Licensed to Thrill: How to Take Asia by Storm on Two Wheels in Seven Not-So-Easy Steps

Family on Motorbike

They see me rollin'

The Thai Transit Authority is the official body in Thailand vested with upholding the high standards of driver testing and certification that we’ve come to expect from Asian nations. Don’t be complacent. A foreign passport is no call for special treatment. You’ll be expected to demonstrate the same standards of motoring excellence that are typical here. The grace and precision displayed by everyday taxi drivers, bus drivers and common Bangkok motorists is the same vision of highly adept, skillful and orderly driving which is taken for granted in the Land of Smiles. Your testing instructors will expect no less from you.

But don’t worry if you’re a bit rusty. With a little preparation, a steely resolve, and a dash of chok-dee (good luck) you’ll be negotiating the fray in no time. This post will guide you through the challenges you’ll face as you prepare to acquire your Thai driver’s license as quickly as possible (read: not very quickly at all).

Note: if you already have a car / motorcycle license in your home country, just pick up an international driving permit before you leave and save yourself the rigmarole. For everybody else, onward!

The Three Trials of Verification

The actual technicalities of driving here are pretty straight forward and familiar. But you can’t just front up to the RTA with your passport and a bag of hope. On the contrary, there’s some pretty stringent documentation you need to produce before you’ll be eligible to go through the testing process. In particular you’ll need to gather the following artefacts from the corners of the empire in order to tender your application.

The quest of the visa

This quest is the most dangerous of the three, for it will take you to a far away land—typically Laos. The internet is slower. The Tuk Tuks are nosier and it’s impossible to understand how much anything actually costs. You pay in one currency, get change in another and the denominations go up to like 7 million. You’re not here to sight see. You need to head on over to the Thai Consulate and file the application for a non-immigrant visa. It comes in three flavors: business, education and other (family). That ordeal is outside the scope of this blog post. Just know that you’ll need the visa to nab the license.

The quest of the residency certificate

Once you’re safely back in the country as a bona-fide, non-immigrant, non-tourist, alien you’ll have to gather further evidence of your residency for the satisfaction of the RTA. To get the residency certificate you have to front up to immigration with your visa, passport photos, house registration papers and perhaps some kind of endorsement depending on your situation. After the usual rigmarole, you’ll be issued with a letter from immigration certifying that you meet the residency requirements. You take this letter to the nearest RTA office with your other papers to apply for your driver’s license. The letter is only good for 30 days, so post haste.

The quest of the medical certificate

This is straight forward and can be done at any local clinic. I’m not sure what the tests involve because my doctor didn’t bother to administer them. Guess that’s because I’m so robust and vital.

Thai Driving 101

Front up to your local RTA office with your portfolio of documentation and present for processing. Once your application is all in order you’ll have the opportunity to study some educational materials to prepare you for the challenges ahead.

There’s a kiosk thing at the RTA office which will teach you [some of] the road rules (they keep some secret for the real exam). You will also (if you’re lucky) be issued with a glossy booklet for learning the road signs and markings. That’s fortunate because most of the content in the kiosk is illegible. I had called in a few days earlier to see if I could get any take-away materials for learning the road rules. But apparently that’s not allowed. Fortunately, my MI6 training came in handy and I was able to nab these top secret training images using my top secret, miniature imaging device (a.k.a iPhone).

Here’s a few Thai road rules and procedures that you might not be aware of:

When a car and a commercial airliner meet at an intersection, who has right of way?

Give way to aircraft

Give way to planes taxing of the expressway

Not sure about you, but where I come from, when a car has to give way to an airplane, one of you is doing it wrong.

How to signal your intent to turn in the even that your vehicle is completely unfit for the road

How to indicate

How to indicate in Thailand

The caption says:

Reduce Speed: A driver must stretch his right arm then move it up and down several times, usually it showed while the vehicle’s light signals is not available (sic).

I recommend rolling down your driver side window before attempting this maneuver.

How to overtake safely (showing polite consideration for your fellow motorists)

How to pass

How to pass in Thailand

The instructions say:

  1. Assure that overtaking is not prohibited and dangerous then warn the front vehicle by your horn.
  2. Flick the front lights (height-low beams) (sic) to warn the front vehicle again.
  3. Being sure that the oncoming traffic is open and check to be sure with the rearview mirror. When you go out into the right part of the road in order to overtake check that the traffic coming in the opposite direction is open clearly.

