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Thailand Car Rental | Scooter Rental | Driving Tips | Thai Driver License

While public transport is nearly ubiquitous, many people will still want their own car for various reasons, such as exploring on their own, driving to a seaside resort, etc. However, if you haven't made a decision yet on whether or not to rent, lease or buy a car here, you're advised to read the section on driving tips first. Driving has considerable risks. Depending on the company you rent from, you might find that the condition of the cars is often not the same as with car rental companies in western countries, but the price is lower, too. You get what you pay for. Please make sure the car has sufficient insurance. You should also check the car yourself, such as the brake fluid levels, tightness and condition of belts, engine oil, tires and pressure in the spare tire.

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► Buying & Leasing Cars

Nonresident foreigners legally cannot own a car, though some have bought a car anyway, got it registered, etc. The seller didn't object to receiving the money and filling out the paperwork, and the government offices didn't raise a red flag. The only foreigners who I've known to do this had a work permit and tax ID number. Usually, a foreigner is a shareholder in a company, and the company buys the car, or else the foreigners trusted girlfriend or ceremony-married wife owns the car. If the marriage is legally registered, then the wife married to a foreigner cannot own the car. (This is largely due to a history of sham marriages to foreigners for the purpose of buying up property in Thailand, sometimes for mafia footholds, and sometimes driving up the property prices presented to indigenous Thais. The property laws in Thailand are nationalistic.)

When you buy a car, the registration process is normally handled by the dealer. However, if you are transferring a car to a new owner privately, then you do so at the Department of Land Transport, as covered in the section on driver's licenses. Registration cost is based on the engine size. Every car must have two stickers on the windshield. One is for the license plate registration and is renewed annually when you pay tax. The other one is your mandatory car insurance. Make sure both are current, both year and date. The date will be in the Buddhist 2546+ year.

Car insurance is mandatory. Expired car insurance entails a very large fine if the police catch you. Liability has no limit if you're in an accident without car insurance. There are car insurance vendors all over, including on the side of the road under a tent. It's suggested you bring along an educated Thai person to judge them. A few of the private sector vendors have a deal with the government so that you can get your compulsory car insurance via mail. The car vendor will get your tag registration for the first year, but you will need to renew it. You might get red temporary plates for a new car for a month, until your permanent white ones arrive. The meaning of this varies. Some say that you can drive only during the daytime. Others say you can't be on the road during rush hour traffic hours. White plate cars can drive at all times. Talk to your car reseller for the latest laws and options.

Many people ask "Should I bring my car to Thailand?" Usually, the answer is "no", and instead you should lease or buy one over here. Cars are subject to a high luxury tax, equal to 200% of the car's value when new, as assessed by Thai customs (actually, the combined value new of overseas price plus local price), plus tax on the transport fee. Car prices in Thailand are higher than in the U.S., especially for used cars, but it's still far less than shipping a car. In Thailand, you drive on the left side of the road, so cars from countries like the U.S. with right side driving are hazardous here, especially when passing. There are large magazines which list pages upon pages of used cars for sale, as well as used car dealerships, but it's all in the Thai language. If you don't have a Thai interpreter/agent, then you're challenged. Thus, translator/interpreter services are available.

People in Thailand don't take care of their cars as well as people in western countries on average, by my experience. Therefore, if you wish to buy a used car, then you may want to bring along a fairly good car expert and check out the car thoroughly. The good news is that car repairs, including major car work, are much cheaper in Thailand than in western countries due to the much lower labor costs. On the other hand, getting quality parts is a challenge, including at many official car dealerships. Before you agree to have work done, you should get a good referral from someone you trust in your region. ThailandGuru knows a few quality repair places in some parts of Bangkok, and who allow you to remain with your car in the workshop in order to oversee the work performed and the parts installed.

When you buy a car, the vehicle must be manually inspected by a government officer, who checks the engine and chassis serial numbers against those on the existing registration and on file (vs. forgery). If they match, then the transfer is routine. If the seller has failed to pay their taxes over the years, then someone must pay those.

There are some reports of stolen cars being sold to unwitting foreigners and Thais alike for cash, whereby the car is discovered as stolen and is confiscated by officials. Therefore, it is advised that you actually pay for the car at the same time you go with the seller to transfer ownership. If you buy the car from an official used car dealership, then the official receipt from the custom-printed standard car dealership invoice books might be acceptable to you (as it has been for me).

