I remember my first trip to Thailand: on the flight in I was reading an article written by some safety advocate basically telling foreigners from the West to avoid the lure of motorbiking in Thailand. The article assured me, that if I did get on a motorbike, it would lead to death. At the time, 30,000 feet up in the air, I thought there was no way in hell my clumsy self, who has a hard time putting one foot in front of the other on solid ground was going to get on a motorbike. No way.
But then there I was, with my travel partner on the beautiful Koh Samui island, frolicking in the bathtub warm Gulf of Thailand, and he somehow had the idea of exploring the island like the locals: on a motorbike. After a little convincing (not a lot; peer pressure works wonders on me) I somehow ended up on one of those ultra dangerous, life threatening motorbikes. My one saving grace was that I wore a helmet.
And guess what- about 2 mins into the ride I crashed bad, in the middle of an intersection, I went flying one way, the bike another way. Blood was gushing from my knees and elbow. But I did not die. Not even close. To this day, about 4 years later, I still have a Thai stone eternally embedded in my elbow, and my knee looks a bit weathered. But I survived and in fact this is one of my favorite stories to share over happy hour.
I realize at this point this also seems like this is a public service announcement aimed at getting you off the motorbike. But no, it’s not.
You see, even though I hurt myself real bad that day in Thailand, I did get on a motorbike again, sometimes as a driver and sometimes as a passenger, and thinking back to those moments on motorbike riding through Vietnam and Thailand are some of the most beautiful memories imprinted on my brain.
Sure, motorbiking is NOT suited for people who have never driven a car or been on a bike without training wheels. But I’m here to tell you that unless you’re very very scared or lame or just like to hang out with hordes of other tourists, there is no reason you shouldn’t be getting on a motorbike to explore southeast Asia.
There is just no better way to see these countries. But as with everything, you need to keep your head on your shoulders. Here’s my list of tips to ensure you enjoy your motorbiking adventure:
Wear a helmet
This is a no-brainer, and probably the only beneficial thing I got out of that stupid article on the plane. Wear a helmet, that way, even if you do happen to fall, it won’t be life threatening. I saw a lot of tourists during my time in Asia without helmets, and it just seems like a ridiculous risk. Protect your brains, people!
You don’t have to be a motorbike expert to know basic tenants of logic apply here too: don’t rent from a sketchy rental place (If you can, try to rent from your hotel or hostel); if your bike is making funny noises, turn right back around and trade bikes; don’t leave your passport as collateral, you shouldn’t really have to leave anything. And anytime you’re unsure, use your gut instinct- if it feels wrong, don’t do it. There will likely be another motorbike rental place 10 feet down the road.
Don’t wing it
If you’re actually trying to get somewhere (as opposed to simply exploring) don’t plan on figuring it out when you’re on the road. Use the hotel’s WiFi to open up your route in Google Maps, save the route, screen shot it, preload it. Whatever it takes. Unlike driving, I found motorbiking to take 100% of my focus and attention so this left little brain power to trying to figure out where I’m actually going. Do this before, when you have ample internet and both feet on solid ground.
Keep the gas tank full
Two things- for some reason it seems to happen often that the gas meter thing on the motorbike that tells you how much gas is left in the tank is often wrong and gas stations aren’t as prevalent. Actually, you will rarely see gas stations in the traditional sense of the word- instead, you will see little convenience stores with plastic PET bottles filled with yellow stuff displayed at the door. That’s gasoline! Make it a habit to fill up as often as you can when you see these (this will literally cost you pennies) and will ensure that you never get stranded on the side of the road without any gas. Because yes, that’s happened to me, and it’s not quite fun.
Use your horn liberally
As a motorbike, you’re at the bottom of the pecking order on the road. Keep this in mind when you’re going head to head with a semi-truck. And use your horn as your voice on the road: when you are approaching pedestrians to make sure they know you’re approaching, when you’re passing, and basically any time you want to make your presence known. When in doubt, honk. This will even help you fit in and seem like a local driver.
OK. This seems dumb, but it took embarrassingly long for my brain to realize that when I’m on a motorbike I’m still outside (the breeze from moving feels so good you don’t really feel the hot rays of the sun!) and this lead to way too many burnt shoulders and thighs. Lather up before getting on the bike!
Remember you can stop whenever you want
The absolute best part of motorbiking is you’re your own boss- see something picturesque- pull over and take a picture. Want to try a fresh juice from the juice cart? Pull over. Need to adjust your sunglasses? Pull over. It may take some getting used to if you’re accustomed to tourist buses or trains, but once it clicks, you’ll realize why motorbiking is the great way to explore the beautiful Asian lands.