Passing on Thai Highways

A few weeks ago I needed to do a border run. While I normally do this by flying somewhere, what with higher plane ticket prices I decided to try something I hadn’t done in a long while: the tour bus ride to the Cambordian border. Based on that experience, I think I’ll spend the extra money on a plane ticket in the future.

The story is told here in this two-and-a-half minute video:

Look, I realize that land-based travel is all that most Thais can afford. That’s perfectly understandable. And I don’t want to be one of those foreigners who insists that everything should be just as neat, tidy, and safe as it is back home. But…

Surin Bus Crash - Nation Group
Sample of the type of images that regularly grace Thai news sources. Courtesy The Nation newspaper

…after taking this border run and being reminded of how dangerously Thai bus, van, and truck drivers operate their vehicles, especially when it comes to passing on the road, I think my chances of returning from my border run alive are significantly higher if I fly!


Renewing My Thai Driver’s License

online-drivers-ed-6 A year ago Christmas day I received my provisional Thai Driver’s License.  Provisional means it was only good for a year, so as Santa left for points west and Boxing Day dawned on Wat Arun, I was faced with another trip to the Department of Land Transport (DLT) to renew my license.

Many farang (foreigners) ask why I bother getting a license.  While the vast majority probably are smart enough to leave the driving to others, untold numbers of farang drive about the Kingdom with nothing more than their International Driver’s License, or even less.  I, however, wanted to make the effort to follow the law and have my license if I was going to continue taking on the traffic-choked byways of the City of Angels from behind the wheel.

Heading to the DLT on the last Monday of the year was not the wisest choice.  I spent a half-hour orbiting the parking lot searching for a place to park.  The chaos there – traffic going every which way, regardless of the painted stripes and arrows – was like a driving examination writ large, and nearly everyone seemed to be failing.  Finally, as my bladder strongly suggested it might be best to abort the mission, a spot opened before me, one with blessed shade.

The process of getting a driver’s license at the DLT is more painless than you might expect.  Even if I didn’t speak a fair amount of Thai, I would still have been able to work through the steps without the assistance of a native.  The main counter on the second floor is staffed by friendly employees who review your documents and there is an English language list of what is required, should you be missing anything.  Ad hoc photocopy vendors are in the hallway to take care of any last-minute copying needs so as long as you have all your documents with you, you will be in good shape.

Alas, I was ill-prepared and arrived at the DLT without a medical certificate stating that I was free from whatever diseases would prevent me from the safe operation of motor vehicles.  Drat.  A trip to my local hospital and a return to the DLT would consume the rest of the day.  Cannily, I asked whether there was a clinic nearby.  Certainly, replied the friendly staff member.  Downstairs in the motorcycle department.

Or, at least that is what I understood.  This tale illustrates how knowing not quite enough Thai can be a challenge.  I went downstairs and read a sign that I thought said “medical inspections” but which, upon later reflection, must not have said that.  Asking at what, in my vision of the world, was the medical inspections counter, another nice lady gracefully cleared up my confusion and explained that the nearest clinic was on the main street and to the left at the first traffic light.

Or, at least that is what I understood.  As I traipsed the considerable distance back to Paholyothin Road, avoiding the drivers still participating in the parking lot-wide driving exam, I wondered whether I had misunderstood a second time.  My confidence was boosted at the traffic light, though, when I made out the words “clinic” on a sign board and walked past a broken down photocopy machine and into the pale green interior of a small shop house.

Sure enough, for 100 baht a woman of unknown medical experience will listen to your breathing with a stethoscope and then sign a medical certificate clearing you to drive.  No, I have no idea what she was checking but presumably she heard my heart beating.  Have pulse, can drive.

Once I returned to Building Four, Floor Two of the DLT with the medical certificate in hand, the process was head-spinningly fast.  While Thais have several dozen counters at which to be helped, we farang have two cubicles at the far end of the room that have been set aside for foreigners.  Thais may find this unfair, but I figure it is just desserts for the double priced admission I have to pay at Calypso Cabaret, even though I’m a resident foreigner.

