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01 November 2014
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Car & Vehicle Hire

When traveling in Thailand, hiring a Thai car can be an enjoyable and relatively inexpensive way of getting about. A Thailand rental car with a driver/guide is marginally more expensive, but is perhaps a better idea as it will help you avoid many of the problems associated with driving yourself.

Avis, Hertz and other international car hire agencies are well represented in Thailand, and there are also many local companies that rent cars at competitive rates. In fact, most local companies are cheaper, but have the disadvantage that the cars may not be properly insured (even if they tell you otherwise). Your insurance from home might not cover an accident while driving a Thai rental car or motorbike in Thailand, so it's worth checking that out before you leave home.  Furthermore, many rental companies will not rent a Thai car to drivers who do not have an international driving license.  If they do, they may stipulate that the insurance on the car is not valid.  While it is technically legal to drive in Thailand with a valid foreign driver’s license, having an international license will make renting and driving a Thai car potentially less problematic.

One-way rental between destinations (e.g. Bangkok-Chiang Mai) is a possibility, but you should expect to pay a drop-off fee. It's a good idea to always fill up the tank before you bring the car back too, as petrol is cheaper at the station near most airports and the fee you might otherwise be charged is likely to be expensive.

Once it was common for Thailand car rentals to require you to leave your passport as a deposit for any vehicle that you rent.  In lieu of this, nowadays, most rental car companies will ask for a credit card that they will carbon copy with a deposit/charge of perhaps 50,000 baht (roughly 1,500 US dollars). Some places will let you leave travelers cheques or cash instead (local rental car agencies are generally more flexible than international ones). However, for motorbike rentals it’s almost always your passport that you must leave behind.  Bear in mind that if you have any sort of problem and have left your passport as collateral, you will be in a very weak position when it comes to negotiating how much the damage costs. Your embassy and/or the police may be able to help you, but don't count on it.

Check a vehicle thoroughly before hiring it as they are not always in pristine condition, particularly the cheaper ones. Point out any existing damage or scratches before you hire, or don't be surprised when they try to charge you for them later.  When hiring a motorbike, consider bringing along your own padlock to lock the front tire.  It isn’t unheard of that unscrupulous motorbike rental companies “steal” their own bikes so as to charge you for “forgetting” to lock it properly.

For most people, hiring a car and driving in Bangkok would be little short of a nightmare. The traffic is some of the worst in the world, roads have confusing signage, and some of the driving standards exhibited are questionable to say the least. For daytrips in and around Bangkok, hiring a car with a driver or using taxis would be a much better idea.  That said, the traffic on Phuket or Samui is not considerably any more sane: road lanes are not well painted, cars drive erratically, and many roads are frighteningly narrow.

Hiring a motorbike is quite a common activity, particularly on the southern islands and in some of the northern towns. Especially in the north, this is a great way to get out into the countryside to see the 'real' Thailand. It's possible to hire motorbikes in Bangkok too, but inadvisable unless you are a very experienced rider - accidents are all too common.

Places such as Koh Samui and Pattaya have a lot of foreigners renting motorbikes who have never ridden one before, which can also contribute to hazardous driving conditions. You should also expect to be stopped at least once by the Thai police if you do a lot of riding, as you are technically breaking the law if you:

    * Don't have a valid international driving license with motorcycle entitlement.
    * Don't have a valid health insurance policy (even though Thai health insurance policies often don’t cover motorbike accidents!)
    * Aren't wearing a helmet.
    * Don't carry your passport around with you at all times -obviously a bit of a problem if you left it as a deposit.

Some of the roads on Koh Samui and Koh Phangan are very dangerous, particularly the road from Thong Sala to Haad Rin on Koh Phangan. Be careful, as accidents in this area are very, very common – in fact, motorbike accidents are the number one cause of deaths of foreigners in Thailand. If you've never ridden before, some of these roads really aren't the best places to learn.  At the very least, wear a helmet (it’s the law) and wear jeans and close toed shoes.

If you have to misfortune to get into an accident, it's likely to be judged as your fault (even if it wasn't) and you will be expected to pay (on the spot) for any damage caused (to vehicles and people). If someone is injured, the asking amount will be increased to cover the treatment costs - these amounts are definitely up for negotiation, strange as it may seem. Any serious injuries and deaths will definitely involve the police being called - you may still be able to get out of trouble by paying enough money, but it's not certain.  Police often act as negotiators in the settlement of accident compensation.  Oddly enough police tend to give the benefit of the doubt to those who report an accident.  It’s a gamble any time the police get involved, but if they are going to eventually become involved, it may be better to be the first one to calmly report that they have been the victim of another person’s negligence.