7 Thailand Motorcycle Tips to Help You Ride Safe on the Roads

I’m not a particularly veteran motorcyclist but I feel qualified to discuss the art of Thailand motorcycle riding having now gained considerable experience on the roads out here.

Prior to arriving in South East Asia I completed a one-day Compulsory Basic Training (CBT) course in the UK on 125cc motorbikes. Whilst that’s as much training as I’ve ever had I cannot recommend it enough as an absolute minimum for anyone who intends to ride a motorcycle abroad.

Thailand has one of the highest motorcycle death rates in the world. Once you get here you can kind of understand why! It wasn’t so long ago that apparently you could just buy a driving license without taking any training. Whilst that is no longer so there are many drivers and riders who today take to the roads without any kind of license at all!

The locals aren’t all to blame. The situation isn’t helped by the thousands of tourists who without ever even sitting on a motorcycle before and decide Thailand would be a fantastic place to learn. For the most it’s not and will never be!

That said – riding a motorcycle in Thailand with experience, patience and understanding of how the rules (or lack of rules) of the road work may very well provide you with one of the most exhilarating and rewarding travel experiences you could ever imagine. The country at times in fact almost feels like it was sculpted to be explored by motorbike.

There’s nothing like jumping off your motorbike to gaze off into the yonder for a while.
There’s nothing like jumping off your motorbike to gaze off into the yonder for a while.

If you decide that riding in Thailand is an adventure you could not dream of missing out on then follow these 7 Thailand motorcycle tips that will help you stay safe on the roads:

 

1) Lifesaver Glances Mean Everything

Any good motorcycle training will drum this into you anyway but never forget to check your blind spots when turning or manoeuvring in the road. Thai roads are full of fast moving cars and other motorbikes that just creep up on you out of nowhere and appear unspotted from the rear view mirrors.

2) Right of Way Means Nothing

Back in the UK we also drive on the left and are always taught to give way to the right. A roundabout in Thailand on the other hand can be survival of the fittest. People stop and give way randomly and expect you to also. There is never any assurance on who is going to move first. It really is a case of approaching every such junction with hesitancy and working out who’s going to act first.

hesitancy as it’s really a case sometimes of just seeing what people are going to do!

3) Wear a Helmet

A huge number of local Thai people do not wear motorcycle helmets despite fact that anyone travelling through a Police checkpoint (which can be quite common) without one will be stopped and fined. I believe this is the primary reason that people in Thailand wear helmets. The fact that they are designed and manufactured to save live seems to be a commonly forgotten fact.

4) Turn Left on a Red Light

In Thailand it is seemingly OK to turn left on a red light although I’m not sure of the official view on this. Regardless, no driver behind you will be particularly willing to wait patiently with you whilst you await a green signal so you’re better off either staying out of the left lane or doing as they do. Be very careful however to not just swing out into busy oncoming traffic as I see so many others do. Red might seemingly mean GO on this occasion but incorrectly read it could also very easily mean GONE.

5) Remember That Not Everybody Stops

I guess this tips is as much for folk on foot as it is for riders but my main point with this is at that regardless of whether you’re good-natured enough to stop at a pedestrian crossing, it doesn’t mean that huge SUV trailing you has the same intentions. If you check your rear views and it looks like the guy behind you is travelling at such a speed that they’re unlikely to stop then you’re probably better of jumping the light then trying to be the odd one out and pay the price of doing your good deed for the day.

6) Keep Your Distance

Drivers and other riders in Thailand are for the most part much more aware of motorcyclists than you expect people to be back in the Western world. This is no doubt because motorcycles are so heavily utilised and pretty much everybody in the country will at some point their lives ridden on one.

Despite this it goes without saying that you should always keep your distance and expect the unexpected. If I’m riding behind a big vehicle I like to sit right on it’s back corner so I know I’m visible in their rear view mirror. Once they have spotted that I’m waiting patiently it’s normal that they slow a little and let me pass if the road is tight.

