Driving in Phuket
Driving in Thailand is certainly an experience and not one for the faint hearted. If you are a timid driver, easily annoyed or believe that rules should be obeyed, then it is not for you. Thais view traffic laws more as guidelines and in fact seem to have their own set of unofficial rules. The accident statistics in Thailand are frightening and you should take great care whenever you are on the road. However if you are a confident driver and you are aware of the driving conditions then it is a great way to get around the island and will give you the freedom to really explore.
There are plenty of reputable car rental firms on the island such as Avis, Budget, Hertz, Via and Braun. You could also check CarHirePhuket.com who will search for the best prices available. Some of them have even have offices at Phuket airport. There are also a few independant car rental companies directly outside the airport. These companies all offer a good range of vehicles and full insurance. Rates vary by season but a typical rental would be a Honda City at around 1400 to 2000 baht for a day.
Alternatively, you can go to one of the roadside renters. You will find them parked along the beachfront roads. They offer mostly jeeps but you will also find other vehicles available. The little jeeps struggle to climb some of the steeper hills in Phuket but are good enough to get around the island. The prices vary by season but around 600 to 1000 baht a day is typical. The beachside renters claim to include insurance but in reality, they have the bare minimum of coverage to be legal. Another problem with the beachside renters is they want to hold your passport as collateral for the vehicle. If they believe you have damaged the vehicle they will hold the passport until you pay extra for repairs. They can mostly (but not always) be trusted not to make false claims of damage but needless to say leaving your passport with a stranger is not a good idea. Try to give them a photocopy instead, or better still, use a reputable rental company.
Motorcycle rentals for the small 90-130 cc bikes are everywhere. They cost 200 to 300 baht a day. If you rent long term, you can get lower rates. The only insurance you will get is the legally required insurance disc known as Por Ror Bor. This provides third party insurance for personal injury costs up to 50,000 baht. It does not cover damage to other vehicles, your own vehicle or yourself. Motorcycle accidents with these small bikes are so common that it is difficult to get full insurance. If you damage the bike, you will pay for the repairs. These bikes are a great way to get around but do not forget you are very vulnerable on them. Always wear a helmet.
There are a number of specialist motorbike shops where you can rent big motorbikes.
The main vehicle fuels in Thailand are 95 benzine, 95 gasohol and diesel. Note that the old 91 benzine has been phased out as Thailand aims to get more vehicles running on gasohol. The numbers 91 and 95 refer to the octane output of the fuel. Gasohol is a new introduction in Thailand. It is E20 which means it is 80% gasoline and 20% ethanol. It has been introduced to reduce Thailand's rising fuel import costs.
Most vehicle engines can use gasohol but sustained use can lead to the premature deterioration of rubber parts in the engine. Vehicles sold in Thailand since 2006 have been designed to use gasohol without any ill effects. Older vehicles built before 2006 are better sticking with benzene.
There are plenty of fuel stations in Phuket although only one in Patong on Phra Barami Road. As well as the major fuel stations there are also roadside fuel vendors selling fuel from bottles or hand-operated pumps. The fuel quality is fine for motorbikes but cars should use these vendors as a last resort. If your motorbike runs out of fuel, you can buy bottles of fuel from many local shops.
Traffic in Thailand drives on the left hand side of the road - well mostly. Thai drivers will happily drive on the wrong side of the road if it helps them get to their turning quicker. Driving laws, road signs and markings are based on international conventions and are easy to understand. Most direction signs are written in both Thai and English. Distances are marked in kilometers. The urban speed limit is 60 km/h and on country roads and expressways it varies from 90 to 120 km/h. Police occasionally set speed traps on the major routes.
The road network in Phuket is generally in good condition. Some of the inclines over the hilly terrain of Phuket are steep and you should take care, especially in the wet. In general it is not road conditions that cause problems but road users.
Thai driving habits are unpredictable. While many drivers have good driving skills and road awareness, there are many others that do not. Until recently, it was commonplace for Thais to obtain their driving licenses by buying them from transport department officials. Therefore, many Thai drivers have never had a driving lesson or passed a driving test. The golden rule when driving is that you should never assume anything and should always look everywhere. There will be drivers who run red lights, especially at night when they are confident there are no police around. They will drive on the wrong side of the road, overtake on the inside, maneuver without indicating, pull out from junctions without looking, cut corners and generally ignore driving conventions that westerners take for granted.
In addition to this, there are drivers that drive at speeds more suited to racetracks while others drive very slowly. Then there is the mass of motorcycles that weave in and out of the traffic. And the large number of foreign visitors on the road does not help either. Many are not aware of the driving conditions while others seem to feel that they can do things in Thailand that they would not do at home. Tourists are just as likely as locals to drive drunk. Add it all together and it is a potent recipe for accidents.
Phuket averages more than one death every other day from traffic accidents. Most fatalities are motorcyclists. These are the official figures but they are only gathered from data provided by the public hospitals. Any casualties taken to private hospitals or taken straight to a temple for cremation are not included.
Despite the general feeling of chaos on the roads, instances of road rage are rare. Although some Thais drive aggressively, overt displays of anger go against Thai culture.
Here are a few other Thai driving habits to look out for:
- You are waiting to turn right across traffic and a vehicle coming towards you in the oncoming lane flashes its headlights at you. In the west, you would probably take this as a kind invitation to make the turn. In Thailand it means do not go because I am coming through fast and I am not going to stop.
- You are at a crossroads waiting for the traffic lights to turn green. When they turn green the motorcycles in the oncoming lane that want to turn right will race to turn before you go. If you are not aware of this and drive quickly away from the traffic lights, you can easily hit them. Pull smoothly and cautiously away from traffic lights.
