Renting a scooter in Southeast Asia is so easy!
For only $5 a day you can ride a motorbike through the countryside.
Don’t worry if you don’t know how, you can practice driving it in the parking lot!
Pshh, you fools! Except I too was one of those fools…
Before I came to Southeast Asia, I had these romantic ideas of exploring places on the back of a motorbike. Wind blowing in my hair, rice fields as far as the eye can see, stopping in rural towns along the way for a little break…
I know, I know, I think back now and shake my head at that girl with those naive ideas. If she only knew back then what driving is really like in this part of the world…
Renting scooters is something that Sam and I went back and forth on for a while. I wanted to ride a scooter around northern Thailand; he kept telling me how dangerous the roads were and how drivers (in bigger vehicles) had little regard for measly scooters on the highway. I, of course, thought he was being overcautious and scoffed at his lack of adventure.
Well, yesterday sealed the deal for me. I’ve been travelling around SE Asia for four months now and I’ve seen my fair share of hazard on wheels, but it was yesterday’s trip from Chiang Mai to the Thai-Burmese border, that really made me see how reckless it would be to ride a scooter along the roads we were travelling on.
I was travelling in a 14 person minivan and I basically spent the entire journey holding onto the hand rail in front of me for dear life.
Our driver sped uphill, downhill, around curves, onto oncoming traffic, nearly nicked a motorbike, passed trucks and buses as he continued speeding down the wrong side of the road, braked last minute tossing us into the seat in front, nearly nicked another vehicle…
I knew I wasn’t overreacting when the laid back German backpacker in our minivan decided it was time to strap on his seat belt, tight.
It was four hours of torture there, and four hours of torture back.
The signs along the highway which stated ’40 km/hr’ and ‘use low gear’ were invisible in his eyes, as was the yellow line dividing oncoming traffic.
Sure, seeing the countryside by motorbike sounds like a great idea, but the problem is that in a place where drivers don’t follow rules, THEY are putting YOUR lives at risk. You might think riding a scooter looks easy as pie, but what about the other motorists around you? They’re not going to be looking out for you and slowing down just because it’s your first time riding and you want to have a nice holiday.
And then there’s the girl I saw a yesterday returning a motorbike at a rental shop in Chiang Mai with the nastiest burns and scrapes ALL OVER HER BODY. She had clearly toppled over and you could tell it was a nasty skid by all the marks on her forearm, elbow, shoulder, calf, and knees. But she’s not the only one. If you’ve spent any time in SE Asia, you’ve seen them too – travellers with bruises, exhaust pipe burns on their legs, bandaged elbows, and even arm casts.
Chances are that was a motorbike accident.
I’m not trying to scare you into not riding a scooter or motorbike around Southeast Asia, but the reality is that a lot of travellers get hurt every day, so don’t go into it blindly thinking it’ll be like getting on a bicycle.
Riding a motorbike can be trickier than it looks, so do yourself a favour, if you’re really keen on doing the motorbike thing, take a few lessons back at home. That way you’ll at least know how to deal with sharp curves, gravel, wet roads, and you’ll know how to kick the bike away should you fall while riding. Also, wear appropriate clothing – shorts, flip flops and a sleeveless shirt aren’t going to do you any favours.
Sure, maybe I am being a bit too ‘safe’ and I’m missing out on having a great time, but at the end of the day, I know I don’t have the skill to ride a scooter or a motorbike on these roads. Plus getting on a highway where people are driving like it’s NASCAR would be asking for trouble.
What are your thoughts?
Have you traveled on a scooter/motorbike around SE Asia?
Do you have any tips for people who want to do so?
That sounds like the scariest mini-bus ride ever! You successfully freaked me out! My partner loves to rent scooters when we travel (I sit on the back). We mostly only do it in more rural areas where there aren’t too many people on the road. The places that come to mind are Vang Vieng, Pokara, Hikkaduwa, and Vientiane (which was fairly busy). It’s a lot of fun but now that you’re making me think more cautiously I’m extra grateful that we’ve always been safe. And reading the other comments I’m also grateful that we’ve never been swindled or made to pay for “new scratches.” I haven’t even noticed anyone with road rash or injuries on any of my trips!! Now I’m freaked out that my luck may be running out… I might just have to propose taking scooter rides off the table for our future travels.
That’s smart that you guys rent them in more rural areas where traffic isn’t such a menace, plus it sounds like your partner is quite experienced on a bike. I think a lot of the accidents happen when people who’ve never ridden a bike before decide to learn as they go in some pretty busy streets/highways. I think the latter is asking for trouble.
Yeah, I can see your point. Even after I fell off my motorbike in Indonesia I would still continue renting them when travelling in Southeast Asia and anywhere else where they are rented. I will just wear a mouth guard so that I do not break anymore teeth.
Regardless of the road, you have to be extremely cautious when riding anywhere in the world. It is a “risk” I am willing to take because the benefits of a scooter are oh so worth it.
Ouch! Broken teeth?! That sounds like a nasty fall.
Your fears are legitimate 🙂 We rented a scooter in Phuket and although did not have any mishaps (phew!), we did feel a bit unsafe on the main roads. Did encounter a lot of these minivan/mini-truck drivers zooming past without any regard to others’ safety.
But, exploring Phuket on a scooter did add to the experience – we wouldn’t have seen half of Phuket if we weren’t on that scooter all day. The next time we are in SE Asia, we’d probably pick up an open jeep (and not call our trip a backpacking trip ;)).
It’s a double edged sword, really 🙁 🙂
I know what you mean about the minivans and buses just zooming past. I’ve been on buses where the driver is just gunning it down the highway and honking at little scooters to get out of his way – no regard for the family taking kids to school on the motorbike or the farmer transporting his produce. Those drivers make me so angry! Sigh.
Driving a scooter in Asia can be risky, but as long as you wear the safety gear (helmet) are aware that traffic rules are often a suggestion and adjust your driving accordingly (VERY defensively), you should be OK. If you don’t think you can do it, don’t rent.
However, if you can, it is highly advisable to rent a motobike, as there are many places in Thailand that are only easily accessible by bike (The Pai Valley is one relevant example for you and Sam)
Yeah, you really need to know what you’re doing on a motorbike if you’re going to ride one here. Like you said, you need to drive defensively – there’s no time for second guessing moves.
Thank you for writing this!! Now I don’t feel like such a baby. I heard horror stories from scooter accidents in SE Asia and around the world for years. On top of that, I’m not the best driver and driving just in cars can make me nervous. So I wasn’t planning to rent a bike at all when I visited SE Asia. I sort of felt like a bad travelers and left out for this. Luckily, Ric was confident in it and he’s a fantastic driver so I trusted him enough to jump on the back with him. It is an incredible way to see the country, my favorite actually, but I wouldn’t have tried it if it weren’t for Ric. I’ve kind of felt like the anti-feminist for thinking that way, but the truth is that it is dangerous and people can get really hurt. I don’t think it should be taken so lightly by people visiting countries with different rules of the road and trying out driving on a motorbike for the first time.
That’s nice that you have Ric to drive the scooter. To get on these busy roads and highways, you definitely need someone with a lot of experience and a lot of confidence.
its completely ridiculous that anyone can rent one. Ive driven them before in my life and still wrecked when I rented one in SEA. only slightly though. that one tiny wreck made me realize its not worth the risk and i never did it again. bicycles, taxis, tuktuks, and public trans for me thanks!
I’m glad you were able to come out of it okay. Sometimes the roads can be a bit unpredictable even if you have driving experience.
Both Casey and I have two wheeled transportation here in Taiwan. We always complain about how bad the driving is here (we haven’t been to Thailand yet) but in the Philippines I wouldn’t go near a scooter! We took a 6 hour van ride and it felt like you spend more time driving into oncoming traffic than in your own lane! I agree that sticking to public transport is probably the safest option in SE Asia. Thanks for sharing and stay safe 🙂
I know I’m supposed to feel safe in vans and buses, but even some of those rides have been scary. I just hate it when drivers are gunning it down the WRONG side of the road in order to pass a few more vehicles. I’d rather arrive slightly delayed and not have a heart attack…
I never rented bikes in Thailand, but did it a bunch in Laos, Indonesia, India and Nepal. I’m still alive, but I only did it in relatively rural areas and there were definitely a few close calls with other drivers.
As for the “use low gear” and various other street signs: you ever notice how many of them are only in English? It’s like they know who’s going to actually pay attention to the signs and who’s just going to ignore them.
That’s true, haha, now that you mention it all those signs were in English…hmmm
I own a motorbike in Thailand and that’s been my main source of transportation for the past two years with no problems. Yes, it’s dangerous, yes, there are high statistics of motorbike crashed and related deaths. I always wonder though how these numbers compare to other places – sure there are more motorbike deaths in Thailand than America….because relatively few people ride motorbikes/cycles in the States. What if you’re to look at them as just vehicle accidents – how do they match up?
