Riding A Motorcycle In Thailand: The Essential Rule Book
Thailand is one of the most amazing places to explore from the saddle of a motorcycle. But it’s also has the second-highest number of vehicle accidents. So riding a motorcycle in Thailand is something that should be approached with caution.
Fact About Thailand No.359: If you’re sensible, Thailand is probably the coolest, most breath-snatching and mind-fizzing country on the planet. It’s the best kind of mad.
Fact About Thailand No.360: If you’re not sensible, there are roughly six-thousand ways you can get into way more trouble than you bargained for. It’s just that kind of hedonistic place.
Now, we’re not trying to sound like front page-seeking alarmists that don’t want anyone leaving the house unless they’re wrapped in six-feet of bubble wrap and a bright yellow hard hat, but one of the things that makes Thailand so alluring to everyone still young enough to think they’re invincible (and those old enough to not care about the rules so much) is the fact this place knows how to live on the edge in every sense of the word. However, an adventure is only badass and thrilling if you manage to walk away from it; otherwise it’s a) really dangerous or b) really stupid.
Doing shots of snake blood in an illegal gambling joint, “falling in love” with a go-go girl, ignoring the literal red flags when swimming, getting your face tattooed by a dude called Big Al in the front seat of a white transit van and/or eating a poorly prepped puffer fish – they’re all very Thai experiences that are guaranteed to land you in hot water so deep you can’t touch the bottom, and yet none of these crazy dangerous experiences takes home the award for The Most Common Way To Get Into Serious-Bloody-Trouble because that battered trophy goes to riding a motorbike in Thailand. It’s just soooo risky out here.
Sure, for some, the idea of strapping on a helmet, hopping on two-wheels, and experiencing the freedom (and rebel spirit) of Thailand’s sometimes heavily congested and sometimes impossibly mountainous roads is a dream come true. But it kinda goes without saying that riding a motorcycle in Thailand ain’t as easy as driving your VW Golf in the Peak District. In fact, motorcycles are 38 times more dangerous to operate than cars, and that’s in the UK where the rules are strict, regulations are even stricter and road safety is taken oh-so-seriously. Not to scare you or anything but Thailand has the second-highest number of vehicle accidents in the world, second only to Libya, and here are some of the numbers to back it up
- On average, 24,000 human-beings are killed on the roads every year in Thailand.
- That means over 66 people lose their lives a day. Every day.
- And 76% of these totally avoidable deaths are motorcycle related.
- Oh, and the most dangerous place to ride (based on the number of accidents per capita) is in the mountains north of Chiang Mai.
These facts suck. We know they suck. And, as riders ourselves, the fact we’re writing a blog about how dangerous bikes and scooters can be really, really sucks. Why? Because we’re talking about riding a motorcycle in Thailand which should be paradise. We’re talking about a place where bikers from around the planet journey to in the hope of discovering the beauty of Thailand for themselves – the mountainous north-west, the gorgeous central areas and the plethora of pinch-yourself islands – places where single track roads cuddle the rolling contours, run along the coast and up through hill tribe villages so remote their lifestyles are still a well-kept secret. We’re talking about some of the most incredible, two-wheeled epiphany trips anyone could hope for. The Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son loop, the Golden Triangle, the Nan Province, Kanchanaburi and, of course, Phuket – the pearl of the Andaman. This place possesses some of the coolest spots to ride. The issue is: you need to be an experienced rider with your own bike and gear that has a pretty solid understanding of how Thailand’s roads operate, which is nigh on impossible given they’re more unpredictable than a bullfight between a blind matador and three-legged bovine.
As such, we’re going to step away from the positives for a bit and focus on how to keep you safe because, well, we don’t think we’d be able to sleep if we found out you got into trouble on a bike having read this blog. We’re just not strong enough for that all-too-common kind of scenario.
So, without further ado, here, in no particular order, is a list of rules for staying safe on a motor-propelled bike of any kind in Thailand. Now for god’s sake, stay safe, pray to whichever god you believe in and rub whatever lucky possession you think works – horseshoe, four-leaf clover, rabbit’s foot, dice, anything. You could well need it.
