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Why I love riding scooters in Asia

Scooters in Vietnam

I have a confession to make.

It’s kind of embarrassing really.

*deep breath*

Ok, here goes

I don’t have a motorbike license.

In fact, I can’t even ride a real motorbike properly at all.

For someone who enjoys the freedom of road trips as much as I do that is pretty pathetic, but the good news is that once I come back to SE Asia it really doesn’t matter at all.

Why?

Because here, it’s all about the scooters.

Even better, minor details like a motorbike license are … well … optional.  Some hirers don’t require any sort of license at all, while others will glance quickly at your car / truck / hairdressing license before sending you on your way.  Typically a passport and a few bucks is all you need.

The first thing that anybody says when I mention riding scooters in this part of the world is “Oh, it’s so dangerous.  The traffic over there is INSANE!“.  Yes, with capital letters.  And in bold.  Sometimes even more than one exclamation mark.

And yes, it’s hard to argue that in places like Saigon and Bangkok the traffic can be kind of nuts.  Outside the largest cities though, the insanity level drops from ‘certifiable’ to merely ‘sometimes drools on self and shouts at lampposts’.  Much more manageable.

The fact is though that I’d ride a scooter anywhere in SE Asia before attempting it back in Australia.  There’s a total safety in numbers thing going on here.  Cars, songthaews, tuktuks, whatever – drivers know to keep an eye out for scooters, and actually drive slow enough to do something about it when they do see them.

Back in Australia you’ll just get run off the road without a second glance for having the temerity to drive anything smaller than a 20 tonne SUV (with only one person in it, naturally).

Scooter in Vietnam

It’s the freedom that gets me though.

Just being able to hire a bike with minimal hassle and head for wherever takes your fancy is incredibly liberating.  You’re so much closer to the sights and smells of daily life on two wheels than when you’re peering out a dirty bus window or having your eardrums assaulted by a badly-tuned tuktuk.

Plenty of places will do multi-day and one-way hires, so as long as the roads are up to it you can go pretty much anywhere.  There’s no point being in much of a hurry – it just makes the ride less enjoyable and more dangerous – so kicking back and enjoying the view kinda happens by default.

Some of my favourite memories of Asia come viewed through the bug-stained sunglasses of a long scooter ride.  The Bolaven Plateau in southern Laos was an incredible journey, and the 300km round trip from Hoi An to Hue ranks as the most fun and ridiculous trip I’ve ever done on two wheels.  Even the ride on the dirt tracks around Koh Tao was amazing – well, until I ended up in a metre-high ditch, anyway.

Even the shorter trips are so much fun they should probably be illegal.  A couple of days ago I hired a bike from the shop down the road, convinced a friend that she’d love to come with me (yes, she’s nuts) and headed up Doi Suthep.  There are plenty of songthaews that will happily overcharge you for the pleasure of a trip up the mountain just outside Chiang Mai, but riding a scooter just seemed like it would be a whole lot more fun.

And it was.

Traffic was light, the road was good, the scenery was stunning and my friend didn’t even fall off the back.  Perfect.  Sure the wat at the top was worth visiting as well – so shiny! So golden! – but it was all about the ride at the end of the day.  Back down the mountain, a lap around the old city just because we could, and home in time for yet another awesome dinner.

I totally love my life right now.

I just love it even more when I’m sitting on a scooter.

17 Comments

  1. Reply

    Jay GotPassport

    November 28, 2011

    Couldn't agree with you more, I'm totally hooked on two-wheelin'. Glad you chose to wear a helmet, too. ;-)

  2. Reply

    jenjenk

    November 28, 2011

    that is one of the things that I want to do but am TERRIFIED that i'm going to kill myself in the process. I admire your friend's bravery...2 thumbs up!!

  3. Reply

    Anthony Secco

    November 28, 2011

    You know, I haven't done a road-trip by motorbike yet. I don't have a license either :x, but considering how freeing road trips are in general (I'm a big fan... hell I went to Iceland for one) I think I'd be down for it.

    Do you have any other road based voyages coming up?

    Stay safe.

  4. Reply

    I love them too! I rode around on one in Spain and I agree that you feel SUCH a sense of freedom!!!

  5. Reply

    Roy Marvelous

    November 28, 2011

    Must be nice to have wheels! I've hired scooters and ATVs in the Caribbean and while I didn't have the safety in numbers, it was lots of fun!

  6. Reply

    Matt

    November 29, 2011

    I like riding scooters in Asia, until I'm in Bali and get done for riding without a license and have to bribe the police. Then I love it!

  7. Reply

    Jade Johnston - OurOyster.com

    December 11, 2011

    I love riding scooters but I have never tried to drive one myself. I always end up in the back.

  8. Reply

    Duncan

    January 23, 2012

    great article!

    I've been to Vietnam once before and we hired them for a weekend there, and I am heading back to SE Asia later this year (September onwards) for a few months and I hope to do a bit more riding.

    A quick question, are you insured? My understanding is that travel insurance won't cover you if you don't have a license in Australia (I don't either, although I've ridden plenty on properties etc)? From what I've read, I'd have to get my license here for SE Asia countries to recognise my right to ride legally for an insurance company to cover me. The countries don't care in practicality, really, but it seems to be necessary to remain covered?

    I didn't realise until after I came back to Australia last time that we weren't covered for when we rode them last time. Didn't have any issues, but not something I'd like to stuff about with I guess.

    • Reply

      Dave

      January 26, 2012

      Thanks Duncan - just got back from an 8 day ride around northern Thailand and it was incredible!

      Short answer to the insurance question is that in general you need to be 'legally entitled to drive in the country that you are in' for insurance to cover you. Thailand requires you to have a motorbike license (either Thai or foreign) to ride a motorbike of any size there, so if you don't have one, you aren't covered. That won't stop people from renting to you, of course, but it will stop the insurance company from paying out for anything related to an accident, including medical bills etc.

      It's a bit of an issue for people who realise this after the fact!

  9. Reply

    jessica

    June 15, 2012

    Hi
    I planning on riding a scooter around asia with 2 of my friends, and we dont have any licenses. whould i still be able to cross borders with out a license and is it possible to hire a scooter in thailand and take it over the border, cambodia, laos and vietnam?

    • Reply

      Dave

      June 17, 2012

      The answer to both of those questions is probably 'it depends', based on the country and the border official at the time.

      It's not difficult to get fake international drivers licenses in (eg) Thailand, or so I've heard...

      I remember talking to someone once about crossing borders with a scooter, and there is a difference depending on whether you own it or not, and if you're a foreigner, but I can't remember the exact details. Perhaps have a scout around the Travelfish forums and ask over there if there isn't an obvious answer? http://travelfish.org.

  10. Reply

    Bryan

    April 16, 2013

    Hi Dave

    What did you pay per month for scooter rental, and i presume you rented your bike for atleast a month, seeing as you spent a few months up there. Take care

    • Reply

      Dave

      April 16, 2013

      I paid between 2000 and 2500 baht per month, depending on the quality of the scooter and my bargaining skills.

  11. Reply

    Anita

    May 29, 2013

    Looks really great. I agree completely - I would ride anywhere in SE Asia before I even looked at a motorbike in Australia. Get smooshed by a stupid woman in a huge people mover while she's pedaling the kids to school and doing her make up in the rear view mirror - no thanks.
    I'm actually doing the ride myself up to Doi Suthep today which I'm excited about :) Yet to convince someone to come with me - but some alone time will be nice.


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