The biggest thing with travelers riding is overconfidence while not knowing the area or the rules of the road = stupid. Of course some accidents are going to happen no matter what, but there’s a lot you can do to keep yourself safer.
I couldn’t agree with you more! I would never get on a motorbike in SE Asia with the hundreds of other motorbikes. No way.
Personally I’ve been riding pushbikes for years and driving for close to 10. For me personally those things combined are sufficient for me to be safe on the roads. You need to have a huge awareness when cycling and this translates very well to riding motorbikes.
While riding motorbikes in Thailand I feel very safe, always reading the road, driving appropriately for the conditions, and most importantly I’m in control.
The worst transport experiences have been when others are in control, your story rings true with a mini bus ride we took in Chiang Mai, and our worst experience was a Thai coach driver deciding to drive on a hard shoulder that was barely wide enough for his wheels.
Oh, and there was a sheer 40ft drop on his left. Really bad, even the Thais on the bus started shouting at him!
I lived in Saigon for 3 years. Many of my colleagues rode motorcycles, but I never did. Sure, most of them survived without anything nastier than a few scrapes and bruises along the way – but I just didn’t think that the risk was worth taking.
In the time I was there a Dutch expat was killed, and a friend of mine was knocked off hers as she rode home one night. She woke up in the middle of the road, alone and without her handbag. She had no idea how long she had been lying there, how many other vehicles had swerved to pass her, or who had robbed her. Another colleague was attacked with a hammer as he rode along a busy highway.
It really surprised me how many of my colleagues (respectable teachers!) often rode home from the pub, where they had certainly not been monitoring their alcohol intake. They also began to disregard the rules of the road, like the locals did. I don’t know what makes travellers think that rules from home no longer count, or that they are somehow infallible overseas.
Not many people seem to realise that in the event of a nasty accident, most (if not all) travel/health insurances will be void and you will end up with a particularly hefty bill–which will also include any damage you do to other people and property, as the locals will most definitely not have any insurance.
At the very least, most rental companies will charge every person who rents the bike for ‘new’ scratches and dents. As there are so many to begin with, it is impossible to tell. I know very few people who have not had to pay extra for this when they hand the bike back in. Of course, this is not much money generally, but still a nuisance!
Saigon has some of the craziest traffic I have ever seen. I was there a few months ago and trying to cross the road was a leap of faith – step onto the street, advance slowly, and hope the bikes swerve around you.
That’s a scary situation that happened to your friend. I can’t believe that after she was hit no one stopped to see if she was okay or to help her back to her feet. I couldn’t imaging waking up in the middle of the road after an accident like that…wow.
You are far wiser than I was! I rented one in central Vietnam for a day. I crashed it. Luckily not badly but still, I crashed it. I couldn’t get on any bike for ages afterwards. Anytime I hear of friends going to SE Asia now and they say they want to rent scooters, I seriously caution them.
I remember reading about your crash into a makeshift gas station! I’m glad it was nothing serious and that you were able to walk away from it.
Riding a scooter around many regions not just SE Asia can be a calculated risk. The only rule of the road seems to be there are no rules. It is an individual decision whether to risk the indifference other drivers have to the safety of others road users. Thanks for highlighting the issues and giving those that may not realise the risks the facts to allow them to make an informed decision.
You’re smart Audrey! Scooters are really not a safe choice in many countries. The first time I ever rode one was in Ft. Lauderdale after not riding a bike for over 15 years… just two minutes in the parking lot and they sent me out in traffic (this after being on an island for nearly a year that didn’t even have traffic lights…so there was that on top of trying to ride). I was lucky that it was in a country where there at least were traffic laws that most people sort of obeyed. Here on Roatan I ride a scooter back and forth to work everyday, and even on a small island it can be seriously scary and I almost die all the time. You’re exactly right when you say it’s not you, it’s the OTHER DRIVERS. They have no respect for the motos at all here and will run you off the road trying to pass you. Unfortunately I don’t have much of a choice as I work at a remote resort and a taxi would be $30 each way (and I only make $25/day!) but I try to stick to less congested times and be a defensive driver. But it’s probably only time until I get a “Thai tattoo” as I like to call those road rashes from SE Asian scooter mishaps. Be safe!
Traffic in medium/big cities in Asia can be crazy – I’m staying in India, so I’d know!! But scooters and bikes can still be a pleasant and fairly safe idea when you ride in smaller places. We’ve rented scooters to ride around Goa and we really enjoyed it as we ended up going to places we probably wouldn’t have gone to otherwise – not by public transportation at least.
I’d say avoid the highways and congested city centres but, if you’re up to it, get a bike to enjoy the smaller places, the secondary roads and, in general, the country side – that is, if you know how to drive, of course!
I tried learning to drive a scooter in Goa a few summers ago. The family I was staying with had one so they let me practice in their courtyard, but in the end I didn’t feel I was capable enough to rent my own and take it out on the streets. I’m glad I didn’t because I ended up seeing quite a few accidents happen along the main strip… It would have been nice to be able to ride the scooter over to the different beaches, but in the end I ended up settling for a ride in a minivan instead.
I was the same. Seeing Thailand by scooter would have been an experience in its self but after weighting up the risks it just wasn’t worth it.
I am always amazed by the number of people who show up in Asia never having once thought of riding a motorcycle or scooter (and probably haven’t even ridden a regular bicycle in years) and suddenly think that riding here is a good idea. I’m grateful that my husband has been riding bikes for years and so he can do the driving for the two of us, but when we were in Cambodia, I thought the roads seemed safe enough (especially compared to Vietnam) that I could handle my own bike. I had taken motorcycle classes back in the States and been riding my own scooter there for about a year before we left on our trip. It still wasn’t enough. I wound up getting sideswiped by a tractor after nearly 3 weeks riding around the country, and while I thankfully managed to escape with just some scrapes and aches and pains (nothing serious, thank god) it was terrifying and obviously not a great thing to have happen (plus, one of our cameras broke in the crash). My husband always reminds me that even though it shook my confidence, if I had been a less capable rider, I likely would have died or at the very least, wound up in the hospital. As it is, I leave the scooter riding to him these days and now seriously ask whether we really NEED one wherever we are. When the roads are good and there’s no traffic around, there is nothing as good as riding a scooter through beautiful countryside, but… well, it’s rare you find yourself somewhere without other drives. You need years of riding, not just a few lessons to really be able to handle Asia’s traffic in any safe way, so good for you for recognizing your limitations and not foolishly overreaching!
I think the fact that it’s so easy to rent scooters in Asia makes it really tempting to travellers. Back home there’s no way anyone would let you take off on a motorbike without a proper license, but here, you hand over $5, sign a few papers, and you are good to go. No one asks if you’ve ridden before, and they probably don’t care because there is money to be made.
Your accident sounds quite scary! I’m glad it was just a few scrapes and broken camera. It’s a good thing you had experience on bikes and knew how to handle the bike when you got sideswiped. But still frightening!
This is a very, very late reply. Three years in fact but I am very interested in your experience riding in Vietnam.
My partner and I are currently in South India on a scooter and it has it’s challenges but it is no Saigon that’s for sure as we visited and we felt vulnerable as pedestrians let alone on a scooter.
What advice would you give to us that you believe we should take heed before we head to Vietnam and potentially use a scooter. We are travelling all over Vietnam and a scooter is the cheapest mode of permanent transport for us as we’re on a budget.
Vietnam’s road rules are VERY different from western countries (there generally aren’t any!). Lots of accidents are caused by travelers who ride according to THEIR rules which make sense in THEIR country, but not in Vietnam. It is ESSENTIAL to drive defensively and be fully aware at all times.
Rules to know:
– Cars & trucks RULE the road. Get out of their way because they will not get out of yours. The bigger vehicle always gets priority.
– Vietnamese drivers will often not look when they pull out of side roads so always assume that they will pull out in front of you.
– Do NOT ride in sandals, flip flops, or barefooted. Straps can easily get caught and if godforbid an accident does occur, your feet is likely to take most of the impact and you may lose a toe or two.
– In cities people will simply cross the street like frogger. It is up to vehicles to navigate this slowly and carefully, and not fully stop if possible, which could cause a pileup. Even if it may seem chaotic there is a system to this madness and I’ve never seen a bad accident in SE Asia cities.
– If you’ve never driven or ridden a motorbike before, SE Asia may not be the best place to learn. Confidence and the ability to react quickly are key.
– Be aware, drive cautiously, have fun, drive slow, and don’t forget to enjoy the breathtaking scenery.