Once you own the car, it is strongly advised that you get a visible lock bar for the steering wheel and have a good security system. Car theft occurs in Thailand, especially new and valuable models, though it's not significantly more common than in many other western countries. Many official measures have been taken to suppress car theft in Thailand, but corrupt government officials in some parts of Thailand, Cambodia and Laos have facilitated some sophisticated theft rings, and on the other side of the spectrum are petty car thieves who don't consider the future consequences of their short term actions.

► Driving Tips

When you are heading for a particular destination, you may want to consider whether to drive your car or just take public transport instead. Some of the reasons for using public transport:

  • Parking is often difficult to find
  • One-way lanes, medians and various traffic rules often mean you drive a long, roundabout way to go a short distance, whereas you can walk across streets to get a quick taxi route
  • Traffic to some places can be circumvented by using the skytrain
  • Long stays can rack up high parking fees
  • You can catch up on reading material in a taxi or in other public transport, whereas you throw away time behind the wheel of a car
  • If you are not a skilled and defensive driver, and if you don't have patience, or if you're easily annoyed by aggressive drivers, then you'd better relax in a taxi

During times of traffic, I usually drive only when I have heavy weight to carry around or am going to an off-the-beaten-track place where public transport would not be convenient or feasible.

The traffic signs are in Thai, but the important ones you can decipher because they follow international standards of pictography -- shape, color and style. Besides the obvious stop, yield, etc., there are a few, however, that people are not familiar with. One to take note of is the blue ones with the triangle, which means that during rush hour (as defined on the sign by numbers) there must be at least 3 or 4 people in the car to take that route. It's usually recommended that those new to Thailand ride in taxis for awhile and get used to the way people drive in Thailand, both the written and unwritten rules of the road. The biggest challenge is motorcycles which drive between the lanes of cars. You must be aware of them around you! You must anticipate their possible driving behavior! Never make quick decisions and action to change lanes. Never let a passenger open a door without looking for motorcycles coming up from behind. Always use your blinker/indicator long before you turn. The biggest risk is hitting one of the motorcyclists who are really reckless, the kind who speed (many on amphetamines) and have a remaining halflife on the order of months. If you are the unlucky driver to meet their imminent fate, and there's a good chance you'll be hit up for at least some money regardless of the fault of the reckless motorcyclist.

Driving is like a video game with "gotchas", you get stung once, you lose a lot of the earned income benefits of driving. Commercial vehicles such as taxis and buses (including many minivans) often have aggressive drivers, so be ready for them to make sudden lane changes or pull out in front of you. Avoid sudden slowdowns or stops. In Thailand, cars drive closer to each other. Rear end collisions are the most common accidents. I've known Thais who drive without ever having gotten a driver's license! If the police stop them, they just say they lost it or forgot it at home, and may pay a bribe. There are a lot of aggressive drivers in Bangkok and on the highways. This will require that you notch up your level of defensive driving.

One convention is the opposite in Thailand: In the west, if you are at an intersection or U-turn place, or just changing lanes, if someone flashes their lights, it means that they are courteously signalling to you that they will wait for you to turn in front of them. In Thailand, it's the OPPOSITE -- it means "GET OUT OF MY WAY!" These drivers are extremely aggressive, and sometimes I do the community service of calmly rotating my finger around my ear in the "you are crazy in the head" psychological gesture. However, be careful about road rage. You should never need to hurry too much. Safety first. One accident and it's all not worth it.

If you come from a country that drives on the right hand side (like myself), then you will need to get used to driving on the left hand side. The most common confusion is when you first start off on the road, and when you make a turn and habitually head for the wrong lane. What I initially did was keep in mind that the driver's side of the car is closest to the middle line of the road. It took only about half an hour to get comfortable driving on the left, but it took a while longer to break the habit of hitting the windshield wipers when I meant to turn on the blinker/indicator before a turn. If you are stopped by the police for a driving infraction, the standard procedure is to hand over your driver's license (you'll be driving without one for a little while) in exchange for the traffic ticket, and to go to the police station to pay the fine and get your license back. That means finding the police station and losing time... ...

However, to say the least, there are common reports of instead settling the fee with the individual policeman and getting your license back on the spot, e.g., 300 baht. This would need to be done before the policeman even starts to write up your ticket. According to these reports, have 300 baht handy, e.g., in your ash tray, but hold it low out of view of pedestrians but where the policeman can see it in your hand. The policeman will discretely take it, e.g., with a hand hidden under the ticket tablet, reach into your car.

