How to Ride a Scooter in Thailand (and not die)

If you’re thinking about traveling to Thailand, chances are you’re going to want to rent a scooter at some stage. While I don’t claim to be an expert, I’ve been riding a scooter in Chiang Mai on and off for six months now, and I have a few words of advice.

As soon as you arrive in Thailand, you will inevitably meet a bunch of backpackers with scrapes, burns, and bruises. While many of them will have prepared a “cool” story about how they were injured, further examination will reveal that they were hurt in one of two ways: either they were skipping with a fire rope during the full moon party, or they had a scooter accident.

When I first arrived in Chiang Mai, I was adamant that I wouldn’t be riding on a scooter. Regardless of how tired I was of bartering with tuk tuk drivers, I wasn’t going to risk ending up as a paraplegic just because I wanted some freedom.

You see, I had been working as a travel agent in Australia, and one of my duties was to sell travel insurance to the many Australians who travel to Thailand and Bali. This meant that I regularly talked to representatives of the insurance company (Covermore) and after almost a year of working in the industry, I had heard all the horror stories.

Riding a scooter in Thailand
My scooter

Even if you have travel insurance (which you definitely should), many of them don’t cover you if you’re on a scooter. A lot of insurance companies require you to have a scooter licence, or international licence, and you absolutely have to be wearing a helmet (duh).

So what happens if you have an accident on your scooter and you have no travel insurance or they refuse to pay out? Well you’re on your own. While it’s true that medical care is much cheaper here than in places like the US, if you end up in intensive care in a hospital that caters to tourists, you’re still in deep shit. Basically, your parents will be footing the bill, and I know of at least one case where a girls parents ended up losing their house while she was in a hospital in Bangkok.

I don’t want to freak you guys out, but you can see why I was hesitant to rent a scooter myself.

After I had been here for a few weeks though, I got tired of riding on the back of my friends scooters. I decided that if if I was going to risk death and injuries, I may as well have some control over it myself (yup I’m eternally optimistic).

So I caved. I hired a scooter, had my friend show me how to ride it, and then it was just a matter of practice. I can’t imagine being without my scooter now, and it really does make life so much easier here. When I went to Laos for a few days a couple of weeks ago I simply parked my scooter at the airport for free, and didn’t have to worry about transportation when I got back.

If you do decide to hire a scooter, here are some tips for riding a scooter in Thailand:

Don’t give them your passport

Ok so this isn’t technically a tip for riding a scooter, but it’s important anyway. When you rent your scooter you have two options: give them a cash deposit, or leave your passport. Under no circumstances should you leave your passport with them. There are a number of dodgy rental agencies who make money off the side this way.

Two of the men who were on fake passports on flight MH370 were traveling on passports that were stolen in Phuket. It’s not uncommon for passports to go “missing” from the scooter hire company, especially down south. Not to mention, if you are in an accident, or they just decide that you’ve scratched the bike, you’re at their mercy and without your passport you’re screwed.

Scooter Thailand
Scooters have brakes on both sides of the handles-one for the front, and one for the back. Never squeeze them independently, and make sure you always press them at the same time.

Ask for a test drive

This one seems obvious, but you should always give it a quick test drive. Get them to show you how to start the bike, lock it, and top up the gas. A lot of tourists (particularly men…sorry guys) will go for the biggest, baddest looking scooter, and then are surprised when they can’t actually handle it. Remember, these things weigh a lot, and the higher the CC, the faster it will go, and the harder it will be to control.

Don’t leave your keys in your bike

Ok ok, this one is really obvious. But I do it allll the time. I’m lucky that Chiang Mai is pretty safe, but the reason my bike hasn’t yet been stolen is probably more due to the fact that people don’t expect anyone to be dumb enough to actually leave a scooter parked up with the keys dangling from the ignition. All that’s missing is a sign saying “steal me”.

This isn’t something that’s new to me, and even when I lived in Christchurch I would leave my car unlocked in the middle of the city while I went to the gym, with my keys in the ignition. My excuse for this idiot move? I have a thousand things on my mind. So trust me guys: do as I say, and not as I do.

Be aware of your surroundings

The good thing about riding a scooter in Thailand is that the locals are used to bikes weaving in and out of traffic, and seem to have a sixth sense when it comes to tourists. They’ve probably seen so many dumb situations that they’re kinda forced to be on the look out.

This doesn’t mean that you can drive like a giant asshole though. When you’re riding a scooter it’s important to always make it obvious if you’re braking or changing lanes. Never slam on the brakes, and if you don’t indicate, at least look over your shoulder so the cars behind you can see that you’re moving over.

I have no sense of direction, so I often have one of my headphones in my ear, with Google telling me “in 300 metres, turn right”. I also sometimes listen to music or a podcast. My only excuse is I’m used to driving in Chiang Mai, I never have it up loud, and I always have one ear free.

This is the kickstand. If you're ever wondering why the bike won't start, it's probably because this is still down. Also, always remember to make sure it's properly down before you stand up, cause if the bike falls over you could be in a lot of trouble....
This is the kickstand. If you’re ever wondering why the bike won’t start, it’s probably because this is still down. Also, always remember to make sure it’s properly down before you stand up, cause if the bike falls over you could be in a lot of trouble….


Be prepared

This one is important. If you’re driving on the highway, or you’ve simply been driving for a while, it’s easy to let your mind wander. Last week I visited one of my friends who had moved out near Mae Rim. On the way back we encountered some roadworks, and it was completely dark with no street lights.

One of my friends was up ahead, and I was following him, since I had no idea how to get home. I hit a pothole, at 30km an hour, and the bike twisted. I felt myself falling, and the only reason I didn’t come off, was that I hit another pothole which jostled my right arm, hitting the throttle so the bike corrected itself.

The roads here are terrible, and even when there aren’t any roadworks you’re likely to be dodging potholes. I met a guy in Bangkok last time I was here who had a huge cast on his arm, and a bandaged finger. He had hit a bump while driving from Chiang Mai to Pai, flown off his bike, and nearly killed himself. The bike was a write-off, his arm was broken in three places, his sunglasses were scratched and broken, and he had a huge dent in his helmet.

He was taken to Pai hospital, which was completely unprepared, and the doctors could only give him panadol, while he screamed in pain.

And a few more tips:

Wear a helmet

I know, I know, they look lame, they’re uncomfortable, and any hope you have for a good hair day is ruined. But on the bright side, you’re way less likely to end up with your brains splattered across the road. #Winning.

Wear sunglasses

Not only will you be breathing in the fumes from other vehicles, but dust and all sorts of other nasty stuff will be flying up into your eyes.

Lock up your bike

If you’re going to be away for a while, use the bike lock provided and hook it up to something sturdy.

Have fun

It may not seem like it, after this giant blog post about the perils of riding a scooter, but honestly, my scooter is one of my favourite things about living here. Driving along the moat with the wind in my hair is guaranteed to brighten up my day, and there’s no end to the places I can explore on my bike. If you’re going to hire a scooter, be careful, be aware, but most of all, have fun!

3 comments on “How to Ride a Scooter in Thailand (and not die)

  1. Lia kuyf December 4, 2014 @ 1:18 am

    And imagine what its like with your mum visiting, and yelling “you have your mum on the back here!”

  2. Amy December 4, 2014 @ 9:43 pm

    Thanks for the tips!

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