Driving in Chaing Mai can be a little confusing until you get familiar with the main streets and the Thai way of driving. The original city plan was developed over 700 years ago when Chiang Mai was the capital of the Lanna Kingdom.
Driving is done on the Left side of the road – common for those from Europe and backwards from those from America. The cars are all built where the Driver sits on the Right Side of the Car and the Passenger is on the Left. Remember, the Driver is always in the Center of the Road.
The first thing that will strike you when you see the map of Chiang Mai is the big square in the center of the city. This is the Moat around the original city. Traffic is one way, Clockwise, around the outside of the Moat and one way, Counter-Clockwise around the inside of the Moat. There are many places where you can make a u-turn to change direction. Because of this plan, you frequently need to drive past where you want to go, make a u-turn, and return to your destination.
There is a “Rush Hour” in the morning and evening but nothing like the traffic in Bangkok or any other major city.
The biggest learning experience comes with learning the mai-bpen-rai passive-aggressive “flexible” lanes and merging techniques. Don’t be surprised to see a vehicle in a two-lane street driving down the center. Then you have Tuk-Tuks, Red Trucks (and all the other color Trucks), and now the City Buses added to the mix. If you obey the standards that you learned at home, and are patient with the differences, you’ll do fine.
In addition, there are Motorcycles buzzing in and out with one, two, or a family of 4 ridding on them. Living with Motorcycles needs some practice. NEVER make a sharp turn in EITHER direction – you will probably drive a Motorcycle off the road. At a Red Light, NEVER stop close to the line if you are in the front. The front area will fill up with Motorcycles while you are waiting for the light to change. It is also polite not to stop too close to the car in front of you. Leave enough room for a Motorcycle to change lanes in front of you.
Personal Space – that area around your car (or your person) that you may be familiar with – is very compressed in Thailand. Cars, Tuk Tuks, Red Trucks, and Motorcycles will pass on all sides with just inches to spare. This is Normal in Thailand.
To make up for all these potential Hazards, the drivers are usually courteous and patient.
You can live in Chiang Mai without having to have a car or a motorcycle if you pick your location carefully and have some flexibility in travel times and comfort levels.