While the cities and landscapes of each Southeast Asian country are drastically diverse, one thing remains constant no matter which borders you cross: the motorbike. Hindered by a high tax on cars, relatively high gas prices, and an immense amount of traffic to weave through, driving a motorbike is the most economical choice for locals and tourists alike.
Because motorbikes are a mode of transportation not often utilized in the Western world, it is necessary to take precautions and know what to expect in order to avoid surprises when renting. Be sure to take numerous pictures of the bike prior to riding it in order to have proof of any dings or scratches inflicted previously (this helps you avoid getting wrongfully blamed for damage later).
You should also do a little research about the costs of motorbike rental in different cities, as it varies greatly (for example, in Hanoi you may pay $5 per day, while in Luang Prabang, expect to pay at least $20); people will always try to scam you for high prices, so knowing the going rate will help you to haggle smartly.
Here is a quick guide to some common motorbike behaviors and idiosyncrasies in SE Asia to prepare you for anything you may encounter!
1. Beep, beep!
In the Western world, honking is often viewed as aggressive or unnecessary, but in SE Asia it is absolutely essential. While weaving through erratic streets and obscene traffic, it becomes difficult to keep your eye on everything—people honk to provide an aural reminder of their presence. So, before proclaiming that the locals all have road rage, remember that a honk actually signifies more of a “watch out, I’m here!” rather than a “screw you!”
2. Safety First
Helmets are not legally required in every country here, but in many cities you can get fined by the police for not wearing one. No matter the law, ALWAYS wear a helmet! Driving a motorbike is unpredictable, especially in countries with substandard road conditions, and big cities with millions of other drivers. Just do it!
3. Little Fish in a Big Pond
In major SE Asian cities (Hanoi, Saigon, Bangkok, Phnom Penh), the traffic seems chaotic, and many foreigners question their ability to navigate it– however, if you simply follow the crowd and become one with the pack, it’s actually quite easy! Go with the flow of traffic, drive slowly, and be aware of your surroundings.
4. Motorbike or Moving Van?
Prepare to be amazed by the creativity and mastery of the locals and their motorbike balancing skills. You will see portable pet stores donning various birds and fish, construction workers carrying 20 foot long wood planks, and families of five squished together on a single bike. It is a serious art form!
Many tourists quickly become cocky after a few days of zipping around on a bike. Even after months of traveling and countless miles on the road, the truth is that you never know what you will encounter while driving on any given day. From the hills of Koh Phangan to the crowded streets of Saigon—never assume you are in control, and never forget that driving a bike is, in fact, very dangerous. Give the road your undivided attention.
There’s no doubt that renting a motorbike allows for flexibility, freedom, and lower prices on travel. It’s a definite must-do while in SE Asia, but don’t forget to do your research, be cautious who and where you rent from, and most importantly, drive slowly and safely!