I’ve lived in Bangkok, Thailand for more than a decade and I don’t own a car. During that 12 year period, not only have I never rented a car but I’ve never even thought about it. Why? Quite frankly, renting a car in Bangkok is not as easy as other large cities and much of that has to do with the traffic and the expense.
That’s why, if you’re thinking of renting a car in Bangkok on your next trip, here are a few things to consider before you do as well as several alternatives. I’m not trying to dissuade you from doing so, it just may be you really don’t need one.
Bangkok Traffic – Bangkok traffic is some of the worst in the world. Traffic jams begin early in the morning, break for a couple of hours around 11am and then pick up again at 1pm and run through the rest of the day.
If you’re planning on renting a car to use around Bangkok, do you really want to spend much of your trip sitting in traffic that barely moves more than a mile every hour? Particularly when the sky train and underground systems will take you to most Bangkok tourist attractions quickly, and boats and motor cycle taxis can take you to the rest.
Thai Street Signs – While street signs all over Bangkok, and the rest of the country, are in Thai and English this does not always make driving as easy as it sounds. That’s because the English signs are translated directly from Thai but not with a consistent spelling. So, for instance, you may see Pahonyothin Road, Paholyotin Road, Paholyothin Road – yes, they are all for the same place but spelled three different ways.
When you’re driving and you see a road sign spelt one way, then a few hundred yards further up the street another sign spelled a completely different way, you’re not always sure if that’s the road you should be turning on to, particularly as their names are so exotic-sounding anyway. I’ve had several friends who have rented a car in Bangkok and then left it sitting at their hotel, as dealing with Thai street signs was just too confusing.
Parking Can Be Difficult and Expensive – Not only do you have to deal with Bangkok’s horrendous traffic if you rent a car, but parking can be difficult and expensive as well. After all, in a city with over 13 million people, it often seems like every Thai owns a car and they’re all trying to park theirs in the same mall parking lot you are at the same time. As for parking on the street, it’s impossible in many areas of the city.
On top of that, parking isn’t always cheap in some areas of the city, if you can even find it at all. Some malls and supermarkets charge a hefty fee after the first couple of hours, with rates of upwards of 250 baht (almost $8). When you consider you can travel all over the city on the sky train or underground for that price, and a boat trip would be even cheaper, do you really want to pay a daily car rental fee, the cost of gas and an expensive parking fee?
Motorbikes – There are as many motorbikes on the streets in Bangkok as cars, and they zip in and out of traffic as well as squeeze up the side of you when you’re just crawling along. Add onto it that many are carrying oversize loads or three passengers and the driver (I kid you not, I’ve seen motorbikes with five people on them) and driving a car in an unfamiliar city on crowded roads while trying to avoid thousands of motorbikes can be more than just a little daunting.
Do You Need a Car for Travel Outside Bangkok? Some tourists rent a car as they think it will make it easier to leave Bangkok and travel to Hua Hin, Pattaya or Kanchanaburi. Does it? Not usually.
That’s because, in Thailand, taxi drivers will often take you anywhere you want to go. If that’s a three hour drive to Hua Hin, no problem. A 10-hour drive to Chiang Mai? They’ll do that as well, and at such cheap rates you can hardly believe.
When my parents stayed in Bangkok they hired a taxi driver to take them to one of the local sightseeing spots just outside the city. The driver took them to the place about 40 miles away, waited for them for four hours while they saw the sights and then drove them back. The total cost? 500 baht ($15.85), which was cheaper than the daily rental fee on a car and a lot less hassle.
If you want to travel to Hua Hin or Pattaya and stay for a few days, there’s no problem there either. Just hire a taxi to take you (either insist on the meter being turned on or agree on a price before you leave) and let him drop you off. On the way back a few days later? Hire a taxi driver in Hua Hin or Pattaya to bring you the opposite direction.
While renting a car in Bangkok may sound like a good idea, it’s rarely something that will be cheaper than other forms of transportation (buses, motorcycle taxis, boats and taxis are very cheap) and, if you’re not familiar with the city and the traffic, will cause you a lot of stress and hassle.
I don’t know a Thai that would rent a car in Bangkok, and they are familiar with the city’s roads, traffic and street signs. If you really don’t have a valid reason for needing one, you may also want to think about why you believe you need one, as you may find you really don’t.