Recently, a number of bus accidents that have claimed the lives of young, middle-class backpackers have – thanks to their distraught middle-class parents – made the news back in the West. And so Western journalists have come here and done various PIECES on the phenomenon.
However, they do not LIVE here. But I DO – and so I decided it was time to reveal the TRUTH, from an INSIDER’S perspective.
First, let us deal with the NUMBER of fatalities. On paper, these look DIRE when compared to Western countries. But they include those involving MOTORCYCLES – the DEAD from which form MOST of the fatalities.
Fact is, you have to understand the Thai CULTURE of travel – to see what is REALLY going on.
Like, cars here often constitute a bigger investment to people than their HOUSES – and insurance, while mandatory, is utterly inadequate. Most people cannot afford the premiums charged by companies for PROPER insurance, so go with the minimal cover provided under the government’s mandatory scheme (I certainly do).
Thus car-owners drive CAREFULLY – knowing that if they have a prang, they are going to end up paying for the damage THEMSELVES – regardless of whose fault it was.
Also, in the West, strict vehicle-testing makes keeping an old car on the road very EXPENSIVE. Not so here – thus second-hand cars cost WAY more than they do back home. I drive a now-seventeen-year-old Mitsubishi Galant Ultima and while you could not GIVE it away in Britain – here, it is still worth TWO GRAND ($3,080).
Motorbikes on the other hand, are a NIGHTMARE – and there are MILLIONS of them.
Almost all are low-powered step-throughs that handle like rubbish – and are CHEAP to buy. Around GBP 800 ($1,250) – as opposed to cars which, while made here cheaply under license, are still expensive – GBP 10-20,000 (say, $15-30,000).
New, you could buy at least TEN of these comedy motorbikes for the price of just ONE entry-level version of the SMALLEST car you will find here.
And the road laws – and their enforcement – are very different here from the way things are done in the West. So while car drivers mostly drive a lot like their Western counterparts – but more SLOWLY and CAREFULLY – motorbike drivers drive like they are the only vehicles on the road.
Most have no IDEA how to USE roads. Without legal sanction, they consider the left-hand lane of a dual carriageway not to be part of the actual road and are quite happy to drive along it the WRONG way – without lights, at NIGHT – and with any NUMBER of passengers.
When they reach a crossroads, if they want to turn right (Thailand is a right-hand-drive country) they will slew across to the right curb, now driving AT the traffic – make the turn, hugging the curve – then slew BACK across the road to the left side again – usually without bothering to look behind them.
And the typical motorbike will have four people on it. Dad (sometimes with a helmet) will drive – his three-year-old will be sat on his lap – his wife will be clinging on behind him – and his six-year-old will be perched on the back, clinging on to Mum.
Kids as young as EIGHT drive these things – and girls sit SIDE-SADDLE on the back.
The result of this insanity is that the cops regularly stop bikes at “checkpoints” – but only on-the-spot-fine them for not wearing helmets. After which they are allowed to continue – still helmetless.
Bangkok is stricter about helmet wear – but elsewhere, no-one much cares.
All of which at least benefits ME. Back in Britain, cops spend most of their time pestering car-drivers – but here, they know the REAL problem is with motorbike drivers.
I once HIT a motorbike (HIS fault) in FRONT of a cop – and despite me being a foreigner, he knew it was the motorbike rider’s fault and was cool. He did not even ask to see my license (which was fortunate, since Thai licenses are difficult to obtain if you are foreign – and none of my assorted Western licenses are exactly kosher).
Anyhoo – it is a fact that most Thai people bear at least one scar. And if you ask them how they got it, the answer is invariably the same – motorbike accident.
I once SAW two of these excrescences meet at an urban crossroads with no markings to indicate who should STOP. Result: neither did – and seven youths ended up sprawled all over the road. Broken bones likely – but this time, no fatalities.
However, while accidents involving motorbikes hitting OTHER motorbikes generally only produce bumps, bruises, gashes, grazes and the occasional busted bone for their riders and passengers – those that pit motorbikes against cars, pickups, trucks and buses are the ones that produce all those deaths.