DO NOT hold money out the window, as giving a bribe must be done out of view of others! (Yeah, I know, people say to pay 200 baht, or 100 baht, and sometimes boast about how they got the best deal, but is it really worth haggling or being disrespectful or taking a risk that the policeman will just shake their head and write you up, you greedy and cheap farang?) If you've broken the law, then be understanding and respectful of the policeman. They stand out in the heat and pollution every day during rush hours, and I don't think many foreigners could "keep their cool" after years in such a job. Most Thai policemen are quite polite and cool-headed despite their working conditions. I much prefer Thai police than some of the redneck cops I've dealt with in the USA.

On the other hand, if you become aggressive and disrespectful like an ugly farang, then they may refuse to communicate further with you and you may well just be handed a ticket of 1,000 baht or more, to be paid at the police station that day, and/or much worse if you just drive away. On the other hand, the policeman might just walk away and not deal with you any more, according to the stories of many farangs who stonewall with the "no speaka da Thai" routine. I don't agree with that karma, and it's not a big deal to be pulled over by a policeman for a driving infraction. Just find out what you did wrong and deal with that. Don't be impulsive and do something stupid. I've been stopped by police for several things -- following other cars down restricted lanes without knowing the 3 person per vehicle law during rush hour, following other cars thru a red light in the far left lane at a T intersection (just because others routinely do it doesn't mean it's legal, and sometimes we all got pulled over by a happy policeman), following a bus thru a red light on Ramkamhaeng (radioed up to the next cop, but I had only 60 baht on me, so the policeman just smiled and said I could help him only a little bit, oh well running a red light that I didn't see (heavy duty lecture by the policeman but no ticket and no fine; mostly since it was a minor T-intersection), and probably the worst -- expired insurance sticker, something they take very seriously.

The expired insurance was quite a trip. The policeman on a motorcycle pulled me over on a comfortable road, and got off his motorcycle opening the ticket tablet, like we was going to write me up anyway. I had no idea what I'd done wrong. I quickly interrupted him and got out of the car. He just pointed towards my windshield sticker. I started speaking Thai and that got his attention. After all, I was driving with a Nakhon Pathom license plate, so what did he expect? He said "insurance, expired". "Really?" He authoritatively walked over there and thumped on my windshield. I was pissed, at myself, my sabai wife, my secretary... I know the months because I check grocery expiration and packing dates. It was just an old habit of depending on others, but they didn't really back me up. Wouldn't happen again, but this was now. So I was pissed at them, then myself for not double-checking, but a little displaced seriousness wasn't such a bad thing. It dawned on me to ask him, "How did you know?" The date is just typed in small print on the paper. The big year is right, but the month is just typed on the paper, very small. He was a bit sensitive to the fact that I didn't know him from the expressway exit, where he is every day. Maybe he saw my sticker before it expired and was counting the days. Anyway, to make a longer story short, I supported him exceptionally well with money, and left with a trustworthy promise to pay the next year of insurance pronto.

I've never had a totally bad experience with a policeman. Once, I was pulled over by a provincial cop for allegedly making an illegal right turn, but 100 baht made him so happy that I felt sorry for him more than anything else. I'm sure that I'm lucky to not have run into a bad cop. However, I believe that the bad cop stories are more often a mix of bad cops and bad farangs, not all bad cops. Sometimes, people with big egos get very defensive and hurt when they're caught wrong, and lash back. I've ridden in the car of other farangs and Thais who have a bad attitude and flagrantly violate the law routinely. If they're not a threat to other people, then never mind. However, some are very aggressive and dangerous drivers, and reforming them as a friend isn't easy. Just because others are aggressive drivers, that shouldn't be taken as a license for you to do the same.

Whenever an aggressive driver cuts you off, just feel sorry for the miserable son-of-a-b****. Think about their state-of-mind. Is that how you want to be? Don't be stupid and let someone suck you in to their miserable mindset -- misery loves company. Just ignore them, they're probably hopeless in their habits, and practice an enlightened way to transcend such a mechanism. (Or, if you can't feel sorry for them, then at least laugh at their relative idiocy. Who cares if a stranger thinks they "won" in a road battle? Is your ego that fragile? In the long term, they are a "loser" in life in this way.) Let them honk. Let the sound pass you by unruffled. Just feel sorry for them and let it go. Don't provoke them into road rage. For what? The world is full of crap and you can't change people like that. What result do you expect? It might take you 30 minutes to reach your destination by driving aggressively, or 40 minutes by driving relaxed. Turn on the radio or your favorite music and get comfortable in your car. Appreciate the free time away from office and home distractions to think about other things in life. Enjoy your time. ... But don't run a red light while lost in thought!

