OK, so this one’s bound to be a bit longer than the usual post. It’s also one that should be considered an essential part of one’s Asian experience – especially in areas where public transportation is rare and rip-off artists hike up fares on taxis and tuk-tuks.
PROTIP: this article distinguishes between scooters (which are automatic bikes) and motorcycles (where gears are manually controlled by the feet and require a kickstart).
It’s a freeing feeling, to be sure. Knowing where you’re going and that getting there is in your own hands? It might almost feel like home. No one will confuse your scooter with a Harley, but whatever. The language barriers, bad directions, and bikes in questionable condition might be issues down the road, but the first thing we’ve got to do is get you on the bike to begin with.
Renting a scooter
Finding a place to rent a bike is usually easier than you suspect. You’ll invariably find them in the tourist areas, near guesthouses and restaurants that aim for foreign patrons. Everywhere I’ve been in Thailand and Laos has required the deposit of a passport – but no one has ever asked to see a driver’s license.
OK, so you rent the bike out by the day or week, and it’s up to you to ask for the discount when renting for more than a few days. Not every place will, especially if there’s lots of tourists around, but some will. The good news? Even by the day they’re still pretty cheap. Chiang Mai in Thailand has them for 200-250 baht a day ($6-$8 USD), as one example.
Which one to pick? you might ask. Get past the colors for a second and ensure it’s a scooter, not a motorcycle. The easiest way to tell the difference: scooters have plenty of room for your feet since there’s nothing for them to control. Honda and Suzuki models are usually good bets, though I’d take a closer look at the tires than anything else. You’re looking for some distinct grooves in whatever pattern they have – if you can’t see the pattern, ask yourself if you want to be driving around on bald tires.
PROTIP: Some places are really freakin’ anal about cosmetic stuff, while other places are fine so long as the bike is returned in working order. Either way, do yourself a favor and take a couple of pictures from different angles. The last thing you want is some guy holding your passport claiming you damaged their bike and having no proof of your innocence. Smartphone pictures are fine, but feel free to whip out the DSLR. There’s no need to hide your picture-taking, by the way.
How many cc’s do I want? you might also ask. Most scooters you’ll be able to rent are pretty similar – no one’s renting out their 700cc sport bike that you’ll hear from miles away – so this question is mostly irrelevant. They’re going to be around 100-125cc, in case you were curious.
For the sake of whatever God, goddess, statue or animal you may believe in, get and wear a helmet. There’s really nothing else to say here, except to say the shop should have plenty of them around. Worry less about the color and more about the fit – that chinstrap is usually the only thing keeping it on, so look for a tight fit that doesn’t move around when you nod your head yes. It’s also a good idea to wear shoes (if you’re driving), or at least a pair of sandals that have a back. In other words, no flip-flops.
PROTIP: If you’ll be doing any highway driving, get a helmet with a visor. This is doubly important if you drive with glasses or contact lenses, since random roadway dust in the eye sucks when you’re going fast.
Most scooters are pretty similar. Your left brake is usually the parking brake (pull this in while pushing the starting button on the right). Like a parking brake on a car, it’ll hold you in place while stopped, but it won’t slow you down.
Your left thumb generally controls three things: headlights (normal or bright), turn signals, and the horn. As soon as you turn the key to the ‘on’ position your headlights will come on, no matter the time of day. It may sound kind of silly if it’s the middle of the day, but it’s a safety feature and it’s turned on for you automatically. Turn on the brights if you need them, but as a beginner it’s probably best to avoid driving at night to start.
Turn signals are simple – thumb the rocker left to signal left, right to signal right, and push it in to turn it off. Unlike a car’s automatic steering, a bike can’t know when the wheel returns to a neutral position, so it relies on you to turn if off manually. You’ll see more than a few drivers not paying enough attention to turning it off – one minor annoyance on the road.
I suspect the horn is self-explanatory. Try to use it sparingly, and primarily to get someone’s attention.
