Renting a scooter in Southeast Asia is never something I thought I would do. In fact, I never thought I would ever muster the courage to ride a scooter. The thought of it freaked me out. I’m not sure if I was more nervous about crashing and burning or making a fool out of myself by driving off the side of the road. Whatever it was, I never really saw myself as a motorbike kind of girl.
And then Hawaii happened.
My friend happens to be an accomplished rider and he somehow convinced me that I would be perfectly fine driving an automatic scooter around Oahu. I was petrified at the thought. And honestly, I was a ball of nerves the entire day as I wobbled around the island.
But seriously, it made for one of the most memorable travel days ever.
Since that day in Hawaii I have become kind of a motorbike junkie. I am by no means 100 percent comfortable on a scooter, but I’m getting better. At this point I have explored quite a few cities and islands in Southeast Asia on two wheels. I’ve found deserted beaches in Malaysia, coasted through the Chocolate Hills in the Philippines and gone temple hopping in local villages in Indonesia.
Learning to ride a motorbike has completely transformed the way I travel. But I do realize that there is much debate about whether or not renting a scooter in Southeast Asia is a good idea. Some travelers (like me) swear by it while many think that renting a motorbike is a bad idea.
After witnessing my boyfriend crash his scooter in Bali last month I realized just how dangerous motorbikes can be. The accident didn’t scare me off of them; thankfully everything was okay and he was able to hop right back on his bike. But it did get me thinking about how important it is to exercise caution when cruising around foreign cities on a scooter.
It also inspired me to put together a guide for anyone out there who is contemplating renting a scooter in Southeast Asia. I’ve included tips on how to rent, the basics of driving and, most importantly, how to stay safe.
Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia:
Types of motorbikes:
In most tourist spots in Southeast Asia, you have your choice of three types of motorbikes: automatic, semi-automatic (with gears) and manual (with gears and clutch). I am by no means hardcore and I have only ever ridden an automatic, which I highly recommend for beginners. You can work your way up to more advanced motorbikes once you get the hang of the automatic. I hear semi-automatics are fairly easy to use and offer much more control than automatic scooters. It’s always best to specify which type of bike you want when renting.
International driver’s license:
Some Southeast Asian countries might require them but I have only ever been asked once, in the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia. If you’re planning to rent a motorbike in Southeast Asia, I just wouldn’t worry about it. In my opinion, it’s not worth the hassle.
Obviously the cost is going to depend on the country and city you’re traveling in. I’ve paid anywhere from $4 a day in Bali to $8 in the Philippines to $5 in Thailand. As a rule of thumb, you should never have to pay more than $5-10 when renting a scooter in Southeast Asia.
Of course, there are a few exceptions. For example tourist hot spots like Boracay, the Philippines, and the Cameron Highlands, Malaysia, charge around $20 a day! You’ll usually get them for 12-24 hours and some places may ask for a deposit. If you rent the bike for a few days or a month you will get absurdly good deals.
What to wear:
I feel lucky that I was taught to ride a scooter by an expert, who instructed me to always wear a helmet, long pants, close toed shoes and sunglasses.
- Helmet: No, they don’t look cool. And, yes, sometimes they smell. But seriously don’t be a fool, just wear the helmet! Unfortunately helmets aren’t always available in Southeast Asia, but I think Bali has been the only place where I couldn’t find one. Usually, if you insist or ask around, you’ll be able to find a vendor who will rent you a motorbike with a helmet. Jut so you know, helmets don’t typically cost extra.
- Long pants: I realize that in Southeast Asia it’s hot, and the idea of wearing long pants seems ridiculous. I can’t say I always abide by this rule (see above) but I do most of the time, especially during long rides. When my boyfriend wiped out in Bali, he was luckily wearing long pants. Otherwise his legs would have been really cut up, instead of just badly bruised. They can also help prevent burns in case you accidentally brush your leg against the boiling-hot tailpipe, something that happens all too often if you’re not careful.
- Close toed shoes: This is another one that seems excessive. I mean, in Southeast Asia you’re probably donning flip flops every day. I wear flip flops all the time, but when I’m motorbiking I pretty much always have on a pair of Converse. I can’t tell you how many times this has saved me from cutting up my feet, which happens to a lot of people. When you get the speed wobbles or get off balance, your feet are the first things that hit the ground. Also, you will drag your feet on the ground when you stop and start and getting your sandals snagged on the ground isn’t fun.
