The Stages of Learning How to Ride a Motorbike in Thailand

The Stages of Learning How to Ride a Motorbike in Thailand
The Stages of Learning How to Ride a Motorbike in Thailand

1. You’re nervous, but excited.

After seeing how driving works in Thailand, your first impression will probably be one of surprise. If you’re anything like me, you will be wondering how the hell you’re ever going to learn how to navigate the craziness that ensues in these streets!

Traffic flows much differently in Thailand than in much of the world! A word of advice – expect the unexpected. Not only are you possibly on the opposite side of the street as normal, but “rules of the road” are rather lacking here. Songtaews, tuk tuks, and motorbikes wanting to enter the roadway often won’t hesitate to pull out in front of you. Though it all may seem daunting at first, it actually opens up a lot of freedom for those of us who choose the biker life!

There’s an event going on and parking seems impossible? Not on a bike, it isn’t! Parking is pretty much a free-for-all here. As long as there isn’t a sign specifically banning parking, you’ll see motorbikes lined up on sidewalks, in front of roadside stands, and in the most seemingly random places.

Long lines of traffic backed up at a stop light? No problem! Just sidle your way on up through the cars, until you reach the front.

In general, you are expected to watch what is going on in front of you, and the people behind you will take care of themselves. This can become an issue in very touristy places, though, where lots of the drivers are farang and don’t follow the “Thai” way of driving. So, bearing that in mind, I still recommend checking your mirrors frequently!

2. You are driving in traffic for the first time – now you’re scared to death and can’t navigate worth a damn.

If you had the luxury of learning how to ride the bike itself far away from “real” traffic (e.g. in a parking lot or even on one of the islands), you’ve likely been lulled into a false sense of security. “This is easy,” you may think. “What did I ever have to worry about?,” you may wonder. These thoughts will quickly disappear, as soon as you join the mass of vehicles zooming around during rush hour!

Those who are already comfortable on their bikes will be whipping around you from both sides, cars will drive inches away from you, and there’s a good chance you’ll have a stray dog or two run out in front of you. The experience many of us have is that, we are so concentrated on the driving itself, we are completely unable to do any form of proper navigation! For that reason, it’s a great idea to follow a friend around, during your first couple outings.

Pro Tip: Talk to yourself the entire drive! Your inner (or outer) dialog should go something like this, ‘Holy shit, this is insanity! Did that person even look before they pulled out into traffic? Calm. Calm. Calm. Where the heck did that car come from? Yes, that’s it, just go really slowly. Okay, just lean into the curve. Do those dogs really need to be getting it on the middle of the road right now? Yay, I finally made it to my destination! I am never getting on one of those things again – I don’t care if I already rented the bike for a month.’

3. You are now comfortable and love the freedom of cutting through traffic!

After you realized how inconvenient and expensive it gets living in Thailand with no motorbike, you decided to give it a second chance. Maybe, like me, you drove around your neighborhood’s back streets and practiced leaning into curves, making right turns, and stopping at a moment’s notice. Finally, you decided it was time to emerge into the roadways once more. With a bit more confidence and control, you joined the others.

Though your first few minutes may still be nerve-wracking, you’ll soon start to enjoy the process of driving. You’ll finally take notice of the flow of traffic and how, though it may seem chaotic at first glance, it somehow just works. The cars leave space for the motorbikes to drive along side of them and they don’t try to dominate the roads, like in many other countries. Pretty soon, you’ll relish being able to cut to the front of the lines at traffic lights. There’s such a sense of satisfaction from seeing the long line of cars still stretching half a kilometer behind you, when you’re already moving again! You’ll definitely appreciate the ease of finding spots to park in. I’ve lived here for over a month now and there hasn’t been a single occasion where I’ve not found a place to park within 30 seconds of looking.

In no time at all, you’ll be wondering how anyone can survive in Thailand without a bike. Unless you want to wait ages on a late-night songtaew, spend way too much money on tuk tuks, or drive an inconvenient car around, a motorbike is the way to go!

Pro Trip (seriously): It’s totally kosher to block another vehicle in, as long as you leave your bike in neutral! It makes so much sense that, if the person you’re blocking can easily move your bike, it doesn’t matter if you’re blocking them. Don’t worry about leaving your helmets on your bike, when you walk around. Thais typically don’t wear them and have no interest in taking yours. On that note, please, please, please wear one! I know it’s inconvenient and hot and it might mess up your hair, but it’s worth it.

All and all, riding a bike in Thailand is the ideal way to get around! But it can be quite dangerous, so use caution while driving, for both your sake and that of the other drivers out there. Watch the video below to see my experience learning how to ride a bike here in Chiang Mai!

Happy motorbiking and welcome to the gang!

18 Responses »

  1. Good summary of road rules.

    Nobody looks over their shoulder or uses mirrors. Everyone rides around with tunnel vision. They proceed forward without concern for anyone else, unless a sudden change of direction is anticipated. For example, that tuk tuk just pulled out in front of me, so I’m going to swerve to avoid a massive collision. It is expected that everyone following anticipates that you will swerve, so they give you space.

    It’s OK to pull out in front of anyone, but always proceed to do so very slowly.

    On a scooter, the “NO U-TURN” sign means everyone is going to make a u-turn there.

    It is not uncommon to ride in the opposite lane of traffic, as you make your way past the cars to the intersection.

    For the most part, people rarely ride faster than 60km/h through town.

    Sounds totally crazy, and it is, but somehow it works and there are very few accidents (which aren’t caused by Westerners who don’t understand the rules). Surprisingly, use of the horn is limited compared to other countries.

    Side note: I almost ran over a chicken the other day. It did a pretty good job of getting out of the way at the last second, but it made exactly the sound you expect it would make in that situation.

  2. This is hilarious and awesome. Now I fully understand how so many people get ‘Thai tattoos’ (the scars from bike accidents and scooter exhaust pipes!)

  3. Pingback: 13 unique things about driving in Thailand | Andy's Travel Blog

  4. Nice article Andrea! It’s indeed absolutely terrifying. My other strategy, if you are not comfortable with driving is making friends who drive. I was super scared my first few YEARS here, and I was spoiled bc I had bf who drove, and I didn’t one in my town…etc….but when it came to traveling alone, I made friends quick and THEY drove us around. I’m OK to drive now…sometimes. mai ben lai, chai mai? :-p

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