Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Motorcycle Diaries

Yesterday I gained my motorcycle Ps, an epic journey that began with a baptism of fire in northern Thailand a year ago. Yes, I was one of those farang idiots that succumbed to the madness that is holiday scooter hire, a decision that was ill-informed and dangerous. And while I survived the experience, this is a cautionary tale.

Why did I do it? Because I had to. There was simply no other way to get around. I was staying in a small village in northern Thailand where public transport is non-existent, and I needed to get to and from my hotel to various sights. So after a day of hoofing it in the blaring heat, I asked reception to arrange scooter hire.

Two hours later, it was delivered to my door, along with two ill-fitting helmets. No one asked to see my licence (the hotel provided them with a copy of my passport for security); there was no deposit necessary, and I could pay the princely sum of 170 baht a day (around $6) at the end of the hire period. Easy peasy.

Of course, the cute little scooter came with no instructions – it was up to me to figure out how to get it started, fill it with fuel (the tank was below empty on delivery) and most important of all, not crash. Which, when you are a total novice and petrified, was easier said than done.

Fortunately, the streets of the Golden Triangle where I was staying are very quiet, allowing me the liberty of weaving and wobbling on my first nervous takeoff. Unlike in Sydney, there are no buses or rabid taxi drivers to contend with – just other scooters, vendors pushing carts, unruly children and dogs dashing from the kerb. I only had to travel about five kilometres on my first outing – just one road, with only a few bends and mostly in reasonable condition. Although I held my breath the whole way, it was mission accomplished  – and before long, I was pottering all over town, even taking my little baby off-road onto dirt tracks.

Chuffed with my achievements, I soon ventured further afield, putting me in the path of actual traffic. I even had to stop at lights a couple of times. Once I had to slam the brakes to avoid a van pulling out without indicating. 

They may drive on the left in Thailand, but that’s where any similarity to Australian road rules ends. Firstly, there are no discernable rules: small vehicles give way to larger ones; no one indicates; and a red light must mean go, as no one seemed to stop at them except me. Everyone drives like a lunatic – at least I was in good company.

One hazard I didn’t chance upon, however, was other travellers who had hired motorbikes with no licence or experience. In popular backpacker destinations, such as Chiang Mai, Koh Phangan and Koh Chang,  it’s another story. Tourist on bikes are everywhere; many are young, stupid and often drunk. Most are Europeans or Americans used to driving on the other side of the road. Few wear helmets. Most wear shorts and thongs, and are carrying equally scantily clad passengers. And many end up as road kill.

The statistics for motor cycle accidents in Thailand are sobering. On average, 38 people die per day from motor cycle accidents in Thailand; in 2008, there were nearly 60,000 motor cycle accidents. In Phangan, the ultimate party island, burn and gravel rash scars are known as “the Phangan tattoo”. Every local has a tragic story about a visitor who ended up with brain damage or horrendous injuries.

A week after my breakthrough in the Golden Triangle, I arrived in gorgeous Koh Chang, determined to continue my motorcycle adventure. I took one look at the road, however, and immediately changed my mind – although there is only one route around the island, it is a rollercoaster of treacherous curves, stupefying hills and blind corners where mini vans, songthaew taxis and bikes hassle for speed rights. Scooters carrying two or three unhelmeted passengers are often forced off the road by impatient vans; and even with an open road, they barely make the inclines before hurtling down the other side, wobbling over potholes and wonky verges.

It’s death on wheels, and there’s no way in the world I would recommend any novice hitting this particular road... unless they want to leave part of their brain embedded in its surface.

                                  (the craziness that is Koh Chang's roads)

Having witnessed the chaos on Koh Chang’s ringroad, I cautiously refused the offer of scooter hire on its idyllic little sister island, Koh Kood, instead setting out on foot to walk the  “five-to-ten kilometres” to a waterfall (the latter being the more accurate estimate.) By the time I reached the main road, one kilometre from base, I realised I’d made a mistake – the roads on this particularly island are brand new, in perfect condition, and absolutely deserted. Although the roads are steep, there is no other traffic to contend with – I would have been absolutely fine.

When it comes to scooter hire in Thailand, the bottom line is: use your head. If you’re not licensed, this is not the place to learn. Furthermore, an unlicensed driver is an uninsured driver, as I discovered only on checking my policy after I returned home. In retrospect, I was stupid. I implore you not to be too. Life’s too bloody short.

On returning to Australia, I immediately booked into an RTA pre-learner motorcycle rider’s course and received my learner’s permit. Six months and plenty of roadtime later on my daughter’s scooter, I took another compulsory day-course to receive my Ps. I will now be on my provisional licence for a year before gaining my full license. Very little drama to ensure I am experienced and covered for my next scooter experience in Thailand.


DO get your motor cycle licence before you leave Australia. It’s stupid to jump on cold and unprepared. Also, your travel insurance will not cover you if you are not properly licensed. My policy reads: “We will not pay under any circumstances if your claim arises from being in control of a motorcycle (or scooter or moped) without a current Australian motorcycle licence or you are a passenger travelling on a motorcycle that is the control of a person who does not hold a current motorcycle licence valid for the country you are travelling in.” Whoops.

DO take out travel insurance before you leave home. Unlike car hire, there is no option for extra coverage on hiring.

DO wear a helmet – it is against the law not to.

DO ask a long-term ex-pat if it’s advisable to hire a scooter – you may get an honest answer. Thai locals, bless them, will always say it’s safe. After all, they use their scooter as the family wagon, carting their spouse, four or five children, the shopping, an umbrella and various items of furniture on any given trip. It’s a way of life.

DO cover up as much as possible in case of an accident. Jacket, long pants and closed toe shoes are the sensible option.

DO check for damage to the bike before hiring, otherwise you may be scammed for repairs.

DON’T hand over your passport for security – insist on a photocopy being taken.

DON’T carry passengers unless you are experienced and licensed to do so.

DON’T drink or take drugs if you are driving. You may be on holidays, but the rules from home should still apply.

DO check the fuel gauge. Don’t assume the hirers will hand it over with a full tank. It’s more than likely to be empty.

DO be careful going around corners – oil slicks are common on Thai roads. Also be careful on dirt roads in the wet – if the tyres clog with mud, you can slide out on braking


  1. Great article Julie. I think you should get this published in SMH or something. You've summed it all up perfectly.

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