Taking a Road Trip in Thailand is a great way to see this diverse and ever changing country. Distances are quite large but there are always so many interesting sites to see whether they be Temples, Museums, Waterfalls, Hot Springs and animal/elephant sanctuaries and much, much more.
As Thailand now offers a vast array of domestic flights to all provincial cities you can either choose to fly the longer leg and rent a car at your destination or to start from Bangkok! A majority of the highways and main roads are wide and in excellent condition, the further you go into the countryside however, some rural roads are not at their best and some are not even are not paved. The majority however are excellent to drive and you can enjoy the ever changing scenery. There are several peculiarities to driving in Thailand and we will come to these later!
The standards and quality of Rental Cars in Thailand has increase greatly. When you rent from one of the major companies in Bangkok, you will receive a relatively new car, perfectly clean and ready for the road. Our current preference is Europcar as there have highly competitive rates and their location at the Sofitel on Sukhumvit is most convenient.
I do suggest planning your trip in advance rather than just jumping into a car and then deciding where to go. There are some major distances to cover (Bangkok to Chiang Mai 8-9 hours) and most of the major road radiate from the capital.
Driving in Bangkok is relatively challenging with a lot of traffic especially motorcycles, however head to one of the Expressways/Highways(many are elevated) and you will quickly be away from local traffic. Tolls are to be paid so it is always good to have small change, though change can always be given. Set your GPS, get on the Expressway and within an hour you will be leaving the sprawling suburbs of Bangkok.
Thailand drives on the ‘Left’! For some not a problem but even if you are not used to this a slow and steady start will make you more comfortable. Thai drivers are generally courteous but they do tend to hide behind their tinted screens and the method of staring them in the eye to pull out, generally does not work. Indicate in good time and slowly muscle your way into another lane.
The roads are essential to the rural communities in Thailand and even around BKK every second car is a pick-up truck. Many will be laden with pineapples, durian, watermelons and other fruit and vegetables. In fact there is a sort of challenge in Thailand to spot the most overloaded pick-up truck! Some younger drivers have taken to ‘tuning’ their pick-ups, this generally just results in lots of black exhaust but generally the tuned pick-ups are the most obnoxious and dangerous of your fellow road users. Take care.
Trucks of every shape and size are found on the roads bringing raw materials from the ports and manufacturing centres around Bangkok and the finished products back for sale or export. Whilst the quality of trucks on the main routes has improved greatly you will also find a range of older, fume belching vehicles that are adorned with hundreds of mirrors, multiple rows of Michelin men and exhausts the size of dustbins! All adding to the charm and excitement of driving in Thailand!
The general speed limit is 90 km/hr for cars. You rarely see traffic cops but there are many stationary radar controls and still quite regular police controls. Drive within the limits and drive sensibly and you will normally be saluted through these checks with a smile!
Most road signs are, thankfully in Thai and in English. Road signs are generally good and clear but there are some peculiarities with slip roads that are often necessary to exit. If you miss your exit, don’t worry as the regular u-turns are never far away!
A note of caution about Thai u-turns! Many Thai roads have a central barrier and so the only way to get to travel on the other side is to look for the U-turn. On city streets where the traffic is not so fast this is generally not a problem though you do have to stick your nose out centimetre by centimetre to see when you can turn. Sometimes, as if by some general consensus of opinion, the on-coming traffic slows and stops but this is not so often. So now imagine the U-turn on a fast, busy multi lane highway! All of a sudden, a car or more often a truck will start to pull right and slow to a stop at the u-turn, make certain that you move to a left lane to enable you to continue at your speed.
After a short while you will become used to the give and take of driving in Thailand. Whilst the laws say that you should overtake on the right, local drivers reserve the right to do as they please and you will often see the hard shoulder also being used. Just stay aware of all around you, always watch your mirrors and if you basically expect the un-expected, driving in Thailand will be a pleasure!
So if you are making a Road Trip, how much should you plan? Really a final destination is all that you require and of course when you should arrive. Try to avoid weekends and especially holidays when half the population is returning home. The roads in and around Bangkok are highways and/or Expressways. Tolls are minimal so they are highly recommended. Once you are out of Bangkok the road will settle down to a 4-6 lane highway. Sights and places of interest are well indicated and just by following the signs a detour will take you to the splendour of a Temple, a refreshing waterfall or even hot springs. These destinations welcome tourists, though, generally there are few facilities. You will however, always find food!
When you are on the highways you will never be far from a Rest Area. These are large petrol stations with cafés, restaurants (Thai food) and of course a convenience store. There are two main, and recommended service areas PTT and Bangchak(their emblem is a green leaf). In my opinion these are the best offering helpful service, plenty of parking space, adequate toilet facilities and a range of food outlets. PTT always seems to have an Amazon Coffee shop and Bangchak has the better Inthanin Garden chain. So even your coffee on the route can be really pleasurable.
Strangely Western known names (Esso, Chevron) do not offer particularly high standards so generally if you need a break look for Bangchak or PTT. Incidentally with approximately 30% of the vehicles in Thailand running on gas, there are a lot of LPG only service areas. Unless your vehicle has been converted to gas, it is better to avoid these service areas as the facilities are limited.
Accommodation can be quite limited in rural areas. From personal experience, I drive as far as I can and then look for the next large town. I use the Booking.com App to locate and book my room for the night often arriving just a few minutes after making the reservation!
This article is meant to be a general information on driving and road trips in Thailand, there will be more to follow and naturally if you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me!