‘Wind therapy; only motorbike riders know why a dog puts its head out the car window.’

Most readers will have seen or heard about the horrific statistics related to vehicle crashes and particularly motorbike crashes in Thailand. Too many Thai people and foreigners are the daily victims of injury and death. However riding a motorbike is also recognised as the most convenient, inexpensive and pleasurable means of transport.
Eventually many visitors, particularly those who stay for more than a holiday, will decide that riding a motorbike is the ‘way to go’. If it’s not for those romantic notions of freedom on the open road, it’s recognition that a motorbike is probably the easiest and quickest way to get around town.
So if you’ve decided to join the two-wheeled set, here are some thoughts on how to avoid becoming a statistic and how to keep smiling as you ride.
Harleys or Hoovers? – They have something in common, they both suck. But there is a difference! You can only get one dirt bag on a Hoover. Glen Gordner (just joking! – our apologies to Harley riders……… )

To legally drive a motor bike in Thailand, you need to have either an international licence or a Thai driving licence for that class of vehicle. Needless to say many don’t have this prerequisite and drive illegally for years. However this is likely to jeopardise any insurances apart from risking police attention. Don’t say you haven’t been warned!!!

Many new riders will start by renting a bike from one of the numerous operators around town. Most are reputable and honest but if you have the opportunity, getting a recommendation from someone you trust is a good start. Expect to pay a daily rate of 200 THB or half that for long (monthly) rental periods.

You will need to choose from different transmissions (automatic, semi-automatic or manual) and engine capacities. It’s unlikely that any new rider will need more than an automatic bike with a capacity of around 110 to 125 CCs. They are the easiest to drive and accelerate/travel as fast as you will need. Only the experienced should be tempted towards that high powered exotic Harley Chopper.

Your Passport – It’s Sacred!
In July 2013 Thai Tourism and Sports Minister Somsak Pureesrisak called for an end to the practice of foreigners’ passports being held as a condition of renting motorbikes, cars and jet-skis, stating that it’s illegal for tour operators in Thailand to hold tourists’ passports.

“Because passports are the properties of the governments that issue them, those who seize them – for any reason – are in fact seizing the property of a foreign government. “
Department of Special Investigations (DSI) Chief Tarit Pengdith, offered a suggestion.
“Vehicle-rental operators should accept a signed copy of the customer’s passport instead. This means we could still coordinate with Immigration Police if the renter does not return the vehicle or seriously damages it, and then tries to escape from Thailand. Immigration might refuse them permission to leave until the case is settled,” he said.
The message is clear; your passport should never be handed over to rent anything, including a motorbike.

One suggestion is to make and sign a copy of your passport and driving licence beforehand. Bring your passport (and licence) with you but never leave it behind. If that is not acceptable, find another Company.

Payment is typically up-front and may include a deposit. Check the contract for any penalties, including late or early returns and expect them to be enforced. Your obligation is to keep in touch with the provider if your plans change or anything goes wrong. Don’t forget that the bike is their property, it’s always better to be proactive. The assistance of someone you know who can explain the situation in Thai may help.

Check on the insurance that is provided in your rental contract and be confident that you have the coverage you need. Know your liabilities. Paying out of your pocket for a scratched panel on someone’s brand new Porsche or something more serious will hurt your pocket if you’re not covered.

Expect that when you return the bike it will be inspected for any damage. Before agreeing to the contract, check the bike for even the smallest scratch. A good idea is to photograph any blemish in the presence of the other party and have it recorded on the contract.

Don’t forget to take a business card or pamphlet to ensure that you have a contact number if problems occur.

Alternatively resident foreigners can legally purchase a motor bike and good quality second hand small ‘scooters’ can be acquired for less than 20,000 THB. However that’s another subject and we would suggest that rental is the best early option.
‘Well-trained reflexes are quicker than luck.’

If you are inexperienced get some ‘street time’ near to home before venturing out and joining mainstream traffic. Take some time watching how people drive here; learn from observation – Thai driving has a different set of rules. Traffic flows here differently than anywhere else, it’s more instinctual and less about rules.

Don’t take passengers until you are at ease with your own abilities, including making sharp turns. A passenger, especially if he/she is not used to ring on a motorbike, may affect the bike’s stability. We’ve all seen bikes with multiple passengers (mum, dad and the kids) but they’ve grown up riding a bike almost as soon as they could walk, that’s not you!

