PLEASE NOTE: We’re not recommending that you should ride a motorbike or motorcycle in Thailand but, if you do, these tips will help…
Getting around on a motorbike or motorcycle in Thailand is easy enough and, especially in busy traffic, will get you to your destination faster whilst the cars and trucks are plodding along in the traffic. There will be plenty of people who say the first tip about driving a motorbike in Thailand is “DON’T”. But whilst many expats swear never to step into a 110cc step-thru scooter, they are also missing out on an entire slice of life in southeast Asia.
But we do acknowledge that riding a motorbike in Thailand can also be very dangerous. Still, if you stick to the common sense basics – ride within the speed limits, wear a bike helmet, obey the traffic rules and don’t drink and drive – it remains a perfectly reliable way to get around.
There will be weekly horror stories of foreigners having bike accidents or getting stuck in hospitals with no insurance. It happens but, statistically, it is rare. And, if you heed all the following advice, you will be mostly protected.
Make sure you have the correct license and insurance before you go anywhere near a motorbike or motorcycle in Thailand!!
1. Wear appropriate clothes
Two words. Gravel. Rash.
Whilst you’ll see tourists riding around on their rented motorbikes in their swimming shorts and singlet, you’re going to be much safer with a few clothes on. Falling off a motorbike without anything covering your knees or elbows is going to be painful enough – having at least some fabric between you and the road is going to reduce the painful grazes a bit. Long pants and a long shirt are a good start. They also help keep the sun off you.
Always wear shoes for the same reason. And a motorbike helmet as well – it’s the law and it will save your life if you fall off and hit the road with your head. The flimsy plastic ‘lid’ type helmets cost around 200 baht and will get you through the checkpoints but spending a bit more on a better helmet will provide additional protection.
You’ll see the locals riding around with their jackets on the wrong way – they say it keeps their clothes clean from the road muck and fumes.
2. Keep your motorbike in good condition
As hardy and reliable as modern Thai motorbikes are, they will run better and for longer if you keep up the service schedule and change the oil occasionally – say every 3 months. You will wonder how they can manufacture these 110-125cc step-thrus for little more than USD$1,200 brand new, but they do and the ones floating around the roads of Thailand are almost all made in the land of smiles.
Apart from changing the engine oil keep an eye on the tyre pressure, Thai roads will wear down your tyre tread quickly. Your brakes will also need checking although, like the rest of the parts of these bikes, the brakes seem to last forever.
To help with maintaining your motorcycles, small motorbike and motorcycle repair places are sprinkled along every main road in towns across the country. They are as ubiquitous as convenience stores. And they’re uniforms cheap, quick, and will have many parts on the shelf. If not they’ll call someone and the part will magically appear within 5 minutes.
Whenever you’re getting your oil changed get the service person to check the brakes, and tyres and make sure nuts and bolts are all tight – they shake loose sometimes. And then there are the lights at the front and back. Indicators may not be used much by the locals but YOU should. Make sure they’re all working.
Otherwise, there is little to go wrong with these mighty machines. Even the new electric ones are super reliable and cheap to run.
3. Make sure you have a proper license
Your car license in your home country isn’t legal in Thailand to ride a motorbike or motorcycle. Your International Drivers License for cars issued in your home country isn’t going to cut it either. Legally, the only document that will satisfy the Thai legal system, officially, is a Thai motorcycle license. It doesn’t matter much until a situation arises where you’re in an accident and the law comes crashing down on you.
If you live in Thailand you simply must get a proper motorbike driver’s license if you want to ride a motorbike here.
For tourists, the local bike hire shops will gladly rent you a bike, usually by simply showing your passport and giving them a deposit. Some will even tell you that their ‘insurance’ will cover you in the event of an accident – that’s just not going to happen. YOU are responsible for your health if you get onto a motorbike in Thailand. Check YOUR situation and YOUR health and travel insurance.
And whilst we’re talking about a Thai Motorbike License, we’re talking about the ones you get from the Land Transport Office, not Khao San road for 500 baht!
(Here’s some info about getting a motorbike license in Bangkok, the same applies at the Land Transport Offices in most Thai cities).
We think you’re insane getting on a motorbike in a foreign country without the correct documentation, which leads us to #4…
4. Check your travel and health insurance
Every week The Thaiger hears from tourists stuck in a Thai hospital with mounting hospital bills and an insurance company that won’t pay out because they didn’t have a proper driver’s license. Or no insurance at all. And even if you have travel or health insurance, check the fine print because some insurance contracts preclude driving on motorbikes in Thailand.
