nation, "He [Assistant Prof Thaweesak Taekratok] said his team found that many foreigners injured in traffic accidents thought all Thai motorists must stop at a red light, but when they did that, they had a collision....So, they need to be informed in regard to accidents," he said."

Pull up to the bumper baby...

Tailgating is another problem. As I wrote in my book, Thais will often drive almost bumper to bumper, so it's a good idea to get out of the fast lane to avoid a potential accident. Here's how I described it: "Tailgating is another of the more pernicious aspects of getting around in Thailand. When at the wheel, I have lost count of the number of times I have had to cross into other lanes to escape the Thai version of Evil Kaneval: Somchai the pick-up driver-cum-fruit-seller-cum-labourer who's on his way to fill in for his cousin, a doctor at Bumrungrad Hospital. It starts with a glance in your wing mirror and there he is - the equivalent of Mr Bean on steroids. I say Mr. Bean because these drivers have about as much gumption and general road savvy as our comical friend in his Austin Mini. In fact it doesn't matter if you are in the fast lane doing 120 kilometres per hour, way over the speed limit. Sooner or later, the Thai Evil Kaneval will be there, approximately 6.7 milimetres from your rear bumper, his lights flashing frantically for you to move into another lane and out of his way" (Watching the Thais, Chapter Three, Thais and Movement, Keep on Walking, Johnny Walker)

Of course, this is something of an exaggeration, but getting around in Thailand can be, and often is, fraught with difficulty. When using public transport you may not fare much better as that too has its own set of rules,
"The psychology and general atmosphere whilst using public transport in Thailand is also interesting to think about. When you happen to find yourself on, for example a regular Thai bus, some general considerations need to be noted. The same driver will invariably drive as if he has a prior appointment (which he's only just remembered about), with some mysterious benefactor who is going to alter his and his family's life radically. It is apparently for this reason that he will proceed to slam hard on the brakes at every juncture. It amazes me how these drivers wait till the last second to do this, instead of gently easing on the brakes when approaching a junction.

What results is a collective surge of passengers moving forward en masse like an unintentional human, as opposed to Mexican Wave. Granny on her weekly visit to feed the ducks in the park gets a new seat on the floor; Somchai, the 7-11 employee gently and apologetically extricates himself from the cleavage of Navaporn, the cute SCB teller; students from nearby colleges hang on for dear life, hoping their hair isn't messed up and make-up isn't smudged when they collide with the stainless steel handrails. The unflappable ticket-collector, almost always a woman, moves slowly down the bus, click-clacks open and shut her klaxon-like metal pencil case full of five and one baht coins, and carries on collecting the money as if nothing ever happened. ‘Mai pen rai!' the elderly gentleman mumbles in the corner. ‘Amen brother' I say quietly to myself as I pick myself up off the floor!" (Watching the Thais, Chapter Three, Thais and Movement, Keep on Walking, Johnny Walker) 

 What is to be done?

Obviously, from the two quotes above, I have made light of getting around Thailand in my book. However, with the number of foreigners dying on Thai roads increasing every year, there is a much darker dynamic at play and there needs to be something done about it. If Assistant Prof Thaweesak Taekratok is serious, and there is a handbook made available for tourists, then it may not solve the problem, but at least it's a step in the right direction. Too many families come to Thailand and find a relaxing and welcoming race of people eager to please. Such people easily unwind and soon forget about the hidden dangers on Thai roads.

Only a few months ago, there was the very sad case of a 30-year old Russian female tourist who died under the wheels of a truck trying to save the life of her one-and-a-half-year-old baby in a road accident. The tragedy happened late on Friday in Pattaya where the tourist was on holiday with her husband and two children. When the family was buying some fruit in a roadside stall, the little girl ran out onto the road. The mother rushed after her when she saw an approaching truck. She did what any mother would have done, but in the process gave up her own life.
While nobody can prevent every accident happening, we should always try to alert tourists to the potential dangers of getting around in a foreign land so that we can prevent at least some parents having to make spur of the moment decisions that can have fatal outcomes.

This article was originally published on the following website -

1 comment:

Torey S said...

Hey Tom :)

I'd like to buy your book and am wondering if I can get a discount. I've been teaching English in the same small town in Thailand for 2 years now and am interested in what you have to say on the matter. I want to open my own tutoring room so I can give my students a real shot at learning vs what goes on in a typical Thai government (and sometimes) private school. My email is