Written by Matthew Twyman (the other Flipflop!)
First time riding a scooter in Asia may be a little daunting. Are they dangerous? Does my insurance cover this? Are there any driving rules in Asia at all? (and believe me in some countries it seems as if rules and traffic lights are completely irrelevant) and finally, what would my mum say?!
Well don’t panic, it’s all pretty easy once you get your first scooter and learn the lay of the land. You will see 8-10 year olds running around on scooters as if they were skateboards. If they can do it, I’m pretty sure you can too.
The thing to remember over here is that a scooter or motorbike is commonplace in nearly all families. Cars until quite recently were as rare as a unicorn fart!
In India and Vietnam, if you can’t fit your business on a scooter its not worth having one. Painters and decorators with 3 guys and a set of ladders is a common sight! Builders with 8×4 plasterboards and plumbers with 12ft pipe all making their way through rush hour traffic is the norm.
Mums and dads on the school run or going out for dinner with at least 2 kids and both parents is an everyday event.
What I’m trying to point out is that it’s in the culture to ride bikes from such a young age, that when these kids finally get a car or pick up truck they have an awareness for bike riders ingrained in them that we in Europe just don’t have.
The default emotion to most drivers back home when they see a bike is jealousy and anger!! How dare those little f…… ride between all the cars in this queue and get straight to the lights whilst I have been sitting here for 20 mins in this traffic jam!! That concept just doesn’t exist here, as everyone was a bike rider at some point. That and a complete lack of road rage in general makes it a pretty safe environment to ride in. In fact, in most bigger cities the inside lane is solely for bikes!
That being said, there are some pretty nasty accidents that happen and sometimes it’s all in the lap of the gods, however there are a few simple things that you can do to minimise the chance of your number coming up.
Do not drink and drive! Sounds obvious, but believe me it’s probably the most broken rule over here.
Always ride with sunglasses or a visor. There are wasps as big as your thumb over here and you really don’t want one of those in your eye!
Be aware of everyone and everything around you. I have run over a chicken or two in my time and I’m just glad it wasn’t a dog, because you can’t carry on going if that happens! That’s gonna hurt you and the dog. Animals and dogs run free over here and who knows what’s in their heads when they are walking along the busy roads. Take precaution!
Make sure your tyres are pumped up and have a decent tread, as well as checking your brakes. Most back brakes get worn out pretty quickly and this is going to be your main brake! If it’s very spongy, there is a small nut that can be tightened by hand by the back wheel. It’s an easy adjustment so you can do it on the spot.
Avoid riding in bad weather unless you really know the roads and are prepared to be patient. The roads often have pot holes which will fill with water in the rain and look exactly like the rest of the road until you hit them. And hitting patches of mud washed onto the road in a rain storm can ruin your day… and your bike!
Finally, this advice was given to me in India; do not drive on the roads at night! I thought this strange until I noticed that everyone drives with their full beams on, which pretty much blinds you, but that isn’t really the problem…. The problem is that cows and buffalo, after a long hot day chewing grass, love nothing more than a good sleep in the middle of the road! Mix these together and there you are one-night driving around a bend when the full beams hit you in the eyes and bingo!! “hello Mr Cow, what are you doing here?” This is not an urban myth; this is a regular occurrence in Goa.
Now you know the basic faux pas to look out for, you’re ready to get your first scooter!
Hiring a Scooter
Scooter hire in Asia is pretty cheap, from £1 – £5 ($1 – $7) per day depending on which country you’re in and how long you’re hiring it for. Big discounts are to be expected (and should be insisted upon) for monthly rentals.
Most travel insurance covers you for a bike up to 125cc but check your policy and your driver’s licence.
Get an International Driving Permit. This is just a separate piece of paper (booklet) that allows you to legally drive in some stricter countries. Most Police stops are put in place just for tourists and your papers may not be in order, so to avoid further hassle from the ‘said’ Policemen, a cash payment of somewhere between £5 – £40 ($7 – $60) will see you on your way! I have seen this so much in India and Thailand, where they literally put a desk next to the road and stop tourists because they know half of them don’t bother with this sort of paperwork and there are queues of foreigners lined up to hand them their hard earned holiday money.