By the same token you should also anticipate drivers pulling out into the road ahead of you unexpectedly. I personally know a couple of riders who have been travelling at speed when a car suddenly decides to pull out in front of them. Whenever I see a car waiting to join the road ahead of me now I almost expect them to do this.

7) Know Your Limits

There’s a massive difference to riding a motorcycle in Chiang Mai where I live now to riding one in Bangkok: a massive, MASSIVE difference.

I simply wouldn’t ride a motorcycle in Bangkok.. It’s far too manic for my liking. You would really have to grow accustomed to the craziness there before you felt anywhere near as comfortable as you do in Thailand’s second city in the North.

Outside of the cities – many tourists decide to take to motorcycles for the first time in places like Pai. Your experience could be absolutely unforgettable for the right reasons or equally for the wrong reasons. Whilst the roads in somewhere like Pai is a lot more relaxed don’t overlook the terrain that a times can be quite extreme.

 

I absolutely love riding a motorcycle in Thailand. Not only is it the quickest way of getting from A to B, the freedom you feel when riding a bike is for me unparalleled and I’m of the opinion there is no better form of road travel around the world. If you decide to give it a go then I’ve no doubt you too will learn to love it. Just always ensure you keep your wits about you, stay sensible and consequently, stay safe.

Do you have experience riding a motorcycle in Thailand or elsewhere abroad? What tips might you add to my list?

Comments

Lani
Reply

Hi Chris,

Found you on G+ and I, too have written about this important subject: http://tellthaiheart.com/tag/motorbike/

I had different challenges, mainly overcoming the fact that it has been drummed into my head by my Thai mother :P that motorbikes/scooters are DANGEROUS.

But I hope more folks will chose not to ride, or do research for tips like these b/f getting on. Also, Thais are to blame for drinking and driving which they are infamous for. Thailand loses many men through this tragedy.

BTW, you have the same bike as me :P

Cheers.

Chris
Reply

Indeed. Motorbikes are great if you’re not being silly!

… and that’s actually a rental bike in the pictures. Mine’s a little different. ;)

A Cook Not Mad (Nat)
Reply

You hear of so many tourists having accidents in SEA, these are good tips to know and share.

Christine |GRRRL TRAVELER
Reply

I agree with you. I could not ride a motorbike in Bangkok. My first ever ride happened in Pai and then trickled down to Chiang Mai Bali, an island in Korea… All the seemingly mellow places where people know rules…sorta.

Keeping distance is imperative for exactly the same reason you mentioned. You can never predict how the person in front you will act.

Eric
Reply

Hey Chris,

Your last paragraph is definitely true. Riding a motorcycle in Thailand opens a whole different world. Because of the heat and pollution, if you don’t have a bike, you’re almost always just going on fixed tracks from A to B if you know what I mean, missing a lot of cool places and neighborhoods because there is no transportation to get there. With a bike, you discover the city a lot more and find hidden gems.

I drive a motorcycle in Bangkok though and have to disagree that it is not something to do. I will say this, before I began driving, the streets looked like pure carnage and anarchy, but once you’re actually out there, there is meaning to the madness.

Perhaps the reason I don’t feel overwhelmed is the hundreds of motocy taxis I took in the past, learning how they behave in traffic is actually very helpfull.

I drive mostly anywhere in Bangkok and don’t feel unsafe, though I drive very conservatively and constantly check mirrors and up ahead. I also drive at slow speeds, not going above 60 km for the most part and often just going 40-50 km. By far the biggest danger in Bangkok are Thai drivers suddenly and without warning changing lanes to yours. Going to fast with not enough distance is lethal in that case. Oh yeah, and always, always keep your eyes on the road, which can be hard if you spot some girl in a miniskirt, but just a few seconds of not paying attention and you’re in a dangerous situation.

In any case, driving in Bangkok beats taking motocys or BTS and much, much cheaper. A couple of hundred baht a month keeps you riding daily.

Chris
Reply

Great comments Eric.

