Honk Your Horn! On Riding Motorbikes in Southeast Asia…

OK. This is not something I ever planned to do before getting here. In fact, at the beginning of my trip I had been planning to avoid riding motorbikes in Southeast Asia altogether for a few reasons:

  • I’d heard several stories of tourists and backpackers hopping onto bikes and getting into accidents, being injured, losing a lot of skin to roadburn, and losing a lot of money to corrupt motorbike rental companies who like to capitalize on tourist accidents by holding passports hostage and demanding obscene amounts of money for motorbike repairs that only cost a little. I’d be rich if I had a dime for every time I saw a bandaged or limping backpacker. In every major city or backpacker stop, especially in Thailand, I saw loads of backpackers who’d fallen off motorbikes.
  • Fear and stress. The traffic in many of Southeast Asia’s cities appeared to me absolute mayhem. The thought of being amongst it on a motorbike terrified me.
  • Money. I thought it would be expensive to rent motorbikes all the time.

HOWEVER….

Just two weeks into my 4-month journey, I was beginning to realize that it would be tough to avoid riding a motorbike in Asia for four months because in many cases, motorbikes really are the easiest, quickest, and cheapest way to explore many part of Southeast Asia. They are everywhere, thus — widely available. They are small, so they don’t get stuck as badly in traffic jams as other vehicles. They can also maneuver narrow, winding roads full of potholes. Contrary to my prior assumptions, motorbikes are cheap to rent. The prices varied from place to place, but generally fell within the range of $3–$10 CAD per day. Fuel is also cheap — only $2–$5 CAD to fill a 3–4L tank. Cha ching!

I was in Pai when I decided I wanted to rent a motorbike. See previous blog post about Pai here. This small bohemian town in northern Thailand is surrounded by all kinds of natural delights and beautiful landscapes — mountain hills, waterfalls, a beautiful canyon, hot springs, and more. The only way to explore all of these delights with freedom and ease also happened to be the cheapest. Yep, you guessed it: motorbike.

Learning to Drive a Motorbike in Pai, Thailand

At this point, I was quite nervous about driving a motorbike, but heard there was a local guy who spoke good English that was offering driving lessons for less than five bucks. Perfect! The lesson was really helpful, and I felt a lot less uncomfortable after just a two-hour crash course.

By taking a lesson, I was already a step (or many essential steps) ahead of most other backpackers who rent motorbikes without ever having driven one before. Most don’t make an effort to learn the regional traffic rules — it may not seem like there are any traffic rules — in fact, it seems really chaotic and disorganized — but there is a method to the madness. I learned this in my driving lesson. I also how to drive properly and safely, and got refreshed on how to drive on the opposite side of the road. Thailand, Indonesia, and Malaysia drive on the left-hand side, like New Zealand. (For blog posts about my road trip adventures in New Zealand, click here, here, and/or here)
 
 Pai was a great place to learn to ride a motorbike. It’s a small town so there isn’t much traffic, and it’s surrounded by small country roads that are almost always empty. There are also many places around Pai that make easy day trips for newbie drivers. This prepared me well for motorbike driving in bigger cities and more challenging mountain roads. 
 
Before I keep going, I’ll just clarify that when I say motorbike, what I’m really talking about is a scooter. Usually automatic, with engines of 100, 125, or 150cc. Everyone here just calls them motorbikes. Real motorbikes are also available, but they are tougher to drive and not as common at rental places.

My first solo motorbike (scooter) adventure around Pai, Thailand

OK, so after Pai I knew how to ride a motorbike. Boy, did that come in handy for the next 3 months in Southeast Asia! I can’t count the number of times I rented a motorbike to explore a city or go on little day trips to see and do cool things. Every time is such a thrill! There’s almost nothing better than the feeling of exhilaration it gives me, with the wind in my hair and amazing rural views all around me.

Honk Your Horn…

When I first arrived in Thailand, just watching the traffic stressed me out. Watching, and hearing; the cacophony of honking horns was headache-inducing. But, how to use the horn was probably the most essential thing I learned about driving in Southeast Asia. It took me a while to catch on, because honking your horn means something entirely different in Canada than it does here.

In Canada, honking your horn at another driver is often rude, indicating that you are an impatient and/or arrogant driver. Sometimes it communicates warning and is used to prevent collisions. Other times, a horn is used to reprimand a driver who broke the rules of the road or who drove carelessly or discourteously. In any case, you might only honk your horn once per trip in Canada.

In Asia, honking your horn is not rude, it’s normal. Sometimes it’s loud and obnoxious and hurts my ears, but I have learned to adjust to the way things are here. I might honk my horn an average of 20 times per trip. In Southeast Asia, a honking horn helps other drivers read their surroundings, and in many cases it can prevent an accident more effectively than the brakes can. In fact, slowing down or suddenly stopping in traffic can actually cause an accident on these roads. Better to honk your horn a lot and learn how to react to other honking horns around you. A honking horn says, “hey everyone on the road, I’m over here, on the road with you, watch out for me!”

Tips on Riding a Motorbike in Southeast Asia*:

(*Based solely on my personal experiences)

  • Honk your horn to let other drivers (and also pedestrians) know you’re coming. In Asia, doing this is far more courteous than it is rude.
  • Orderly lanes aren’t really a thing in Southeast Asia — the lines on the road are mostly just suggestions. Basically any open space around you is fair game for you to drive into. Generally, if you’re moving slowly keep to the right (or left if you’re in Thailand, Malaysia, or Indonesia) and if you’re overtaking or moving quickly, use the rest of the road.
  • Avoid trying to be polite by going out of your way to make room for other drivers. This can cause confusion for the drivers around you and lead to collisions.
  • Be confident when moving into open roadspace around you. Honk your horn and other drivers will react to your presence in the road.
  • Don’t stop or slow down suddenly.
  • Honk your horn.
  • Yield to larger vehicles — they have the right of way over motorbikes, and they will honk to let you know they’re coming.
  • It is acceptable to ride on the shoulder of the wrong side of the road.
  • Have I mentioned honk your horn?

I have to admit, I’m pretty proud of myself for conquering my fear of motorbikes in Southeast Asia. Learning to drive them is one of the best decisions I made on this trip. It took a few rides to feel comfortable, but when I gained confidence, my driving skills improved. Being Canadian, I had to work pretty hard to rewire my thinking about driving etiquette and horn use — but I did it, and I reckon now I’m actually quite good at driving a motorbike in Southeast Asia!

Here are some photos of motorbike adventures around Southeast Asia. Check out all the fun I had!

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