On my first visit to Thailand I was overwhelmed and maybe even scared by the traffic situation and the enormous number of scooters in the streets. I had never thought that one day I would be riding one myself and even feeling quite comfortable on it!
Although officially it is a scooter what many tourists rent and all Thais use in their daily life people commonly call it motorbike all over the country – which in my eyes makes sense since those vehicles go much faster than what I know as scooter here in Europe.
Statistically, Thailand is one of the most dangerous places in the world to drive (or ride). If you haven’t ridden a motorbike before it’s probably not the best place to learn. Traveling through, you are most likely staying in a very touristic (=crowded) area with a decent amount of traffic. Taxis and local transportation like buses and Tuk Tuk’s are also good and cheap options to get around.
The convenience of hopping on a scooter
Having said that, I have to admit that I never had ridden a scooter before nor had I been driving in a country with left-hand traffic. Nevertheless, I soon realized that getting around with a motorbike is so much more convenient than waiting for buses or taking taxis all the time.
I made my first driving attempts in Chiang Mai. After practicing in some side streets I was fine riding it alone throughout the city though I always obeyed the rules and – at least in the beginning – was driving a bit slower than everybody else. Motorbikes kept passing me all the time from all directions in high speed!
Driving or riding a bike in Thailand is a little different from what it is like at home and it can be quite challenging. Here some tips to avoid scams:
- Rental shops are all over the place. For 150 – 300 baht per day (the rates usually get cheaper per months: around 3000 baht) you can rent a motorbike, depending on when, where, and from whom you are renting it. I would recommend asking in your hotel or other travelers for reliable places and decent operators.
- When you rent a bike you will be asked for your passport as deposit. In the beginning, we didn’t like to hand in a passport and tried to deal with them to just leave a copy which worked at some places but not at others. Later, we heard from other travelers and local expats that it’s fine to leave the passport if you rent from a decent place but make sure to have a copy with you all the time. We never had any problems when leaving a passport.
- The rental places will not care to see a license nor check that you can handle a bike. All they want to see is money in cash. However, by law, you are supposed to have an international driving license issued in your home country (which we did not have and never needed).
- Check the bike or scooter when renting it: are the brakes working? Is the horn working (very important)? Are the lights working? Do the tires have enough air pressure? Also look for minor scratches or damage (and take a picture?). Tell the owner before the rent – they might charge you afterwards for things you didn’t even do. I would also recommend a test run before the rental. Usually this is no problem.
- If the bike gets stolen while in your care you will be charged the full replacement value of a new bike and bikes get stolen regularly in Thailand! A group of people can just pick it up, put it on the back of a pick-up truck and drive away. However, this never happened to us or to anyone we met. Nevertheless, many bikes will come with a wheel lock under the seat to put through the tires. I would recommend using it.
- In case of an accident you are probably reliable for everything: the damage on the bike, your own injuries, and the injuries of any other people involved. Your travel insurance will most likely not cover you (ours didn’t). Even without scooter accident we had to visit a hospital a couple of times. It was a bit scary how many people (almost exclusively tourists) we saw there with bandages and scratches on ankles and elbows who most likely had been in a motorbike accident. In fact, it is quite common to see tourists with badly scraped up body-parts in Thailand.
- Gasoline is rather cheap! The bikes usually contain a 4-liter-fuel tank which is about 100 – 120 baht to fill it up. If there is no gas station near many times you can buy the gasoline filled in plastic bottles from some street shop. Usually, this is a bit more expensive but very convenient.
Are you sacred now? Don’t worry, it sounds worse than it actually is. To avoid accidents just obey some rules and you should be fine:
- Always give way to vehicles that are bigger than you – flashing lights mean get out of the way rather than hi, nice to see you!
- NEVER stop in the middle of the road when waiting to turn right! Local custom is to wait for a gap in the traffic before your turning, and then continue your way slowly on the wrong side of the road until you reach your turning point. Alternatively, pull over to the left side of the road and wait for a gab in the traffic to make your turn!
- Always use mirrors and indicators! Overtaking on the inside is common here and left hand turns are more dangerous than they should be.
- Be careful of sandy roads (don’t use the front breaks!) and potholes (water holes) as well as animals (dogs!) running across the streets!
