If you're living outside Bangkok city driving in Thailand can be essential for full and free experience as public transportation is far from being sufficient to provide full experience.
I've been living in Chiang Mai for over 6 months now and few months ago I betook myself to acquire local license and start getting around on my own.
Driving culture in Thailand is rather unique - in vehicle selection, roads types and driving practice itself.
Thailand might as well be defined as a country that is just one big highway. "Super Highways" are everywhere and they can take you across country. Driving on them is dead easy too!
Driving in Thailand is loads of fun and the potential for a great road trip is always there. Highways are easy to drive on but can also be very fun as there are some sharp turns and hill slopes thrown in every once in a while. To add to that there are cafes and local fruit sales woman everywhere - nothing like stopping for a coffee in the mountains or getting some delicious, fresh small pineapples for mere pennies!
However despite great highways Thai roads are very primitive in design. In 6 months in Northern Thailand I've only seen 1 roundabout that was hidden away in small soi in some hipster area. Not only that but any sort of more advanced traffic control is unseen, I haven't seen any interchanges or road junctions that aren't just a traffic light. Needless to say if you're unlucky you might spend majority of your community sitting in from red light - would explain why Thai prefer big air conditioned cars?
Traffic lights themselves are very poorly controlled, often you need to stop at every one of them as they are not timed correctly.
Traffic signs are very poorly developed as well. Often there won't be appropriate signs or they will be somewhere where they shouldn't be:
I once paid a 500 baht fine for making illegal right turn; the sign that noted that was well after the turn itself. One of many foreigner traps, no one will bother to dispute this for 20$ and usually just cof up.
Some signs, although rare, are whole walls of thai text. There are signs that are 10 words long and somehow you're expected to drive 60km/hour and read that while keeping your eyes on the road? I'm far from a proficient at reading thai but I can't imagine even the most fluent of people could read this in time unless they are stuck in traffic.
Thailand's biggest economic export and the biggest industry in general is automomotive industry:
Thailand is the ASEAN leader in automotive production and sales. The sector employed approximately 417,000 workers in 2015, representing 6.5 per cent of total employment across all manufacturing industries and accounting for roughly 10 percent of the country's GDP. In 2014, Thailand exported US$25.8 billion in automotive goods wiki
Thailand is only behind USA when it comes to pickup truck popularity - roughly 60% of all vehicles in Thailand are pickup trucks. This is result of government tax policies.
Needless to say a road full of oversized cars spewing diesel is not very enjoyable or safe unless you're sitting in one yourself. Driving a motorcycle or a scooter definitely makes you feel unsafe when you are surrounded by trucks, sometimes filled 5 meters high with various items that might dislodge and fly straight at you.
While Thai people...
First I'd like to cover available public transportation options. Maybe it's not worth getting into driving at all? However I'd like to point out that aside from buses public transportation is quite pricey, especially for Thai economy.
Bicycles are available throughout Thailand and there are several options to choose from. However there are plenty of drawbacks:
There are some positives too:
In my honest opinion driving a bicycle is not worth it Chiang Mai and is very dangerous to say the least. I will cover traffic safety more later on. But I'd avoid cycling if you're staying for longer period of time.
So your options would be:
Mobike is a mobile app for bike renting service and it's as cheap as it gets.
The premise behind the service is that you have a map of bikes in your area, find one, unlock it via app and hop in for a ride! It works great, it's cheap and the only downside is that the bikes are quite simple and this service itself is only available in the city itself.
Right now as of time of this blogpost Mobike accepts two forms of payment. 10baht/20minutes or 250baht for 90 days unlimited usage (max 2 hours per trip).
So for pros it's cheap, convenient (there are bikes everywhere) and for cons - bikes are simple (no gears), leaving city is impossible.
You can rent a bicycle from 100 baht a day - there are plenty of rental places and many hostels, hotels and condos have them on offer.
You can buy a decent bike from local supermall for ~2000 baht, later you can sell in second hand facebook groups like 2ndhandchiangmai
Scooters are widely available and very popular all across thailand. They are fun to drive, cheap and convenient! This is my preferred method of transportation however it does have it's drawbacks:
You need a local driving license - while you could probably sneak around police check points without much effort they are often placed on main roads that make commute so much faster than taking small backroads and sois (small road).
As a general rule of thumb it's a good idea to avoid any trouble with Thai officials.