An Accessible Travel Review by Andy Wright
Accessibility for wheelchairs and walkers in Thailand
For the disabled person in Thailand mobility is the major issue and challenge facing the visitor. In cities such as Khon Kaen or even Bangkok don’t expect the access to be the same as it is in your home country, although the more modern buildings aimed at Western tourists, will be more readily accessible. Having travelled extensively around the world, Thailand is in the middle of the range, for accessibility, in my opinion. Move to the country, however, and its a whole different ball game.
As a “walker” I don’t do uneven or hilly surfaces and avoid the steps like a rash. Unfortunately there appears to be a lot of all of those. Then you’ll come across a half-hearted, well-intentioned attempt at accessibility when there is a drop kerb or a ramp into the building. Looking more closely you’ll see the drop kerb is plagued with broken kerb stones or uneven surfaces and those ramps more suited to sliding down.
When you see pavements don’t be upset that right in the middle (of the narrowest part) is some street furniture (perhaps a lamp post or even electrical supply box) blocking your way. Pavements can also be very uneven, with flagstones loosened and man-hole covers broken up and exposing the underlying sewer.
Getting around will also be a challenge, public transport being the bus, tuk-tuk or bike. In Bangkok taxis are regular cars, which makes them more like home. For local journeys the tuk-tuk is convenient, cheap and quick however having the wheelchair on board will probably not be possible. That is, if you could actually get on board with the difficulty being the low height and large step combo. I found myself putting my backside in first and using one leg to push up on the step. The bench seats are the end destination but getting there is sometimes a challenge.
In Bangkok is the Metro upon which I am not qualified to comment because I did not use it, relying on regular taxis for getting around. I believe some parts are more accessible than others, you’d need to investigate yourself how true this is.
Driving in Thailand
My personal recommendation is to get yourself a hire car. I have, by coincidence, always ended up with a Mitsubishi Mirage, on every trip. There are other types and sizes, including vans and pickups (for wheel chair transportation). I use Thai Car Rental, but the regular companies are represented, AVIS and the like. My trips are usually for 28 days and this works out about £450-£500 all in. I also usually have the collision waiver and extras to cover the insurance excess.
With a car you can go anywhere in your own time, and if you want to park up then this is possible, with a few guidelines. Some streets are warden controlled, and you simply pay 10 baht to park. Other streets are free for all, but beware the hatched markings; red and white equals do not park. yellow and white, dropping off and pick up only. black and white or nothing is okay to park. Trust me when I say, don’t try to get away with it, because you’ll return to find the car is wheel-clamped. If this happens then a visit to the Police station is required to pay the fine which can be hefty; mine was 500 baht (£10) for having my tail end just inside the yellow and white zone!
Surprisingly there are disabled bays but I have yet to discover how you use them.
So, in the UK we drive on the left and it is more common to have a manual transmission. In Thailand it is still driving on the left, but automatic is the more prevalent transmission. I know from experience Australia and USA are similar with the types of gearbox, which is great when you only drive auto and the choice of model is huge.
I say driving on the left in Thailand is the method that is recommended but you will discover the Thais drive where ever they like, including the wrong way. Admittedly this refers more to bikes than cars, but to say it has never happened would be tempting fate. Don’t expect patience or to have some one give way to you when driving because that is not the Thai Way.
Please remember the advanced driving course might come in handy! Also remember to “join in” rather than trying to “beat them”; so taking the initiative will also be beneficial to making progress. Expect the unexpected, and you’ll be okay. Speeds are on the whole are quite slow, although on the dual carriageways they can be quite fast with sometimes frightening results, as drivers weave in and out, drive up to your boot, and use the hard shoulder to get past.
In all the times I have driven including Bangkok, there has only ever been two occasions when I needed a change of underwear. One was my first time driving to Udon Thani from Khon Kaen, when a lorry pulled out to overtake another lorry on the dual carriageway as I was attempting an overtake. The other time was at a junction turning right, a car came speeding from the left and it was close but I managed to stop in time.
