If you ride in urban areas often, you know the particular struggles that go along with it. Of course, there are plenty of variations. How wide or narrow the streets are, as well as whether lane filtering is allowed, are major factors that will affect your experience.
You may already know this, but in case you don't: Bangkok is a city that's absolutely filled with riders. There are other vehicles here, too—from cars and trucks to tuk-tuks and buses (both public and private). Look around, though, and you'll soon see why the bikes seemingly outnumber all the four (and even three) wheelers on city streets. The math is simple: Drive anything with more than three wheels, and you're going to spend a patently ludicrous amount of time sitting in traffic.
Lane Filtering: A Way of Life
Ride a bike (or even catch a ride in a surprisingly maneuverable tuk-tuk), and you'll get to wherever you're going so much faster. Why? That, friends, is because lane filtering isn't just encouraged--it's an absolute must. Bikes can thread through seemingly impossible spaces in traffic as no other vehicle can. (While a tuk-tuk is smaller and more maneuverable than most cars, it still isn't anywhere near as good a choice for personal transport as a bike.)
Spend any amount of time observing traffic at busy Bangkok intersections, and you'll see all the bikes wind their way up through the other vehicles to station themselves at the stop line. Many (though not all) traffic lights also have a handy countdown timer, so you can plan when you need to shift back into first if you're sitting in Neutral at the light.
If you don't live and ride in Bangkok, the idea of freely filtering between lanes as a matter of course probably seems awfully tempting. Obviously, that will entirely depend on what the local laws are like where you live. As a lifelong Chicagoan, it's definitely a strange but sense-making experience; if you’re a native Californian, it’s still probably a bit different from your usual riding.
Are Road Users Simply More Attentive?
There's another aspect to consider about traffic here, though. While this is strictly based on personal observation, and doesn't seem terribly quantifiable, I’ve observed that BKK drivers seem to be more attentive to the flows of traffic around them as they're rolling through.
That's not to say that the inevitable scrapes and/or full-on crashes don't happen. However, likely as a direct byproduct of how tight some of the small sois (what side streets are called) and little alleys are, and the fact that street vendors set up and spread their wares out on display keeps every type of traffic on its toes, just by necessity.
As a result, when scrapes happen, they're often at extremely low speeds. While out walking around, I saw a rider on a Honda Air Blade get mildly scraped by a comparatively gigantic Toyota Fortuner SUV that was trying to squeeze its bulk through a tiny alley. The rider's plastic bumper made an audible scraping sound as the Fortuner brushed against it, but both rider and driver immediately stopped once that happened.
Then, the pair figured out how to extricate themselves so they could both pass. It ended up with the rider backing up slightly so the driver could push through a particularly narrow passage in the alley, and make space for another vehicle. Once the two vehicles were past each other, they simply continued on their separate ways, with no serious damage done.
Can You Predict What’s About to Happen?
As I noted earlier, both rider and driver situational awareness seems to be heightened. Now that I've ridden there, I have some idea as to why that could be. I can't prove it, nor would I say it's the same for everyone, but here's what stood out as I made my way through what looks like carefully controlled chaos on the outside.
As an experienced street rider, I'm used to the challenges that come from riding in a busy urban area. It's what I cut my (sprocket) teeth on. One of the greatest tools that any rider has in their survival toolbox is the ability to quickly analyze, and perhaps even predict the behavior of the other traffic on the road around them. Vehicles, like people, have a sort of body language that doesn't always involve turn signals, for example. Pay enough attention, and you'll often find you can suss out the next move that a given driver might make.
In Bangkok, because there's so much congestion from vehicular, pedestrian, and occasional stray dog traffic, your usual rider senses are automatically heightened. Generally, you have to assume that both you and the other people around you don't want to crash. Then, working from that assumption, you and the traffic around you weave in, out, and generally anywhere there's adequate space to squeeze through. It's an elaborate dance, one with many steps that only seem to establish themselves as you make your way down any given road.
Weaving Is a Traffic Strategy, Not Just a Handicraft
There’s seemingly one truth here: If there's a gap, and there's enough traffic in the area at a given time to fill it, then it will be filled. Given the steadily rising population of Bangkok—around 10.75 million people, as of 2021—it's frequently busy, particularly since there are a great many tourists at all times of year.
By comparison, my own city of Chicago has around three million people in it. Even NYC only had just over 8.5 million people in it, according to its most recently available official statistics from July, 2015. Bangkok is simply full of people, and that’s even before you start counting tourists. (Meanwhile, Mumbai, India has over 20 million residents, which is nearly double Bangkok’s count—but I digress.)
While you do want to obey traffic lights, signs, and laws (and drive/ride on the left side of the road, please), beyond that, just about anywhere you can make your particular vehicle fit is fair game. Want to ride extremely close to the curb to get around some cars? Go for it. Want to thread between cars horizontally or vertically when you’re either at a crawl or completely stopped? That’s just how it’s done, and I’d imagine you probably get used to it if you do it enough.
Trust is earned, not given—and doubly so if we’re talking about traffic, and trusting car drivers not to kill you. Still, there are greater calculations going on behind the chaos—and the best way you can learn to see that is by riding in it. You may be like me, and feel mostly like a little fish trying to swim through all the stuff that’s much bigger than you, but you’ll feel your own senses heighten as you go. Who knows, you may even find that you love it.