The right side is simpler, but more important. The only real button to note is the starting button – hold the brake in on the left side and push the button until you hear the engine start up. The gas and brake are on the right, and each bike is different in terms of how sensitive it is. After your first couple of rides, you’ll get the hang of it, but with every new bike it’s a bit different. Err on the side of undertwisting when you first get the bike.
You might be having flashbacks to driver’s ed or driving around with your parents right now. Remember which side of the road you’re supposed to drive on, and remember that a couple of other things change as well. Driving on the left side of the road (as in Thailand) means left turns are the easy ones, while right turns usually mean crossing traffic in some way. Give yourself plenty of room to start off, especially if it’s your first time – same story when slowing down. Compared to driving a car, you’ll find acceleration to be a bit quicker, which adds to the adrenaline rush.
Hang to the slower side (whichever side of the road you drive on, it’s that same side), and pretend you’re in a conga line. Passing bikers may not be necessary, especially during your first few trips out.
PROTIP: Sunscreen. In most Asian countries most Caucasians will burn easily, no question. The parts to cover with SPF 50 (assuming you’re wearing shorts and a t-shirt: your arms, the front and back of your neck, and anything above the knees not covered by shorts. Don’t forget about the top of your hands, drivers
Consider defensive driving an absolutely essential element to motorbiking in Asia. If you never took driver’s ed or it’s been awhile, defensive driving is being aware of what’s happening around you. Since you’ll be driving near parked cars, watch for people suddenly opening their doors. Other bikers seem to think of their mirrors as trivial things not worth looking at. They’ll casually swerve from one lane or another, or one side of the lane to another. While this far from a comprehensive list, be aware of the two vehicles in front of you and the ones to either side.
Turning can be a bit of a pain, so let’s try a rule of thumb. If you’re going slow, like to do a U-turn, turn the handlebars. If you’re going faster, like exiting a highway, ever-so-slightly shift your weight and tilt the bike.
At stop lights, support your own weight. Two feet on the ground. Simple as that. If navigating the Thai way (cutting between cars or driving on the shoulder), be far more aware of the road. Rougher roads and potholes are more common, so again watch for the conga line of bikers.
PROTIP: There’s probably a better term for it, but I’ll call it ‘walking the bike’. This is when you’re creeping along, like at a stop light, and your feet are on the ground while the bike’s moving forward. Too many first-timers make the mistake of stomping their feet on the pavement, as if to anchor themselves. You’ll need to plant your feet in a rolling motion – heel first, ball of your foot, then the toes, just like when you’re walking.
About the law
Traffic enforcement is… noticeably loose in many parts of Asia. That doesn’t mean the police aren’t around and can’t bust your butt for something in a matter of seconds. I’d prefer you got to your destination safe and without taking an inordinate time to get there, so I’ll simply encourage you to use common sense and watch what’s happening around you.
Most roads mandate at least a few U-turns as legitimate, while drivers have often carved more out for themselves. Getting over to the U-turn lane is usually the trickiest part, but it’s much like exiting on a regular highway.
Oh yeah – helmets? Wear them. And drive sober. Don’t give an Asian cop a chance to smell alcohol on your breath or ask for a bribe.
You need gas with that?
I’ve yet to see a local shop rent their bikes out on anything other than almost empty. It’s on you to fill up the tank, but thankfully ‘empty’ means ‘there’s at least a few more kilometers in you’. Part of your travels likely involve a major road or expressway of some kind – keep your eyes out for a station and fill up as soon as possible.
Most bikes take 91 octane (cheaper than 95, but more expensive than LPG). A convenient sticker by the gas cap will show the required fuel, just in case. Capacity for most bikes is pretty small – perhaps 4 or 5 liters at most, or 1 to 1 1/2 gallons for the Americans – so just tell them to fill it up.
