If you spend enough time on a Thai island (cough - one day - cough), you'll notice travellers wrapped in bandages.
You might think, "Wow, loads of people are getting tattooed."
Sadly, not all of those wraps are concealing brand new holiday ink. Most are the result of injuries suffered from scooter/motorbike crashes. And since I’ve mentioned it, do not get a tattoo on holiday. Tattoos heal best out of water and direct sunlight.
Riding a scooter in Thailand is a travel experience with two assured outcomes: best time ever or worst time ever.
Luckily, I fall into the best time ever camp.
Zooming along the coast of a Thai island making frequent stops for fresh fruit smoothies, massages and Panang curry was absolute bliss. The independence of following a whim, chasing a sunset or tooling into town was complete freedom. Not to mention, driving a scooter was loads of fun.
That being said, I have personally watched worst time ever unfold in real time.
A lack of confidence and experience compelled an acquaintance of mine to swerve across the opposing lane of traffic and land in a ditch. I then sat in a clinic with her for two hours as a nurse picked gravel out of her foot. If that wasn't painful enough, the injury totally derailed her week-long plans to go scuba diving on Koh Tao. Ouch.
If you're still insistent on making a go at best time ever on a motorbike, here's my advice - and it's advice you should listen to before ever getting on a bike.
Golden Rules for Driving a Scooter in Thailand:
Common sense rules
- Only attempt to operate a bike if you are an experienced automobile driver.
- Never drive if you have been drinking or using drugs. (Seems obvious to say, but hey, this is Thailand.)
- Always, always wear a helmet.
- Buy travel insurance to cover any unexpected visits to a clinic.
- Save motorbike rentals for the Thai islands or smaller northern cities (Chiang Mai, Pai, etc).
- Err on the side of caution, especially if you're driving with a passenger.
- Transitions where paved roads meet dirt roads are notorious for causing accidents.
- Rainfall on dry roads can make for slick handling. Slow down and make gentle turns - or else you might find your bike slip out from beneath you.
- Learning to drive on the 'other side of the road' takes a bit of getting used to, but adjusting is easier than you think.
- Bikes come in automatic or manual transmission. If you’re taking one on a multi-day road trip (say, from Chiang Mai to Pai) vendors will only rent you a manual. Nervous about a manual transmission? Practice, practice, practice. The upside? You only shift up, not down. I assure you, if you can operate a bicycle with gears, you can drive a manual scooter.
- Driving mantra #1: Move like water, navigate predictably. In Canada we’re used to seeing motorbikes in the warmer months and because there are so few of them (all things relative) we’re less likely to keep them top-of-mind while driving. Conversely, Thai drivers are typically very conscious of motorbikes. When you’re navigating, maintain good lane position and don’t steer erratically.
- Thai driving mantra #2: Don’t get cocky. Overconfidence is not a virtue and in a car-meets-scooter scenario, scooter always loses.
The skinny on renting bikes
Thailand is rife with stories of scooter rental scams. They include, but are not limited to:
- Holding your passport hostage
- Charging you for non-existent or embellished damage upon return
- Your bike is 'stolen' during the rental period. In actual truth, the rental shop uses an extra set of keys to take the bike, leaving you with the bill.
Plenty of guidebooks will tell you never to leave your passport as collateral. It's good advice, but it might not be realistic in practice. Leaving a passport seems to be the norm and I'll admit, we did it on a few occasions. Is it a gamble? Yes. Did we ever have a problem? No. Were we lucky? Maybe.
My best advice is to ask other travellers where they've rented their scooter from, and how reputable the shop seemed. Your guesthouse may also rent scooters, which might be the best option because you have already established a relationship with them. Moreover, they likely won't want to risk their TripAdvisor rating over any funny business. Ultimately, renting a scooter is one of those decisions you’ll have to cut your backpacker teeth on, so to speak.
Have you rented a scooter in Thailand?
Best-ever experience or worst-ever?
Dish: Drop a comment below or tweet us!
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