Riding a motorbike in Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos or Thailand can be one of the most enjoyable and liberating experiences you can have on your trip. Taking to the open road can bring you to places not seen by the average tourist, and give you a hint of what life is like away from the touristy parts of town. At the same time, renting a motorbike in Southeast Asia can also bring about the potential for less pleasant experiences. Many of the most common scams revolve around rentals and accidents occur frequently, so it is imperative you equip yourself with the knowledge of how to have the safest, most enjoyable time with your rented bike. With that in mind, we’ve compiled a very comprehensive list of tips for renting a motorbike in Southeast Asia from our own rental experiences, as well as from other travelers we’ve met along the way.
Choose the bike that’s right for you
You want to make sure that your motorbike is the right type for your ability. If you have very little experience, you’ll want to rent a fully automatic (twist-and-go) bike instead of a semi automatic one (you change gears with your feet, no clutch). If two people are riding the bike, you’ll want at least a 125cc motorbike, whereas a single rider could get away with less power (unless of course you’re a speed demon, which brings us to our next tip).
Don’t be a speed demon
Driving in Southeast Asia is not the same as back home. Intersections and stoplights do not necessarily mean people are going to stop. The faster you go, the less time you will have to react. The roads are not well paved, so swerving in and out of the way of things may very well lead you into the path of one of the millions of potholes on Southeast Asian roads. Remember, potholes have killed many people, don’t let them get you too (dun dun dun!).
Try to rent from your guesthouse
For the most part, renting through your guesthouse or hostel will be your safest bet for avoiding extra hassles or nonsense. Hostels are less likely to try to scam you for two reasons; their business is more directly affected by online customer reviews, and rentals are only a supplemental form of income for them.
While rental prices won’t vary too much in a particular town or city, it’s important to shop around to find the right person to deal with. Anyone who’s really itching to get your passport and then get you on a bike might be worth having second thoughts about. If you’re not feeling comfortable on the bike and they tell you “it’s easy, no problem”, go with your gut instincts. You really want to have a comfortable and easy going feeling about the person you’re dealing with before signing on the dotted line.
Do not give your passport as collateral
This one can be tough to avoid, but should be non-negotiable. Your passport is your lifeline to travel and can be worth more than $10,000 dollars on the black-market! With your passport in someone else’s hand, they have all the leverage in the world should a dispute occur. If your passport is required, offer something else as collateral, such as a credit card, another piece of identification, or even cash. If nothing else is accepted, kindly take your business elsewhere. Make it known that passports are no longer a negotiable piece of collateral (travelers unite!)
Note: In the extreme case where your entire trip is going to be ruined because no place will rent you a bike without leaving your passport, make sure you take a photograph of the person holding your passport, standing beside the bike. If they have a problem doing that, then alarms should be going off. But again, we wouldn’t recommend leaving your passport at any time.
Do not rent a brand new bike
Sure that gleaming, shining, black bike seems to be calling your name and you can envision how bad-ass you’ll look on it, but that old beat up one beside it is the real winner. Brand new bikes show brand new scratches very easily. Cheeky rental places will also use cheap touch up paint that peels off really easily once you start riding. It’s best to choose a bike that already has scratches so that any redecorating on your behalf is less noticeable.
Take pictures of the bike
Before rolling off the lot, make sure you take pictures of the entire bike, especially scratches, dents, scuffs, anything that looks like potential grounds for accusing you of doing the damage. If possible, also take a picture of the bike with the person who’s renting it standing in the photo. Once they see you doing this, they’ll know that you’re not someone they can’t try to take advantage of.
Ask about the motorbike’s insurance
This might not exist, but if the owner says there’s bike insurance, have them show you the policy and make sure it’s for the bike you’re renting. If there is no insurance (which is often), see my tip on not being a speed demon. If you cause an accident, hurt or kill someone, your bank account will be taken to the cleaners!
Wear a Helmet
You do NOT want to go to a hospital in Southeast Asia. Seriously! If you think wearing a helmet isn’t cool, wait until you see the inside of a Cambodian emergency room… or the bill you’ll get from being airlifted to a hospital in Thailand. Don’t be an idiot. Put your helmet on, and don’t rent a bike that doesn’t come with one.
Test drive the vehicle
Before leaving for the day on your bike, take 5 minutes to test the bike out. Make sure that the engine is running smoothly, that the bike accelerates properly, and that the brakes actually stop the bike. If the bike is semi-automatic or manually shifted, shift up and down through each gear to make sure the transmission is working properly.
Ask how much gas costs
Before you head off on your motorbiking adventure, ask how much a liter of gas will cost. In Southeast Asia there aren’t too many gas stations, and more often than not you’ll be purchasing bio diesel poured out of a plastic jug on the side of the road. Being a foreigner, you’ll want to try to avoid the “foreigner price.”
Don’t be like me and end up with the worst sunburns and tan lines of your life. (It’s three months later and these lines ain’t getting any better!) The sun is not your friend while on the bike. Wear long sleeves and pants, both to protect from the sun, and to make your clothes the first things that get shredded should you fall off your bike.
Do you have any more tips that should be added to this list? Write them in the comments section below!