10 Tips for Riding Motorbikes in Thailand
So, you’re thinking about riding a motorbike or a scooter in Thailand on your next holiday? And you’re maybe wondering what to expect, or even what your chances are of surviving and even maybe enjoying the experience? We’ve been doing it for 4-5 years now, so I thought it might be useful to share my experiences.
Tip #1 – Don’t Be a Learner in Thailand
Riding a scooter or motorbike in Thailand is not like riding one at home. Even if you have lots of riding experience, riding in Thailand can be very challenging at best, deadly dangerous at worst. If you need proof of this, look no further than the “motorbike graveyards” in places like Bangkok, Phuket, and Chiang Mai, where they store thousands of motorbikes and scooters badly damaged in road accidents – many involving foreign tourists.
So, my first tip is don’t use Thailand as a place to learn to ride a scooter or motorbike. It’s very tempting to do this, because in most parts of Thailand you don’t need any kind of license to hire a scooter. And because everyone seems to be riding one, it looks like it can’t be too difficult. But it is. The riding bit is not hard to get your head around as scooters almost ride themselves, but managing in Thailand traffic takes a lot of concentration and skill and is not something you want to take lightly. What you want to go home with from your holiday is good memories and a sun tan, not horrific injuries, a huge fine or a damage bill you could be paying off for years.
Tip #2 – Choose Your Battleground Carefully
Although I like to have the freedom of riding a motorbike or scooter where ever we go in Thailand, there are some places even I won’t ride. And I’ve been riding motorcycles for most of my life (at least 30+ years). For example, I simply will not ride in Bangkok, ever. The traffic in Bangkok is merciless and brutal, even the tuk-tuk drivers find it challenging. The people you see riding scooters and motorbikes in Bangkok have generally grown up doing it, so they’ve learnt the defensive techniques from early childhood. But even they come to grief regularly and you don’t have to wander around much to see an accident involving a scooter.
I also will not ride a scooter in Phuket, even though I have ridden extensively around Asia (including Sanur, Kuta and even Denpasar in Bali where road and traffic conditions are similar to Phuket). Although it does not look as daunting as Bangkok for motorbike riders, fact is that the accident rate for scooter and motorbike riders in Phuket, especially foreigners, is way too high to ignore. It’s a game of Russian roulette and you just don’t know when the bullet is going to arrive. You can be as skillful and defensive as you like, but there’s a good chance your holiday will end in grief if you ride in Phuket.
Recent statistics from Phuket show that in a single month there were 220 motorbike and scooter accidents with 18 fatalities – and that’s just one month! Nationally, about 38-40 people die every day in Thailand in motorcycle accidents. The Phuket Gazette says “Casualty figures alone justify the need to keep inexperienced, unlicensed and often inebriated bikers off Phuket’s roads. In a single day last week, six people perished in motorbike accidents on the island, most of them still in their youth.”
I will and do ride in places like Koh Samui, Krabi/Ao Nang, Chiang Mai, and Chiang Rai. Chiang Mai is probably the most challenging place I’ve ridden a motorbike or scooter in Thailand, mainly because the inner-city area has parallel one-way roads and you need to constantly be doing U-turns and then crossing busy traffic lanes to get to where you’re going. And the roads are often jam-packed with tuk-tuks, songthaews (passenger utilities), minivans and big tourist buses, all in a flying hurry to get where they’re going and willing to push you out of the way to get there. But you can adjust to this and many people do.
Tip #3 – The Traffic Rules Are Very, Very Different
Regardless of your previous riding or driving experience in other countries, there are critical things you’ll need to quickly learn to survive riding a scooter or motorbike in Thailand. If you don’t learn them quickly, you will have problems.
Traffic flow in most Asian countries runs on the “school of fish” principal, and this is true in Thailand. What this means is that the traffic is often made up of large groups of riders and drivers, moving as a group from left to right across the road as required to make room for other road users. So, if you just ride in a straight line like you might do at home, you’ll find lots of other riders passing to your left and right as they make room for others entering the road, leaving the road, turning left or right, or just stopping randomly.
