Thailand is a great country to tour by car. With the exception of Bangkok, traffic is moderate and manageable throughout the country. With a rental vehicle, you have the option of exploring areas not usually visited by the majority of tourists and can escape the crowds. You’ll also have the opportunity to meet Thais other than those who work in the tourism industry.
While rates for car hire in Thailand are on a similar level to those in Europe, you’ll find that the savings you make using the cheap public transport are lost on time wasted waiting for connections and inefficient logitistics.
Around Bangkok, there is a network of expressways that allow the city’s traffic to move smoothly. Unfortunately, at certain times in Bangkok the congestion is as bad as everyone says, even with major improvements in recent years. If you must hire a car from Bangkok, it’s advisable to start out from one of the airports. While staying in Bangkok itself, it’s better to rely on taxis and the MRT/BTS service.
Nonetheless, from Bangkok and throughout the country there are multi-lane highways including the highway to Chiang Mai (multi-lane for more than half the way, to Kamphaeng Phet), to Isaan (past Nakhon Ratchasima), to Kanchanaburi in the west, and to Chumpon in the south. Travelling on them in a hire car is fairly straightforward.
Cars, four-wheel drive vehicles and vans can be hired in Bangkok and at other major tourist areas such as Chiang Mai, Pattaya and Phuket. The cost for a car usually runs around 1,000 to 3,000 baht per day, with vans and four-wheel drives slightly more at 2,500 to 3,500 baht.
You will find that the major international car hire companies charge more than the local companies, but they tend to offer more of a choice of vehicles. Some travel agencies also provide car hire services, and these agencies normally have offices in the larger hotels. It is a good idea to find out if a vehicle is insured for liability before signing the car hire contract.
In tourist areas up-country, small firms have some older vehicles on offer at low prices. This type of car hire in Thailand might be fine for getting around locally, but is probably not a good choice for longer journeys. There is usually no significant back-up service with a small local company and you should look at the contract carefully.
Most roadways are reasonably well maintained, but there are bad patches in places, often during the rainy season, particularly where the construction was poor. The road signs are clear and helpful, conforming to international standards and are in both Thai and English in most areas visited by tourists. A good selection of road maps is available as well.
Driving practices in Thailand may be a bit different than what you are used to at home. Driving habits may seem unpredictable, and the famous Thai smile may not be evident on the roadways. Larger vehicles usually assume the right of way over smaller vehicles. Flashing indicators and headlights don’t always convey a clear indication of the driver’s intention. Overall, maintaining a defensive approach to driving is highly recommended, as is avoiding driving after dark, particularly on poorly lit country roads.
Prices for petrol have climbed considerably in Thailand of late, currently at about 45 baht per litre, 30 baht for diesel. There are a good number of petrol stations in the well-populated areas, but not so many on some of the longer country stretches. The facilities are usually modern, but up-country you probably won’t find Western-style toilets. Also, conventional modern service stations are substituted with small roadside hand-pumped petrol vendors which you have to keep your eye out for. Invariably every village with enough motorbikes has one of these if you’re desperate.
If you’d like to see Thailand by road but aren’t comfortable driving, an alternative is to hire a car with a driver. Charges for driver and vehicle hire vary and are cheaper outside Bangkok. For a full day of touring in or around Bangkok (usually considered to be a maximum of 10 hours between 07:00 to 17:00) the cost will be about 2,000 baht per day plus fuel. For a minibus, the cost would be around 2,500 baht. In other areas rates are slightly lower, at approximately 1,750 baht for the day for a car, and 2,000 baht for a minibus. After 17:00, you will pay the driver an overtime rate of about 100 baht per hour, plus food and accommodation costs during up-country trips (an additional 500 baht).