One of the tings on my list in Thailand was to take one of these taxi-bikes. And I didn’t, after witnessing (yep, happened before my eyes!) not less than three accidents within our first three days there. I like to try new stuff but hey, I don’t want to die. I’m sorry but reckless driving is a huge issue there!
I’ve seen quite a few motorbike accidents as well. I think the worst was when we were driving along a highway near the outskirts of Hanoi and these two guys on a bicycle toppled over after they were nicked by a car. Thankfully there was a lot of traffic and we weren’t moving too fast so they were able to pick themselves up and keep going. I was horrified but it seemed to natural to everyone else around…
ok, so my friend’s brother had a motorcycle accident today and he passed away. No matter how careful you are if others are not, you’ll always be at risk. He was bumped and dragged by two racing tricycles! Suddenly, his 4-year-old son suddenly doesn’t have a father anymore.
When we went back to Thailand 2 months ago, i saw more than two people with bandaged legs. I thought it must have been because of Songkran. But reading this, it’s more possible it was from a motorcycle accident.
I’m so sorry to hear about your friend’s brother. That’s really sad news, Apol. 🙁 You said it best – one person can be careful on their bike, but if those around them aren’t, then that puts even the most careful person at risk.
A motorbike is 100% the best way to see most of SEAsia.
Asia is not a place to learn how to ride one and there are dangerous places to avoid but throwing them out completely is seriously limiting your experiences.
I feel safe on a bike. I know what’s around me and I know what my bike can do. I know how the traffic flows in the country I’m in and I know what to look out for.
The most enjoyable moments of my life were achieved by taking a motorbike where foreigners rarely, or never, go and I will continue using them throughout all of SEAsia.
I am 100% with you, Wil! Motorbikes take you to the places nothing else can! I honestly think it’s the best way to see the world… and we’re about to do just that 🙂
I wouldn’t even ride on the back of a motorbike taxi, let alone rent my own! I witnessed a fatal motorcycle accident in the U.S. when I was a kid and now want nothing to do with them. Especially in SE Asia where the driving is so crazy to begin with!
Very funny post – I always forget what other non-bikers think of motorbikes! I was NEVER a bike person until I met my boyfriend while we both were living and working in China. Within 5 minutes, I was hooked.
China is one of the most difficult places to ride because you never know what is going to happen on the roads. I’d even go so far as to compare it to Vietnam!
We are now getting ready to embark on a Round the World motorbike trip next month, leaving from England. Of course there are risks, but I think the rewards far outweigh these risks. Motorbiking gives you the highest highs and the lowest lows, which is something I had never experienced before!
I completely agree!
The idea sounded so romantic at first, but as soon as we got to Thailand and saw the reality… there was no way we’d be renting any scooters!
I rented one on the islands and in the north of Thailand, taking it pretty slowly (it does scare me how easy they give you one – I’ve never driven one before, nor have I driven a car), but like everything road related it’s not you you have to watch out for, it’s the other road users. Around Pai is quite quiet and a good place to do it if you’re interested, but I’d be adverse doing it anywhere else without a couple lessons.
In 2009 my sons and I were in Bali hiking and my eldest son had a nasty fall, resulting in a 3 day stay in the best hospital on Bali in Denpassar. This facility, I am convinced, makes it’s living off of people who’ve rented scooters and motorbikes. In the 72 hours I was there I saw dozens of scooter and motorcycle accident patients in that emergency room waiting area. (I used door to the emergency waiting room to come and go over the three days.) A lot of those people were drunk, many were not.
After a total of 13 months traveling throughout SE Asia on 2 trips, I can only say I think it is complete madness, even for an experience biker to ride through SE Asia. The roads are riddled with potholes (the locals know where they are and swerve around them), the driving is chaotic, dangerous and unpredictable. If your dream is to experience SE Asia by motorbike, at least consider hiring a local with a bike to do the driving. You will see more anyway as your eyes can take in the scenery rather than try to negotiate the driving. Our family did this on Bohol in the Philippines and it was a wonderful experience.
However, I must add, the environment we biked through on Bohol was extremely pastoral and quiet. We were taken around rural areas with dirt roads, our speed was very tame and the young men driving us lived there and had grown up on motorbikes.
Good idea except for hiring a local to do the riding for you. Just tried doing that yesterday in Mahidol Thailand. The short cuts that they take are just amazing. Rather than take the proper route, this guy did a shortcut down a highway in the wrong direction where the oncoming traffic was doing easily 120 kmph. Brushed death a few times only on that one ride. Never again.
Having recently become acquainted with Bali and it’s at times crazy traffic, I have this to add to the discussion: Denpasar and the surrounding areas – including the Kuta area and the roads leading to Ubud are highly congested with traffic and really narrow. Though the roads are of relatively good quality I would NOT recommend braving them on a scooter, or any bike unless your very confident and experienced. The locals are well acquainted with the pace and scooterists will yield to a honk and give space for the cars and trucks to pass. My girlfriend and I hired taxis (expensive for Asia) for transiting through Bali’s busier areas. The roads north of Ubud near Mt. Agung are less busy, safer for amateur bikers and also very scenic! Enjoy carefully.
I have spent a lot of time on motorbikes in SE Asia, usually as a passenger on the back. I’ve almost never ridden in a big city or place with a lot of traffic, though, and I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable doing that. I, too, have seen countless travellers with the telltale scrapes, burns, and bruises from motorbike accidents – thankfully I was never injured, even while riding extensively through Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia.
I must admit, though, some of my absolute best memories from that part of the world are from my times on a motorbike…
I only once travelled by motobike in Thailand, as a passenger, and I actually thought I was going to die. It may have been due to my horror at being on the back of a motorbike, and how tightly I was squeezing the driver around the waist, but I did not feel safe.
Nope! No way I’m even touching a scooter here in SE Asia (all though I did sat on the back of one yesterday). I’ve seen too many travelers with their legs and faces covered in wounds and bruises from scooter accidents.
Nick has been riding a scooter since he was 16 and even he doesn’t feel safe riding a scooter, not because he doesn’t trust himself but because he doesn’t trust the crazy maniacs driving their cars putting our lives at risk.
Hey Audrey, definitely personal choice, but I do think it is safer to drive a scooter in countries where two-wheeled transport is common (like Thailand). Yes, the driving can be crazy, but for the most part I think they are pretty defensive compared to the west. Plus, I’m not sure buses are much safer! I know the highway you’re talking about, and it wouldn’t be the greatest idea to drive a scooter on it, though the quiet roads around somewhere like Pai are really cool for scootering. Maybe a happy medium of avoiding busy city riding and sticking to the quiet back roads is a way to experience the adventure with less risk?
Whoa! Crazy ride you had there.
I ride in the US w/and without a helmet (depends on which state I’m in, what the rules are, the weather, road conditions, etc…) and while I didn’t rent a moto long term while in Cambodia I used moto taxis daily and even rode out to Kep on the back of one all w/out incident but there were plenty of incidents around me and I saw my fair share of those.
The BEST thing to do? Be you. Audrey, go with your gut. If you’re not comfortable, you won’t have fun and the point of getting one will be moot.
Hahaha great timing! Currently I’m tearing it up around Indonesia on a motorbike. The funny thing is I am a much more wild driver than the locals. I’ve been swanging, banging, dodging, and weaving it around on both the highways and through the countryside alike for nearly three weeks now and it’s been a blast! My first motorbike topped out at 115km/h so I traded it in for a faster one and now I’ve been leaving all the locals in the dust.
Of course at the same time during these 3wks I’ve also: 1) been in a taxi when it hit a motorbike (our driver didn’t even slow); 2) been riding passenger on a bike when it clipped another motorbike; and 3) just last night watched two drunk tourists on motorbikes run into each other.
Yes, it’s definitely the tourists on the motorbikes that I am more afraid of then the locals or the traffic around me. And of course people on Twitter have been joking around that the locals should be fearing me instead 😉
Totally agree. I sometimes have to take a moto taxi if I can’t find a tuk tuk in Phnom Penh, and even sitting on the back is scary. Drivers here have no fear whatsoever and are completely selfish. I know three bloggers who rented a moto in Cambodia and all of them had a crash.
Although I haven’t been in South East Asia yet, I don’t think you’re too cautious! I’ve heard and read about SO many scooter accidents there. And just recently, the little brother of a former class mate of mine lost his best friend during a motorcycle accident in Thailand. So, yes, lives are literally in danger.
I have ridden a scooter in SE Asia, but only in very quiet country areas with little to no traffic. I would never ride one in a city or on a busy road/highway, and I’m also the slowest person on the road. I prefer a bicycle whenever possible.