PROTIP: The gas tank is under the seat – unlock the seat compartment to reveal the cap. While the exact placement of the lock varies, it’s almost always on the left side of the bike, just below the padded seat, and usually closer to the back. A few models feature the unlocking mechanism in the ignition – you’ll need to push the key into the ignition and turn while pushing. Ask the shop to demonstrate if you’re unsure.
Some shops will offer a chain and lock for the bike – lock it around the wheel and something sturdy like you would a pedal bike. Some shops offer just a lock – put the lock through a hole in the wheel to prevent the bike from being wheeled off somewhere.
Parking is pretty straightforward as well – most any spot that’s available is yours. With that said, it’s going to be easier and safer to park your bike around other bikes. One bike by itself sticks out like a sore thumb.
PROTIP: Some bikes have underseat compartments next to the gas tank that are large enough for your helmet. Some don’t. In the real world, helmets can safely hang from your mirrors or down by the foot panels either way.
What if you’re a passenger?
Your weight on the back (whether you’re a 40 kilogram Thai girl or a 100 kilogram Western guy) directly affects the handling and weight of the bike. This means if you move around, the driver’s going to know. Try not to move from side to side too much. Also pop the pegs down so your feet have somewhere to rest. There’s almost always a handle behind you to hang onto, just in case it’s weird to hang on to the driver.
Part of your job may be to navigate or otherwise keep your eyes open on what’s happening around you. My wife has gotten pretty good at following and sharing Google Maps directions while she’s on the back.
So who drives? We’re both newbies… Whoever was the better driver in a car would be my first choice. On a practical note, however, the heavier person should usually drive. Why? Their weight in the back amplifies small shifts. Good drivers adjust without thinking about it, but it’s best to minimize that hazard if possible.
PROTIP: It’s called the Thai tattoo for a reason. Too many people burn their right calf from the exhaust pipe, and it usually happens because passengers make a bit too much contact with the bike. Thankfully more bikes come equipped with guards over the hot parts, so it should be less of a concern than before. Passengers, don’t hang your legs down the side of the bike, especially on the right side.
(An example of the plastic cover that saves your leg from second-degree burns. The next time you see a motorcycle designer, thank them for their thoughtfulness.)
Can I get a third person on the bike? I see the Thais doing it… No. Just. No. If it’s a pinch and you can squeeze on, fine. Don’t make a habit of it, and don’t do it for more than a couple of kilometers. If there’s three or four of you, get two bikes, or maybe one for each of you. The next time you see three Thais on a bike, do a weight check. There’s a very good chance they’re skinny and riding by the seat of their pants. For starters, there’s no second set of pegs, and it’s harder for the driver to adjust. I do enjoy watching the balancing act of a dad, mom, and two kids strapped in or hanging on, but it’s stories like these that turn into tragedies in a split-second.
Returning it unscathed
Presuming you’ve practiced defensive driving and parked in safe places, there shouldn’t be a (new) scratch on it. Some places are really freakin’ anal about cosmetic stuff, while other places are fine so long as the bike is returned in working order. Look at how much care they took to check the bike before you checked it out as a sign.
Be prepared to pay if you’ve broken something, damaged something, lost a helmet, etc. In some cases the replacement / damage cost is fixed in the contract, while in other cases you’re at their mercy. Chalk it up to life and move on.
PROTIP: One thing most places won’t do is give you a refund if you A: return it early, B: have gas left in the tank, or C: pay to get a flat tire fixed. It’s in the contract in all likelihood, and isn’t worth fussing over.
It shouldn’t take you too long to feel comfortable enough with the bike to feel in control. Let’s call it a half-hour of seat-in-butt time. This might be a good chance to let your passenger do some driving if they like.
Regardless of your experience level, save the phone or drink for when you are completely stopped (either at a red light or to the side of the road). You need two hands on the controls, period.
Wow, this sounds like a lot to remember. I know. It’s more instinctual than you think, just like when you first learned to drive.
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