- Wear a helmet! You’ll see plenty of people without but legally everyone is supposed to wear one all the time. They should be included in the rental price. It might not be the best helmet in the world (in fact, sometimes I had the feeling a salad bowl would do the same job!), however, in case of an accident it might protect you from the worst damage. Additionally, police will fine you for not wearing it. They preferentially – or maybe exclusively – stop tourists and fine you according to their mood. If you lose your helmet or it gets stolen (which is very likely to happen at some point) just buy a new one. It’s about 200 baht and much cheaper than getting charged by the rental place.
- Try to get off the bike on the left hand side to avoid burns or what is commonly known as the “Thailand Tattoo” – the exhaust pipe on the ride hand side can get very hot!
- What very likely will happen to everyone who rents a scooter for more than a few days is a flat tire. This is almost impossible to avoid considering the road conditions in some areas and some side streets. More than once we were urged to stop for that reason. Usually that happened to very inappropriate time points like after midnight, on Christmas Eve, or in the middle of nowhere. But we always ended up with very helpful people!
About a broken tire and very helpful Thais
I would like to use this opportunity to tell you a story about what happened to us one night outside of Chalong, Phuket: Our tire got broken on a dark part of the road with no gas station or repair shop near. Considering the time it was very likely that they would have been closed already anyway. But immediately after we stopped a young Thai lady pulled up next to us and offered her help. She told us to wait while she was trying to find the next repair shop. A few minutes later she came back with a friend. The shop was already closed but he offered to lead us to another place which was supposed to be open still. Because of his light weight he suggested to drive our broken scooter to avoid more damage to the tire. I hopped on the scooter with the girl and my boyfriend got to drive our rescuer’s bike. Together we made it to the shop – which unfortunately was also closed. We started thinking about leaving the scooter and taking a taxi back to town which for sure was not the best idea. The chances that the scooter would not be there anymore the next day were pretty high. While we were still debating about this option our helpful new friends already came up with another solution: they just asked someone else who happened to stop his pick-up truck right in front of us if he could give us a lift. Immediately he opened the back of his car and together we lifted up the broken scooter to the loading area of his truck. The two of us climbed also onto the back to hold the scooter while the Thai girl sat in the front seat to give the driver directions. Her friend followed us with his scooter. Near our hotel we helped together to unload the scooter again. We just had enough time to thank everyone before our 3 helpers left without accepting any money. The Thai girl who spent half of the night trying to help us jumped on the back of her friends’ scooter and they left towards the place where she parked hers to come with us.
This is just one example of how helpful Thai people had always been when we had some problems, not only with our motorbike. In general, fixing a tire (and also other parts of the bike) usually was easy, fast, and pretty cheap (120 – 300 baht to replace a tire). I would highly recommend getting the bike checked and fixed at one of the repair shops before returning it. You will save a lot of money!
Get used to the traffic flow and enjoy the adventure
Once you get used to riding a motorbike in Thailand, it’s really not as crazy as it might seem in the beginning. It does take some time though before you feel the flow of the traffic. Thai driving has a different set of rules. Traffic just flows here differently than elsewhere. It’s more instinctual and less about rules, but it works! We have done many road-trips with the scooter and never had an issue except for some flat tires.
Driving was very different from place to place though. In Chiang Mai, as a more developed city, it felt like people stick more to the rules whereas in the Krabi area traffic in general was a bit more chaotic. The worst place where I’ve been driving was on Koh Samui. The combination of the masses of tourists (especially in Chaweng) and the pretty small and curvy streets of an island was pretty challenging.
If you have some time just sit in a restaurant and watch Thais drive by on their scooters. It’s quite impressive what they fit everything on their motorbikes! It’s not uncommon to see 3 or more people on one bike, sometimes whole families of 5. Someone told us once that Thai families usually have 2-3 children because more don’t fit on one bike. I was so amazed by how they use their scooters that I just randomly took some pictures of them driving by. You can find the nicest results in my picture gallery.
Driving in Thailand is an adventure itself and most people have no problems riding a bike. If you drive safely and defensively you should be all right. I’m surely not the best driver but I was fine, too, and survived without any scratches or broken bones. Sometimes I still miss stepping out of the door and just hopping onto my scooter.
So, drive safely and enjoy! Happy Scootering!
Do you have any experiences with riding a scooter in Thailand? Tell me in the comments below!