That’s what it’s like to drive in Bangkok, Thailand
If you drive in urban areas often, you know the particular struggles that come with it. Of course there are many variations. How wide or narrow the roads are and whether lane filters are allowed are important factors that affect your experience.
You may already know this, but in case you don’t know, Bangkok is a city absolutely packed with riders. There are other vehicles here too – from cars and trucks to tuk-tuks and buses (both public and private). Look around you, however, and you’ll soon see why bicycles seem to outnumber all four (and even three) wheels on city streets. The math is simple: drive anything with more than three wheels and you’ll spend an obviously ridiculous amount of time sitting in traffic.
Track filtering: A way of life
Ride a bike (or even take a ride in a surprisingly nimble tuk-tuk) and you’ll get to your destination that much faster. Why? That, friends, is because track filtering isn’t just recommended, it’s an absolute must. Bikes can weave through seemingly impossible gaps in traffic like no other vehicle. (Although a tuk-tuk is smaller and more maneuverable than most cars, it’s still not nearly as good for personal transportation as a bicycle.)
Spend as much time as you want watching the traffic at Bangkok’s busy intersections and you’ll see all the bikes weaving through the other vehicles to pull up at the stop line. Many (though not all) traffic lights also have a handy countdown timer so you can plan when to switch back into first if you’re sitting idle at the light.
Unless you live and drive in Bangkok, the idea of freely shifting between lanes of course probably seems very enticing. Of course, that entirely depends on what the local laws are where you live. As a lifelong Chicagoan, it’s definitely an odd but meaningful experience; If you’re a native Californian, it’s probably still a little different than your usual driving.
Are road users simply more attentive?
However, there is another aspect to consider here in terms of traffic. While this is entirely based on personal observation and doesn’t seem particularly quantifiable, I have observed that BKK drivers appear to be more aware of the flow of traffic around them while coasting.
That’s not to say there aren’t the inevitable scratches and/or crashes. However, that’s probably a direct byproduct of how narrow some of the little sois (as side streets are called) and little alleyways are, and the fact that street vendors line up and spread out their wares to keep any kind of traffic moving, just off Need.
Therefore, when scratches do occur, they often occur at extremely low speeds. As I was strolling around, I saw a rider on a Honda Air Blade get scraped lightly by a comparatively gargantuan Toyota Fortuner SUV trying to squeeze its bulk down a tiny alleyway. The driver’s plastic bumper made an audible scraping noise when the Fortuner brushed against it, but both driver and rider stopped immediately when that happened.
Then the two figured out how to break free so they could both pass. It ended up with the driver backing up slightly to allow the driver to slide through a particularly narrow passage in the lane and make room for another vehicle. After the two vehicles passed each other, they simply continued on their own paths without serious damage.
Can you predict what will happen?
As I mentioned earlier, situational awareness appears to be heightened in both the driver and driver. Now that I’ve ridden there, I have an idea as to why that might be. I can’t prove it, and I wouldn’t say it’s the same for everyone, but here’s what struck me as I made my way through what from the outside looked like a carefully controlled mess.
As an experienced road driver, I’m used to the challenges of driving in a busy urban area. On this I cut my (sprocket) teeth. One of the greatest tools any driver has in their survival toolbox is the ability to quickly analyze and perhaps even predict the behavior of other traffic on the road around them. Like people, vehicles have a kind of body language that doesn’t always have something to do with indicators, for example. If you pay enough attention, you’ll often find that you can figure out the next step a particular driver might be taking.
Since there is so much traffic congestion in Bangkok from vehicles, pedestrians and the occasional stray dog, your usual driving feelings are automatically heightened. In general, you have to assume that both you and the people around you don’t want to fall. Based on that assumption, you then weave in and out with traffic around you, and generally anywhere there is ample room to squeeze through. It’s an elaborate dance with many steps that only seem to settle down as you venture down a specific street.
Weaving is a traffic strategy, not just a craft
There seems to be a truth here: if there is a gap and at any given time there is enough traffic in the area to fill it, then it will be filled. With Bangkok’s ever-growing population – around 10.75 million people as of 2021 – it is often busy here, especially since there are many tourists at any time of the year.
By way of comparison, around three million people live in my own city of Chicago. Even NYC only had a little over 8.5 million people according to the last available official statistic of July 2015. Bangkok is just full of people, even before you start counting tourists. (Meanwhile, Mumbai, India, has a population of over 20 million, which is nearly twice Bangkok’s population — but I digress.)
Additionally, while you’ll want to obey traffic lights, signs, and laws (and please drive/drive on the left-hand side of the road), just about anywhere you can fit your particular vehicle is fair game. Do you want to drive extremely close to the curb to avoid some cars? Do it. Do you want to move horizontally or vertically between cars when you’re either in crawling gear or at a complete stop? That’s how it’s done, and I think you’ll probably get used to it if you do it enough.
Trust is earned, not given – even more so when we talk about traffic and trust that drivers won’t kill you. Still, there are larger calculations behind the chaos – and the best way to see that is to ride in it. You may be like me and most of the time feel like a small fish trying to swim through all that stuff that is way bigger than you, but you will feel your own senses heighten as you go. Who knows, you might even find out you love it.