You can get this permit for just over £5 from a Post Office or the AA in the UK (if you are from another country, check online for an equivalent provider) This will last 12 months from the date of issue.
Try hiring your scooter from the place you’re staying at. Although this is sometimes a little more expensive, and by little I mean 50p per day, it often saves you falling foul of some of the scams. It has been known for companies to hire out their bikes and then come to steal them from your hotel or residence and then charge you for the missing bike. Sad but true!
Check your scooter over for damage, point this out or better still take pictures before you hire as proof, because if you don’t you can bet that they will when you return it and try to get your deposit back!
Most scooters are automatic so there is no need to learn how to change gears, just point and squirt.
For real beginners, it may be worth riding with a “broken wrist” position with your right hand to start with. It just means holding the throttle with your wrist low and your hand high, so if you hit any bumps you don’t pull too much on the accelerator and speed into another problem! After a few weeks you will probably completely forget about this as your confidence builds.
Finally, make sure your crash helmet fits well, with a strap that works and without any cracks from previous accidents. Some of the helmets they have tried to give to me have been a joke. Held together with duct tape and a prayer!
Take a few days to get used to riding on your own if it’s your first time, I wouldn’t just stick your wife and kids on the back and hope for the best! Its not hard to get used to, but I would err on the side of caution to begin with.
I started riding in Goa India, and the drives were beautiful, twisting turning roads through lush forest whilst getting from beach to beach. However, come night time it was tuk tuks all the way…. Which also meant I could have a beer or two at the local beach bar and I didn’t hit any cows! Be warned, in India you will get a bigger prison sentence for hitting a cow than hitting a person!
Next was Sri Lanka, when we started to do some longer rides to get from place to place; the scariest thing about driving in Sri Lanka are the crazy and I mean completely lunatic bus drivers who race from town to town trying to beat the next bus along on its way to the passengers at the next bus stop. These guys would overtake at 60mph, completely on your side of the road through busy beach towns.
The ultimate experience in riding scooters has to be Vietnam; until you have witnessed 4 million bikes in a city all vying for the same piece of tarmac you really haven’t lived! Vietnam has only had traffic lights for a few short years and as of yet only about 2% of drivers even acknowledge their existence, let alone understand the Red, Yellow and Green system. To them every colour means go go go!!! One-way street in Vietnam only apply to cars and lorries, if you’re on a scooter all is fair game! If by chance a set of lights are red and some cars are stopped, this just means that you can drive your bike up the pavement and across to the next bit of road to continue.
Pedestrians beware, pavements are only extensions of the roads at busy junctions and at rush hour.
After a month in Vietnam absolutely nothing fazes me about riding a bike in Asia.
Thailand has proven to be the land of police stops. In Chiang Mai, we were getting stopped once or twice a day. If it wasn’t for that international license it would have cost us a fortune in backhanders to the cops!
Whilst in Chiang Mai we rode further north to Pai with some friends, which involved 764 corners through some of the most amazing mountains and national parks that I have ever witnessed. With hot springs and waterfalls, roadside food stalls and the odd coffee shop, it probably took us 5 hours…. All on a faithful Honda Click Scooter!
I’m so glad to have started my bike riding journey in India and it has been the most stunning way to see these countries, not in a taxi or on a bus, but to ride up the sides of Volcanoes in Bali, across mountains in Thailand, through tobacco fields in Lombok and rice paddies in Vietnam.
The best thing I have done without a doubt, 100% was to learn to ride a bike! You will never get a better chance than in Asia.
Photos of us on the scooter are courtesy of Clare Nash, who is a friend, fellow traveller and Photographer; you can see more of her travel photos on Clare Nash Photography Facebook Page
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