And every year, backpackers who hire these two-wheeled death-traps for TINY money join the statistics – particularly those who hail from left-hand-drive countries.
Holiday islands like Samui have shocking statistics. And since Thai crash-hats are SMALL – foreigners rarely wear them.
For several years, I was one such. But after a minor spill that occurred on SAND, at WALKING speed – which gave me a broken collar bone (which are NOT fun) – I eventually decided to spend the (major) extra wonga needed to hire JEEPS.
Which brings us back to FOUR-wheeled transport – and beyond. Road rage is FAR less common in this country than in the West – thanks again to the psychology of the people – and for the above-mentioned financial reasons, they generally take it EASY (although few wear seatbelts).
Thus in a car, belt up and you are RELATIVELY safe.
But few tourists can afford to hire them, so most opt for the variety of BUSES that ply their trade all over Thailand. These are HIGHLY variable, safety-wise. You see buses that are not fit to grace a SCRAPYARD carrying passengers here.
And while the “luxury” buses LOOK impressive – they are built locally, have NO safety features and their maintenance standards are low. In addition, while they may LOOK solid – their bodies’ construction is merely a mixture of wood, glass and aluminium. A truck will go right THROUGH one.
Then there are the many “minibuses” – I recall a young driver on Samui who drove like Ben Hur and every time he overtook on the two-lane concrete loop road, the knuckles of a female passenger in front of me quite LITERALLY turned white as they gripped the seat in front of her. Although I rather ENJOYED the trip – he was actually a highly efficient driver.
However, many are NOT. Furthermore, since they drive the SAME routes EVERY day, for LONG (unregulated) hours, they can get careless. Or fall ASLEEP (it is easily done in a hot, humid country and Thais have the ability to fall asleep ANYWHERE).
As a result – horrendous, fatal bus crashes are COMMON here.
The situation is not helped by the way Thai roads are constructed. As already stated, many consider the left lane of a motorway (dual carriageway) to be a sort of “no man’s land” where you can do anything you like.
But the thing I always hated when I drove (or was driven) along these wide, straight roads was U-TURNS.
In the West, to turn right on a motorway, you turn LEFT onto a slip-road which leads to a tunnel or elevated roadway that goes UNDER or OVER the road you just left – not here. And as in America, motorways do not have slow and fast lanes – all lanes are EQUAL and you can (usually) overtake on either side.
Thus traffic turning right ends up in a (short) slip-LANE in the MIDDLE of the motorway. You then have to filter into the traffic coming the other way – which is often THREE OR FOUR lanes-worth, ALL doing SEVENTY-ODD MPH (112 KPH).
Which is IMPOSSIBLE if you are driving a long, slow truck or bus.
Consequently, THIS is where many of the more SPECTACULAR bus crashes occur.
So – take the TRAIN, right?
Well, there is talk about replacing Thailand’s antiquated rail network with a high-speed network of elevated trains like China is currently building (which STILL have accidents) but given Thailand’s economic situation – it will likely REMAIN talk.
The reality is that Thailand’s state railway system is very CHEAP – but as a result, maintenance is almost non-existent.
There are frequent derailments – but most accidents happen at the many LEVEL CROSSINGS that cover this country. These are mostly out in the middle of nowhere and if the barriers (where the crossings even HAVE barriers) do not work properly, the results can be disastrous.
Another monograph in this column tells THAT story. It can be found – with a link to PICTURES – here…
So, in closing, what can I say about travel in Thailand? Well – it IS CHEAP. But you get what you PAY for. This is still a “developing” country and as such, has much to learn about safety.
But then, accidents happen EVERYWHERE – even in countries like Switzerland and Germany, where safety is a byword and regulation a way of life. Thailand is pretty much like everywhere else – shit happens. It is just different in nature – it’s THAI STYLE. So if you want to live in – or visit – this place, it is no use expecting it to be like home.
I have traveled and driven around this great country for over a decade now – and I’M still alive. But I WATCH OUT. I have EMBRACED the local style and as far as possible, make ALLOWANCES for its shortcomings.
And if you do THAT – I guess you are about as safe here as anywhere…