It doesn’t matter how fast you ride, as there’ll always be someone whizzing past you in a bigger hurry than you, and you often won’t even be aware of them until they are brushing past your mirrors. And it doesn’t matter how slow you ride, because there’ll always be someone else going slower than you as they look for a particular shop or address, wipe the face of the baby they are holding in their left arm, talking on their cell phone, or just in no hurry to get anywhere. So just try to keep your pace consistent and ride at a speed that’s comfortable for you.
Tip #4 – Always Expect the Unexpected
I cannot stress this too much – no matter how hard you concentrate on what the traffic is doing (and few people concentrate enough), someone will do something you’ll think is totally crazy and think nothing of it themselves. For example, you’ll be happily riding along and a car or motorbike will overtake you, sit in front of you, then slow right down and turn into a driveway or parking space. Songthaew drivers are really bad for this, as they are always in a hurry but at the same time always looking for people to pick up off the side of the road, so they whizz past you and then immediately stop to pick up a passenger.
If you are riding on a multilane road with no divider, expect to see drivers (often trucks and buses) coming down your side of the road flashing their lights or tooting their horns. They will usually expect you to get out of their way, even though you’re on your own side of the road. That’s why they’re flashing or tooting. It’s just how they drive.
You need to also know that other scooter riders, motorbike riders, car drivers and even bus and truck drivers will sometimes enter the road on “your side” and drive towards you up the wrong side of the road before crossing into their own traffic lane. It is very common and you just need to go around them.
Tip #5 – Ride in The Scooter Lane
Most major roads in Thailand have a wide road edge with a space where scooters can ride with minimal interference from other traffic. If you are new to riding, or uncertain about managing yourself in the traffic, ride in the scooter lane. Don’t try to go too fast in the scooter lane, because you’ll very quickly run into the slower traffic, the turning traffic and the entering traffic, especially other scooter riders coming the opposite way on “your side” of the road. I find 35-40 kilometers an hour is about the perfect speed in the scooter lane.
Expect people to slow down rapidly, stop completely, park, open car doors, etc. in front of you with little or no warning. At first, you’ll need to ride with one hand on the brake but within a few days you’ll gain enough of a sixth sense to anticipate these and the pedestrians who’ll be constantly walking out in front of you to cross the road.
Tip #6 – Be Consistent and Predictable
Although Thai traffic and pedestrians appear at first to be chaotic and unpredictable, the order in this chaos comes mostly from predictable behaviors. Pedestrians will stroll out across a busy multi-lane road and magically weave between the cars to the other side. But what is really happening is that they are walking at a consistent and predictable speed, without hesitation, and the drivers and riders and slowing minutely to accommodate them.
So, you as a motorbike or scooter rider also need to be consistent and predictable, and plan your turns well in advance. Even if you are not consistent and predictable, other road users will assume you are (because most Thais are) and plan accordingly. So, they’ll overtake you on the inside or the outside with little or no warning, often passing very closely. They just want you to stay where you are and not panic or do anything stupid.
Tip #7 – Stay Out of The Right Lane If Possible
The right lane on most multi-lane Thai roads is for rockets, Ferraris, and B-double articulated trucks. Vehicles in this lane with be fast-moving and intent on staying that way, so they won’t want to slow down for your little scooter even though you need to get across and make a right turn.
The best strategy is to plan your turn well ahead, watch for breaks in the traffic and then accelerate into them so you are up to traffic speed by the time you get into the right lane. Then look for the turning lane and don’t start to slow down until you’re into it. Riders of small scooters will have a lot of trouble doing this, as the traffic speed is often 70-80 kilometers an hour (your scooter probably won’t go that fast), so you need to look for bigger gaps to allow you to get where you want to be before the high-speed traffic catches up with you. Always indicate, even if the Thais don’t!