Within ten minutes of entering cubicle 18, I exited with my very own five-year Thai Driver’s License.  After all the hassle of getting there, finding parking, and locating a clinic for a thorough medical examination, the actual bureaucratic process of filling out forms, taking a picture, and printing a new license took all of ten minutes.

As I pulled out of my still-shady parking space, I marveled at how easy it can sometimes be to do the right thing and follow all the steps required by the Thai government of farangs living and working here.  And then just as my car reached the exit, two taxis ahead of me had a small fender-bender.  The drivers exited their cars and spent several minutes arguing over the imperceptible damage to their vehicles, unaware of the line of blocked cars behind them growing longer.  As the Skytrain glided by overhead, I put the car in park and snuck another look at my picture, grinning back from under the laminate of my new driver’s license.


Getting My Thai Driver’s License

P1210594 What did I want for Christmas?  Not a new Din Tai Fung location here in Krungthep, although that did turn out to be an early and unexpected surprise.  What I really wanted was a Thai Driver’s License.  Yes, I drive in Thailand, and for the past four years I have used an International Driver’s License which anyone can obtain at your local automobile association office.

For the longest time, I’ve considered that getting a Thai Driver’s License might be an exciting adventure to write about.  With my International licence expiring the fourth of January, I decided getting the Thai license would be better than driving on an expired International one.


My search for information began online.  There are any number of websites that have information about getting a Thai Driver’s License, all of which seem to have copied and pasted the information from each other’s websites.  The only official website, the one belonging to the Department of Land Transport, is only in Thai.  Let this be the new source for updated information for those of you wishing to get your Thai Driver’s License.  Here’s what you need:

  • Valid passport with a non-immigrant (and non-tourist) visa.  One signed copy each of picture page, visa page, most recent entry stamp and departure card.
  • Valid international driver’s license.  One signed copy of cover, English language permit page and picture/information page.
  • Proof of address in Thailand.  This is most easily done if you have a work permit.  One signed copy of all relevant work permit pages.  Alternatively, you can get a certified proof of address from your embassy.
  • Copy of your valid driver’s license from your home country or state/province.  Technically, you are supposed to have a translated copy of this information endorsed by your embassy but this does not actually appear necessary.

Unlike what other websites say, you do not need to bring two passport-size photos.  The Department of Land Transport (DLT) uses digital cameras for the licenses these days.  You also do not need to complete an application form.

Finding the DLT

I went to the DLT office located on Paholyothin Road across the street from Chatuchak Market and just a short walk from the Mo Chit BTS Skytrain station.  Take exit 2 and walk past the Civil Aviation Training Center which has a helicopter and single-engine plane sitting out front.  The DLT is the next complex on the street.

When I arrived at the DLT, I discovered that it is a very large complex with many buildings surrounded by lots of parking lots.  Asking the guard, he pointed me to building 4, which was around the corner and quite far back.  This part was a little confusing if you don’t read Thai as the building numbers are in Thai numerals.  Certainly handy to read Thai or have a Thai friend accompany you.

Once at building 4 I asked at a counter on the first floor and was directed to the second floor.  At the information desk the woman reviewed my documents to ensure I had everything I needed and then gave me a queue number.  I headed inside the packed waiting room and noticed that the current number was 560 and my queue number was 837.  Yikes!

Looking at the ticket, I noticed it said “Foreigner Counters 15-18” so I headed to that end of the room.  A woman approached me and asked what number I had and then escorted me to counter 18.   It seems that I bypassed 277 other people in the queue. 

The counters are actually cubicles and once inside, I sat across from another lady who spoke English quite well, although I made every effort to communicate with her only in Thai.  After reviewing the documents again she asked for copies of two additional pages in the work permit.  She waited while I walked to the lobby and paid one baht each for the copies from the ad hoc copy shop.  Back in the cubicle, she decided everything was okay paperwork-wise and sent me to the third floor for the eye tests.

