My observations on bicycling and safety in Thailand:
Gratefully, drivers usually give way to us, and in our five months cycling around Thailand, not one single driver has blasted the horn at us in anger or tried to run us off the road (see exception below). Buddhist zen influence perhaps? Unlike Florida, on our first day back in the States last year, one man shouted at us in Trump-like fashion from his car, “Get in the bike lane!” (there was none) and another driver blew his horn non-stop because he had to slow for two seconds to pass us.
Yes, some vehicles do come very close, especially the silver tourist minivans. The drivers of these hit-mobiles are notorious for unsafe driving; they pass on corners, speed recklessly, and force cars and motorcycles off the road. Speeding to yet another pretty temple? No such law as the “four feet passing” exists here like in Pennsylvania; not that drivers in Pennsylvania pay attention to it anyway.
In addition, speed laws are rarely enforced, especially at night, in keeping with current, inconsistent enforcement of helmet laws by Thai traffic police. At the many daytime roadblock checkpoints, police have been known to literally back hand helmet-less riders as punishment or call them “bad” and send them on their way, with or without a 200 baht fine ($5.50 USD). This fine may or may not line someone’s pocket. Name-calling and sporadic collection of fines appear to have little effect as less than 43% of motorcycle riders regularly wear helmets (Asian Correspondent, 2015, October 4). Graphic roadside billboards showing accident victims split in half freak me out, but appear to have little effect on safety behaviors.
Driving while drunk has yet to be demonized and the laws apply more to some than to others. For example, in 2012 the Red Bull heir, Vorayuth Yoovidhaya, was charged with drunk driving in a hit-and-run accident in which he killed and dragged a police officer for 200 feet with his Ferrarri before fleeing the scene, but he was never prosecuted. Don’t pick mushrooms illegally in Thailand though: you might get a 15-year prison sentence, as in the 2010 case of Daeng Siris-orn and her husband Udom Siris-orn.
Bike lanes do exist in Thailand, including the recently renovated 23 km. Suvarnabhumi Airport Green Bike Lane, but let’s get real. Most bike lanes are really for food vendors, motorcycles, tour buses, garbage, parked cars, and impromptu roadside beer parties. Although Thailand plans to open the longest bicycle lane in Asia by 2017, in honor of the King’s birthday, one blogger plugged the announcement, “Soon to be the longest food stall in Asia.” This pessimism is logical: one only has to look at the current state of the sidewalks, which are little more than commercial spaces for vendors and pooping grounds for stray dogs. I for one accept this reality as part of the charm of Thailand (minus the poop): I am happy to find food on every corner. And what an awesome parkour course!
After my initial horrendous experience riding the streets of Bangkok on only my second day in Bangkok - which included seeing a picture of a dead cyclist on the front page of an Asian newspaper - I have learned to feel comfortable wiggling up to the front of a line of cars - along with the motorcycles - dodging trucks, tuk-tuks (popular 3-wheeled taxi motorcycles), songtaews (small pick-up trucks with 2 rows in the back facing each other to transport passengers), taxis, the omnipresent silver Toyota flat beds, vendors, and any other odd concoction of vehicle, weaving in and out of traffic. Blogger Mr. Pumpy aptly describes Thai traffic as “polite chaos.”
No one seems to get upset if someone pulls out in front of them; everyone gives and takes. Very few traffic lights exist, because drivers know how to merge, and more importantly, know how to be forgiving. I may pull out in front of you, but you may also pull out in front of me, and we will all get to our destinations alive. In the meantime, please keep praying, Mom.