Almost everyone who travels to South East Asia will rent a moped or motorbike during their travels. Sadly, many of them will end up have some kind of minor accident, or end up the victim of some kind of con. During our trip, we have seen plenty of other travellers with bandaged limbs, broken arms or sprained ankles. Some good friends of mine suffered a blow out of their back tire at about 70 km/ph and were lucky to walk away with only some nasty road rash. Even I lost my front wheel down a dusty track and ended up with a grazed leg and an angry girlfriend. She had been on the back at the time.
However, if you adhere to the tips below, you can vastly reduce your chances of being involved in an accident or having to end your trip early due to injury,
1) Consider doing a CBT, or equivalent, before you leave home.
The best piece of advice that I could give you is to get some experience of riding a moped or motorbike before you leave your home country. The roads and driving style in many foreign countries can be unpredictable and difficult for even experienced drivers. If you add to this the added pressure of learning how to ride then you are putting yourself at a much higher risk of having a crash, Getting a little experience beforehand can make all the difference.
If you have the time, consider getting your international drivers licence. This means that you will be able to drive legally in many of the countries that you go to and also that your insurance will cover you should the worst happen.
You can find out about how to book a CBT, and what is required, by clicking here.
However, if you are reading this part way through your trip then there are still a number of things you can do to try and keep yourself safe.
2) Always rent through your hotel or Hostel.
Take the small island of Koh Tao in Thailand for example. There are guys on every street trying to rent you bikes and almost anywhere you turn you can find a rental shop not far away. In this environment there are always unscrupulous people who will try and take advantage of tourists, One of the most common scams involves false accusations of damage to the bike or the engine, leading to an inflated demand for repair costs.
I would highly recommend that you rent through your hotel, rather than using a random stall on the street. Yes, this might involve paying a little more for it, but it also means you are much less likely to have problems, Hotels want a good experience for their clients and they have often vetted the companies they use based on past experience. That extra £1 can save you a lot of headaches in the long run.
3) Check bike before you ride it and take photos of it.
This step should be followed regardless of who you rent the bike from. When the driver arrives to deliver the bike, you need to inspect it thoroughly. Point out any faults that it has to the renter before you take it. Take photographs of the bike in-front of the renter. This is often enough to deter any attempt to defraud you when you return it.
4) Don’t leave passport as a deposit. Ask if you can leave cash instead.
Many moped rental places will ask you to leave your passport as a deposit. This is another reason to rent through your hotel if you can as the moped rental place will often take the fact that the hotel has seen your passport as being sufficient to act as a deposit. Instead, ask if you can leave a cash deposit instead and make sure you get a signed and dated receipt.
If you leave your passport with the rental agency and something goes wrong, it means you have no leverage and the rental company has you by the balls.
5) Remember – no international licence, no insurance.
One of the realities of travelling in South East Asia is that most tourists, and locals, do not have the correct licences or insurance to drive moped or motorbikes on public roads and almost no rental place will ask to see a licence before renting you a bike. Neither will they take any responsibility if you are caught by the police or have an accident due to inexperience. It is on the rider to make sure that they have the necessary licences and insurance in place to cover them. Whilst this may be custom and practice in many countries there are some things you need to consider before you decide to rent a bike. I am not going to try and tell you what to do, but rather provide the information to allow you to make your own choices.
As mentioned above, if you are riding a moped without the proper licence and you have an accident, it is likely that your insurance company will refuse to pay out on any claim made. . This means that you will be liable for your own hospital bills and the bills resulting from any accident that you cause.
This is the first thing you should think about after the rental process is complete. What kind of fuel does it take? How much in currently in the tank? Where are you going? Where is the nearest petrol station? Do they have petrol stations or are you going to have to refile from one of the small stores selling petrol from glass coke bottles at the side of the road? Check these things with the rental agency before you drive off!