(Note: nowhere does it mention your mirrors or turn signal).

So if you’re driving in Thailand and encounter someone honking at you and flipping you off before leaving you in the dust. Don’t be offended. They’re just following the official passing procedure.

The Three Mortal Challenges of the RTA

Once all the paper work is in order, you’ll have to face three mortal challenges to prove your worthiness. They are:

  • The Test of Foresight
  • The Test of Wits
  • The Test of Skill

The Test of Foresight

This test will stretch your physical constitution to the limit. You must have the eyes of an Eagle and the speed of a Cheetah. First—a dazzling array of colours will be set before you. A maiden with ivory cain will point amid this psychedelic kaleidoscope seemingly at random! Then, standing at a distance of not less than eight feet you must identify by name the indicated colour not once but thrice. You must name red, then green, then yellow; or yellow, then red, then green. Or some combination of the above. Let your intuition guide you. Do not name blue—it’s a trick! Good luck.

Next you must kneel at the feet of a second maiden and, placing your chin upon a steely alter, stare into the visor before you. Fix your eyes on the yellow stripe ahead—but do not be deceived! The colour you must name comes not from the front but from the side—by sneak attack! Let your vision become soft and broad like the vigilant gaze of an Arabian Oryx. Be on your guard—To the left! To the right! The colour will flash and you must name it red, yellow or green—be it as it may.

Now at last you will be seated, but do allow your wits to become dim for never before has your dexterity been more imperative. On the floor before you, you will find a mysterious panel adorned by two irregular pedals—one tall and slender, the other short and stout. A sentinel will direct you to depress the more slender of the two (the pedal that means ‘go’). Now, while keeping the pedal depressed, keep your attention trained keenly on the indicator at the opposite end of the room. After a random interval a panel will light green. But be warned! In this test—green means stop! Here’s where your lightning reflexes come into play. Immediately depress the opposite pedal. If the light turns red, you’re toast!

The Test of Wits

Here you’re issued with a magnetic card and shown into a room to sit the theoretical driving exam. You insert your card into one of the many computer terminals to begin the test. The exam is ostensibly (one presumes) designed to test a candidates knowledge of traffic rules, safe driving practices and other important motoring knowledge. However, on inspection one can only conclude the single highest priority of the Thai Traffic Authority is educating motorists on the inappropriateness of parking within 15 metres of a railway line. This is the single most represented concern in the sampling of questions that I was issued in 3 separate sittings of the test—I had to take the test twice since I was applying for both car and motorcycle licenses (apparently the traffic rules change depending on what you’re driving) and I also did a practice run before the real exam.

The exam brought to light two important revelations:

  1. The Thai Traffic Authority and I have several differences of opinion as to how right of way should work intersections; and
  2. That’s no barrier to my getting a license to drive in Thailand it’s ASEAN compadres.

The Test of Skill

So, after having conquered the three trials of verification, proven your flawless colour naming skills and bested the diabolical riddles of the theory test you’ve finally earned the right to don your trusty driving gloves and prove your worth as a fully capable member of the Thai motoring fraternity.

There’s just one more challenge you must face before you can join the ranks of respected motor vehicle operators across Thailand: the practical test.

You may well be feeling nervous at this point. After all there’s a lot at stake. This is the moment when your powers of observation, co-ordination and general command of a vehicle will be put under close scrutiny (sometimes as close as just six feet away).

The Good News is that you wont have to negotiate real traffic, observe traffic signals, perform hill starts, use your indicators or move the vehicle out of first gear. Those more advanced procedures are reserved for fully licensed drivers to work out on their own time. Also note that at no time will any instructor actually be seated in the vehicle with you while performing the tests (so be sure to keep your window wound down).

The most demanding part of the prac test for cars is a reverse parallel park. Be sure to get plenty of practice in before you show up, as you only get about 7 chances to get this right on the day.

The motorcycle practical is a little bit more demanding since you’ll have to ride in a straight line and also wiggle between some cones; just remember to show up sober and you should do just fine.

In summary, if you can operate a ride-own lawn mower, and order drive through at McDonnalds, there’s a reasonably good chance you’ll be eligible to drive in Thailand. Provided of course, that your papers are in order.

Photo by JanneM

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