A friend and I decided to go on a 4 day road trip to explore and enjoy Thailand away from Bangkok. I’ve written in the past about the fun of driving in Thailand and how much different it is from driving in the U.S. and nothing has changed my opinion.
Stickman has written that he finds driving dangerous, due to the road conditions and driver quality, and oppressive due to police and the nature of the criminal justice system—so dangerous, oppressive, and expensive that he actually sold his car. My experience has been the opposite. I’ve never experienced Stickman’s world of constant corrupt speed enforcement, false drunken driving arrests, crazy aggressive drunk drivers, and accidents followed by police extortion and my opinion is that it doesn’t exist. The false paranoia of that world, in my humble opinion, is the direct result of choosing to live in the world of and interacting primarily with hustlers and scammers of one sort or another.
Once outside the city, there is no speed enforcement, drivers are mostly polite, do not drive aggressively, and the roads abound with interesting things to see and do–national parks, waterfalls, huge lakes, roadside stands selling interesting stuff, and people who are friendly and easy to meet. On this trip, we drove over 2100 km and were never stopped or harassed by police once we left Bangkok.
I do not mean to ignore or minimize the real dangers of driving in a 3rd world country. Serious and fatal accidents are way more common and there are numerous “gotchas” to driving in Thailand besides adjusting to driving on the wrong side of the road. Drive at the same speeds and with the same assumptions about how others will react, what may lie ahead and what’s around the next blind corner that yield years of accident free driving in The World , and you will most certainly end rubber side up at some point in Thailand. Proper protocol is to start slow and easy, scope out the lay of the land, get a feel for the terrain and proceed from there—the same protocol sniper teams uses on their approach to their target.
I also do not want to imply that the rule of law and property rights are inviolate the way they are in the U.S. Although I have never become entangled, the internet is littered with stories about innocent foreigners getting arrested. If something serious happens such as an auto accident where people are seriously injured there is a chance for serious consequences. If there is an accident involving property damage, there is a chance that the apportionment of damages may not be what you consider just. But both these cases happen frequently in the U.S. too so I am reticent to come down as harshly as others on the police and Thai courts.
The first day we drove from Bangkok to Chiang Mai. Shooting up Highway 1 straight to Chiang Mai is the traditional, standard, and the fastest route. Highway 1 is 4 lane plus all the way, averaging 100km/hr. including stops is doable, and the road is as safe as the roads ever are in Thailand. It’s a long haul but can be done in one day with a single driver who fastidiously self-monitors his mental state.
We decided to forgo the fast easy route and take Robert Frost’s the Road Less Traveled.
The Road Not Taken
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim
Because it was grassy and wanted wear,
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I marked the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way
I doubted if I should ever come back.
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I,
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
This involves leaving Route 1 at Tak, jinking over to the Myanmar border to Mae Pa, paralleling the border up to Mae Sariang and then cutting over to Chiang Mai.
Rather than staying on flat ground, the Road Less Traveled to Chiang Mai traverses the mountains and contains miles of lightly traveled mountain roads cutting through rain forests and areas where farang rarely venture—endless switchbacks bordered by dense rain forest, climbing and descending endless hills and ridges and sections of road going from nowhere to nowhere.
The road from Mae Pa to Mae Sariang is a mixed bag of 2-lane highway. There are sections where the surface is wide, smooth, and freshly paved with concrete barriers to prevent falling off steep vertical drops and sections where you fly along with a narrow shoulder bordered by a deadly drop off with a cliff within a couple feet of your wheels. In certain sections, the road turns to dirt and the pavement disappears into a deep unmarked sinkhole.What fun!
For about one hour of the run from Mae Pa to Mae Sariang, we drove without encountering a single car coming in the opposite direction.
These are pics from the Tak to Mae Pa section. Here the road is 2-laned and modern. Because this highway goes to a border crossing into Mynamar there is traffic- large trucks and plenty of automobiles.With the recent thaw in Thai-Burmese relations, it’s easy to imagine this road choked with cross border traffic in a couple of years.
From Mae Pa to Mae Sarasin, the road surface deteriorates and the traffic trickles away to nothingness. You click on the video link to get a sense of what driving on these less traveled Thai roads is like.
This is a Burmese resettlement camp where refugees are warehoused. The housing is made of cut bamboo and thatch, there is limited electric power, and god knows how urine, excrement, and garbage is disposed of, or how a safe and sanitary water supply is provided. A general air of squalor pervades with chickens walking around unattended, garbage lying out in the open, refuse being burned in open fires, and people loitering with no productive activity to occupy their time and clock cycles. It wasn’t clear either how the refugees are feeding themselves. The Thai government must provide food and clothing and basic subsistence. Depressing.
The road is dotted with police/army checkpoints where the main interest seems to be looking for Burmese trying to get away from the camp.
We just stopped by the road and snapped a few pictures. I would have liked to walk around the settlement and take a closer look. I’ve never seen a place of this nature but I had the distinct feeling that a couple of foreigners walking around taking pictures of everything would bring an unwelcome visit from the nearby army soldiers.
You never know what is around the corner on these off the beaten track Thai roads.
What do think would happen if you went barreling around this corner at speed, there was an elephant in the middle of road and you put the snout of your SUV up its ass?
Here is the view of more animal rectums on the road to Mae Sarasin.
The livestock seemed comfortable sharing the road with automobiles. So comfortable they don’t bother to get out of the way. 🙂
All along this stretch of road the other vehicles adapt to the road conditions and cruise along at slow speeds. Most have old cars, the value of their time is low, and they are fully aware of the dangers that might lie ahead.
Here is one of several washed out sections of road.
These are not marked like they would be in the U.S. with signs posted a mile or more ahead letting you know it is coming.
There are no lights so if you’re barreling along at night and exit a corner at speed, whoops there it is!
Jam around a corner and BOOM! There is ditch in the middle of the road and you’re rubber side up.
Nice and easy is the protocol for driving in Thailand.