The speed is on average 60 to 80 kmph, with 100-120 on the dual carriageways. Lower speeds are found in towns and in Bangkok you’ll be lucky to go over 40 kmph, sometimes less due to the gridlock of the city. My speed limiter is my wife, who gives me a look as I reach the 120kmph mark, followed by a tut and head shake. It’s enough to ease off the gas to 100kmph.
I strongly recommend a satnav device for Bangkok. My first time I had a Tom Tom app on my phone and this navigated me across the city and out with very few problems. (Note: the problems were more about the way the signs indicated exits off the freeway) My last trip I used my phone but this time I had Google Maps instead, and was very pleased with the result. The only thing with either of the satnav systems on your phone is that you need a phone signal or wifi connection. Some car hire companies offer proper satnavs but I couldn’t justify the extra cost for hiring one.
In Bangkok the added complication is a toll system for some of the “freeway”. Sometimes there is a way to do the same journey but for free, the road you go on being under the toll road (a raised roadway). The toll road is supposed to be quicker but being tight on money I mostly chose not to go on them except when I was forced to, by accident, or because that was the only way to go. The majority of tolls were 50 to 70 baht, around the £1-£1.40 mark, but it soon adds up. Then, there are the complications of paying, which is sometimes when you join and sometimes when you leave. Sometimes, you don’t pay if you time it right and get off before the toll booth.
In Khon Kaen it is very traditional roads, although mostly gridlocked at weekends. The two things I like are: 1) the left turn on red, which is a system we should adopt and 2) there is a countdown for how long you have to wait for the lights to change at junctions. Some would argue this encourages going before green, but the majority would go anyway, it does actually make it better for everyone including those who are on green and have to stop.
If you’re driving in Thailand you will come across the checkpoints. Police set up check points on the major roads to catch speeders and people not wearing helmets on bikes – that is pretty much everyone.
On my last trip I experienced my first full blown stop (I normally get waved through). I have heard tales of “farang” who are stopped having to donate large sums to the Police Benevelent fund for what could be deemed minor infringements (so minor they [probably] did not occur).
This time doing approximately 80 in an 80 zone, I spied a camouflaged person in the central reservation. A few seconds later I saw the checkpoint and knew I would be pulled. I had a feeling it was a little more than 80 I was doing but not more than 90!
We’re waved in to the side, and i wound down the window. The policeman greeted me and then looking further into the car, he spied my Thai wife. His face changed. He asked for the driving documents and my wife told me what he said. I handed the driving license and passport (which you must carry by Law, or a copy) and he had a look. He said my name, and I confirmed it. He made some funny quip and handed the documents back, waving me on my way.
I don’t know how lucky I was being waved on my way but I suspect having my wife in the car saved me from some further experiences with the authorities.
To conclude, as a disabled person, I found the car was my best friend and allowed me to see a lot more of Thailand. The first year we drove from Khon Kaen to Phuket and back, then Bangkok to Chantaburi. This year we drove from Khon Kaen to Chantaburi and back. Have no worries for rest stops and toilets, because they occur more regularly than in the UK; PTT service stations are all-encompassing wonders with 7-11s, food stalls, toilets and fuel all within the same area.
The toilets are generally of the “squat” type, however the disabled one is always of the western type. Disabled toilets have ramps and grab rails to boot, but some are less well maintained so don’t be surprised when frogs jump out of the cistern! Unlike the UK they are generally not abused by anyone Thai – I was very disappointed during this trip to find a western man exiting the disabled toilet, especially because I was waiting to use it and received a “oh sorry” as he saw me by the door. As I came out and returned to the car I saw his wife go in, apparently she had been waiting a way away from the door and I had queue jumped!
If you enjoyed this blog, I have made a video blog of my last trip to Thailand that can be found at – www.youtube.com/soyoukan (please like, share and subscribe) or you can read more about travel from a disabled perspective on my website www.andywrightonline.co.uk where there is a free forum awaiting your contributions.