- You are in traffic and there is also a queue of oncoming traffic that wants to turn right. You politely give way to allow one or two of the cars to make their right turn across you. The entire queue will squeeze bumper to bumper leaving you no space to continue until the entire queue has made their right hand turn.
- You are on a country road trying to overtake a large vehicle and it is difficult to get a view of the road ahead. A right hand indicator from the vehicle in front is a warning not to overtake as there is oncoming traffic. A left hand indicator is a signal that it is safe to overtake (of course the vehicle may actually be indicating that it is turning).
The Law and the Police
You are required to carry a valid driving license whenever you drive. That means an international driving permit, a Thai driving license or a driving license from a neighbouring country such as Malaysia or Laos. Thai driving licenses are only available to Thais and foreigners on long-term visas. See our section on Getting a Thai Driving License. You can obtain international driving permits in your home country. The police are often generous with foreign visitors and accept a foreign driving license. However, they are not obliged to so it is better to be safe and carry a legal driving license. Not carrying a legal driving license will also invalidate most insurance policies.
If you are driving a motorcycle, you must wear a crash helmet. The days when everybody in Thailand flouted this law are gone. If you drive a motorcycle around Phuket without wearing a crash helmet, you can expect to be stopped and fined by a traffic policeman. Apart from the legal requirement, driving without a crash helmet is a reckless risk when you consider the number of accidents that occur. Legally pillion passengers should also wear crash helmets. Police rarely enforce this law but have recently started to do so in Phuket Town. It is also illegal to carry more than one pillion passenger but again this law is rarely enforced. It is not unusual to see a Thai family of four on a motorbike, perhaps with their dog in the basket.
Car drivers and front seat passengers should wear seatbelts. Police are now enforcing the seatbelt law for drivers but rarely for front seat passengers.
Your car or motorcycle should have a valid insurance disc. The expiry date on the discs is written in Thai but you can at least check the year which is written in the Buddhist Era system, so 2013 is 2556, 2014 is 2557, etc.
The vehicle should have a valid number plate. If the number plate is red then it is temporary and you cannot drive the vehicle during the hours of darkness or leave the province in which the vehicle is registered. Again, the police are unlikely to enforce this law but it is a possibility.
Although we say you will probably get away with breaking some of the above laws, the simplest policy is to obey them and not give the police any reason to fine you.
The police make random road checks and if you are found to be committing an offence you will be subject to an on-the-spot fine. The fines vary between 200 to 2000 baht, depending on the offence and how the police are enforcing the rule on that day. The fine for standard offences such as not wearing a helmet or not carrying a driving license is usually 500 baht. Paying the fine usually involves leaving your vehicle or your driving license with the police while you go to the nearest police station to make the payment. You can then return with the receipt of payment and continue your journey. Keep the receipt of payment as for some offences it gives you a 24-hour amnesty from being fined again for the same offence.
If the police officer asks you to pay the fine directly to him without any paperwork, you can safely assume the money will go straight into his pocket. Some people are happy to pay on the spot to avoid the hassle of going to the police station. Indeed if you want to avoid delaying your journey, you can innocently ask 'can I pay here?' Whether the police officer is amenable to such an offer will depend on his level of honesty and whether there is a supervisor present.
There are many stories of corrupt police targeting foreigners to extort money. There is little doubt these things do happen. Police officers are low paid and consider back-hander payments to be a perk of the job. However, in our experience such events are nowhere near as common as the barstool storytellers will have you believe. If the police fine you, it is usually because you have committed an offence. Whether you pay the fine officially or as a back-hander is another matter. If you think you are being targeted unfairly, you should insist on receiving the paperwork and paying the fine at the police station. Once the police officer realizes he will not be able to pocket the money he may lose interest and let you on your way.
When dealing with the police, always be polite and respectful. You will get nowhere by raising your voice or arguing. Try a smile or a display of confused ignorance about the law you have flouted. If there is no getting out of the fine, then pay the money and put it down to experience. The amounts of money involved do not justify making a stand on the grounds of righteous indignation.
Drink driving is a common problem in Thailand. In 2002, the police set up a random check in Phuket Town at midnight. The aim of the exercise was not to prosecute drunk drivers but simply to measure the scale of the problem. And the shocking but somewhat comical result of the test was that 80% of the drivers tested had been drinking. Since then, the police have become more active in prosecuting drunk drivers. You are still unlikely to be breath tested but it is becoming more common. The blood-alcohol limit in Thailand is 50mg per 100ml of blood which equates to around one small bottle of beer. If you are caught drink driving in Thailand, it may be taken seriously and you could be facing a fine up to 20,000 baht and possibly a night in a cell. A second drink driving offence could result in a prison sentence or deportation.
You should be aware that if you are involved in an accident with a Thai then the police will often side with the Thai regardless of who is at fault. The normal practice in this situation will be for you to agree a compensation payment for the Thai driver to recompense him for damage to his vehicle or personal injuries. For a minor accident with a motorbike, this should be between 200 to 1000 baht. Some Thais will see an accident with a westerner as a money-making opportunity but most will only want fair recompense. The police may act as go-betweens in the negotiation. If you do not want to make payment then your best friend will be your insurance agent. If you are involved in a serious accident, you should phone your insurance company immediately and they will send an agent to the scene. If you cannot agree a compensation payment then the case may go to court. In this situation, you should hire a good Thai lawyer.
Despite all the warnings we have given in this section we still recommend driving around Phuket. As long as you are aware of the laws and dangers then it is a great way to see the island and tremendous fun.
Getting a Thai Driving License - How to get a Thai driving license in Phuket.
Thai Police and Farang - Anyone who has spent time in Thailand has heard stories that Thai police pick on farang drivers. But just how much truth is there in this belief.