Rule Number 1: If you don’t know how to ride a scooter/moped/motorcycle, this probably isn’t the ideal place to kickstart your career. It doesn’t matter which region you’re planning on riding through, there’s a pretty decent chance you’ll be a) heading through a heavily congested area where there are no apparent driving rules or b) the kind of mountainous route you don’t want to lose control on. Riding a motorcycle in Thailand requires a lot of confidence and even more skill. So it’s quite a good idea to start out somewhere that’s roughly 1,000,000% less hectic and 1,000% more spacious. That way you can perfect the art of riding at your own pace and not be chucked into the deepest end this side of Naples.
Rule Number 2: If you can afford to hire a car, always hire a car. As the statistics show, riding a motorcycle in Thailand is not for the faint-hearted, or those that want to keep their beautiful skin free of road-rash. The problem is, renting a motorcycle in Thailand is just so easy… and cheap… and such a cool way to explore the country. And when you’re looking at hire prices of £3 a day, you can feel all sense belly-flop out of the window only to get replaced by a thrilling temptation. However, with car rental available for around £11 a day, doesn’t it make sense to do away with the risk and enjoy exploring Thailand with 38-times less worry? And if this isn’t feasible, have a real backpackers adventure by hopping about the place on public transport: buses, trains and boats, occasional splashing-the-cash on taxis. You can’t put a price on your safety. Ever.
Rule Number 3: Never leave your passport as a guarantee. Sure, the biggest reason we’re wary of people hiring bikes is to do with the pretty crappy safety record in this country. But the other reason we’re not bike rental worshippers is because of the scams and one of the most common is the Passport Payment Scam. Okay, we just named it that, but it’s still apt. What happens is, some bike hire places will ask you to leave your passport as guarantee you’ll return the bike. Then, when you do bring it back, they’ll say you damaged it here, there and everywhere, pointing out bumps and bruises that had occurred before you hired it. But no matter how much you argue your point, they’ll refuse to return your passport unless you cough up some of your travel budget. It’s one of the most terrifying “uh oh!” scenarios for any traveller. So, if you do end up hiring a moped or something, and the hire place asks for your passport, kindly decline and then run a mile. It’s fine to hand over a copy of your passport, but don’t handover the real deal.
Rule Number 4: Make sure your helmet is perfect. In Thailand, you’ll become immune to the number of people that don’t wear a helmet. It’s almost normal to not pop one on your cranium. Don’t follow suit. Despite what it looks like, everyone is supposed to wear a helmet at all times under the eyes of the law, not to mention common sense. The issue is, it’s surprisingly easy to start thinking, “meh, they’re not wearing one, so it’s probably okay not to wear one.” This is not okay. And if you end up hiring from a rental shop that gives you a helmet that’s obviously old, mildly uncomfortable and doesn’t quite fit right, don’t hire from them. Go somewhere else instead.
Rule Number 5: Only hire a bike you are comfortable with. Just so you know, we’re not talking about how padded the seat is or how comfortable it feels to have a slim engine between your thighs. We’re talking about you getting onto a bike with total peace of mind, which isn’t a given in a country where the quality of rental bikes varies so much. Basically, if you don’t feel comfortable getting on the first one they wheel towards you, ask to try another, even if it will cost a little more to get that slightly newer, automatic one. Then, when you’ve found one that doesn’t give you the jitters, do all the checks possible before you pay and pull away: the lights, the horn, the brakes, the everything. You want to focus all your attention on the road, not trying to deal with sticky gears or a bent wheel.
Rule Number 6: Spend a few days watching how the roads here work. There’s no delicate way of putting this: Thai driving follows an entirely different set of rules. In fact, it’s more about instincts and less about rules. Cars will suddenly stop in the road while the driver hops out to rush into a shop, people will push their food carts down the middle of the road, indicators and signals are seemingly optional extras for most cars and bikes, people will frequently drive the wrong way down a road, sidewalks aren’t exclusively reserved for pedestrians, and drivers will attempt to cut across six lanes of traffic without signalling. The point is: there’s a lot to fluster you. That’s why you should grab a coffee somewhere just off a main road and watch the way people drive for a few days before you decide to join in with the mayhem. Apart from avoiding bikes at all costs, knowing what you are getting into is the safest and smartest thing you can do here.
