After spending a year – collectively – on a motorbike in Thailand I want to help you navigate your way through The Land of Smiles.
Literally and figuratively.
Motorbiking is an easy, inexpensive way to scoot around Thailand if you care not to haggle with tuk tuk drivers or be at the mercy of songthaew drivers. Uber is still technically illegal but farang regularly use the service. Gaining steam.
Things to Know about Riding a Motorbike in Thailand
Keep these ideas in mind before motorbiking in Thailand.
1: Businesses Will Rent Out to You Even if You Don’t Have a License
This one is about 2 c’s: convenience and chedda.
Renting out to anybody with a pulse makes it convenient for short term tourists or long term expats to gain access to reliable, easy transportation. Easy enough to see. Renting out to virtually all interested parties puts money in business owner’s pockets. Easy to see.
If rental shop owners required customers to flash a license before renting, us tourists would be screwed and rental revenue would plummet horribly.
The system works. Really well. We are in Thailand, and this is how it goes. In truth, it’s easy to learn how to ride a bike safely, whether or not you have a license. Seriously.
Find a quiet spot to practice riding if you are a motorbike virgin. Or rent the bike at the shop’s close – 5 PM or later – and then practice later at night, when traffic subsides.
Most of all…drive slowly! Take your time. Pull back on the throttle to give the bike enough gas to move forward straight and true, but take your time. Be confident, but move slowly and patiently.
I get it; most tourists ride in shorts, T-shirt and flip flops. I do.
Just know that riding in such a fashion (wink wink) means tons of sun/coloring, and if you do wipe out, you will be torn up on the asphalt. After a wicked motorbike accident in Bali in 2012 – hit an oil slick – I was permanently scarred on the shoulder. Never wore a tank top on the bike again, but I do the T-shirt bit.
Even if it is 104 degrees, like today in Chiang Mai, Thai ride with jackets, sweat pants, and some even wear cooking mitts to both protect themselves from the sun and the asphalt should they get into an accident.
2: Cops Will Ticket You for A Few Reasons But Almost Always at Check Points
Cops here can/will ticket you for:
- not having a license (not the biz’s responsibility; all on you playa)
- not wearing a helmet while riding
- riding without a shirt (for guys….and if this is a common practice among women riders in Thailand, please tell me where this happens)
- wearing flip flops while riding
Bribing may occur during a stop.
You have 2 options: pay (never more than 300 Baht tops, I was advised by an expat who has lived here for a decade), or demand a ticket. Cops hellbent on making bribe money will angrily wave you on, those who intend to uphold the law will write you a ticket. Payment occurs immediately from my experience, with a cashier’s station set up right at the check point.
Phuket checkpoints typically place themselves by a 7-11 with an ATM. Convenient accessing of Baht, of course.
Police departments in Chiang Mai and Phuket sometimes partner with police officers from Western countries, to help show ’em the pro policing ropes. If a Western officer – who has no problems reading English – sees your foreign automobile license, you are getting a ticket. If however a Thai officer (with a weak grasp on the English language) reads your automobile licence from the USA, it tends to be deemed as super official (thank you, USA license) and you will be waved through without getting a ticket.
The latter scenario happened 3-4 times in Phuket and our 10 year expat buddy confirmed this. Mainly for US automobile license holders though.
3: Learn Common Ticketing Areas (Through Experience and the Interwebs)
Patong Hill in Phuket.
Any corner in the Old City of Chiang Mai.
Ride for a few weeks and you will find areas where police set up cones, lights and checkpoints to ticket riders.
Since most farang riders – tourists especially – don’t have Thai or international motorbike licenses, being aware of these spots helps you avoid a 500 Baht ticket or a less expensive bribe.
If you are new to riding, peep the Thai Visa Forum or other expat meeting spots to either find or ask questions about ticketing spots in tourist areas.
Note; in more remote outposts like Koh Lanta and Pak Nam Pran, I never saw a cop. Let alone a checkpoint.
4: Motorbiking in Thailand Is Quite Safe
If you don’t ride like an asshole, motorbiking here is safe.
I ride between 20 and 40 kilometers per hour, riding the shoulder or outside lane when no shoulder exists.
Most accident and fatality statistics involve reckless/dangerous/death wish driving. Spend a few months motorbiking around Phuket. You will see a few instances of guys who believe they are on the Grand Prix with their BMW super bike.
Don’t be these morons. Respect the bike. Respect the road. Respect that nothing exists between you and the road.
5: Expect to Pay Between $80 and $100 USD for a Month
Rates vary and of course, I quote in USD instead of Baht, but expect to pay between $80 and $100 USD a month for rent.
Daily rates may be $5 and up.
If you go with the old school manual bike, those rates drop. I’d rather have real tires on a Scoopy versus donuts on a dinosaur.
6: Traffic Laws Are….Selectively Enforced
Just because it’s fairly safe to ride a motorbike in Thailand – with the Non-Asshole Clause in effect – does not mean traffic laws are regularly enforced. Because motorbike riders sometimes run red lights, cut folks off and drive a bit aggressively, at times.
Riding safely and conservatively helps you avoid 99% of the riding riff raff out there. As for the 1%, be alert, ride with your head on a swivel, ride slowly and hug the shoulder or outside lane. Virtually all motorbike, motorcycle and automobile drivers respect those farang and cautious Thai who ride like grannies on the shoulder.
Bonus Tip: Learn New Driving Skills to Get Around
The other day I waited for 5 cars to make a left hand turn while I was intending to ride on a straightaway on the motorbike. I eased in to move forward. 2 more cars aggressively cut me off in dangerous fashion.
As the 3rd car cut to make a turn I turned the front wheel and drove *directly* toward the car, head on, slowly, as he slowly approached me. He got the message, stopped, and I gently turned left to head on my way, on the straightaway.
I only did the weak version of Driving Chicken (head on) because we both moved at literally 2 MPH, and it was entirely safe. But I did pick up a new Thai driving skill to help me break up a chain of autos that simply refuse to let the motorbike through.
Again, both parties basically need to be rolling for this to work. Anything more and it becomes dangerous.
Have you ridden a motorbike in Thailand?
What tips can you add to this list?
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