South East Asia, like many amazing parts of the world, moves to the beat of motorbikes. They are the backbone of these countries in so many ways that for you to really see what the locals see, you need to be on a bike of some sort.
Many travelers choose pushbikes around town and we can’t support this enough, most of Asia has major pollution issues and while China has just reached 200 million electric bikes (thank you China for leading the way) on their roads, you will struggle to find an electric bike in the rest of Asia, let alone the rest of the world.
Hopefully, as battery technology gets better and cheaper the market will turn a corner, but until then if you want to go long distances in a crowded place the only real choice is a scooter.
At this point, all the big bike riders will say that you need a big bike but in reality, that’s often the opposite of the truth. Unless you’re planning an epic saga from one end of the country to the other, and want to get around at a decent pace in the often overcrowded streets and small alleyways, a scooter is the best tool for the job. Just some of the advantages are:
- Great fuel economy, seriously, it’s ridiculous how far you can get on a 5-liter tank of fuel.
- Park almost anywhere, an often impossible task in a car.
- Closer to the ground, in case you need to get off in a hurry.
- lightweight, for when you get stuck, just pick the bike up (Really).
- Small turning circle, you’ll be amazed how tight some places are.
- Stowage, put your heavy items between your feet and keep a low center of gravity.
- Much faster than a car. 50% or more of your time in a car will be spent stuck in traffic around the cities watching all the scooters fly by.
Which Bike? Which scooter and what to check before you ride?
- The most popular scooters are 100 to 150 cc : I personally feel 100cc is a little too small to carry two average weight westerners up and down hills. I always get a 125cc and have found 150cc models to be designed more like road bikes.
- Auto or Manual : Although many experienced riders will argue until they turn blue in the face about this, I think there is only one choice. When its peak hour and your busy with everything else happening around you, an automatic is the only choice. Slipping a gear or dropping the clutch on a manual bike at the wrong time can mean big problems. An auto also lets a beginner enjoy the experience a lot more, all they need to remember is go and stop (kinda).
- Brakes : New scooters will stop on a dime, it’s worth trying a few bikes at the rental agency to get a feel for how good brakes work. I can’t stress enough how quickly you are going to need to stop some times and a few cm can make all the difference.
- Tires: With often wet or dusty conditions, decent tires are a big priority. I like about 5 mm of tread, its hard to always get great tires but decent ones are a big benefit.
In Short: You pay exactly the same rental amount for a brand new bike as a worn out piece of crap. Choose carefully.
- Age : I personally prefer something that has done 30,000k or less. I’ve ridden a bike with 85,000k genuine k’s on the clock and it wasn’t much fun. Scooters are made to a very tight budget to meet market demand. Over time all the parts wear a little, then when you hire it, everything is shaking and wobbling like the local disco.
Safety! This is where we see the real down side of motorbikes. The likelihood of having an accident are much higher on a bike.
- Helmets : Helmets should come free with the bike. I have the pleasure of having a massive noggin. In most cases, it makes no difference except when it comes to getting a helmet. Nearly every time I hire a scooter in any Asian country I am offered either no helmet or one that fits so poorly that I couldn’t wear it for more than ten minutes.
- Chin Straps : These annoying to do up little buggers are actually a critical part of any helmet. Essentially if it’s undone and you crash, the helmet will fly off as soon as any degree of inertia comes into play. Hence, a helmet without a working chin strap done up securely is actually just a hat.
Travel Tip: You may not find a decent helmet at the bike rental agency, fortunately, a semi-decent one only costs around 20 to 30 AUD in most of SE Asia, buy a new one and donate it to another tourist or a local when your finished.
- Clothing : South East Asia is hot and humid. The temptation to wear shorts, a t-shirt and a pair of flip flops is almost impossible to resist. We generally wear low cut shoes whenever possible or at the very minimum closed toe sandals.
Documents. The wrong paperwork can cost you money.
- License and Insurance : Be aware that most travel insurance companies won’t insure you to ride a motorbike, unless you pay a lot more for the “Extreme Sports” package. Check your travel insurance policy as to what exactly you need to be covered in the event of an accident. In most cases, you will need an international driver’s license as well as a motorbike license from your home country. You may also need a license issued from the country in which you are traveling. Foreigners on bikes are an opportunity for police to catch you out and fine you for one thing or another. To minimize this we recommend having an international driver’s license, a license from your home country, wear a helmet and follow the road laws.
- Passport : I can’t count the amount of times I have been asked to leave my passport or driver’s license as insurance before a hire company will let me hire a motorbike. I can count how many times I have left either…. none, zero, zilch. If they need anything I only ever let them make a photocopy of my license or passport.
We have been told so many times, “No Passport, no motorbike”. 90% of the time we leave with our docs and a motorbike. If not, we simply go to one of the many other hire shops just around the corner. Basically, unless it’s in the airport or a government official nobody ever gets my passport.
In Short: If you don’t meet the insurance company’s requirements they may not pay out for medical care or repair/replacement costs for the bike. Cover as many bases as you can with licenses and laws.
- Hire Agreement : Hire companies will have some sort of agreement/paperwork for you to sign. Check the pickup and drop off dates are correct. Check the times, your hire should start from the hour you take the bike to the same hour some days later, working in 24 hour blocks. A common trick is to tell you that the day you hire the bike is counted as the first day and tomorrow is the second day. They might push it but they know it’s not true. Negotiate a fair deal or go to the next company. Clearly write down and agree to the total price. A deposit should be 10% of the total cost.
Riding your new Motorbike! Now the fun stuff. This is for anybody with little or no experience on a motorbike. As Bruce Lee once (almost) said: “Ride like water”.
- Relax: Good riders let the bike do most of the work, which it can’t do if you’re holding on with a death grip.
- Keep your weight centered over the bike: This will allow you to change directions quickly and react to problems from a neutral position.
- Keep your elbows bent: Your arms are your primary suspension and absorb and translate most of the information coming from and going to the front of your bike. Also if you have to hit the breaks and your elbows are locked you won’t be able to control your inertia, direction or the bike.
- Keep your eyes up: Even experienced riders are guilty of looking too closely at what’s directly in front of them and not what’s on the other side of that. Even more than cars, bikes react to your body language instantly, and tend to go where you are looking even when you don’t want them to.
- Use your ass: Believe it or not but most of the steering on a motorbike should come from your hips & waist. This is a great thing to practice early on, point your bike down a straight clear(ish) road, get up to speed (20km/h or so) keep your eyes up and and start slowly moving your hips from side to side.
Travel Tip: And most important of all, Have Fun.
- Learn to use and trust your peripheral vision: Learn when to and when not to react to it. Overreacting can be as dangerous as not reacting at all.
See you on the road
The Nomad Team
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