Renting a scooter in South East Asia is very common for three main reasons:
1) Everybody and their grandma has a scooter – they are cheap to buy and run, don’t take up much space and locals often make a bit of extra cash by driving or renting them to foreigners.
2) They are cheap to rent per day (120-250 Baht/$4-8) and you don’t need a driving license to do it. In most cases you wouldn’t even be asked if you can drive one.
3) They are perfect in places where there is no public transport, e.g. islands – you can just set up a base, rent a moped and see everything around going for short and effortless little trips.
Riding a scooter in South East Asia can be a lot of fun but it can also be dangerous and there are a lot of scams involved in it. I hope my story will make you think twice before you decide to hire a moped in SE Asia.
The story of crashing a scooter and dealing with the consequences
We decided to rent our first scooter in Thailand while staying on the famed Ko Pha Ngan Island waiting for the half-moon festival. In Thailand we hitchhiked all the way from the Malaysian border so we had never before had the need to rent any vehicle but reaching the island, we realised that hitchhiking was impractical as there was not enough traffic and the waiting time was just too long. Renting the scooter was surprisingly easy: all they asked for was to sign a document that looked like a standard rental form and one of our passports as a deposit so we don’t run away with the scooter. We were a bit hesitant about the latter but all the rental places seemed to have the same policy, so you either leave your passport with them or you don’t rent a scooter.
Jon was feeling more confident with driving it so he was in charge, although he hasn’t got a driving license so it was me who had to shout instructions from the back every time we were at a junction and he didn’t have a clue who had the right of way.
I was quite hesitant about trying to drive it myself since back then I didn’t even feel confident on a bicycle but seeing that everyone (including other travellers) was driving them so effortlessly, one day I decided to have a go as well.
We picked an empty, straight road and before I started Jon gave me some brief instructions how to turn it on, accelerate and brake.
– You have to be careful when you start it as it will feel very fast at first, so don’t be scared – said Jon trying to calm my nerves
– OK – said I and turned the bike on.
The next thing I remember was going really fast and hearing Jon shouting from the back seat, telling me to slow down. As God as my witness, I did try to slow down but in a moment of panic I mistook the acceleration for the brakes and whizzed even faster. What happened next seems a blur: Jon was yelling, I was shitting my pants and the bike was pelting like crazy. Then we suddenly hit the curb on the other side of the road, having driven barely 100 metres. The bike fell down and we did too. I had been wearing shorts and a top, so my skin took bad scraping on the pavement and broken glass from the damaged mirrors. I was in shock and started crying and shouting, telling everyone that “I knew I shouldn’t have driven this f*cking bike”. Some people came and picked us up from the ground. When I felt a bit better, Jon who wasn’t hurt checked the bike and went to look for a doctor or a pharmacy nearby. I was bleeding so he took me to a small chemist’s he found, but the two young Thai girls working there didn’t really know what they were doing. They cleaned my wounds, though, and sold us some more dressing but there was no surgery on the island so I had to go without it.
The bike didn’t suffer any major damage apart from the broken mirrors and some scratches on the side. We knew the owner would drain our money for the mirrors so we found a garage and got them replaced for around $10-15 which was OK. When the day had come for us to leave the island and give the bike back we were quite anxious about the owner’s reaction to the scratches, so we tried to cover them with mud to hide the damage. It turned out to be completely pointless as when we returned it, the owner gave it a wash with a hose and quickly discovered all the scratches. He examined the mirrors too but since they looked exactly the same, he couldn’t really blame us for damaging them. Then he pulled out the document we’d signed and pointed that for scratching the bike there was a charge of $400! We couldn’t believe it but there it was. For breaking the mirrors it would have been $200 more but he was unable to prove it, so we ONLY had to pay the $400. For that amount of money we easily could have bought another bike but at that point there was absolutely nothing we could do, he had one of our passports and refused to give it back to us before we pay him. This is exactly how they make their money! Daily fees are just a small percentage of their income; they make much more on stupid foreigners like us, who try riding the bike for the first time in SE Asia or drive under the influence of alcohol/drugs and eventually crash it. We pulled out our hair but paid regardless, there was no other option.
My wound didn’t look good either and we had two weeks left before our flight back to Europe. We were lucky to have had a good friend living in Kuala Lumpur, so after the festival we went straight there to stay in a comfortable flat for the rest of our trip.
Even though I was changing the dressing on a regular basis, my wound wouldn’t stop leaking pus and it smelled awful. In the tropical climate it just wasn’t healing and every time I changed the dressing, more and more skin came off enlarging the wound. Eventually it got infected and after we got back to Europe I got told off by the doctor who said I could have lost my leg completely. It took around 6 month before I could bend my knee and before the horrible scab came off. Now I have two ugly scars for life but I’m happy I didn’t lose my leg, it’s served me well, I wouldn’t like to have lived without it.
12 Things you should have in mind before you decide to rent a scooter
1) Always carry a first aid kit with you when you’re travelling as even a small scratch can be dangerous
2) Don’t agree to sign documents you are not comfortable signing and don’t give your passport to anybody. It was the only possibility of getting the bike but in retrospect we would have been much better without it. If you really want to rent a bike ask if it’s possible to leave a copy or your passport and some money as a deposit.
3) Don’t drive vehicles you are terrified of :)
4) I know that not everyone is such an idiot as myself but even if you are an experienced driver, be careful while driving in places like that as you might bump into people like me who try driving for the first time or who are under the influence of alcohol or drugs (everyone was driving under the influence on Ko Pha Ngan).
5) Think twice before renting a scooter or a car in South East Asia. It’s a common practice to charge foreigners huge amounts even for minor scratches. This is exactly how they make their money. By not even asking if you have a driving license and letting you rent their vehicle, they hope you’d damage it and would have to pay the hefty fee. Many people try driving scooters in South East Asia for the first time and many people get done by this scam.
6) Before you decide to take the motorbike, examine it carefully so that you wouldn’t be charged for damages you haven’t done.
7) Make sure you know how to deal with wounds before setting off to a place where you might not be able to get medical help. Scratches and burns eventually happen to everyone who’s on the road long enough, make sure you know how to deal with your own wounds…
8) Make sure you get a helmet and a lock for your bike. And always wear your helmet, for your own safety and to avoid being fined by the police
9) In South East Asia there it is chaos on the roads and the majority of drivers don’t respect the Western traffic code. There is an informal rule they do follow though: the bigger vehicle has the right of way, so bear it in mind when driving your moped.
10) Horn liberally, like the locals do. Use your horn especially while overtaking people and when turning around blind bends, to let potential drivers on the other side that you are coming.
11) You can get fuel from roadside stalls selling it in plastic bottles. This is usually more expensive than using a petrol station but it can be quite handy expecially if you don’t want fill the tank with a huge amount of petrol.
12) Make sure you park your bike in high-profile places and don’t leave the helmet hanging off it.