Rule Number 7: Take a photograph of your bike before you take it. The reason for this is pretty obvious: scams are common. Those renting out bikes will look for ways to squeeze out some extra cash and an easy way to do this is to blame you for a scratch or scrape. So, to cover yourself, take a photograph of your bike – all of it – focusing on any marks that are there before you drive away so that you have proof should any nonsense erupt on your return.
Rule Number 8: Check the motorcycle you are hiring is licensed. One of the most important things to check is that your bike is licensed because this will mean it also carries basic third-party insurance with it, covering you on a third party basis should something bad happen. It could be that someone tries to scam you with an accident or it might just be that you don’t see a middle-of-the-road food-cart-pusher doing a slow turn into a side street. Anyway, before you take a bike, ask to see the license, which is usually kept on the motorcycle itself, often inside the seat. If they don’t have one, or it doesn’t match up with the bike in question, give them a polite, “thanks, but no thanks” and head somewhere else, like a car hire place.
Rule Number 9: Know what your holiday insurance small print says. Yup, as much as it sucks reading the dreaded small print, you really need to pull out your fine tooth comb and go through it. Why? Because most travel insurance policies carry an exclusion clause when it comes to bike hire stipulating you need to have a dedicated, official and international motorcycle license in order to be covered. The reason this is crucial is simple: if you aren’t insured and you have an accident, boy-o-boy can medical expenses shoot up faster than the puck on a High Striker. We’ve come across people that have been so financially mauled on this front their entire family has been affected. It’s just not worth it.
Rule Number 10: Tape your driving license to you. This rule is about as simple as they get: if you don’t have your driving license on your person, you will be fined, and no one wants to be fined. It just leaves the most bitter taste in your mouth as you think about all the other ways you could have spent that money. That said, if you do get stopped by the police for a traffic infraction (see random road checks below), they probably won’t give you too much hassle; they’ll just have a chat with you and finish the conversation with a fine. However, if you get caught up in a semi-serious accident or worse, then you’ll be entering a very different story, so maybe don’t risk it. After all, how hard is it to carry a license?
Rule Number 11: Police road checks are totally random and proper strict. Like proper strict. Not that it’s a bad thing. It just means you need to know what the rules are (not easy out here) because the police don’t get paid huge salaries and so they only need the smallest smidgen of a reason to stop you and collect a fine. For example, if you’re not wearing a helmet, you’ll be introduced to a 500 baht fine, or if you’re not appropriately dressed (i.e. wearing swimwear or not wearing a top), you’ll be fined 300 baht, or 600 if you’re not carrying your license. Police checkpoints have always been part of the scenery here, and even more so after the Coup. As such, you will no doubt feel like you are being singled out, and you might even get a taste of the corruption if you’re carrying a wallet full of cash. But if you are pulled over, the best thing you can do is smile politely, admit your wrongdoing, apologize and take the small fine on the chin. After all, coughing up 400 baht isn’t the worst thing in the world.
Rule Number 12: Know where you are and where you’re going. Before you hop on a bike and ask Google Translate to relay what the street signs mean, spend a few days working out how to get from one place to another. We know this sounds a bit boring and removes some of the adventure from your two-wheeled exploration, but if you haven’t figured out the local traffic and how all the streets connect to one another, your chances of getting tangled up in a far-from-ideal incident are way more likely. Trust us: this is not the kind of place where you want to pull onto the side of the road and check a map. No way.
Rule Number 13: Stay to the left, but not all the way over. If you took us up on our piece of advice to watch the way the roads work from the safety of a coffee shop, you’ll have seen how many vehicles tend to pull out onto roads without stopping or even looking to see if there’s anything coming. That’s why you don’t want to be right over on the hard shoulder. Driving and riding in Thailand requires accepting some pretty crazy idiosyncrasies, and this is one of the more dangerous ones. But it’s not just about watching out for mindless truck drivers because you’ll also find other motorcyclists using the hard shoulder to head along a road the wrong way. So, yeah, stay left but not too far left. Just inside the centre white line is probably best.
