Car travel in Thailand has its ups and downs. Major thoroughfares tend to be congested, but the limited number of roads and the straightforward layout of cities combine to make navigation relatively easy. The exception, of course, is Bangkok. Don't even think about negotiating that tangled mass of traffic-clogged streets. Hire a driver instead.
Cars are available for rent in Bangkok and in major tourist destinations. However, even outside Bangkok the additional cost of hiring a driver is a small price to pay for peace of mind. If a foreigner is involved in an automobile accident, he or she—not the Thai—is likely to be judged at fault, no matter who hit whom.
That said, car rental can be the most pleasant, affordable way to tour the country's rural areas.
If you do decide to rent a car, know that traffic laws are routinely disregarded. Bigger vehicles have the unspoken right-of-way, motorcyclists seem to think they are invincible, and bicyclists often don't look around them. Few Thai drivers go anywhere anymore without a cell phone stuck to one ear. Drive very carefully, as those around you generally won't.
Police checkpoints are common, especially near international borders and in the restive south. You must stop for them, but will most likely be waved through.
Rental-company rates in Thailand begin at about $40 a day for a jeep or $50 for an economy car with unlimited mileage. It's better to make your car-rental reservations when you arrive in Thailand, as you can usually secure a discount.
Jeeps and other vehicles are widely available for rent from private owners in tourist spots—particularly beach areas—and prices generally begin at about $25 a day. But be wary of the renter and any contract you sign (which might be in Thai). Often these vehicles come with no insurance that covers you, so you are liable for any damage incurred.
You must have an International Driving Permit (IDP) to drive or rent a car in Thailand. IDP's are not difficult to obtain, and having one in your wallet may save you from unwanted headaches if you do have to deal with local authorities. Check the AAA website for more info as well as for IDPs ($15) themselves.
As of this writing, a liter of gasoline costs B33, just over $1. Many gas stations stay open 24 hours and have clean toilet facilities and minimarts. As you get farther away from developed areas, roadside stalls sell gasoline from bottles or tanks.
You can park on most streets; no-parking areas are marked either with red-and-white bars on the curb or with circular blue signs with a red "don't" stroke through the middle. The less urban the area, the more likely locals will double- and triple-park to be as close as possible to their destination. Thai traffic police do "boot" cars and motorcycles that are improperly parked, though only when they feel like it. The ticketing officer usually leaves a sheet of paper with a contact number to call; once you call, he returns, you pay your fine (often subject to negotiation), and he removes the boot.
In cities the larger hotels, restaurants, and department stores have garages or parking lots. Rates vary, but count on B10 or more an hour. If you purchase something, parking is often free, but you must have your ticket validated.
Thai highways and town roads are generally quite good. Byways and rural roads range from good to indescribably bad. In rainy season expect rural dirt roads to be impassable bogs.
Leafy twigs and branches lying on a road are not decorations but warnings that something is amiss ahead. Slow down and proceed with caution.
Thai traffic signs will be familiar to all international drivers, though most roads are marked in Thai. Fortunately, larger roads, highways, and tourist attractions often have English signs, too. Signs aren't always clear, so you may find yourself asking for directions quite often—or just consult your smartphone and GPS.
If you have a choice, don't drive at night. Motorists out after dark often drive like maniacs, and may be drunk. Likewise, if you have a choice, avoid driving during key holidays such as Songkran. The Bangkok newspapers keep tallies of road deaths during each big holiday, and the numbers are enough to frighten anyone off the highway. When you are driving anywhere in the country, at all times beware of oxcarts, cows, dogs, small children, and people on bikes suddenly joining the traffic fray.
Should you run into any problems, you can contact the Tourist Police at their hotline, 1155.
Rules of the Road
As in the United Kingdom, drive on the left side of the road, even if the locals don't. Speed limits are 60 kph (37 mph) in cities, 90 kph (56 mph) outside, and 130 kph (81 mph) on expressways, not that anyone pays much heed. If you're caught breaking traffic laws, you officially have to report to the police station to pay a large fine. In reality, an on-the-spot fine of B100 or B200 can usually be paid. Never presume to have the right of way in Thailand, and always expect the other driver to do exactly what you think they should not.