Eye Tests

The third floor was a fun experience.  After going to the information counter I was pointed inside to the first of three stations.  At it sat a woman next to a large color blindness chart – a large circle composed of smaller circles made up of different colors.  She had me stand behind a line on the floor about three meters (ten feet) away and pointed at various circles and I correctly named the colors.  After about five circles she stamped my paper and pointed me to station two.

Station two was confusing.  There was nobody there to administer the test so I sat down and waited for a few minutes until the lady at station one came over and explained that it was a self-administered test.  There were two stools at a table and each stool sat in front of a metal box with an accelerator pedal and a brake pedal.  Some distance away were two other boxes that had a large red and green lights on them along with a black strip.

You pressed a start button on the table and then stepped on the accelerator, turning on the green light.  After a few seconds the light turned red.  The objective was to then step on the brake pedal as quickly as possible, before the LED lights on the black strip illuminated from green to red.  It took a few tries to get the hang of what was expected of me.  On the fourth try I was able to stop quickly enough, proving the rapidness of my reflexes.

The third station was a test of peripheral vision.  It was also a hygienic nightmare.  You placed your nose on a metal counter – no wiping between customers – staring straight ahead as the administrator illuminated red, green or yellow LED lights to the left or right of your field of vision.  You had to correctly name the color of lights while maintaining your forward gaze.  Two our of three correct and I passed.  Who knows what germs I picked up as well.

My eyes freshly tested, I returned to the second floor.  Fellow test takers who were Thai and were applying for their first driver’s license had to proceed to the fourth floor to take a written test and then outside to conduct a practical driving test.  Since I already have a driver’s license, neither a written nor practical test are required.

Practical driving course


On the second floor I was back in cubicle 18 after just a few minutes’ wait.  The clerk entered the information, had me pay my 205 baht fee (about US $6.20) and asked me to verify that my name, birthday, etc. were entered correctly.  She then took my picture a few times and, once satisfied with how it turned out, chatted with me for a few minutes as the license was printed.

It is a one-year provisional license.  After the year is up, I reapply and am given a five-year license which can continue to be renewed so long as I’m legally living in Thailand on a non-tourist visa.

All told, it took me about an hour from when I entered the building until my exit, new license still warm from the printer.  Now when I see the crazy drivers on the streets here, I feel entitled to lecture them about proper driving habits.  After all, I am officially licensed to drive in Thailand!


Four-Way Intersections

As I travel around my adopted hometown of Krungthep, I sometimes see things and think, “Oh, that is so very Thai.”  These things usually seem innocuous enough at first glance, but I think they illustrate the differences between Thai culture and other cultures.  Four-way intersections are a good example.

When I drive in the US (or pretty much any “developed” country), there are rules and laws and signs and to some degree, everyone follows them.  Very little is left entirely to human nature and the good will of the drivers.

Italy seems to be an exception, actually…

Anyhow, here in the City of Angels, we have many uncontrolled intersections.  Much of this is a result of how the network of roads and streets developed out of a network of canals and waterways.  What worked well for boats isn’t always so effective for cars.

Whether a major street like Sukhumvit or a small, twisting back soi, you encounter these intersections where the drivers’ best behavior is all that governs right-of-way.


Most of the time, it works alright.  In fact, like the use of traffic circles, drivers are forced to be more attentive and drive slower because there are few rules to rely upon.  Other than the occasional marks on the ground, spray-painted by an insurance company investigator after a crash, there are few signs that the uncontrolled intersections are really a problem.

Here’s a 90-second video clip (set to pleasant music) for you to see the above intersection in action:

In a chicken-or-egg dilemma, it is unclear whether these types of social confrontations (uncontrolled intersections) work so smoothly because of the Thai people’s culture of patience and friendliness towards others, or is the culture a result of having to negotiate these types of confrontations in everyday life?

In either case, it is interesting to observe and even more interesting to experience firsthand as the driver behind the wheel!