Yes, there really needs to be an entire post dedicated to this subject… Westerners, be aware that the phrase “Pedestrians always have the right of way” does not exist here in Thailand! In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. It is your duty, as a pedestrian, not to get yourself run over. Here’s how:
- Patience. The best approach if you’re new in town or nervous is just to wait for a clear break in traffic and cross quickly when it is clear to do so. This can take several minutes, but it’s the safest thing to do until you get use to traffic patterns and learn the best places to cross.
- Intent. Make eye contact with drivers and make it clear that you intend to cross. Once they see your intent, they will anticipate your pace and slow down accordingly. So don’t stop halfway – this is important, even more so in Vietnam where walking in the middle of traffic is the norm.
- Check for motorcycles. There are many motorcycles on the road in Thailand, especially in Chiang Mai, and they aren’t always visible because of other cars blocking them. They can (and do) come speeding out of nowhere. If you do have to break traffic to cross the street (during rush hour when cars are stopped, for example), peak around the car your standing in front of to make sure a scooter is anxiously trying to pass without seeing you.
- Always assume a driver won’t stop. This is most important. Growing up in the United States and other western countries you can get acclimated to a culture or cautious and courteous drivers. Let that notion go when you’re in a developing country. The only person looking out for you is you.
There are crosswalks here and there in Thailand but they are almost entirely ignored (if you can even still see the paint to begin with.) The ones that actually do work have a big silver button for you to push and flash a green light for you/ red light for cars simultaneously. If you are lucky enough to come across one of these “luxury cross walks”, you will have 10 seconds to cross 4 busy lanes of traffic. (And some motorcycles still won’t stop, so be on your toes.)
Another note on crossing in front of a parking lot entrance or drive way: In western culture, drivers tend to stop when they see a pedestrian wanting to cross. In Thailand, they speed up!!! Yes, I have to confess I find it appalling. Try as I might to accept cultural norms, this practice infuriates me. On occasion I have literally put my hand on the car that is ready to blatantly run me over and given my dirtiest look while shaking me head in dismay. But this is also a country where 90% of motorcyclists don’t where helmets, so clearly it is not only my life they disregard… I am sure I should not take it personally. PS. I made that statistic up based on what I’ve seen.
On a more factual note, I found that road fatalities per 100,000 motor vehicles was 92.5 in Thailand (as of 2010), vs. 13.6 in the United States (as of 2012). According to the World Health Organization “over a third of road traffic deaths in low- and middle-income countries are among pedestrians and cyclists”. See more countries’ statistics here.
While this topic can often be comical in conversation, the risks are a reality. Be especially careful if you are visiting Thailand during the New Year festival, Songkran, in late April. The throwing of water is tradition, even onto moving vehicles, and creates the greatest risk of the year to motorists, passengers, and pedestrians alike. This year, 248 people were killed on Thailand’s roads in just 5 days.
The good news is that having this information can help keep you safe. Just take extra care during the holiday season (I recommend not driving during this time and avoiding long trips), and always take proper precautions when crossing the street!