It’s all about what you feel comfortable with. For the vast majority of visitors to Thailand I’d maintain Bangkok is best avoided but with the right approach and mindset for sure those staying more long-term like yourself would undoubtedly feel more comfortable. I’m not there… Just yet. :)

Greg Nixon
Reply

Thai helmets would not be considered legal in other parts of the world. Even a Honda helmet is unreliable. The liner is only glued and will sometimes fall out. Buy a much better helmet than the ones commonly available. This is especially important because so few people obey the rules of the road. What is a red light for? Who would ever stop at a stop sign ? You are often driving at speed on a roadway with people who would be better off driving only in fields by themselves.
Be aware that all manners of vehicles drive the wrong direction on most roads. This often can cause an accident. Drivers backing up or making turns do not often look the wrong way for approaching vehicles but you should. Impatient drivers will pass you on the wrong side while you are waiting to enter onto a main road from a side road. This is most annoying because they may block your view or prevent you from proceeding safely. Thai drivers do not use standard give way rules and often side roads will be given the right of way to enter the roadway from drivers who do not know proper road rules. Remember that many Thai drivers are first generation drivers who may be driving their first vehicle and do not have any concept or any example of conventional road rules. Thai drivers from small villages will often block the roadway by double parking so they do not have to walk more than 20 feet to the shop. Although Thai drivers are overly considerate to people in front of them, they have no consideration to people behind them. Thai drivers will stick the nose of their vehicle out into the traffic hoping someone will stop and let them in. This has the annoying effect of slowing the traffic and it therefore takes everyone longer to get there. Drivers making right turns from side roads try to block those making right turns from the main road onto the side road. Thai drivers are in desperate need of driving lessons but do not expect this to happen as they are too cheap to even buy helmets for themselves or replace vehicle lights. You will often see vehicles after dark with no lights or inadequate lights. Saving $ 5 or $1 or even $0.60 takes precedence over safety. Be aware that there are over 50,000 traffic deaths each year in Thailand. If you are in a traffic accident and there are police present be sure to give the officer the most money. you will not be found at fault. If you do not give money, you are a foreigner and regardless of whose fault it actually is, you will be found at fault. I have found all of this out after traveling the roadways extensively in Thailand. Be aware of dogs because everyone has two or three and they wonder everywhere at will and caused a near fatal accident for my friend who took two years to recover. Big dog and small motorbike is catastrophic for a motorbike rider. Another friend ended up in hospital with a sprained ankle and a leg injury after colliding with a dog.

Dave R
Reply

Chris,
Great advice, I am retiring to Khon Kaen soon. I have been visiting there for 5 years and my wife is there. I am a very experienced driver, motorcycle, car. HGV, PSV, IAM and ex examiner. I started driving in Thailand after being there for 4 weeks and observing, this I believe is a MUST. I would never ride without a decent helmet, not the loose lids the Thais use, Index helmet is minimum. Pity my wife wont listen, she is a nurse and goes to work with hat on only 400M away, so she is invincible 555. Two of the most confusing things I find are, turning right onto a main road and U turn junctions. It appear here in KK that turning right onto a main road everyone gives way to me SOMETIMES 555…………….there is the U turn, then as I call the cheeky guy who comes on your outside, usually a song tao or tuk tuk, or the cheeky cheeky guy who decides 3 can U turn together. Driving in Thailand is a experience, it can be amusing but if you do not take it serious it can be fatal. As you say, the worst place in the world to start riding a motorcycle. I drive THAI but with my UK sense of safety. TAKE CARE PEOPLE.

Sarah
Reply

You want to be safe riding a morotcycle in Thailand, you must be alert of other road users 100% of the time. So often I see people riding overloaded on poorly maintained motorcycles. No lights at night time and no helmet. Try to stay safe and you will certainly become a good rider dodging all the bad practices you see in Thailand.

Suki F
Reply

I would be so scared to ride a motorbike in Thailand!

