Whether you’re a veteran of the road, a young traveler, just starting out, or anyone in between, you might already know someone who just loves telling stories about their scooter adventures in South East Asia.
That is because over here, almost anyone is allowed to take their two wheeled vehicle and scoot around the country.
Most countries in SEA; including Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam, will allow you to rent a scooter for fairly cheap and most of the time you won’t be stopped by police or have any trouble.
Traveling by scooter through these beautiful countries can be an incredible experience. But it’s important to be aware of what can happen, how you should do it, and where you can do it the easiest.
Prepare for the chaotic roads
Although we had heard of the chaotic aspect of driving in South East Asia, we weren’t prepared for the actual madness of Thai roads. Upon arriving in Bangkok, you may start rethinking your decision of renting a scooter, as you watch people zoom by on scooters with bags, tools and children all stacked on top of a single bike.
Thais care very little about what a scooter’s full capacity is, and they will carry whatever they need on it. It is not an uncommon sight to see three or four people squeezed onto a seat – and yet they drive with the confidence of someone who has grown up in this chaos and knows exactly how to deal with it.
Thailand does not have a glowing reputation when it comes to traffic safety and accidents are fairly common. However, depending on where you’re driving, you might feel safer than you expected to on the road. Thai drivers drive moderately slow, and the risks they take going in between passing cars are often more calculated than they first might appear.
Thai traffic rules
There are certain rules of the road in every country, and however lawless the road might look to you at first, Thai drivers know what they are doing. It is important for you to know them before getting onto the road and possibly causing an accident.
The main thing to know is that although formal rules still apply, it is more important for you to focus on adapting to the drivers that are on the road with you, than to follow what you would usually do at home.
This is more or less an extension of the rule that often applies on highways in Western countries – keep up with the other cars rather than focus on the speed limit.
There are countless scooters in Thailand, and it is more important to follow what others are doing so you can keep the flow of traffic moving.
Most Thais don’t stop for other vehicles to pass, so you will see them gunning it on an intersection. They will also often use the wrong lane to make a turn, and you should too if that is what the traffic is doing. Although these rules might seem strange to you, do your best to adapt to them.
It is also important to look out for any change in pavement or road surface – these usually trip tourists up, as many are not used to driving on mud, sand or gravel roads.
U-turns are also used in Thailand as a way to change lanes. A lot of roads will have designated U-turn spots for drivers to shift to the opposite lane rather than intersections.
If you’re coming to Thailand for the first time, and especially if you’re not used to driving on the left side of the road, it is best to start your driving in one of Thailand’s small towns or in one of the less touristy islands.
Throwing yourself into Bangkok traffic at rush hour might not be the greatest idea for a new visitor, but there are many beautiful places where you can start your scooter trip in Thailand and see some wonderful sights as well.
This will also give you a more easy going renting process, as most Scooter rental places away from big tourist spots are much more relaxed when it comes to whether they need your passport, a deposit, or even a license. You are also much less likely to be stopped by the police, which leads to the second, equally important part of this article – how much of this is actually legal?
The laws around foreigners hiring and driving scooters in Thailand
Technically, the law is that you should have an International Driver’s License in order to rent a scooter legally in Thailand.
Does that mean most people have one? Not at all.
Depending on where you’re renting, you might not need a license at all.
Thai people are extremely friendly, and in general, will always know someone who can get you whatever you need. If you ask the staff at your hotel, hostel or guest house about renting a scooter, they will likely be able to direct you to the best spot in town or just call up a friend who owns some scooters and can lend them to you for a cheap price.
Once you have the scooter, you should make sure you familiarize yourself with it – rented scooter aren’t often the best quality and it is important to know how hard you’ll have to hit the breaks on the hills to make it come to a full stop.
Lastly, if you are unfortunate enough to be stopped by police and don’t have a license or proper paperwork, the most likely course of action is that they will ask you to pay a “fine” of 1000 baht, which is technically more of a bribe than it is a fine.
Although this does happen to a fair number of tourists, most travelers drive around without being stopped. Wearing a helmet will massively decrease your chances of being stopped, since you are respecting their rules (even though most Thais don’t) and maybe, just maybe, cops won’t notice you’re foreign since they can’t see your face.
So why should you see Thailand by scooter?
Driving in Thailand can be a daunting experience, but it can also be very most rewarding. Whether you’re driving through the city and the chaos, or driving through magical islands, incredible mountains and stunning scenery, it will be an experience you will never forget. And it’s a cheap and quick way for you to see the country at your own pace, and go to the places you want to go to.
It will also bring you closer to the local culture, by sharing the road with Thai people on their way to work, people going home to see their families, people just going about their day to day lives, and you will learn about a side of Thailand you never would have known otherwise.
At the end of the day, you will get home exhausted and probably a little sun burnt, but it will be more than worth it.