A Beginner’s Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush

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.

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
Motorbiking to the Chocolate Hills in the Philippines was one of my favorite travel experiences!

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.

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
A motorcycle in Kuta, Bali, one of the more terrifying places to rent a motorbike.
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.

The cost:

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.

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
The Chocolate Hills in Bohol, the Philippines. Clearly I didn’t abide by my own rule here…
  • 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.

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
A motorbike is the best way to explore the natural wonders in Nusa Penida, Indonesia.
A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
An amazing beach on Nusa Penida, Indonesia, that I would never have found without my motorbike.
  • 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.

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
Exploring the lush jungle in Camiguin, the Philippines.
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.

Getting petrol:

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.

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
A gas station…Bali style.
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.

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
These guys just love crossing the road at the worst possible moment.
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.

Bike repairs:

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…

A Beginner's Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia - The Travel Lush
There was no shortage of motorbikes or motorbike repair shops in Hanoi, Vietnam.

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?

About Justine

Justine Lopez is a California native who always seems to take the unconventional route in life. She also suffers from a serious case of wanderlust. In 2013, she set out on a yearlong round-the-world journey and never looked back. Since then she's lived the expat life in both Jakarta and Phnom Penh. She's now living and working as a freelance writer in Beijing. As she meanders her way through Asia she's always seeking out great vegetarian food, budget travel deals and amazing new travel destinations.

12 thoughts on “A Beginner’s Guide to Renting a Scooter in Southeast Asia

  1. Hi Justine!
    Excellent post! Thank you for the useful information. I’m a motorbike-guy myself. Although I recently had to sell my own motorbike (saving for traveling). When I rented a motorbike in SOA I was impressed by the petrol stations! It was so different! But lovely… haha! :-)
    Uelito @ Flashpacking the World recently posted…One Week On Koh Phangan

    1. Thanks! The petrol “stations” are so funny, but also really convenient. It’s almost impossible to run out of gas because it seems like everyone in Southeast Asia sells liters of petrol at their store. So where are you going to be traveling next?

  2. This is a great post. I unfortunately never got the courage to ride one. I was in a crash while on the back of one early on in China and it sort of freaked me out. By the time I was less terrified to drive one I was just in bad places to learn. (Saigon). Someday though. Also I have a massive scar from burning my leg on the tailpipe in Vietnam when my friend was driving.
    Rebekah recently posted…Three Week Vietnam Itinerary

    1. I wouldn’t have the courage to ride one either if I were you. That’s awful that you’ve had such bad experiences. I’ve never burned myself, but I always worry about it when I’m riding on the back of people’s motorbikes here in Jakarta. It seems really easy to do! Ha, yeah I wouldn’t dare to ride one in Saigon either. Honestly, I only ride in pretty rural places. I really don’t like riding when there are a lot of people on the road; it makes me really nervous. If you ever do decide to rent a scooter do it in the countryside!

  3. Ahh, this article highlighted so many of the reasons I prefer driving a semi-automatic! The hill problem, just as one example! Not that it’s ever a good idea to stop going uphill, but it’s not such a problem with semi-autos because they are so much damn lighter than automatics. They’re cheaper to rent usually, too! I never wore really safe attire when driving in Thailand, except for my full face helmet. I was constantly driving around in flip flops (or heels!) and shorts or even dresses. And we loved to ride threesies when we needed to give that extra friend a lift. We took a lot of dumb chances, and most people I know (myself included) were in at least one accident, but luckily none of them that serious. I would probably be more cautious the next time I ride one, no matter where I am in the world! Great list of tips :)
    Leah recently posted…30 Before 30: A Progress Report

    1. I honestly don’t know why I haven’t tried a semi-automatic. But clearly I need to. I have noticed that they are always cheaper than automatics, but I didn’t know that they were so much lighter! Automatics are so heavy!

      Ha, no one wears safe attire in Southeast Asia. Even I don’t always abide by my own rules all the time. I usually do where shoes though…unless I’m just going around town. Yeah, accidents are so common. I have had so many close calls, but somehow I haven’t actually crashed yet. Fingers crossed it stays that way!

    1. Thanks! Have you ridden a scooter before? Bali can be kind of a crazy place to ride. I wouldn’t dare to ride one in Kuta…though I do tend to over think these things. I did ride one in and around Ubud and then on Nusa Lembongan and Nusa Penida. All of those places were really fun. Yay, I can’t believe you’re almost going to be in Indonesia! I’m heading to Bali in a few hours :)

  4. Very nice post!
    We are big fans of motorbikes but we usually buy them when we travel (sadly being in China means we are not riding one at the moment) and just travel on them. My other half loves manual but that’s because he’s good with those, I’d go for automatic too!

    As you say: never forget the helmet! We saw so many people riding only wearing a swimsuit while in SE Asia… and when they end up in an accident it’s not pretty!
    Marie-Carmen recently posted…Discover Beijing by Side-Car, a fun way to explore the city.

    1. I’ve always wanted to travel around a country on a motorbike but I’ve just never done it. The helmet is so important. I know a lot of tourists in SE Asia don’t want to look dumb, but it’s scary to think of all the serious injuries that can happen. I’ve seen so many travelers with bandages all over their bodies too! Sadly accidents are way too common :(

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