Almost every time that I have rented a moped it has come with an empty or near empty petrol tank. Petrol stations can be rare outside of big cities, so it pays to think ahead. Also, make sure you get a contact number for the rental place, just incase something goes wrong. Oh, and make sure you have money to buy petrol.
7) Remember the roads in south east Asia can be deceptive.
Things are not always as they appear. Roads which appear to be new can have sudden deep potholes in them. For example, the roads near Phonsavan were perfect, save for the occasional huge deep potholes every half a mile or so. This means that just as you gain confidence in the quality of the road and speed up because you end up having to break hard, or hit a pothole at speed and hope for the best. This is really dangerous as you can either end up skidding, or totally losing control of the bike. Stay alert and focused on the road conditions at all times.
Another factor that can make driving perilous is the local wildlife. Animals just don’t react in the same way that they do in the UK. Cows, dogs and even chicken will just lay in the middle of the road and expect you to drive around them. Even sounding the horn will only buy you a look of mild discontent before they rest their heads back onto the tarmac and go back to not giving a crap. Keep your eyes open, especially in the small villages where livestock is likely to be left loose to roam.
8) Don’t expect other road users to drive as they would in the UK.
The rules of the road are not universally observed. Even things like traffic lights seem to be merely advisory in some countries. In Vietnam, moped and motorbikes often drive the wrong way in traffic, or even ride on the pavements. But do not try and drive like the locals. They are used to this style of driving and know their cities or towns well. We have seen a number of people crash their bikes trying to emulate the driving style in question.
I would advise you to drive defensively and pay attention to the roads. Maintain central road position if you can and avoid undertaking other vehicles. Particular care is needed around the local busses which drive like madmen, and the huge trucks used in the endless construction works currently underway all over south east asia.
We have been told in almost every country that you should drive how you would back home and the locals will try and avoid you. They can see a tourist from a mile off and they know that most of them are not skilled riders.
9) Use your horn.
In England and most of Europe, the use of the horn is reserved for letting someone know they have pissed you off. In South East Asia, it is used in a wholly different way, namely to alert other road users to your presence. This means that other vehicles will often honk their horn before they overtake you to let you know they are there. So don’t panic if someone beeps their horn at you, they aren’t being rude and you probably haven’t done anything wrong. And remember to use your horn before you overtake other bikes to let them know you are there.
10) Bring your sunglasses
Keep the dust out of your eyes by wearing decent sunglasses when you ride. Preferably wrap-around shaped or with large lenses, Personally, I like Oakley Turbines with the polarised lenses. Many, if not most, of the roads in Asia are very dusty, especially when its hot and dry during the day. Protecting you from some of the huge insects that slam into your face when driving through rural areas is also a secondary bonus.
I can’t believe that I have to say this but wear your helmet, Your head didn’t get magically impervious to tarmac simply because you are on the other side of the world. Also, not wearing your helmet is the quickest way to get pulled over by the police. Once they have an excuse to pull you over, this leaves you open to extortion for real or imaginary infractions. This happened to me in Sinoukville, Cambodia, where my “fine” for some non-existent indiscretion was to be stuffed into a leather bag on the table whilst the office bent over to tie his shoe. The best way to avoid these situations is to not give them a reason to single you you.
It doesn’t matter if locals are wearing helmets either. Wear yours. Put your safety ahead of your pride, It really doesn’t matter if you don’t look cool, you really don’t want a brain injury as a holiday souvenir.
12) Watch out for the exhaust pipe.
Many of the bikes or moped that you will rent will be man years old and some will have the old fashioned metal exhaust pipes. These tend to get very hot when the bike is in use, especially if you have been on the bike for more than 30 mins. One moments lack of attention can lead to a nasty contact burn and a horrible scar known to some as a “travellers tattoo.” These are a common sight in the hostels of SEA, Take a few moments when you rent the bike to get to know where the exhaust pipe is and which side you need to get off the bike to avoid it.
You can check out some more shots of my travels on my instagram here.
Find a gym along the backpacker’s trail on my travel fitness blog: Gyms of the World