► Accidents

Just like most places in the world, if you have an accident, then you are required to not move the vehicle until the police come and document its position, and you should immediately call your insurance company. The insurance company might send an agent to the scene to talk with the police and the other party, depending on the situation. If nobody was injured and damage is minimal, then you might want to try to settle on the spot with the other driver. If you feel that you cannot trust the other driver, then don't do this. If you have a camera with you, then consider using it extensively. Do not flee the scene, because those who do are guilty of a serious infraction of the law. Secondly, you would also lose much if not all of your ability to argue your side of the case at the scene, about who was at fault and compensation. Overall, you will probably find yourself in much worse circumstances if you flee. This is contrary to advice I've heard given many times.

Thailand is not Iraq or Congo or somewhere where you must fear a crowd will come to surround the accident, they will look at you like an alien, form a mob, and you must shift into 4-wheel drive and mow down everybody between you and your embassy's gate. The Thais are not out to get the westerners, I can assure you. If you've heard otherwise, challenge them.

If you keep your cool, then you'll usually be dealt with fairly. While I've heard horror stories by farangs who say they've been ripped off by Thais, some of the speakers strike me as aggressive types driven to "win" against others, and otherwise complain about the world, how all their problems are due to other people, just like in court cases. I've ridden as a passenger with aggressive drivers, several of whom have gotten into accidents and blamed others in questionable ways. Nonaggressive drivers rarely do get into accidents. People often blame the other guy without truly considering both sides of a case. This is even moreso when recounting the story to a friend or colleague. My advice: Think by yourself and do what's right.

A couple of phone numbers to keep handy in the car: Highway police: 1193 Tourist police: 1155 (best English).

► Getting a Thai Driver License

Office working hours, last time we checked, were 8:00 am to 4:30 pm, Monday to Friday. For a Thai driver's license, you officially need:

  • Passport with non-immigrant visa, with photocopies of the front page, the visa page, and your most recent visa entry stamp, these three copies all signed;
  • A work permit, of which you will need to make a photocopy; or else
  • An Affidavit of Residence from your Embassy or consulate which is just a letter saying you are residing in Thailand at a specific address. This Affidavit must be less than 1 month old. Or else
  • A recent Residency Certificate from the Thai Immigration Department stating your current address, though this can take weeks or never arrive because they are supposed to order an officer from your local police station to go to your address to verify you live there, for free.

    If doing 2 licenses, e.g., car and motorbike, then you can use a copy for the 2nd license.

  • Medical report from a doctor or hospital (under 1 month old & original) which is a certificate which says you are fit to drive. If the doctor doesn't know what this is about, go to another one. Many doctors don't even examine you; indeed, the secretary usually just pulls it out of the file and prepares it for you, which costs anywhere from 20 to 100 baht. I went to a hospital in Pathum Thani, they understood, took my blood pressure, weight, listened to my heart and breathing, asked me a few questions, then filled out the standard form, cost 280 baht (under $10).
  • Your driver's license from your native country to verify what license you hold, and a photocopy. If it's not in English then you need a certified translation into English from your embassy, according to some people; I don't know since mine is from the USA, and they did not require any translation.

    If you have no foreign driver's license, then you take a written multiple choice test & sometimes a road test. If you don't have a car or motorbike then you can rent one at some offices. The test is simple.

  • Fee, 205 baht for car, 155 baht for motorcycle
  • Someone who can read and write Thai, because all the forms must be filled out in Thai, and you are allowed to bring a translator/interpreter.

Some sites say you must bring 2 photos, size 1" x 1" (inches), filmed, not by digital camera and printer. I was never asked for any photo. If required by some office, then it would usually be available near the office.

At the Mochit office, there is a big photocopy operation right by the front door and people using it to photocopy passports, work permits, etc., for 1 baht per page. However, you need to tell them specifically which pages to copy. The process was reasonably quick. Color blindness test, brake reaction test, peripheral vision test, then the last booth took my photo and gave me the driver's license card right there. The Thai driver's licenses you get is valid for only one year, but the second year you can apply for a 5-year license. The second time around, you need to only bring your old license and get a Thai to fill in your forms. (And maybe bring photos, depending on which office?)

Friday, April 23, 2021