When I was in Saigon I saw a young backpacker riding a scooter and wobbling all over the road. It was clearly her first time and it was an accident waiting to happen…for some reason people come to SE Asia and think they are invincible.
Wow – I admit, I had the same dream you had, except in Europe. Everyone looks so cool in Paris and Rome on their scooters, and I have a vision of myself on the back, hair whipping around, sunshades, the whole 9. This post definitely scared me off of getting one for myself, but MAYBE I’m still safe with someone else driving 🙂
I kind of agree with you in general for SE Asia, but I was in Bali and rented a scooter there, which was really awesome and felt safe when driving in the countryside amongst rice paddys. The busy city centers and highways which we took on are to be avoided though, I had two near-death experiences, one resulting in me getting a wooden log swishing past my head at great speeds.
The numbers in 2011, 39 Australians died in Bali because of accident. Take time to train yourself, use helmet, stay on the left side of the road, lights on even on daylight,follow the rule and stay sober. You can’t drink and drive in your home country and neither in Indonesia. Only here we find out later when accident happen…
Great shot!!!! And thanks for making me feel less like a wimp. I won’t drive them either.
I completely agree with you based on my experiences being a passenger in various cars in Indonesia. I was worried not just for our safety but definitely also for the safety of the people on motorbikes (including children with no helmets).
I’m really glad I’ve read this – I’m going to bookmark this page and re-read it before I fly to SE Asia. I, too, am completely tempted by the idea of discovering SE Asia on a scooter, wind flying through my hair… but you’re right, it’s such a big risk and knowing my luck hiring a scooter would have me on the plane home not long after I arrive. Thanks for the reminder to stay safe!
I don’t like motorbikes at all and refused to even consider renting one when in S.E. Asia last year. Whilst at first I kinda felt like I was missing out by seeing how easily other people were taking off and exploring, it didn’t take long to start seeing some nasty road markings that reassured me I’d made the right choice.
And yeah there’s no way I’d have been able to handle those roads anyhow! So I’m firmly with you on this front!
I am an Indonesian not capable of riding a motorcycle (a minority in my country!) and a friend from NZ who rode motorcycle when she lived in Bandung – my hometown of 3 million people with an exponentially growing number of vehicles – actually told me that she looked at it as if playing a videogame, seeing the potholes and other vehicles as ‘obstacles’ that she had to pass. If that’s the case with everybody on the road, no wonder people are not communicating and so defensive! I myself ride my bicycle to and from work, taking smaller streets in a mere 10 minutes ride so it’s not so bad since on bigger boulevards we are NEVER prioritized and bigger, faster motorists will NEVER look out for the very few crazy people on bikes. However, in the small island of Samosir in the middle of Lake Toba, Sumatera where there’s literally no other vehicle on the street I did dare to try my hands on the motorcycle with my boyfriend – who knows how to ride – sitting behind me. Traffic accidents is the highest cause of death in young adults in Indonesia, and I am happy knowing that some travelers are sensible enough 🙂
In our first weeks in Bali, every day I saw a tourist with a white bandage somewhere on their body. My husband learned to drive the scooter pretty quick there. I tried once, but am still hesitant. The traffic is a little crazy, and the drivers are more so. I understand your thoughts. Although, I plan to live here and at some point will need to pull the bandaid and learn to drive!
I myself would not attempt to ride a motorbike in Thailand or SE Asia, but my partner is an experienced motorcycle owner and I trust him. We bought a motorbike in Chiang Mai and had the best time. It was an almost new model and capable of carrying us (we are kinda chubby!) Up the mountains whereas others we rented in places like Indonesia- I had to get off cause they were too small of an engine to have much power.
When we were in Koh Tao they called the foreigners with the bandages “look at their Koh Tao tattoos”. No laughing manner and its pretty crazy how you can just tell who is a newbie- especially the women. And one night, Mike was out doing laundry and he witnessed a woman having an accident and he ran to help her. Definitely must be very careful. We wrote a post about how we purchased our motorbike in Chiang Mai as we had found very little info on the subject.
Hi, stumbled upon your website, very nice with nice stories.
I do love to drive and ride a motorbike, this august I did the northern Thailand loop on a motorbike and it was great. I’ve also hired motorbikes in Laos, Vietnam, Indonesia, Cambodia and other places in Thailand, to me it is just pure freedom going where ever you like, when ever you like.
I don’t even have a drivers license or anything, but I really love driving around Asia on motorbikes.
Accidents do happen, and you don’t have everything in your own hands, especially with the driving of some of the locals, but I never had a problem so far and I know what I would be missing if I would not hire a motorbike, it is a great way to explore an area.
And the northern Thailand loop, the Mae Hong Son loop, I can recommend it to everybody, absolutely great.
I have also doen this loop many times as my friend has a house in Mae Hong, best trip ever… Pai is the best place on earth. Id rather travel up to Pai on a scooter than a minibus any day.
Vietnam is probably a bit more scary than other countries in S.E Asia. The issue here is no rule is fully followed. Experience is important and there are some companies like CHI, Allianz, WorldNomads and on Lonely Planet that sell a policy if you have your valid country motorbike driving license. They will cover you in many countries including Vietnam for around 100$US in two weeks. This will be the best solution without getting a near impossible Vietnamese driving license.
If you want to know some practical rules here in Vietnam, please visit http://www.offroadvietnam.com/planning/practical-road-rules
Ride smart and ride safe!
The roads in Hanoi were just too crazy to even think about riding a scooter, Da Nang was OK though.
Is the drive you speak of from Chiang Mai to Pai? I cringed and kept my eyes closed on the back of my boyfriend’s motorbike, never again!!!! The route of 400 bends isn’t it? It looked okay on the map.
I just rode a Honda XR through northern Myanmar and it was amazing. You MUST have motorcycle experience! There are no rules on the roads, so you have to be able to “improvise”. I always bring my own helmet and riding jacket and gear. Being free to explore the back roads and get away from all the dirty backpackers and Eurotrash is the best!
What Miklos said!
If you don’t know how to ride a motorcycle you have no business trying to do it for the first time on vacation, crazier still in these big cities! Also, all riders are required to have a license, which is not possible without a 3 month visa and residence. But everyone does it anyway, just realize if something bad happens it will be your fault. And there are clear “rules of the road”. Might makes Right! Scooters are second only to pedestrians at the bottom of the food chain, so you are responsible to get out of everyone else’s way. And yes, wear riding gear and a good helmet, as always when you are on a motorcycle! Follow the flow of traffic and then get out of the big cities to have fun.
3 month visa which anybody can get, don’t need residence. 50cc (meaning any bike which says 50cc on it’s registration paperwork regardless of how it’s been modified since) doesn’t require a license (some options are old Honda Supercubs or new Symco Candys).
I totally understand your and other travelers fear of driving in SE especially Viet Nam.
I moved here last year November and have taken a motorbike taxi (xe om) for the time being. However I wanted to be more flexible and adventurous so I rented a scooter. Left it two weeks in the garage since I was too afraid of the traffic and everybody who has visited Saigon knows that the traffic here’s insane. I still feel my heart jumping up and down every time I cross the streets.
The traffic is crazy and no rules apply. But when u get used to it its pretty easy.
I took the plunge last week and since dont regret a single day. I chose a calm Sunday afternoon to ride. Slowly but steady I make my way to central and then to my relatives. The trick is to stay on the right side, drive slowly and use your left feet to move during traffic jams. Just go slowly 🙂
Today was my first time during morning Rush Hour. Geez it was crazy. A bus was driving next to me, 1000 of other drivers all around me. I nearly panicked but thats the most important thing. DONT PANICK. Be Calm and Relax! I even followed the locals way of driving and took a shortcut over the pavement:D That was fun:)
I’m not a novice driver. I have a scooter back in Germany and still I was afraid. I wouldnt recommend tourists to drive here since its insane. If you dont have Vietnamese blood (like me) or are an Expat in Vietnam don’t drive. It’s not fun being hurt or hurting others cause YOU will have to compensate – with money or your life.
Happy Driving 🙂
Read more about Driving in Saigon on my Blog
I agree with a lot of the comments on here but to add my 2cents:
1) There really needs to be a distinction between a motorbike and a scooter. Even a 250cc motorbike (which is probably what you are renting in SEA) is harder to handle than an automatic scooter.