Tip #8 – Be Careful Who You Hire Your Bike From
There are so many places that hire scooters and motorbikes in Thailand, it seems easy to grab one. Often way too easy. But there are some things you need to know before you rush out and hire a motorbike or scooter for your holiday.
Although you don’t need a license to rent a scooter or motorbike in Thailand, legally you do need one to ride on Thai roads. So, if you get caught without a license, you may have to pay a fine or worse, and your insurance may not cover you. Ideally, you should be licensed to ride a motorcycle in your home country and have this clearly endorsed on an International Driving Permit. You also need to wear a helmet, even if most tourists and locals don’t. You can take your chances without a helmet, but you will be a target for Thai police looking for a quick revenue earner and you’ll also be at risk of permanent brain damage if you are involved in an accident.
Your travel insurance might not cover you if you ride a motorbike of 200cc or more. Travel insurance is a must in Thailand because if you do get hurt, you want treatment in a top hospital and the option to be flown home for major injuries, but chances are that the fine print in your travel insurance rules out any injuries if you ride a scooter or motorbike of more than 200cc capacity. Check your policy carefully before you hire that big bike.
Your travel insurance may also not cover any accidental damage claims if you do not take insurance when you hire your scooter or motorbike. Again, check your policy carefully.
If you hire your bike from your guest house, it almost certainly has no insurance. So, pray you don’t hit a Mercedes! Make sure your insurance cover is listed on your hire documents or you may not have it, even though the hirer has taken a premium for it. Sometimes it just becomes extra profit.
Tip #9 – Don’t Get Scammed by Bike Hire Cowboys
Check your bike carefully before leaving the hire shop, as you will almost certainly be held responsible for any damage when you return it. Walk around the bike a few times and look for any existing damage. Point it out to the hirer and get them to note it on the hire document. If you have a camera with a date-time stamp, take photos before you leave the shop, including one with the hirer in the photo to prove they were taken at the same time.
Most hire bikes will have been scraped or dropped at some time, so look for the evidence of these previous incidents and make sure they’re noted so you don’t end up paying for them. If you do drop the bike and break a mirror or indicator or something, get it repaired by a road-side motorcycle shop – they’ll charge you a lot less than the hirer will.
Punctures and leaky tubes are your responsibility (fair wear and tear) unless you spot them before you leave the shop. Just get a road-side repairer to fix them (about 30 baht for a puncture repair, around 100 baht if they have to replace the tube).
Check how much fuel is in the bike when you pick it up, as the hirer will expect the same to be in it when you return the bike. If not, they’ll charge you around 50 baht or more per liter for the difference.
Most hirers of motorbikes or scooters will want to hold your passport for the duration of the rental period. Try not to agree to this, as it will stop you from making any cross-border excursions, it may stop you from changing accommodation (as owners need to sight your passport on arrival) and it may even be illegal for foreigners to wander around in Thailand without their passports. Also, if the owner has your passport, they can hold you to ransom when you return the bike over any damage issues, real or invented.
Although they’ll be reluctant to offer it to you up front, many motorbike and scooter rental outlets will accept a photocopy of your passport with or sometimes even without a cash deposit. Typically, the deposit amount will be 1000-5000 Bt. Make sure the amount is clearly stated as a deposit on your hire agreement or you may have trouble getting some or all of it back when you return the bike. This way, even if you get scammed, it’s only for $150 or so.
Finally, ask to take that scooter or motorbike around the block before you sign the rental agreement. There’s not much worse than finding that your motorbike or scooter has no rear brakes, and many of them don’t because they are over-used by tourists. Don’t rely on the front brake to stop you in an emergency as you’ll most likely end up either being
thrown over the front of the bike or having the front wheel drop out from underneath you. Arguing over brakes and lights after you’ve hired the bike will usually be pointless as they already have your money.
