After living here for over 7 years now, I’m familiar enough with the rules and nuances of Bangkok traffic to know that I never, ever want to drive in it. It’s not so much that it’s bad – traffic in India or Vietnam makes Bangkok traffic look like a driver’s ed training course – but rather that my skill sets aren’t useful here. I’m Canadian, so if you want me drive at 80km/h on an icy road with well-defined traffic rules that are strictly enforced and adhered to – no problem. But driving through go-kart-style traffic dodging tuk-tuk’s, bug vendors, stray dogs, motorcycles and pedestrians – and with the wheel on the wrong (right) side – well, maybe I better take a taxi. Bangkok has several million of them anyway – if I think of them as my own personal limo service, it’s not so bad at all. But despite this, I recently had to get a Thai driver’s license. This is normally accomplished by showing your license from your own country to the Department of Land Transport, at which point they’ll just transfer it over. But due to an unfortunate case of stupidity, I let my Canadian license lapse, which means it’s even less useful than the fake ones you can buy on Khao San Road. The only option I had was to go through the rigmarole as if I was a 16-year old Thai teenager.
So – what does it take to be allowed to legally drive on Thai roads?
The day started at 8am at the Department of Land Transport, a five minute walk from Chatuchak Park MRT station. The first step was to hand my work permit and health certificate (without these, you won’t even get past the door) to a woman behind a desk, who gave me a queue card and told me to go the fourth floor, where I was ushered into a room with about 15 others – all Thai. This was the group I was stuck with for most of the day – basically, they bring the whole group in to a room and test each person one at a time, at which point you all shuffle off to the next test together.
The first test was colour blindness. A stern sounding woman pointed to colored dots on a wall chart, and we had to yell out which colour the dot was. Red! Green! Yellow! I did it in Thai just to be safe – past experiences with Thai government officers have left me with little confidence in the depth of their English comprehension. I also had to stifle a laugh when I remembered what happened to Monty Python’s Sir Galahad at the Bridge of Death. “What is your favourite colour?” “Blue! No, yell… Agggghhhhh!”
Next was a reflex and coordination test, in which we had to sit in a chair and put our foot on a gas pedal. When a light in front of us turned red, we were required to quickly slam on the brakes in less than ¾ of a second; fail two out of three tries and you fail this portion of the test. My first attempt went badly, due to the fact that my huge size 14 feet could have depressed both pedals at the same time. Luckily, my second attempt was successful, and I didn’t slam into the schoolchildren I imagined were crossing in front of me.
Then, in the same chair, I had to align two rods using a remote control that moved one of the rods backward and forward. This is actually harder than it sounds, so I guessed, and passed – much like I did with every test I took in High School – (except for the part where I passed). Right after this came the peripheral vision test, in which I had to rest my chin on a table and identify the color of a light that was set up 75 degrees away from straight. No problemo.
Next came the boring part. As I was seemingly the only farang in the entire complex, I was led to a small, empty room with a TV and a VCD player, where I had to watch an instructional video (in English) on the rules and regulations of Thai traffic law, which took about 1 hour. I was lucky that I paid attention, because many of the points the narrator covered were necessary to know for the next portion of the test – the dreaded written exam.
Surprisingly, there was nothing ‘written’ about the exam at all; rather, I sat at a computer terminal in a long room which had about 100 other terminals identical to mine.
Once the 30 question multiple-choice test began, I had to press a button – A, B, C or D – corresponding to the correct answer to the question displayed on screen. Some of the questions were easy – for instance, one said something similar to:
When are you not allowed to operate a motor vehicle? A) After you wake up; B) When it is raining; C) Immediately after consuming alcohol or drugs; D) On a weekend.
However, the thing that tripped me up was that the English was not only riddled with grammar and spelling mistakes, but that many of the answers were ambiguous. For instance:
When an emergency vehicle approaches you from behind with lights flashing, you should: A) Speed up; B) Pull over, stop and wait for the vehicle to pass; C) Move to the left and continue driving; D) Pull over, stop, and immediately pull out behind the vehicle.
I chose B, because A is obviously wrong, C is a bit iffy, but doesn’t sound right, and D implies that that you’ll be following closely behind, which is illegal in any country. However, according to Thai law, the answer is D. There were several examples like this, as well as hard-to-understand diagrams and animations. A score of 23/30 is needed to pass – I scored 22 – Fail! I was told to come back in an hour and try again, so I boned up on the practice computer terminals outside the testing room and on my second attempt, I scored 25/30. Pass!
After that came the last and most important test of the day – actually driving a car. I remember my driving test in Canada way back when I was a wee lad, with the instructor sitting beside me telling me what to do. “Turn left here. Parallel park here. Merge here and then pass the car in front.” It was nerve-wracking. But Thai driving tests are a bit different. Once you rent a car (100 baht) and wait for your number to get called (I waited for over an hour), you take off around a parking lot on your own, following the signs which, again, were written in some pretty jagged English. This is what you have to do:
1) Drive your car down a straight, narrow lane marked by cones without hitting any of them, and then back out again;
2) Parallel park without knocking over any of the PVC poles surrounding the parking spot, changing gears no more than 7 times and leaving enough room in front of the car to be able to drive out without reversing first;
3) Drive alongside a curb, parking not more than 25cm away.
And then you can drive in Bangkok.
The only difficult part of this test for me was the fact that I’d never actually driven with the steering wheel on the right side of the car before; I probably should have practiced, but that would require forethought and planning skills, of which I have none. I passed – barely. The woman monitoring the parallel parking part of the test started yelling at me in Thai about there not being enough room to drive out (at this point, I wasn’t aware that I needed to be able to drive out without reversing first), so I simply yelled back her “Yang mai set!” (not finished yet!) several times and continued to my pre-allotted limit of 7 gear changes. Pass!
After that, it was back to see woman I met at 8am, who gave me my shiny new license (in English and Thai, I might add, possibly rendering international driving permits obsolete, as they exist mainly as an English translation).
Total time: 7.5 hours. Total cost: 205 baht for the license, 100 baht for car rental. Being able to drive in Bangkok’s traffic yet continuing to take taxis: priceless.
Also, word to the wise – bring a packet of tissues if you feel you might have to hit the can – this is what the toilets look like – note the lack of paper, as well soap on the counter. Ugh.