Fasten Your Seatbelts and Prepare for Take-off

September 4, 2000

Everyone has heard about the traffic in Bangkok. The sheer number of cars and exhaust pipes spewing black fumes in addition to the driving methods leave eyes wide and hearts pounding. Bangkok simply does not have enough paved surfaces for its traffic. The result is an interesting form of madness.

Traffic jams abound and the level of chaos rises and falls unpredictably throughout the day only with rush hour jams being a given. When one drop of rain falls, traffic halves its speed. If a car breaks down in the middle of the road, it rarely gets pushed to the side. Monsoon season creates an even more complicated ball game and people literally go fishing in the streets.

Bangkok roads resemble a can of worms. They spin and twine around each other. If you want to head north you probably first have to head south for five or ten kilometers to find a U-turn or perhaps you may need to head east for quite a while. First you need to know what direction all areas, suburbs, and050900k1.jpg roads of Bangkok lie in and where you are relative to them. Things are not stated in ‘Route 90 West’ terms, but rather ‘this direction to Rama IV Road’.

Some roads are one-way at all times. Other roads change status throughout the day. There is also the bus lane, which usually goes against the grain of the traffic driving on its side of the road. This makes passing or crossing the street a bit tricky.

I am from a ‘look left-right-left’ country. Here it is ‘look right-left-right-left-right and don’t forget there could be a bus or motorcycle hurling at you in the opposite direction’ method. Believe it or not, when I am on foot I usually cross the street with the street dogs. They seem to really know what is going on.

I find Thai people to be incredibly polite, easy-going, and friendly throughout daily life. This all changes when they get behind a steering wheel. Aggression is the only way to get your car out onto the road and keep it moving there.050900k2.jpg

The first rule of Bangkok traffic is that there are no steadfast rules. Want to enter a busy road? Just nose out enough until the oncoming car is certain to collide with you. This forces the driver of that car to slow down, at which point your car cuts him off, and cuts off several other drivers until it is in the correct lane.

Alas, the lane that you have just chosen to get into is moving too slowly for your tastes. Do you want to nose your car into the other lane again? Is there a space between one centimeter and one inch available? Just stick the tip of your front fender into that space, and away you go. A red light up ahead? An illegal U-turn? Do you see any police officers around? Proceed accordingly.

During these drastic maneuvers the drivers keep cool and calm faces even when almost having massive collisions. No one is flipping anyone else off, and the honking of a horn is seldom heard. The passengers do not pay attention to all the chaos.050900k3.jpg Magazines, newspapers, books, naps, and cellular phones provide plenty of distraction and also can be used by the driver when stuck firmly in a jam.

Enemy number one appears not to be the other cars but the hundreds of motorcycle drivers weaving in and out of the whole mess. If you hit these daredevils it is usually your fault, period.

I believe there is also a pecking order of sorts when it comes to nudging your car in. The brand new shiny BMW or Mercedes is given more leverage. The guy driving the 1963 pickup truck with broken tail lights and cardboard for a rear window probably does not want to end up paying for that very expensive scratch.

Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers can sometimes be given a break too, because everyone knows they are working for a daily wage, which averages out to be about 200-600 baht (5-15 US dollars) after rent on the taxi and gas is paid.

If a traffic jam is spotted up ahead, do not slow down as it grows closer. Go hurling towards it at 80, 100, 120 kilometers an hour and proceed to jam on the breaks in total surprise five meters before you arrive.

A steep curve becomes another interesting event. Do not stay in your lane as you go around the curve. Drive straight ahead as much as possible and turn the wheel when you run out of lanes. Do you not have enough lanes? Simply make another one. It is so simple. A two-lane highway is actually a five to six lane highway when used properly. Pity the traffic police. They have a tough job and drive like maniacs, too.

I recommend that you sit in the front seat if you get a chance to go for a ride in Bangkok. Your knuckles may be white and your heart pounding but it will be the ride of your life. Don’t worry, these very interesting traffic methods work somehow. People get to work and back again. They get a chance to vent their aggression. I see very few accidents. This is part of the magic in Thailand.

Back to the table of contents...