Rule Number 14: Don’t drive at night time. Part of Thailand’s charm is that enforcement of the law is not as effective as in the western world. This can be cool in many respects, but not on the driving front, especially when you learn that a large proportion of drivers across the board a) don’t hold a driving license and b) have a tendency to drive over the legal limit for alcohol consumption. That’s what makes riding and driving at night a pretty dodgy call. It’s just so much more hazardous, so do all you can to arrive to your destination before sunset.
Rule Number 15: Don’t ride these roads if you have kids with you. There’s nothing worse for a parent than having someone else tell you how to be a parent. But on this occasion, we couldn’t bite our tongue because the back of a bike in Thailand is no place for children no matter how long you’ve been riding. The roads out here are an entirely different beast. They really are. The other thing that you should probably try and avoid at all bloomin’ costs is assuming your spouse/partner/significant lover is as competent on a bike as you, or that blindly following you along a busy road or mountain path is going to make it safe for them. Sure, you might get lucky and have the best time of your life. But you might not get lucky and end up having a total nightmare, which is the way the stats tend to lean. We don’t want to tell parents what to do, how to live or how to bring up their little ones, but please don’t be foolhardy and put them in jeopardy on the roads here. They’re crazy at the best of times.
Rule Number 16: Don’t do any of that speeding stuff. They don’t do a hazard perception test in Thailand, but that’s probably because it would be impossible to pass. Unexpected risks pop up from everywhere. The lack of road rules, painted white lines that disappear in the rain, gravel roads, sand tracks, those impossibly distracting views – it’s all risky enough without adding to the load by speeding. Just take it steady and remember it’s better to be ten minutes late in this world than ten minutes early for the next.
Rule Number 17: Green doesn’t always mean go. In fact, the general rule of thumb seems to be that an amber light means speed up and a red light means the 6th car behind you will have to think about stopping. But other than that, you’re good to go. Seriously, though, no one looks. They just keep going as if that red light is a figment of their imagination. So, if you do find yourself at the front of the cue when a traffic light turns green, make sure you hold off for a moment, look both ways and make absolutely sure no one is coming because, chances are, they will be.
Rule Number 18: As a visitor, it’s often your fault if you’re in an accident. We know this is pretty much the most rubbish news you could hope to hear, but it’s worth accepting the injustice now. In fact, we’ll repeat it again so that it sinks in a little further. If you do end up in a crash, whether it’s your fault or not, as a farang (read: visitor), the accident is probably your fault. The best thing you can do is accept this instead of fighting it, and then do all you can to negotiate and keep the costs down. This is Thailand, after all.
Rule Number 19: Have fun. Thailand really is one of the most spectacular places on earth. It’s paradise, Shangri-La, the Garden of Eden – whatever you want to call it – and that makes it one of the most breath-snatching places to explore from the saddle of a motorcycle. So enjoy it, have fun and make memories you won’t forget, just do it sensibly so that you have zero regrets too.
Like we said (probably a few times already), we’re not writing this blog to promote the dangers of Thailand or to make sure you have nightmares about motorcycles or anything like that. If it was really this black and white and terrifying, we wouldn’t have lived here for so long or know we’ll be here forever. But we have been and will be because it’s the most amazing place on earth. That somewhere special and wow, real and raw. It’s heaven. It’s exciting, thrilling, unexpected, euphoric, brilliant and a right old blast from dawn to dusk, every day of the year. However, we still want people to understand just how dangerous it can be riding a motorcycle in Thailand, and we want people to be aware of the scams that give this place a bad name from time to time. Why? Because the more you know, the safer you’ll be, and that’s when your adventure can dance on the right side of fun.
And there we have it: a comprehensive rulebook to help you have the best time should you find it impossible to resist riding a motorcycle in Thailand. This place really is a marvel, and seeing that from the saddle has a certain allure. If you area visitor to Phuket, the best way to squeeze out every drop of wow is to lace up your running shoes and pound the best running routes this island has to offer, experiencing it with your own two eyes on your own two feet. But if you do decide to hire a bike, at least be safe doing so.
Thanks for reading!
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