Stick to riding in daylight hours. At night hazards are not so apparent and it’s not unusual for vehicles to be without lights and pedestrians wandering across the road.

Riding in the rain adds to risks and should be avoided. If you are caught in the rain, pull over and take a real ‘rain check’.

Some bikes will still start and allow you to drive off with the stand remaining down. With a left side stand the first time your bike leans in that direction (turning left) the stand will contact the ground. Get into a routine of raising the stand before starting the bike to avoid this ‘whoops’ factor.

Unlike a car, indicators don’t self-cancel. Frequently check (press the cancel button) as you travel and you will be surprised how often you have forgotten.

Use the rear brake (left) on most occasions especially if you need to brake sharply. The right hand brake is for the front wheel. Doing a ‘dive’ over the handle bars is not a good look if the rear of the bike tries to overtake the front.

Know Your Limits
If you don’t feel confident you probably shouldn’t be in a situation where there is heavy traffic or on a main road.

Learn how to lock the front wheel with the key when parking. Also learn how to ‘lock-up’ the helmet by raising the seat compartment where you will find a ‘hook’ so that the helmet is securely attached to the bike.

Last but not least travel slowly! It’s not a race; just a form of transport. Don’t think that being passed by others is an insult or a threat to your ego.

Riding Rules
Absolutely No. 1 Crash Hats
‘Got a 100 THB head? Get a 100 THB helmet.’

It doesn’t matter if a helmet is hot, uncomfortable (it shouldn’t be), unfashionable or just plain ugly; always wear it! Not because it’s a legal requirement but because it’s for your necessary protection.

Imagine that your skull is an eggshell, very fragile and very hard to mend. Even very low speed spills can be fatal without this essential shield. This rule is absolute and should never be broken even if it’s a two minute trip to the local 7/11. A helmet (or two) should be a part of any rental deal.

2. Be Confident But Wary
‘Calling upon my years of experience, I froze at the controls.’ Stirling Moss

Driving safely on Thai roads doesn’t depend on split-second reflexes so much as it depends on observation and avoidance. A jittery tense driver can focus too much on the obvious and miss the unexpected, or vice versa. The whole point of a roving gaze and a relaxed driving mind set is to avoid getting to the point where split-second decisions are necessary. The likelihood that eventually somebody is going to do something stupid about 6 feet in front of your handlebars or that that a sleeping dog on the verge is going to suddenly launch itself in your direction is 100%; expect it! You should be constantly checking rear vision mirrors but also being aware of anything potentially mobile that may suddenly dart out into your path. Your field of vision contains everything that you are responsible to avoid. You need to be constantly aware and vigilant.

3. Boozin’ for a Bruisin’
‘Sometimes the fastest way to get there is to stop for the night.’

Even ‘Blind Freddy’ knows that reflexes, judgement, balance and common sense disappear after a drink or three. This includes passengers! The problem is that very few of us will make the sensible decision to leave the bike behind and find another way home, that’s part of losing common sense. The only way out is to plan and decide to leave the bike at home before heading for the bar or party. Taxis are cheap and available; much cheaper and more convenient than a trip to hospital, the Police Station or the repair shop. Just walk to the nearest main road and you’ll find a ride.

4. Speeding –
‘Never ride faster than your guardian angel can fly.’

The only place you will get to fast by speeding on Thai roads is to hospital. That includes meandering along narrow lanes, past vehicles with doors destined to open just as you draw level or through intersections where everyone but you has right of way. Don’t try to keep up with Kamikaze teenagers riding mobile chain saws. Just keep calm, slow and steady on the highway with a maximum of something like 70 – 80 KPH and 40 KPH around town. You’ll arrive 2 minutes later but relaxed and in one piece.

Just Joking: A police officer pulled over two nuns riding on a motorcycle, and said to the rider, ‘Ma’am, you’re driving much too slowly, could you please drive faster?” The nun says, ‘Oh, I saw the sign with the “21” and assumed the speed limit was 21 km/h”. The officer explains: ‘No ma’am, the speed limit is 80. The highway number is 21.” Then the police officer looks at the passenger and sees the other nun shaking like a leaf. “Excuse me sister, but what’s wrong with your passenger?” “Oh, that’s probably because we just got off Highway 205.”

