DISCLAIMER: I do not encourage evading the law, as I stated below. The purpose of the map is not to help people avoid checkpoints, but rather to encourage the public to be vigilant about potential corruption or misconduct that they might experience. The list of personal stories after the article reflect a range of opinions about the traffic police, both negative and positive. Please do not assume what my personal views are (as I’ve refrained from sharing them here), or assume what the content of this article is before reading it.
We recently reported that Thailand’s corruption is perceived to be worsening, amidst worldwide whispers about the country’s political problems. Thailand has long been under fire from organizations such as Transparency International or Human Rights Watch and has many disappointing pitfalls when it comes to dishonesty, misconduct and other sketchy behaviour among the country’s elite and powerful.
Corruption is seen as rather uncool by most people with an ounce of awareness of the world, and induces a mass amount of eye-rolling when talking about Thailand. Apparently, 2013 saw a significant amount of citizens reporting paying bribes to police officers, which is what I’m going to address in this article, with first-hand accounts from residents of the city. I’ve also included a map of known traffic police checkpoints in Chiang Mai, and while I don’t encourage the public to evade the law, I do encourage them to stand up when they face corruption or official misconduct.
I urge readers to also answer the questions that follow, and open the lines of discussion about corruption in Chiang Mai. Freedom of information is a powerful tool for citizens, while turning a blind eye is anti-progressive. I believe it is everyone’s duty to make the going-ons in our city public knowledge, especially when authorities are involved, in order to move towards a more trustworthy, reliable, upstanding government. Citizens must know their rights, the freedom to share your views must be revered, and people must reap the rewards of their own empowerment through awareness.
The questions I asked people were:
1. What are your experiences with traffic police in Chiang Mai? What are your views on traffic police here?
2. Have you ever been asked to pay a bribe, or an “on-the-spot fine”? If so, how much?
3. Where are the checkpoints that you know of?
Note that the legal fine amounts for different offences are either between one amount and another, or not exceeding a certain amount. This makes it difficult to decipher bribes from abuse of power because the law is so vague. On the Thai Traffic Police website, you can see the amounts, but only in Thai.
This is why everyone interviewed below quote different amounts. These broad rules allow police to decide the fine on the spot, and according to the law you should always be given a ticket. This would help you avoid corruption by going through the legal process, but the point is this is often not the case, which is a clear sign of corruption.
I repeat: it is illegal for police to ask you for money on the spot, as it is also illegal for you to offer them cash. Both parties could be charged and fined up to 10,000 baht, or up to 5 years in jail. If this law was enforced, there would be a lot less traffic police on duty right now.
And here are the positive, negative, ridiculous, and hilarious stories that I have collected so far:
Engineer, American male, 24:
Checkpoints are popping up more and more in the city lately. I feel that the police don’t care about traffic violations in the slightest – only helmet, license and registration.
People get pulled over with black smoke billowing out of their bikes while police are only concerned with giving them a no-helmet fine. Others speed past the cops running red lights or driving recklessly and the police don’t even blink an eye. I don’t get it.
I’ve been stopped a few times for having a helmetless passenger, and each time I paid 200 baht on the spot. Another time my bike’s registration was out of date, and I was fined 400 baht.
One time I was making a short trip with a helmetless passenger, and when we were pulled over to pay a fine, the officer told me, “You good boy… he bad boy!”
University Student, Thai male, 21:
Personally, I always wear my helmet, but I have been pulled over a few times. Once, I was fined 300 baht because my Thai passenger wasn’t wearing a helmet.
Another time I was pulled over was probably because the cops thought my Yamaha SRX 600 might be illegal. It was really loud, but when they saw my green book and driving license, they let me go.
I generally get along with traffic cops in the city – they think I’m a “good guy”.
Chef, South African female, 22:
I’ve never been stopped at a checkpoint before. I always try and avoid them by driving on the lane furthest from the side they’re on. I also wear a full-face helmet with a tinted visor and plain, modest clothes, so that I blend in more. They seem more alert to tourists wearing scanty clothes who might be more prone to irresponsible behaviour.
How do they even get people to stop for them anyway? Do they chase after you? Shout? Whistle?
Also, I find it really funny how many Thai people stop just before the well-known checkpoints to strap on their helmets, and let their helmetless passengers hop off the bikes to walk past the checkpoints, only to be picked up further down the road.
Graphic Designer, British male, 27:
My experiences with the traffic police in Chiang Mai have been terrible. I could rant all day about that topic, but I’ll try not to.
My general feeling about the traffic cops are that they are looking for some pocket change. I would say the fine depends on two things: what the offence is, and how corrupt the officer is.
Usually, being fined for not wearing a helmet is 200 baht, but sometimes it’ll be 400 baht. One time, I had an officer ask me for 800 baht, and when I told him I wanted a ticket in Thai, he quickly retracted his demand.
I got pulled over the other day outside Central Festival Mall while wearing a helmet. The officer wanted my license, which I told him was at the bike rental shop while my own motorbike was being repaired. He then asked for my passport, which I said I don’t carry on me because I’m a permanent resident here – I keep it safe at home.
The police officer then tried to elicit a 1000 baht bribe. I got off my bike and told him firmly that I wouldn’t pay it, and that if it were a legal fine he would write me a ticket.
He then began ushering me off, saying, “Go, go! No money today, but you bad man!”
I also find it disappointing that all the cops I’ve met have such terrible English skills, even though I speak Thai. How do they deal with issues with non-Thai speakers? It’s just unprofessional.
