You know what’s popular in South East Asia? Motorbikes. If you’re here, I recommend you rent one every chance you get. You know what Westerners don’t know how to do in South East Asia? Drive motorbikes. If you plan on riding one, there are many things you should know:
They’re cheaper and sometimes more comfortable than busses, mini-vans and tuk tuks. You can come, go, or take a break whenever you please. And everything you see and do is more satisfying when you get there yourself.
You will get lost. And when you get lost, you get to see and do things most other tourists miss. You’ll have a whole conversation with someone who shares no common language with you. You’ll get help from people who expect no thanks in return.
Everyone back home will be impressed. Your friends will think you are tough as nails and give you all their respect. The opposite sex will find you wild, reckless and will throw themselves at you genitals-first.
You will always have a story to tell at parties. Anything that begins, “I was driving a motorbike in Asia…” will be a hit.
You will crash and it will be your fault. Westerners expect the roads to be divided up into neatly organized compartments of go, stop, my side, and your side like they are in the West. But they aren’t. Here they’re divided into bigger and smaller. And bigger always wins.
You will get permanent scars. (This could be a pro.) Unless you’re purposefully reckless, you’re probably not going to die or suffer any major or permanent injuries. But one way or another, you will fall off your bike, cut yourself, bleed, and, due to the humidity, heal very slowly leaving you with a battle-earned Asian tattoo.
You will damage your bike and be forced to pay outrageous fees. There is a reason you can rent a motor vehicle for the same price as a movie. Now you know. And it’s too late to fight it after the fact. You signed the contract and handed over your passport. If you want that passport back, you’re going to have to pay for the damage you caused and then some. And then some more.
NOTE: Someone crashed into me yesterday. I explained what happened to the owner when returning the motorbike and she said, “Don’t worry about it. We like you, you’re honest. Keep renting from us,” and charged me nothing. So, that happens too, apparently.
Learn to drive a moped in your own country first. Once you’re on vacation, you’re not going to take the time to drive around a parking lot with your parents for four days. You’re going to drive straight to the beach, through traffic. You should know how to do that in a place you’re familiar with before trying the same while reading a map in a foreign language.
Most people are going to ignore my first tip. If you’re one of those people, drive slow. You’re going to find that your pride will want to keep pace with your more experienced friends, not drag the group down, or embarrass yourself by appearing too novice. Forget all that. Get a map. Know the route you’re going so you can get there on your own if you need to. Your friends will not be impressed when you crash pulling out of the rental agency. (Yes, that happens.)
Take some time getting used to the weight of your bike. I can't remember how many novice riders I’ve seen fall over sideways while standing perfectly still.
Brake with your brakes and balance with your steering, not your feet. You are not riding a three-wheeler anymore. Keep your feet on the bike until you’re completely stopped. Steer into falls instead of trying to catch yourself by putting your foot on the ground. You are not a superhero. You cannot stop a moving vehicle with your flip flops.
Adapt. You are not in Europe or North America anymore. Drivers do not move in single file. There is no driving on autopilot. Motorbikes ride on both sides of the road. Stoplights are taken as suggestions, not commands. Always be aware of what’s in front of you and be ready to react.
If you don’t honk, no one knows you’re there. Drivers here don’t believe in blind spots, they believe in deaf spots. If they don’t hear anything, they assume it’s because there’s nothing there to make a noise. So make sure you make a noise.
Slow your pace at intersections, but don’t stop. Make slow, sweeping turns but don’t change your mind once you’ve begun.
Always, always, always get out of the way of trucks. Right of way in Asia goes like this: small yields to big. No exceptions. So it’s not the job of the truck driver to get out of your way. It’s your life on the line, not theirs.
Every driver is an aggressive driver and you are expected to be so too. If you don’t adjust your style to blend in with Asian traffic, your behavior will be unpredictable to the locals, they will crash into you, and it will be your fault.
But then you arrive at some lonely beach and there’s no one around for miles and it’s all worth it.