2) My husband has been riding for about 30 years and we do overseas motorbike trips (just got back from 4weeks in Spain on a motorbike) and we have both rented motos/scooters in SEA. We come at it from a ‘be aware but not alarmed’ point of view. Not because of his driving skills – because even in developed countries like Australia you have to watch out for other drivers. Not even because other drivers may not be paying attention but because of what we like to call ‘unsafe western caution’
Generally, westerners expect people to follow rules but that just doesn’t happen in places like SEA. However, when you see this is makes you hesitant. For example, when crossing the road in SEA most people will do so timidly worried about the tuk tukls and motos that don’t seem to be stopping/moving away. This is actually more likely to cause an accident because the moto driver doesn’t know what you are doing. If you walk/cross in a steady pace, keeping your eyes open for danger they will move around you. But this is hard to do for most westerners, to put aside the part of you that is screaming this isn’t safe. The same applies when driving – when driving on these roads you become hesitant because you are unsure and you think going slower will be safer. It’s not.
I agree that a lot of accidents are caused because people who don’t know how to ride hire motos/scooters thinking it’s easy, or people who don’t have much experience in handling the bike and looking out for danger. However, as long as you have the right travel insurance and you are an experienced rider (read 5-10years +) than I don’t think it’s a problem. You just need to watch/observe how the patterns are formed and do what the locals do.
Just to add: Tet (Vietnamese New Year) is probably the worst time for motorcyclists. More people die due to drinking and then riding. This year, everyday more than 30 people died the week after Tet. It’s the biggest celerbration but not a good time to visit Vietnam. Food was not fresh, hotel room was expensive, services were lower in quality but charged more. Most shops were closed so assistance would be very limited.
Hi! just wanted to say hello
I read this article a few weeks ago.
I travelled to Philippines
I rented a motorbike
I had an accident
Hi, Audrey. Thanks for your blog about “motorcycling” or renting a scooter in SE Asia. There are little relative differences in the driving habits and traffic conditions across SE Asian countries. I am from Philippines and an avid touring motorcyclist. I’ve been around many parts of my country by scooter and by motorcycle, and while safety and road discipline are admittedly and usually neglected aspects of driving around here, I am doing my part in trying to propagate riding education, disciplined riding and proper safety gear usage among my various motorcycling clubs and riding communities. Although driving scooters may not necessarily be a simple task, it certainly allows you to enjoy the countryside while having a very mobile mode of transport. Here’s hoping to see a change in the driving culture and conditions of SE Asians over the next few decades, if not years. Enjoy your many travels.
Wow… I recently completed Hanoi to Saigon on a moped and trust me the roads in Thailand are SO TAME AND SAFE, compared to Vietnam. If you know what to do in Vietnam, which you eventually learn its usually ok. But even then there are many close shaves but they never hit you, because Vietnamese drivers are some of the best in the world.
Someone above was saying how scary the roads in Saigon are, but for me, by the time I got there I was riding with one hand in the city and I’m not even joking.
I did meet many people who had been in crashes most of them were bad, I was only in 1 baddish one.
I forgot to say, when leaving Hanoi, that was the 2nd time I had ever ridden a motorbike.
But I saw things that so few other people would see, and experience because we went to the middle of nowhere. It was worth it, hire a motorbike in Vietnam, you won’t regret it.
I actually rode that particular stretch of road during my first day ever on scooter. Rented the scooter out of Pai with 3 friends and popped over the border for a night then came back and rode from Pai back to Chiang Mai. Honestly it was a lot more scary on the minibus than on the bike. It was a foolhardy and naive decision to do it with so little experience but ultimately the memories and enjoyment make it well worth it in my mind.
Why would anyone even consider riding a motorcycle without prior training and experience let alone in an area where rules of the road by and large, don’t exist?
Any experienced rider will have few problems in SEA, mostly because they will be acutely aware of the additional risks and dangers, but do not need to concentrate on controlling their machine – it is pretty much a subconscious act to them.
Tourists seem to regard automatic scooters as something akin to a toy, but these toys can go in excess of 80KPH quite easily. If you fall off one at anything above walking pace you will be very badly hurt and you insurance will not cover you for any of the subsequent expensive medical bills if you’re lucky enough to survive.
There are some good comments and many stupid comments on this page. The one above is a stupid one,(If you fall off one at anything above walking pace you will be very badly hurt and you insurance will not cover you for any of the subsequent expensive medical bills if you’re lucky enough to survive.) What a stupid blanket statement, if you have a motorbike license in your own country then you WILL be covered by your insurance. If you fall off at a walking pace you may not even get a scratch. Accidents are simply that ..accidents.
I have ridden in Laos, Vietnam, Cambodia & Thailand. I recently finished my third trip in Thailand on a SCOOTER and have now travelled more than 20,000kms. I have come off twice, small spills both near my home.
You have to follow your gut feeling. If you don’t feel that you will be safe, don’t do it. If you’re not very sure, then try it at places where traffic is very light and were you can drive at a relatively slow speed. You may gain confidence and carry on or you may realize that you’re better off forgetting about renting a scooter. If you have never, ever handled a scooter, then you may have a problem. As many people have pointed out, it’s other drivers you have to worry about and there are many. Even if you’re the best and most careful driver, riding a scooter (or a bicycle) in SE Asia is unpredictable. I lived in Cambodia and I decided against having a scooter because the driving there (in Phnom Penh) was just to crazy. I tried it a few times and gave up. I now live in Laos where I actually need one to move around. It was a bit scary at the beginning. I’ve had a few incidents, nothing serious thank God, and it was always because of other drivers and something totally unpredictable. Fortunately, traffic in Vientiane is still manageable compared to other places in the region, and I’ve taken my time to discover smaller side streets where it’s easier and safer to travel even if it takes more time. It often means often driving carefully and like an old person but at other times driving defensively and like the locals. After a few months you start developing an instinct. I would prefer not to ride a scooter but at the same time I make the most of it, try to enjoy it and keep repeating to myself: I can do this. I will be fine. Confidence is important. You’ll have scary surprises regularly.
Yes if you have no experience you should never rent a scooter in a foreign country. Many people think it’s as easy as just getting on and going but that is not the case. There’s much more to it then just getting on and going. You need to understand how the bike works, Local laws, roads and so on….. Congestion is far more complex then that in western countries.
Would I rent a scooter in SE Asia, Yes I would but and I would recommend other travelers to do so also.
I agree with you. Every country have got it’s own driving rules. I have experience in driving scooter at the streets of south Asia and I know how rude their traffic Sargent are. 🙁
Not only those riding, but the pedestrians have to be aware. My daughter was in Manila as a pedestrian. Traffic is crazy, she said. Drivers honk, not to warn you to get out of the way- but they honk to say ” we are coming, and if you do not run for your life, you will be run over.” My step son dropped his bike in traffic on Cebu City, and said he would have been killed if any traffic was coming. My wife told me of a Philippine Army man who survived combat in Vietnam during the war- but did not survive Cebu’s traffic.
Just saw a girl die on a scooter. .. It’s making me rethink whether I should keep mine… am a bit shocked,
Only experienced motorcyclists should consider it – and then only in quiet places, and certainly not in either Thailand or the Philippines.
I am planning a trip to Vietnam with my girlfriend. Currently, I live in China, Chengdu city. I have an electric bike ( with a max speed of 45km/h）,which I ride everyday. Traffic in Chengdu is crazy, but I got used to it, no problems even during rush hour. What do you guys think, will the experience in China be useful when riding a motorcycle in Vietnam? I wouldn’t worry if I was going to travel alone, but as I’m traveling with my girlfriend, I feel a big responsibility. What do you guys think?
Hey expat, not sure if you’re still planning your trip: but I think if you have experience driving in Chengdu you should be OK. However, 45 km/h is a little slow for some Vietnamese roads. I know I get up to 60 km/h on some of the highways in Saigon. Just take it reeaaalllyyy slow and don’t sweat it.
Interesting to read this article. However, after living almost 7 years in Asia and riding a motorbike in China for 4 years and 3 years in Thailand I have to disagree. I believe riding in Thailand is far less dangerous than it is in the West as long as you change your mindset (by the way, riding in China IS extremely dangerous and not recommended! But Thais are much much more polite and calm drivers).
Use common sense, dont try to teach others on the road, and drive defensively. Most drivers in Thailand are driving much more respectful, slow and careful than in Western countries. Yes there are exceptions such as taxis, minivans and local scooter drivers, you are right. I also agree with you that you should not rent a scooter or motorbike if you have no riding experience. I recommend at least 2 years previous riding experience. But then driving a bike without experience is very dangerous in any country. To make a short story long, motorbiking is always more dangerous than driving a car, but saying that Thailand being a dangerous country to drive is in my opinion false. Yes there are many road deaths, but those are mostly connected to reckless driving of local scooter drivers and not wearing a helmet.
We are just starting a new motorbike rental in Thailand and happy to help with any questions! Also adding tips and tricks of driving in Thailand to our web as we speak 🙂
There is one main unwritten rule in Vietnam that all road users use and that is “Me First”
And horns are to let others know “I going to do something wrong get out of my way and let me do it”.