University Lecturer, Irish male, 40-something:
I’m not a very good candidate for these questions, because I’ve never been pulled over or asked for a fine. Then again, I don’t use my motorbike too often – only to work which is around the corner, and football. If I go out at night I usually just walk. I don’t want to get pulled over.
The only thing I can say about the traffic police is that I wish they weren’t in charge of traffic lights during rush hour – what a nightmare.
International School Teacher, American female, 20-something:
I haven’t had any negative interactions with the traffic police so far (knock on wood), and I’ve asked them for directions a few times, which they are always happy to give.
Artist, Thai female, 25:
I’ve been stopped in Chiang Mai probably around five times for not wearing a helmet on my bike. Once I got in trouble for not wearing my seatbelt in my friend’s car.
Each time I was given a ticket for fines between 100 and 200 baht. I’ve never paid though because the police never wrote down my address, so I figured they couldn’t check up on me.
There was a funny incident when I got pulled over once. The traffic cop saw my friend’s surname on her license, and realised it was the family name of a senior officer. They just hurried us on our way, without any fines or tickets.
I feel it sets a bad example when the police get stricter and more prominent in the city during festive seasons like New Years or Songkran – drivers should be careful on the roads all the time, not only sometimes. My friends and I even make fun of them, saying they become more vigilant during certain times of year because they need to buy alcohol and fund their parties.
However, I don’t truly believe all Chiang Mai traffic police are bad. I know there are some really good cops around, too.
Primary Teacher, American male, 23:
The traffic police stop me all the time on the way home from work, under one of the Superhighway’s underpasses. They just slow everybody down, who are all trying to get home.
I once had a cop try and pull me over somewhere in the hills on the way to Chiang Dao. He was beckoning for me to drive over to him, but there was a dog sleeping right in the way. When the cop tried to move the dog, the dog growled, so the cop waved me on saying, “Dog say no. Ok, go!”
Musician, American female, 26:
I was pulled over just the other day while I was wearing a helmet. I didn’t have my license on me as it was stolen a while ago, so they said they would charge me 400 baht for not having one. They then reduced it to 200 baht and asked for it in cash.
They were really shady about it, telling me to put the money in my bike so they could take it from me inconspicuously. But I played the “dumb-farang” card and acted clueless, so the cop just snatched it from me and hid it behind his clipboard.
While I do support helmet laws (seriously, just wear a damn helmet) I think the random traffic stops are ridiculous and exploitative. It makes no sense that foreigners now need Thai licenses when we already have licenses for our own countries, not to mention the issues of undocumented workers and refugees.
Also, the checkpoints seem very inconsistent, which makes them seem corrupt. And the money – especially when paid in cash on the spot – is clearly not going to public projects for the good of the city. It’s lining the pockets of the cops.
International School Teacher, British female, 20-something:
I’ve been here for two years now and have never been pulled over at a checkpoint.
I did have an accident where a car got damaged, after a bike rammed into me causing me to hit the car. The police told me I owed the car driver 14,000 baht in damages, even though they had the registration and details of the bike driver who had caused the accident. They said if I didn’t pay I’d have to be arrested, and go to court.
I guess because I was the foreigner in the situation, I was the one in trouble. Ridiculous.
Videographer, Dutch male, 21:
I’ve never been fined when I’ve been pulled over in Chiang Mai.
My attitude has always been, “Smile, say hello, and move on.” I’ve actually played football with some Chiang Mai traffic police officers – great people, terrible players! Great beer-drinkers as well.
I do notice that the checkpoints always seem to show up on different parts of the Superhighway, but I don’t live in Chiang Mai anymore so can’t say where they are now.
Kindergarten Teacher, American female, 25:
I have been pulled over a few times and fined 200 baht for having a passenger who wasn’t wearing a helmet. Once, I was pulled over and fined for not having an international driving license, no license plate at the time, and expired insurance, although I was only asked for 200 baht. Fair deal, if you ask me.
Another time I had an encounter with traffic police was when my boyfriend and I parked our bikes somewhere overnight and found they had been chained the next day. It was in one of those spots where the parking rules change for even/odd days, and we didn’t take notice of it. Luckily there was a traffic cop nearby and we could pay him to unlock them.
Actress, Scottish female, 20-something:
I often see the checkpoints along the Superhighway with the traffic police waiting on the underpasses – more like lurking! Honestly I don’t have anything to report because I just keep driving when they try and wave me down!
Poet, British male, 30-something:
I’ve been pulled over many times, and the cops have always been pleasant. I do believe they’re only trying to make money though – if they really wanted to enforce the law, they would wait outside the universities and pull over all the helmetless students.
If you ask anyone in the know, the most accidents are caused by speeding and drunk drivers. The traffic police don’t seem too concerned about those people, and I think they’d properly enforce the laws if they really did care. It’s all about the money in my opinion.
The fines I’ve had to pay, under and over the table, range from 100 – 1000 baht, but are usually around 200 – 400 baht for things like not wearing a helmet.
High School Teacher, American male, 24:
I’ve only had one encounter with the traffic police, which is when I caused an accident on my motorbike. I cut off a girl on her bike when turning, and ended up having to pay 5000 baht to her for damages.
Other than that, I’ve never been stopped, and I ride a bicycle now anyway. The only thing I will say about the traffic cops is that they don’t seem to speak much English, which I could see being a problem for some.
Adrian is a South African writer and photographer.
You can find more of her work at her blog Market of Eden.