Evan
Reply

Hey can anyone comment as to the latest on riding big bikes in and around Bangkok? Last time I was there, I couldn’t use the toll road, bridges or any inside lanes. The law seems to group all motorcycles together, regardless of CC, power, speed, etc. I had a nightmare trying to get through BKK last time so I’m looking to see if perhaps the laws are being relaxed for bigger displacement bikes, like me Suzuki 650.

Dave E
Reply

Having ridden and lived just outside Bangkok for 6 years and have over 30,000KM in and around BKK, so I thought I would add some notes.
First off you still cannot ride any kind of bike on the toll roads, though there are sections that go from on ramp to off ramp where you could. But you will not get past ANY tollbooth! The inner lane rule applies (stay in left lane) and is really only a way for the cops to get money for their girlfriends. always ride with 200-300 in one pocket. If stopped, politely argue a bit, but if the cop insists just discretely slip him some cash and be on your merry way. As for a big bike, you will not get between the cars too easy, but at night you are golden. I have done 100+ up Sukhomvit at 3-4AM. But still follow all my rules below.
As to riding in BKK I would say that it is actually a bit safer in the city (once you know what you are doing) due to the car drivers being more used to having bike all around them. I regularly drive up Sukomvit between the cars and feel more comfortable there than other places where there is less bike traffic. The car drivers are simply more used to the bikes. In the Country areas you are at risk of very dangerous intersections (particularly at night) because even if you have a green light that does not mean the other guy will stop. You must slow and be cautious at EVERY intersection.
Another point that is of particular help is that when you are new to an area follow a bike taxi some. These guys KNOW THEIR ROADS, the potholes, bumps, and all. Im sure you could pay one, but just look for one when you are in a new area and try to stay behind him if he is going your way.
The list of hazards is long, here are some: dogs, drunks, bikes going the wrong way, cars going the wrong way, taxis suddenly pulling into left lane and stopping, steel construction plates on road, ever changing (particularly in the rainy season) potholes, other bikes, all cars, trucks, food carts in road, food carts going wrong way, tuk tuks, buses cutting you off, hi-so pricks in BMWS pulling in front of you and stopping, cars doing U-turns, other cars unexpectedly stoping for those cars to do U-turns. The list is almost endless! So as was mentioned in an earlier comment, keep looking. Keep you head on a swivel and do nut just use your mirrors.
As to particular riding techniques I have a few:
1. STAY AWAY from cars. this is tough to do in bumper to bumper traffic but if you are in a section of road and you can accelerate to get in a gap DO IT. Motorcycles don’t kill motorcyclists CARS DO!
2. Stay away from the edges of the road; the edges have potholes, grease from foodcarts dumping water, and of course being all the way to the left puts you closer to any car pulling out of a side road. If you are further to the right you will have more time to react and will be at an angle that allows you to see the car sooner.
3. drive the speed of the traffic, don’t know about you but I do not have eyes in the back of my head and if you are driving slow you WILL get hit from behind. This is all to common.
4. DONT DRINK AND DRIVE A BIKE! your balance and coordination are some of the first to go when you drink and these are what you need most when riding a bike.
We all are used to (in the west) people following the road rules perfectly this is simply not the case here in Thailand. The #1 rule is DONT HIT ANYBODY. this applies to all. the lane lines are mere suggestions, turn signals usually an afterthought, the far right lane is OK for left turns etc. These are obviously not real rules but simply how it is done here. deal with it or stay home!
I will say this, if you are used to riding in an overly restrictive (USA or Europe) country the experience of riding here in Thailand is like an exhilarating breathe of fresh air. You can pass cops on the highway at well over the speed limits and never even think about it (nor will the cop), you don’t have to worry about points on your license or other BS like that. Traffic at a complete stop on the road and you cant squeeze between cars, no sweat, hit the sidewalk and you are good to go. Sitting at an old redlight with no cross traffic, Blow right thru it!
I can go on and on but this is good for now. Enjoy!

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