Also don’t try doing normal turns at a corner you will confuse the other riders, they all just cut corners. Cars included. And traffic lights are just for cars, not scooters, well that’s their thinking. Oh and lastly even though rear vein mirrors are compulsory, very few people use them and will pull out into traffic without looking to see if there is room or not. Remember me first rule.
I have been riding in Vn since 2006 and it still scares me.
I too had the same idea when I came to Thailand last year. I mean how hard can it be, right!?! After a few tries, that included me running into something each time, I decided that riding a scooter just isn’t for me and I think the roads of Northern Thailand are safer for it. Luckily my husband can ride one like a pro so I don’t feel like I am missing out at all.
A few of us decided to emulate the BBC ‘Top Gear’ moped ride from Saigon to Hanoi. Some had only basic riding experience, and one guy had none. I thought I’d be okay, having riden for years, and having been a Police motorcyclist. Anyway, after 3 or 4 days the previously inexperienced guy had fallen off a few times and had a couple of small scrapes, but then I hit a patch of loose gravel on an unmade track and departed the bike…. when I went to get up my shoulder had dislocated and my right foot was pointing backwards. The shoulder went back in (old injury!), but the clearly broken leg was a different issue. There is no regular ambulance service in the middle of nowhere (or anywhere else in VietNam), so I had no option than to ride the bike with ‘temporary’ repair to my leg (standing on it and twisting it back straight!!!). 3 hous later we got to a reasonably large town with a hospital, and I got proper treatment. (X-rays showed 3 breaks to tib & fib). Hospital treatment was excellent, but not to Western standards. Needless to say lessons were learned:- 1) experience doesn’t always matter; 2) never travel alone (we were in a group of 12); 3) accept that unexpected matters WILL happen; 4) ALWAYS wear proper clothing (I had full padded clothing, boots, UK crash helmet, Biking gloves – I hate to think what it would have been like if I’d been in shorts and flip-flops!)
So, would I do it again? – well, this year we went back for 2 weeks and did the Ho Chi Minh trail North to South.
And we’re planning a trip to Laos for Spring 2016.
Our one advantage over many on here – we paid outright for our bikes so never had to contend with the ‘rip-off’ “damage caused” incidents….
As general advice to everyone, check that you’re covered on your travel insurance (I got it in writing as the policy wording was a bit ambiguous, so I told them what I was planning on doing, what my qualifications were, what local laws required etc etc) – at least I had follow-up treatment at a Western Hospital in Hanoi, business class travel home and all extra expences covered. If you don’t have cover – don’t go near it (unless you have a good credit limit on your Visa Card).
Just to say what a well written article you wrote re motorcycling and tour buses in Thailand Audrey. The tour bus drivers do drive like bats out of hell, its to make sure there is time to take you to another tourist attraction where of course they are rewarded. As for road rules they don’t exist. Three 18 year old guys on one motorcycle came round the bend on the wrong side of the road hitting me on my motorcycle head on. I was in hospital for three weeks two of the guys who ran into me died on the spot. No helmets, No licence, No insurance… I was even asked if I could pay for the cremations of the two dead teenagers!
What about three wheeled mopeds? Can you rent those in Thailand?
As an Aussie living in Thailand and having traveled well in excess of 100,000km throughout the Kingdom on various bikes from 50cc scooters to 1000cc sportsbikes, this is my advice.
1. DONT wait to go overseas to learn how to ride a bike (this is the biggest mistake you will make)
2. DONT expect other motorists to obey the road rules in the slightest, in fact you should be expecting and prepared for the unexpected AT ALL TIMES.
3. DONT hire any motorized vehicles without the equivalent license from your home country as well as a Valid International License. (if you plan to stay for 3 months or more, you MUST obtain a Thai Drivers License.
4. DONT believe a word anyone tells you in contrary to the above, especially point 3.
5. ALWAYS confirm and read the fine print of your personal/travelers insurance package to ensure adequate cover for the activities you engage in, (prior to the event). If you are leaving your own country without insurance, its best to seek professional assistance in determining if you have a functioning brain. GET INSURANCE, GOT IT!!
6. NEVER get on a bike (motorized or otherwise) without adequate HEAD PROTECTION.
7. WEAR A SEATBELT. (if your driver is a maniac, TELL HIM TO SLOW DOWN = ‘CUP ROT CHAA CHAA’) if he refuses and mumbles some crap like ‘MAI BPEN RAI’ = Nevermind, tell him to stop and then exit the vehicle – DON’T FORGET YOUR BELONGINGS. (obviously this is perhaps not wise in the middle of nowhere or at night, especially if you are female)
8. When in traffic, maintain an aggressive riding posture, keep your brakes covered, pay attention to your mirrors, watch for vehicles turning left in front of you and cutting you off, watch for illegal U-Turns, Red Light bandits are at EVERY intersection at EVERY red light – therefore, always check before proceeding -EVEN IF THE LIGHT IS GREEN, extra caution at night especially if its late due to drunkards, underage drivers/riders/overloaded bikes/cars/trucks etc – they take much longer to stop and often won’t.
9. The Thai driving exam is beyond a joke. Incompetence abounds, indicators are rarely used and certainly don’t always demonstrate their intentions. Why? Thais drivers don’t like to give away their next move, and they believe they will wear out their indicator light bulbs if used too much… -true story.
10. When on a bike, try to stay ahead of the pack as much as possible. Be prepared to split lanes (saved my ass a million times)
11. BE EXTREMELY CAREFUL if you feel the need to hurl abuse at someone who wrongs you (even if they almost kill you). Road rage encounters here can and do result in machetes and even firearms being presented. Beeping horns unless dreadfully necessary can often cause a Thai person to ‘Lose Face’. Aggression, and even ‘ramming’ can be a result.
Thailand is an amazing country, and outside of the westernized, touristized (not a real word I know), major cities, Thais are very pleasant and accommodating, quiet folk giving rise to the phrase. LOS – Land of Smiles.
However, on busy streets in congested areas in major cities, Thais seem to lose those better qualities and often become rude, impatient, faceless maniacs quite willing to deliberately injure others if they see fit. I’ve witnessed all sorts of carnage on the roads here, many of which are deliberate not discounting vehicular manslaughter.
As a foreigner in this country, you have next to NO RIGHTS when compared to locals. If you are involved in an accident, you will MOST CERTAINLY get the blame. If the accident is the fault of another, there is a good chance they will ‘RUN’.
If you hire a car or bike, mount a GoPro Camera or other HD device that you can simply point to as a means of defending yourself. This is often enough to have the guilty party admit fault and convince the corrupt police officer to cease bidding on behalf of the local/s (that will come in droves most of the time – usually to take photos to post on facebook and share with friends).
Unless you can speak Thai and understand the situation here, avoid stopping to help others (yes i know how that sounds – but many foreigners I know living here have been blamed just for being there) so BE CAREFUL AND ON YOUR GUARD AT ALL TIMES.
I’ve been involved in a couple of very minor incidents here (all on big bikes), none of which required hospitalization for anyone involved, 2 of which were my fault (too much trust/faith in others) I grew up with fast cars and fast bikes and ride like I stole them, but I also believe that this is what has kept me safe and helped me avoid dozens of potential incidents.
No, I dont recommend this attitude/behaviour unless you KNOW what you are doing. I know of at least one professional rider whom lost his life here doing absolutely nothing wrong at all, and was killed instantly when a drunk rider decided to ride his bike across double lines on a straight road, on a clear day for no apparent reason, and crash head-on. Yes, the Thai lived, but the American pro was not so lucky.
There is more to Safe Driving in Thailand than what I have posted here but I am out of time.
Dont let the dangers of operating or being a passenger of a vehicle deter you from what can quite possibly be the best experience of your life. Use your head, Dont lose it. Listen to the experiences of those whom live here and pay attention.
I think driving a motorcycle in Southeast Asia would be so scary! I’ve seen plenty of those Youtube videos in Asia about crazy car accidents. Too many of them have been on bikes or scooters!
I just rented a scooter in Phuket although it was dangerous, there are a few common sense road rules to follow, keep left unless overtaking, do not overtake other bikes on the left hand side, stay in the left lane for bikes mostly. Keep an eye on your mirrors and do blind spot checks etc. I have a riding license back home but has a while since I had a bike due to accident, definitely the best way to get around, saw the Big Buddha, other beaches and sites, I wouldn’t have seen…GPS is recommended, very handy as it sits on the left pocket on most scooters
I just found this post and in case anyone needs more than this, I saw a guy fall of his motorcycle last night in Chiang Mai, blood splattered everywhere and he was crying of pain for quite a while. So yeah, be careful with motorcycles in SE Asia 🙁
Alright people, I agree you have to be cautious and you shouldnt learn how to drive a moped in SE asia. But while I was in Thailand scooter offered me immense freedom, both in Chiang Mai and then down in Krabi. Sure you should avoid highways and you need to look after yourself, but its a great way to explore empty roads out of the cities.