In 10 years of driving on Thai roads, I’ve had one fall. It winded me badly and I got abrasions on my ankle and knee. But people ran to my assistance and helped me up. I didn’t need to go to the hospital but I was grateful, lying in the middle of the road gasping for breath, that I knew I had good health insurance and a proper license.
(The fine print on your insurance, different countries’ licences, and the policeman that shows up at your accident will all play a part in how your accident will play out. The ONLY sure way you can prove your legal ability to drive on a Thai road is with a Thai motorbike license)
5. Driving is different in Thailand
Many of the rules are the same in countries that also drive on the left-hand side of the road. But you need to drive like a Thai and be aware of the different rhythms. It is different.
Apart from the lunatics that drive too fast, drink-drive, or ghost ride (driving against the flow of traffic on the wrong side of the road), there’s just a different attitude to driving. We say it’s a bit like swimming with a school of fish – if you just go with the flow and keep in the stream of traffic you’ll do well.
The western attitude of driving defensively will go against the grain of Thai traffic movement where ‘personal driving space’ isn’t honoured and people will cut in front of you as just a part of daily driving habits. It’s not wrong, it’s different and you’re best to learn the nuances of Thai traffic flow before you throw yourself into the middle of a busy Thai road.
Surprisingly, you will rarely hear a motorbike horn. Unlike nearby Vietnam, Thais use their horns (and all bikes have them) rarely.
6. Green lights mean GO. Red lights also mean GO sometimes.
You’ll see what we mean. Don’t even think about trying it. It will either get you fined or dead. Suffice to say, a few ‘enthusiastic’ Thai motorcyclists won’t wait until the green light. Even the red light won’t stop some of them from going straight through the intersection.
Many infections will have a countdown before the green light and by the time it gets below 5 seconds, the front row of bikes will already be getting on with their journey.
7. Have a practice
If you’re new to driving a motorbike or new to driving a motorbike in Thailand don’t throw yourself into a busy stretch of road immediately. Try something a little calmer and slower to get a feel of the subtle differences in Thai traffic movement. You’re sharing the road with trucks, cars, buses, and passenger vans.
Find an empty patch of road to get comfortable with the behaviour of your motorbike first.
You’re meant to stay on the left hand side and you’d be well advised to do so, despite the behaviour of some Thai motorbike drivers that want to mix it with the larger cars and trucks. Get some confidence with your motorbike and the way it handles, and move in and around traffic on a quiet road before you tackle the main roads.
8. Beware pot holes
The roads around Thailand have improved in the past decade but you’ll still find pot holes in places there wasn’t one the day before. If you want a really good reason for giving plenty of distance between you and the car in front, it’s to see the pot hole before you end up IN it.
Whilst car tyres might glide over these gaping holes in the road, your motorbike is likely to come to an abrupt halt, with you continuing over the front of the handlebars – something to do with Newton’s first law of motion. At a minimum, you will learn why they call the suspension SHOCK absorbers.
9. If you’re not sure, don’t
Never ridden a motorbike? Didn’t ride a motorbike in your own country? Well, there are already two good reasons not to try it for your first time in Thailand on a busy road.
It can be a bit of a challenge for even experienced motorbike drivers, well a different experience anyway. There are plenty of other ways to get around Thailand, including motorbike taxi drivers (‘win’ drivers) who will expertly drive you to where you want to go for a very low price. Especially in larger population areas, they’re an indispensable part of the Thai traffic eco-system. There are now also plenty of ride-hailing services for bikes and cars, including Grab and Bolt (there are others).
10. Police will often arbitrate on the spot at an accident
If you are in the wrong and damaged someone or someone else’s bike you’re probably going to have to pay up. Now, there’s the ‘official’ way to sort things out in these cases and the ‘unofficial’.
The policemen will get to the scene soon enough and, often decide, on the spot, who was at fault. They’ll often negotiate how much should be paid as well. The urban myth is that Thai police always side with the locals – that’s not the case although, if you are indeed in the wrong then you’re IN THE WRONG!
If you are concerned that you’re being rolled by the locals in sorting out a simple motorbike accident then call the Tourist Police or your consulate immediately. DON’T agree to pay any money to ANYONE until you’ve spoken to at least the Tourist Police.
Getting into an argument with the local police will never be a good idea. Demanding that you speak to the police chief, your lawyer, etc, will also usually end up in the situation ending up badly.
Be patient and don’t lose your cool. Just politely go through the motions and, in almost all cases, it will cost you a lot less than dragging the situation out and ending up in a Thai court.
You are in a foreign country, you’re a guest and they do things differently – end of the sentence.
PHOTO: John Everingham