- Sunglasses: Be sure to bring a pair with you so bugs and dust don’t get into your eyes while your driving. You’ll thank me later!
What to check for before you rent:
There’s always going to be something wrong with your bike. I mean we are talking about motorbiking in Southeast Asia here. So doing a quick check is a good idea.
- Brakes: I don’t think I’ve ever rented a bike that had fully functional braeks, but in one instance the rear break was so bad it barely worked. The whole day I was kind of bummed I had rented that particular bike, especially when I was going downhill.
- Gas gauge: These don’t work 50 percent of the time. It’s fine, but it’s just good to know if you’ll have to check the gas level manually.
- Headlights: Make sure the headlight works. Getting caught without lights at night can be dangerous and difficult. This happened to me in the Philippines and I was terrified because I couldn’t see a thing and other vehicles couldn’t see me. It wasn’t fun.
Getting your bearings:
If you’ve never ridden a motorbike before, don’t just gas it into a busy street. The first time I rented a bike a guy in the store, who had clearly never ridden a bike before, hopped on his scooter, gassed it way too hard, flipped his bike into the air and got seriously burned by the tailpipe. It was horrifying.
After seeing that, I literally walked my scooter to a nearby parking lot to get the hang of turning and accelerating…both of which are really challenging for beginners. Even at this point I only rent scooters in rural towns where there are decent roads and little traffic. I never rent motorbikes in big cities because I know I’d be a hazard to myself and others.
Get oriented with your bike:
The blinker, horn and lights are on the left. The starter button and throttle are on the right. Start the bike by holding down either one of the brakes and pressing the starter button until the engine starts. Give it gas by turning the right handle bar toward you. If you’ve never ridden a bike before and you’re accelerating for the first time give it the slightest twist backwards, we’re talking microscopic here. These things have power…don’t be one of those people who gasses it and ends up crashing. Please!
Troubleshooting why your bike won’t start:
I had to mention this because I am still that person who starts panicking when my scooter won’t start, and I have visions of being stranded in the middle of nowhere on some remote Balinese island (yes, this happened). Literally it’s almost always because my kickstand is still down or I’m not holding down the break hard enough.
The first time I needed to fill up my scooter in Pai, Thailand, I was bewildered. Where the hell is the gas tank? So you don’t look like a fool (like me), the gas tank is located under the seat and you’ll need the key to unlock the seat.
In Southeast Asia there aren’t always gas stations, so just keep your eyes peeled for bottles of Absolut or soda bottles on the side of the road.
Learn to use your horn:
Using your horn is key when you’re motorbiking in Southeast Asia. It’s commonly used to alert oncoming traffic when you’re going around sharp turns or passing. It also comes in handy for getting dogs, chickens and monkeys out of the road.
Don’t stop when you’re going uphill:
I’ve had so many close calls with this. I find myself going up a steep incline, when I suddenly become really nervous and stop because I realize the hill is too steep for me. Bad idea.
Scooters are heavy. Really heavy when you’re trying to keep them from rolling down a steep hill. Once you stop, it’s really challenging to support its weight while trying to get going uphill again. Once you’ve started up a steep hill just go with it. Don’t panic, just gas it like hell and enjoy the ride.
Motorbikes are really popular in Southeast Asia and finding a place to fix your bike is a cinch. I’ve always been worried about what would happen if I ever crashed my bike and needed to get it fixed. I’ve always figured that I’d get completely ripped off.
After experiencing my boyfriend’s motorbike accident in Bali, which left him with a broken mirror and scuffed paint on one side of the bike, we had no clue what to pay. The owner asked us for about $35, which we gladly handed over given that the bike had been brand new when we’d rented it. We later found out that the repairs would have only cost us $5 had we just gone to a local mechanic. We were totally ripped off. Now we know…
Riding a motorbike in Southeast Asia can be great fun. And in my opinion it gives you the freedom to go at your own pace and steer you to things you might not otherwise experience. I’m a firm believer that renting a scooter is a wonderful and unforgettable way to explore Southeast Asia. Just always be sure to be safe!
Are you a fan of renting motorbikes in foreign countries? Do you have any other tips?