If you've been to South East Asia before you'll know that the preferred choice of transport is the motorcycle. In busy cities the roads are so packed with them that as a pedestrian you just have to pick a small gap in the traffic and go, keeping your figures crossed the drivers will see and avoid you.
In the eastern part of the world there are far less safety regulations to adhere to and you regularly see up to 5 family members, a chicken and a dog piled onto one bike! Roads and vehicles are also less well maintained and road traffic accidents are usually the biggest cause of death in most countries.
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Throughout our time in South East Asia we saw hundreds of tourists hobbling around with bandaged up limbs and ugly grazes. One girl we saw literally had no skin left on her knees from skidding across the tarmac on them. Whilst we were on an island in Thailand we narrowly missed being knocked down by a tourist who nearly lost control of his motorcycle coming round a bend too fast.
Then there was the guy who so inebriated that he literally just dove off his bike and head butted the road. Luckily there was no one else involved but how he survived I'll never know. He wasn't wearing a helmet and remembering the sound of his head cracking on the road will forever make me wince.
So even though J can ride a motorbike and we had ridden them before in other parts of the world, we were apprehensive to say the least about renting a motorcycle in South East Asia.
As we were there for a good number of months we wanted the freedom to explore further afield, beyond the usual sightseeing hotspots and so we plucked up the courage and rented our first one in Chiang Mai. The adventures we had to the Sticky Waterfalls & Thailand's Grand Canyon are some of our favourite memories from our time here and we would have missed out on plenty more adventures if we hadn't done it.
So to help you have a safe experience renting a motorcycle in South East Asia I've put together this short guide with all our tips and recommendations.
- Always get off on the left hand side of the bike, especially if you are riding pillion. Some exhausts have covers but many don't and the pipe is red hot. You do not want your skin anywhere near it.
Lots of people make this mistake and not only end up with a really nasty burn but also an infection to boot. One of our friends accidentally brushed their camera strap against an exhaust and it instantly seared straight through it.
- You generally won't get asked for your license when renting a motorcycle in South East Asia but for the love of god make sure you can bloody drive. The roads are generally very busy, routes often involve dual carriage ways with high speeds and it can be very windy.
- Don't be an idiot and put yourself and others in danger. You need you have road smarts. The speedometers often don't work and without prior driving experience you are likely to have no awareness of how fast you are going. Make yourself aware of which side of the road you have to drive on as it varies from country to country.
Bigger vehicles get right of way and you're expected to drive on the hard shoulder. This isn't against the rules in South East Asia and you should follow the locals and do so for your own and other's safety - just think of the hard shoulder like a bike lane but watch out for any debris or potholes.
- Make sure your helmet is not damaged, is of good quality and fits well. Of course you may not have much choice, but this is one of the reasons why I would recommend doing your research and renting from a reputable company.
- Another is that the motorcycles from a reputable company will likely be in better condition. The last thing you want is to be driving a vehicle that isn't roadworthy with dodgy brakes and faulty indicators, that's just asking for trouble.
- Get insurance. Again, you should choose a company with good reviews. Although most policies will have an excess, the insurance is unlikely to cost no more than a couple of quid.
Paying a £50 excess rather than the cost of a replacement bike if you do end up wrecking it is a no brainier. Policies will also cover you for some medical expenses should you have to go to hospital, although you shouldn't rely on this and should always have separate travel insurance.
- If you get stopped for a 'traffic violation' just pay the fine, it's likely to only be a few quid. Foreigners are easy targets for crooked coppers and it's not worth the argument. If the police are on foot and you're feeling lucky, the other option is just to pretend you haven't seen them and don't stop.
- Have a SIM card and credit on your phone if you are going anywhere remote. As I said above, motorcycles in South East Asia are not subject to the same roadworthy tests as in the UK and you don't want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere in the event of a breakdown.
- Be sure to have the maps.me app downloaded on your phone. This app works offline and so you'll be able to tell exactly where you are if you get lost or find yourself in an emergency situation.
- You will have to leave your passport with the rental company as a deposit so make sure you take it with you. You may also be able to leave a cash deposit if this is your preference.
- Wear sunglasses (unless you are driving at night then don't, ha!) I say this because most helmets don't come with visors and sunglasses will prevent you from getting any bugs or debris in your eyes. You don't want something flying in there whilst you're doing 50mph down a dual carriageway!
- You will have to fill up and pay for fuel yourself. Ordinarily you will pick up the motorcycle with an empty fuel tank and return it empty. A full tank will cost £1-2 depending on the size of bike you have and which country you're in.
- Driving in South East Asia is much different to driving in England and other drivers on the whole are very considerate. Road users are used to there being lots of motorbikes on the road and are careful to watch out for them.
- This ones a bit crazy, but if you are turning left at traffic lights don't always wait for the green light. People tend to just go straight though and you are going to get in the way if you don't follow suit - obviously look out for traffic coming from your right!
- Don't be a dick and drink and drive, it's a few quid for a tuk tuk.
- Check your headlights and indicators actually work before you set off and take photos of any preexisting damage to the bike. You don't want to be held responsible for any scratches or bumps that you haven't caused.
- Take a jacket or long sleeved top as whether it's warm out or not it can get very cool whilst riding, particularly if you are going a considerable distance. It's also very easy to get sunburnt unwittingly if you're not covered up.
- Assume westerners are less experienced drivers and give them plenty of space. Because you don't need to provide a licence to hire a motorbike in South East Asia many people use it as an opportunity to learn. Avoid them!
Just because you see local kids of 9 or 10 riding around without helmets on don't make the dumbass mistake of assuming it's easy or safe. The roads are busy, traffic lights are widely ignored and traffic accidents are one of the top killers in South East Asia.
But there are also tonnes of motorcycles that drive around everyday without incident. With the number of motorcycles far outweighing any other mode of transport it generally means larger vehicles are on the look out for you. So yeah, following our guide and drive safe!
What's your experience of riding a motorcycle in South East Asia? Or elsewhere? What are your fears or concerns? Any other top tips to share?