Tips for Riding a Motorbike in Southeast Asia

Written by Mina Young Lee. Last Updated on April 30th, 2019.

motorbike thailand

By far one of the most popular ways to get around and self-guide your way around Southeast Asia is by renting a motorbike. However, with an average of 15 motorcyclists deaths per day in Thailand and countless of tickets handed out to tourists riding without a proper license, the following tips on riding a motorbike in Southeast Asia whether it be Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, or Cambodia are worth reviewing.

GET AN INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT

Obtaining an international drivers license is as simple as having a valid driver’s license in your home country, filling out an application online, sending in two passport photos, taking the documents to your local AAA or AATA branch, and costs $20. Local authorities in Thailand, Vietnam, and etc are cracking down on tourists without proper licenses, especially in areas popular with tourists. If you’re caught without a license, you could be hit with a fine of 400-500 baht, or worse.

RENT FROM A REPUTABLE PLACE

Do your research and read reviews from as many sites as you can. If something feels fishy, it probably is. I’ve heard horror stories of motorbike rental places renting out motorbikes, stealing the motorbikes back, and refusing to give back passports (required for a lot of bike rental agencies) unless the tourist pays an abnormal amount of money (which was an agreement signed prior to renting). My favorite place to rent from in Thailand was Cat Motors in Chiang Mai as they had more than fair prices and every bike rental came with medical insurance, proper documents (registration), a first aid kit, helmet, and masks.

WEAR A HELMET

Just like wearing your seatbelt in the car, you should always wear a helmet when riding a motorbike. It could be the difference between life and death. I learned my lesson the hard way and crashed attempting to overtake a truck in Thailand and laid down my bike into oncoming traffic and banged my helmet-less head in the concrete. I had to be transported to the local hospital for stitches. Don’t be stupid, wear your helmet (and make the extra time to find one that fits). Most rental agencies should provide a helmet at no extra charge.

OPTIONAL HEAD PROTECTION

Unless you want to share dandruff with the many others who wore the helmet before you, wear a cap or bandana on your head, under your helmet, and make sure it fits.

WEAR EYE PROTECTION

Sunglasses during the day and clear glasses for nighttime is a worthy investment. Glasses can protect you from sand or bugs getting flung into your eyeballs and could potentially prevent a very bad scenario.

BE CAREFUL ON WET ROADS

I’ve crashed twice in the rain and both times it was due to the pile up of oil from other vehicles collecting on the road in the middle of a turn. It is the slipperiest at the beginning of a rainfall. Try to avoid embarking on long rides on windy roads in the rain and be extra careful in general when riding in the rain.

USE THE HORN

Unlike the states and most other countries I’ve ventured, a horn in Southeast Asia is not a way of saying ‘fuck you’ but, a ‘hey, just so you know, I’m here.’ Learn to use your horn to let others know you’re sharing the road with them, especially when you’re passing other drivers.

PACK LAYERS

The weather in Southeast Asia can change drastically in a matter of minutes, especially during rainy season. If you’re spending most of the day out or going on a long ride, it might be a smart idea to pack a warm layer and waterproof shell.

WATCH FOR LOCAL TRAFFIC

Watch out for goats, chickens, dogs, elephants, and cows crossing the road, especially in rural areas.

LET FASTER TRAFFIC PASS

Slower traffic stick to the side of the lane that is furthest from the middle of the road to let others pass safely.

HUG TURNS

Unlike the states, white lines, single yellow lines, double yellow lines - they don’t matter in Southeast Asia. I’ve been in vans where a speedy driver is taking over a slower car on a turn where they don’t have a visual on oncoming traffic (usually in this instance they will honk their horn, so listen closely for this). On any windy roads and sharp turns, hug the outside of the lane (side furthest away from the opposing lane) for your best bet of not going head-on into another vehicle.

BE SMART

Only ride what you can handle. If you’ve never ridden before, get someone experienced to teach you in a wide open area first. Some things to remember as a beginner rider:

  • Look where you want to go. Your body will follow.

  • Avoid braking during a turn (especially on sandy roads), instead slow down before the turn.

  • Lean into the handlebar on the side you want to turn.

  • Give the road your undivided attention.

  • Drive responsibly. Don’t drink and drive, and remember that speeding increases your chances of getting hurt in a crash.

Hope these tips help. For more of Mina’s adventures, check out her Instagram.