Great advise from Pistol. Read his post just above. I just finished a stint in Chiang Mai and had a blast riding my scooter around the city and beyond.
That being said, I am a rider of 30 yrs experience and would never dream of suggesting to someone that it is even remotely sane to learn how to drive any form of two wheeled transportation in Thailand. DO NOT DO THIS!! YOU WILL GET HURT.
If you are not confident and comfortable riding a motorbike in your home country then Thailand or anywhere in SE Asia is not the place to start learning. With other forms of transport being so affordable, it is not worth the risk if you do not have the experience.
If you are experienced, use your experience, drive defensively but with gusto and enjoy the ride.
“you in rome just do as roman”. Local ride motorcycle everyday in their way. We are new, not easy but the best way to enjoy our trip is experience on two wheels. Get a training session, be familiar with local traffic then try to ride follow flow of traffic. I did it with these steps.
I agree that riding in foreign country is very dangerous for any rider even they are in expert skill. How every, the risk will be low down if we ignore city then get the ride in countryside. It’s not easy traffic but have stunning landscape instead of dusty, crazy cities
A Chiang Mai local stumbled upon your blog.
I agree that you should not drive in TH. (I would say only my country since I don’t have experience in other countries) And over all I agree with most of what Pistol said.
I ride my motorcycle for 20 years but rarely got any accident. Why? Because I’m familiar with it. I know how to control my bike. However I had accidents, esp. during my first few years. Most of you are not familiar with motorcycle at all from what I see. Yet you still drive them. And worst is that sometime you put yourself in danger just because you don’t care. A few months ago I saw a couple of Westerns drive in the opposite way on a one way road here. There is a sign. Actually it’s not just a sign but the barrier with a sign. yet you don’t care for it at all.
Not just driving. Just a few week there were news of some tourists swimming in beaches which has danger signs due to high wave. yet you guys don’t pay any attention. At the same time there were news of some tourists did rock climbing in a place that is not aloow for climbing at all. Even put a signs on. Again. You don’t care.
And when something’s wrong happen. We were the one to blame.
I know few of you would listen to me or think back of what you done. Some might even talk back at me. But sometime, trust the local , and respect of what they told you. We don’t want to sent you back in a coffin.
I’ve been in Burma this past month an renting a scooter was the way to go for most places. If you don’t have any experience on a bike/scooter, then Asia is not the place to learn. I raced motocross back home and I know my bikes pretty well. You should practice before jumping into some of the wildest traffic on the planet. Vietnam is more intense mind you. I had a blast, you have to be confident and aggressive. Any hesitation is what causes the accidents. Always travel with medical. I went on a 8 hour bus drive as well. this bus driver was mental speeding uphill, downhill, edging towards cliffs that made me cringe. all I could think was…man I wish I did this trip on a scooter. that way if something happens its on me and not in the hands of a wild man bus driver! Then again. when its your time it your time. Being a traveler is about taking risks. That’s what life’s about. Its always good to listen to travelers who have had experience but always make your own judgment call. You don’t have to not do something because someone else felt uncomfortable about it, everyone’s different!
One big problem that no one has mentioned is that the Thais have little respect for foreigners behind their polite smiles, and when you bring the bike back they see it as an opportunity to charge an extortionate amount of money to repair the tiniest of scratches that you may or not have been responsible for. Its bad enough paying 100 euro for a scratch that you did cause but when its something that was there before you got the bike then its a pretty awful experience
Because they have your passport you cannot refuse to pay. They have all the power, they know it and they abuse it. Expect at least a 100 euro bill when you bring the bike back. More if you have actually damaged it even if the marks are extremely small.
When you get the bike take detailed photographs of every part with the owner in attendance. Make sure the photos are date stamped. Otherwise be prepared to pay.
Often there is no practical alternative to having a scooter. Always wear jeans and a strong fleece top when driving. also Gloves and shoes and a helmet. The wind of your passage is enough to keep you cool and it stops you getting sunburnt too. If you keep your speed under 35 then you are unlikely to be injured if you crash and your clothes should stop any grazing.
some easy rules allways a helmet, for girls wear long pants and longsleeves to avoid scars, if u r in a tourist place like phuket , samui or koh phan gan also krab khao lak u know ….go to a pub and ask some expats they usualy can give u advice where to rent a bike fair and fine
for the bike there is also an easy advice …as bigger as better , big wheels r good on sand and water and as bigger your bike as more the others respect u
sounds strange but here it is like that
i live here now over 8 years
here means southern phuket – rawai –
Riding a bike in the south east asia is a very high risk activity.
It is not about getting the bike balance and get it going, it is about reading the traffic conditions, blend in the flow, and compensate for others’ mistakes.
Riders here take years of experience to have that instinct, and many learned through the hard ways of getting into many accidents.
You may be very careful, but not other road users. It only takes 1 irresponsible driver who momentarily texting on the phone.
And not all drivers / riders who have license actually passed the test. Ever wonder how people who can’t even read actually pass the written traffic regulation test?
My suggestion is, don’t do it.
I’ve done the highway from Chiang Mai to Pai on a 125cc scooter, and I know from experience that it can be dangerous with the blind corners and the speedy vans. However the vans also know to look out for scooters for the most part. I found them narrowly speeding past me, and so I took extra caution to give them the space they needed.
I’ve done a bit of a video guide here on YouTube about scooters, if you’re a little worried, please take a look!
I realize what you mean about the minivans and transports simply zooming past. I’ve been on transports where the driver is simply gunning it down the parkway and blaring at little bikes to escape his direction – no respect for the family taking children to class on the motorbike or the agriculturist transporting his produce.
Could I ask a silly question? Maybe it’s because I’m older but I’ve never put up with shit from anyone or stupidity (no matter what country I’m in and especially if I’m paying for a service) but did anyone say to your minibus driver “Hey buddy, how about you slow down and stick to the speed limit – this is my life you have here in your hands and I also want to arrive at my destination minus a heart attack and bruises”. It sounds like your fellow passengers would have probably backed you up and it sounds like it couldn’t really get much worse. WTF?
I had to tell a minibus driver in Fiji to slow down because he was driving like he was late to his own funeral but I was still polite about it. Maybe that’s just me?
In 2014 we were traveling with my 11 y/o daughter and hired a driver to take us to our mountain hotel and he was an educated, well-dressed and polite young driver but his put this music on the CD player that was extremely inappropriate about sex and violence. I simply asked if he played that sort of music around his mother and he got the hint. I was very offended that he considered this sort of thing acceptable. So my advice is, don’t let the show offs of the world spoil your time on the planet.
I travel OS whenever I can and though I don’t consider myself the fun police (I like adrenaline, drinking and partying), when some idiot wants to gamble with my life, or is disrespectful, I give them what for. Yes, I’m the bitch that shouts at the idiot westerner riding a scooter at 60kms/hr up poppies lane without a helmet “Slow down you wanker”. Sounds to me like your driver had a carload of tourists so….perhaps it would’ve just taken one to speak up. Then again, if he ignored you and nobody wanted to back you up, getting out and waiting for the next minibus may not have been an option. I would like to know how you reacted after the journey was over “No tip for you mate” would’ve been a good one-liner. lol
My experience with riding in Asia is such: Bali no problem except Kuta (the 80s was ok but now it’s bedlam). I ride 250cc scooters all over (last trip 9/2015) including the old capital which was a rush but I ride a Honda VTR1000 back home in Australia. Guess what though…. scooters aren’t as stable as a road bike and I came off once in the 80s when they were manual (over on Nusa Lebongan) because it ran out of puff going up a hill and kicking down a gear meant wheelie time but I was only in my 20s. Last year though, I was only doing about 2km/hr pulling into a pebble dash drive on a 250 automatic to wait for my friends to catch up – front wheel just went out from under me in a split second and I didn’t even have the break on for it to happen – skin off knee and pinky finger (stayed on)! Lesson here was to avoid riding in the wet if possible and now I always put both feet down when entering a driveway with pebble dash and frog walk it in – Yes I look like a goose but that stuff is as slippery as shit. Don’t ride in the rain if you can avoid it (but it’s sooo much fun to ride). And Vietnam – forget it…are you mad? Insurance will not cover you if you get into an accident because (unless they changed the rules in the last 12 months), you cannot drive on an International Drivers permit unless you’re on one of those Tours. You MUST have a valid licence for that country to be insured and if the accident is not your fault….it’s still your fault.
I think most of the references to SEA or “Southeast Asia” here are really referring to Thailand.