It’s a good idea to hire the bike initially just for a day, even if you want it for a week or more. That way you’ll have a chance to see how it rides, how it handles in traffic (especially at a crawl), how it rides at speed on the highway, and whether or not you’re really ready to spend a whole week or more in chaotic Thai traffic. Then go back and negotiate a longer hire (usually save 50-60 baht per day for longer hire periods).
Tip #10 – Don’t Forget the Sunscreen
A lot of the time, I can walk around in 35-degree heat in Thailand all day and not get sunburnt. But when I ride a motorbike or scooter in Thailand, I am being exposed to the 35-degree heat, plus the direct sun (especially when stopped at traffic lights) plus the hot wind. When combined, I almost certainly will get sunburnt and often in less than 10 or 15 minutes.
If you’re wearing shorts, thongs, and singlet (and most of us do), the most vulnerable places will be your shoulders and neck, inside your elbows, your upper thighs, and your feet. Make sure you liberally apply sunscreen to these areas of your body before you head out, and top it up every hour or so. Depending on your helmet, you may also need to liberally coat your face and ears with sunscreen, as these also burn very quickly.
Tip #11 – The Bonus Tips
OK, I know I only said 10 tips, but there’s a few more things I thought of along the way that really don’t belong in the other 10 tips. So, here’s your bonus…
Take or buy a good pair of wrap-around, polarized sunglasses. You’ll need them during the day in the glaring sun and also to stop dust and bugs being flicked up into your eyes while riding. I also have a pair of almost totally clear night glasses that I wear at sunset (when the bugs are at their worst) and during the evenings.
Scooter theft in Thailand is a real problem. Motorbikes are stolen regularly, especially from carparks and in streets overnight. Lock your bike when you leave it anywhere. If it has a padlock and chain, use that as well. If it has an alarm or engine immobilizer, make sure it’s set before you walk away. If the bike is stolen, you will most likely be held responsible and made to pay the entire value (40-60,000 baht) unless you fully locked it before leaving it. Take a photo of the bike with the lock in place before you walk away, then you can prove it was locked. There is a lot of motorbike and scooter theft in Thailand, so be warned.
You can usually leave your draggy hire shop helmets on the bike seat or the mirror, as they’re unlikely to be attractive enough to steal. But if you’re worried about them, most scooters have under-seat storage for one or two helmets and you can always drape the helmet strap into the seat storage and jam it there, leaving the helmet dangling beside the seat. Don’t leave your bag or purse under the seat, as they are not hard to pry open and someone may be watching you do it.
Choose your helmet carefully (take the time). Not only does it have to save your brain in the event of an accident, but if you choose a helmet that is not comfortable you’ll pay for it with headaches, scarring and other discomforts. I usually try to find a helmet with a flip-down visor, as they are very useful in raid, at sunset when the bugs are out in force, and on highway rides at higher speeds.
Owning a motorbike or scooter in Thailand is perfectly legal, by the way. You can easily buy a scooter or motorbike from any motorbike shop or even privately. Prices start around 10,000 baht for a good second-hand scooter and around 90,000 baht for a reasonable 250 cc trail bike or around 150,000 baht for a 400-cc cruiser. You’ll need confirmation of your identity and your local address in Thailand (usually a copy of your passport and a letter from the immigration office).
One final point … if you are involved in an accident while riding in Thailand, be aware you will almost certainly be “in the wrong”. Just by being there, you may have caused the accident (as it would not have happened if you were not there). Strange logic, but very common. And if you ride without the proper license, you may not only carry the entire cost for any damage and injury, but also the full weight of the law as well. If you do get into an accident, you’ll need to read this article (http://bangkok.angloinfo.com/countries/thailand/accidents.asp) to know what to expect.
Let me know if you have any other questions about hiring a scooter or motorbike in Thailand and I’ll be happy to answer them. This is an article that needs to grow, but I don’t want to just dump everything I know at once or it’ll be too long to read. So, let’s get a conversation going in the comments!