5. Traffic Rules
‘Expect the unexpected.’

The rules of the road that you know back in Europe, Australia or the Americas are not the rules of the road in Thailand. Once you accept that as a given and stop trying to apply your driving attitudes to Thai traffic patterns, things get much easier. Being used to driving on the right adds another dimension.

There are no respected rules about right of way on roundabouts or uncontrolled intersections (see below). In Thailand motorcycles should stay in the left lane, of course they don’t; they don’t even stay on the left side of the road and may head towards oncoming traffic. You should keep to the rules but expect others to make their own.

Motorbikes Aren’t Cars – Size Matters. An unofficial rule of driving in Thailand is that a larger vehicle has right of way over a smaller one. Some even say that newer vehicles have right of way over older ones – red plates first? As you are likely to be in the ‘smaller’ category always expect others to presume that you will give way, even if they are pulling out of a side street, changing lanes or coming through a red light or stop sign.

If you are on a motorbike, follow the motorbikes. If you try to follow cars, you will just confuse people. If you are in traffic watch the flow and direction of the motorbike traffic but only follow when you are confident and feel safe. If in doubt wait until the way is absolutely clear.

However local motorbike riders seem to have some advantages, creating as many lanes as space will allow, weaving through traffic to get to the front of the queue and using sidewalks or any other possible way to get from A to B. Don’t be tempted!

Mystery Signalling (or non-signalling) by all sorts of vehicles is at best confusing. You must know that the vehicle is going to turn in the direction of the signal, don’t just trust the signal. Similarly vehicles may change lanes without notice. It’s not a good idea to stay alongside larger vehicles; you may be in a blind spot and the driver may decide to change lanes without notice. Your own signals may be ignored if you are turning off a road. Don’t be surprised if that zooming bike behind passes on the left just as you are about to turn.

‘Accidents hurt – Safety doesn’t.’

The chances are that despite your best intention at as some stage you and your bike will part company. We’ve all seen bandaged or bruised individuals, Thai or foreigners limping down the road. The scars of battle or the ‘falang tattoo’ may remain, seen by some as a ‘badge of honour. It’s not a Club we would recommend joining but if you do, don’t be too dismayed.

It may be embarrassing if you just forgot to put your foot on the ground as you pulled up and did the ‘limp fall’. Just laugh at yourself and realise that others aren’t really laughing at you, it just looked funny and they have probably done the same in the past. Chances are you will be given a helping hand and no harm done.

If an accident happens, first of all stay cool. If it’s serious enough to involve the Police wait calmly until they arrive. Even if you are convinced that you did nothing wrong and feel a little angry, shouting at Thais does not mean they will listen or understand. It is quite the opposite as Thais think if you lose your temper then you are mentally weak. The best thing to do is to remain quiet and explain to the Police Officer what happened. Perhaps get on the phone for some support. Road rage is a big No No! However don’t be surprised if the ‘ruling’ about right or wrong doesn’t go in your favour, after all it wouldn’t have happened if you weren’t there!

Don’t make any rash decisions or admissions until you’ve had the chance to reflect, get good advice, talked to your insurance provider or visited a lawyer if necessary.

If you damage the bike, get a price for the repairs before returning to the owner, so that you know his costing is reasonable. Don’t have the bike repaired yourself!

If you have suffered an injury requiring immediate medical care the Highway Police Rescue vehicle may appear. Be aware that this is a voluntary service (despite the name not the Police) offering transport to a hospital. However the level of training, the equipment available and the type of their vehicles varies a great deal.

It may be worth pre-considering which hospital you would prefer in such a situation, dependent upon your insurances and financial capacity. Have your medical insurance details on hand (in your wallet or stored in the bike). Otherwise don’t be talked into going anywhere but the nearest government hospital if you don’t have the means to foot a heavy medical bill.

A Final Comment
For many the advantages of riding a motor bike outweigh the dangers and risks. That’s a decision that up to you; it’s not compulsory and not for everyone. If that’s the way you want to go, think about how to manage your safety (and wallet) then never be complacent, that’s when problems occur. Like many, you can then enjoy the feeling of ‘two wheeled freedom’ with peace of mind.
A last piece of advice; forget about your motorbike during Songkran. A bucket full of iced water in the face has led to many an accident. This is the most dangerous time to be on the road in Thailand!
Disclaimer: This article is written in good faith and with the reader’s interests in mind. However opinions offered should not be considered as legal advice.