I was in Bangkok for work for three months and I decided very early on that I was NOT going to personally ride a motorbike while I was there, at all, anywhere in the country, ever, because the traffic is just too crazy. And I have a lot of experience riding motorcycles….
That said, motorbike taxis are the best way to get around the peripheral streets and on to the BTS/MRT stations. No riskier than walking and way cheaper than taxis. The drivers know what they’re doing and it’s somewhat regulated. As long as it doesn’t involved riding down a main street, it’s pretty safe. I also had my own helmet for motorbike taxis, which I rode a lot.
Now here’s something that’s kind of counter-intuitive. I had no problem renting and riding a motorbike when I went to Hanoi though — it didn’t bother me one bit. Lots of traffic yes, but like 95% of the traffic is other motorbikes, so the risk of a major crash is lower. Also while it’s definitely a free for all, just keep your eyes open, just like the locals do and you’ll be fine. It’s also much more orderly than Thailand.
Thailand is the place where it’s bad and not just with motorbikes. This is just my opinion of course.
If you rent a motorbike anywhere in the world because the people renting a bike don’t check you have a licence or the police happen to be corrupt then the idiot on the road is you.
Thailand and most countries around south east Asia have laws that require a motorbike licence to ride on the road, the fact that you can get away with it isn’t an excuse, if you choose to break the law and ride a bike without a licence then you are a selfish idiot who is putting other people’s lives at risk. The amount of accidents injuries and deaths I have seen in south east Asia on motorbikes defies belief and the majority are caused by tourists or backpackers that decide riding a bike illegally in the countryside of Thailand isn’t the same as back home.
You don’t have the experience, you do not have complete control of the vehicle and you sure as hell don’t have the awareness to avoid potentially dangerous situations as someone who had been trained to ride a bike. The laws are there to protect people by making sure that the vehicles on the road are ridden or driven by people who can control them in different situations.
Sure the Thais and Indonesians may dhave I’ve recklessly but at least they aren’t braking the law as soon as they drive the bike and they have knowledge of the roads, traffic, weather and vehicle they are in.
If you don’t have a licence at home, don’t ride a bike abroad, risking other people lives so you can do something fun is irresponsible and stupid. If you choose to rent a bike that you are unfamiliar with just because you are in a foreign country, then the most dangerous thing on the road is you. If you get injured, it’s probably the least you deserve for either choosing to put other people’s lives at risk or being to ignorant to realise that is what you’re doing.
Safe travels, enjoy Asia 🙂
Most motorists in SE Asia are motorcycle aware as they themselves were motorcycle riders and I wouldn’t say SE Asia is more dangerous than my home country. However it is not wise to ride for the first time in a busy place especially in a different country. If you do then in the very least learn how to control the bike at slow and medium speeds in a very quiet area or parking lot. Get someone with experience to help you. Afterwards, strictly follow some basic rules. Don’t ride unless you are alert and the conditions are good. Do not drink alcohol. Try to ride at the same speed as the responsible riders around you. Do not change direction on a straight road even slightly without being totally sure no one is about to overtake you. Don’t rush though traffic lights when they have just changed. It also helps if you know the directions to your destination in advance so you can be more focused on safety.
Ride slow and go with the flow. That’s the key to riding motorbike in SE Asia. Don’t think like a Westerner in our lines and boxes. Think like a local with wiggly lines and flexibility. I did a month on a motorbike on Java in Indonesia. And am currently riding scooters in Vietnam. Loving it. Wish I’d rented scooter in Thailand when I was there too.
Renting a car in the Philippines is difficult but you can rent a motorbike nearly anywhere. I discovered the Philippines by ferry and motorbike.If you are not used to drive a motorbike, but your driver license allows you to drive a 125 ccm, then we recommend not to rent a motorbike.
If you have experience, and are riding a scooter in a “safe” space, like smaller, rural roads, at low speeds and/or where there is a lot of other slow speed scooter traffic, it is reasonable.
I drove a scooter in Saigon. I had some experience on scooter previously, and I have ridden my bicycle extensively, including in heavy urban traffic. The ONLY way I did this in Saigon, was we were with a local tour guide who traveled by scooter. He took my wife on the back, and I followed him, staying close behind him at all times.
I saw about nothing as a tourist, because driving a scooter in a place like Saigon is very difficult. Even though our tour guide drove conservatively and slowly, it was difficult for me to keep up with him. Twice, I touched another driver and/or scooter during the day. That has NEVER happened to me in the states, except a few times when touching other people in my bicycle party.
I would NEVER have considered driving a scooter on my own in Saigon. Even though I was very experienced on two wheels, on my own in Saigon I would have been way out of my league.
Oh, and we all wore helmets.
Riding a scooter is a choice. I feel its safer then trusting some other tuk tuk driver or motorbike driver who could be drunk, high, etc.
At least if you are driving you can go slow and limit the impact of a possible crash. I own a scooter hire place in Phnom Penh, PhnomPenhMotorbikes.com and rent to a lot of foreigners. Some who have never rode before and i would say 99.9% have no major problems.
Maybe 5% drop the scooter driving 5 or 10 kilo going over sand or small gravel like you have in SEasia.
hey audrey, me and my friend just arrived on lombok and are not really interested in living through any of the nightmares from above. do you have any advice about what kind of transportation to and fro beaches and stuff would be a good alternative?
That sounds like the scariest mini-bus ride ever! You successfully freaked me out! My partner loves to rent scooters when we travel (I sit on the back)
I respect your opinion since its yours but just wanna say this, all you have to do is ride slow and go with the flow. That’s the key to riding motorbike in South East Asia. Don’t think like a Westerner in our lines and boxes, forget being one for a few weeks on your trip. And think like a local with wiggly lines and flexibility.
We too encountered a suicidal minivan driver who, at one point was driving 90mph onto an oncoming vehicle who ALSO decided he wasn’t going to budge. At the very last second – they swerved, fast. Sending us all into a “life flash before our eyes” daze. I did after that though, try a scooter for just 2 minutes down a strip of road, but as soon as I stopped the weight of it just bundled over with me still on it, like a scene from the Inbetweeners. Never again.
We rented a moped in Chiang Mai. Drove to see the elephants, on the way back We where on the motorway, the back kicked out, I luckily fixed it, it kicked again and the rest is history. Both of us off the bike, slide down the road at 80kph. Lucky nothing broken and not knocked out. Quickly grabbed my wife and got her to the road side. The moped oil bung had rattled loose covering our back wheel in oil causing us to crash. We had helmets but wearing shorts/tshirt. 2 local men stopped to help us, we where bleeding pretty badly. They called our rental company and got the bike picked up and off to hospital. I have damaged my knees, arms and back, my wife is worse, walking is difficult. On the plus side- the hospital is fantastic, we are now on our 3rd day of treatment and the bike rental has taken full responsibility and covering our medical bills. I’m just glad the motorway was empty, it was on a straight line, the road was smooth with no stones and we didn’t slide into any barriers. Our pack packing trip is now spent in a good hotel in Chiang Mai with restaurants close by. A shame a mechanical fault has dented our holiday but it could have been worse. Also- we have rented mopeds around Asia several times, I have my full bike licence in UK and experienced, but if you rent check the bike for any signs of oil/loose screws, and wear jeans/long sleeve, I wish I had! Be careful!!
It’s a bit unfair, but driving in any countries, especially SEA countries might be daunting, but as long as you’re an experienced driver and is fine driving under heavy traffic, everything should be fine. Accident in most cases are because the driver themselves are not a very advanced driver and made mistakes due to overconfident / not confident enough, and the rest is due to external factor.
The bottomline is, if you find it stressful to drive through narrow gap between cars, or cutting lines during heavy traffic like it’s nobody business, and you’re not accustomed to use your rear mirror or very aware of your surrounding while you’re driving…it’s better to use public transport rather than driving on your own..
However if you’re one of those people who liked to drive around and don’t mind the things I mentioned above, you should be fine and should be able to decide whether you enjoyed / not, the experience.
Well, you can ride on a scooter as long you are single. When you are married and have kids these days are over. You can not travel on a scooter with your wife and newborn baby. Unless you are Indian. I traveled to the Philippines, Malaysia on scooters it was so much fun. I also traveled with my wife on the scooter.
I found a good website for renting scooters in Asia, which was book2wheel. It is like Airbnb for scooters you rent for local people.
Well now those days are over for me, now we have a baby and now we rent a car. But drive as long you can on a scooter until you have babies.
We would say first take some time learning the motorcycle in Asia. Few days how local drive Then you can ride freely. Do not take to big road or highway. Some people just arrive in Asia and rent motorbikes and take them to highways. If you rent a motorcycle in Manila, You must first learn how the road network works.