Last Christmas was a particularly memorable one for me.
Not because I saw Santa, or received a Golden Willy Wonka ticket as a present. Nothing that awesome. It was memorable because I spent it in a nearly deserted and extremely questionable hospital on the island of Cat Ba in Vietnam.
You see, earlier that day I crashed a scooter in Asia.
Did you just roll your eyes? I bet you did.
It’s become somewhat of a cliche really: inexperienced tourists renting motorbikes, crashing and spending the remainder of their holiday bandaged, bruised and limping around foolishly. I was one of those people, and the whole ordeal definitely put a damper on my two month stint in Asia. I won’t even go into the effect it had on my budget (travel insurance, people).
The crash itself wasn’t particularly epic, and it was completely and utterly self directed. We set out to explore the island early on Christmas day, taking the big and windy road that looped around the island. It was simply a case of driving a bit too fast for the road conditions I was driving on. The road wasn’t entirely sealed, and I turned a corner too late and skidded into a ditch. What made the incident a million times worse than this was that my friend, who had placed her completely misguided faith in me to drive a scooter, was sitting right behind me. So, some hours of x-rays, stitches and crying (on my part) later, I wound up feeling mostly stupid and completely guilty.
We were both extremely lucky and hobbled away from the accident with just a few scars to tell the tale. Consequently, I spent the rest of Christmas day in shock, with a bandage wrapped around my head and a colourful bruise blossoming above my swollen eye. There’s a reason no photos of me from that day remain. My friend was able to laugh about it and forgave me for kind of almost killing her. Our physical injuries weren’t particularly harrowing, and we were able to continue travelling. It was, effectively, a Christmas miracle. Thank you baby Jesus.
After that fateful day I vowed to never go near a scooter again. I was traumatized by the whole experience.
This year I returned to Southeast Asia and I realized why I had been so tempted to get on a scooter in the first place. It makes exploring faster and cheaper. You can follow your own schedule, as opposed to one of a taxi or a tuk-tuk driver. You can reach places that are off the beaten track without the hassle of having to organise your own transport or joining a tour group. Even the small tasks, like walking halfway around the island to find a beer can be simplified by renting or owning a scooter.
However, the likelihood of having another accident convinced me that it wasn’t worth it, and so I’ve been figuring out ways to travel without a motorbike. Sometimes it’s been inconvenient, but there is always a way, and I feel much safer with my life out of my own hands, so to say (touch wood).
During my time on a subsequent trip to Southeast Asia I saw a few things which have reassured me about my decision to avoid scooters and motorbikes. On Koh Chang, an otherwise lovely Thai island, we drove past a man who was lying on the side of the road, his lower leg bloody and swollen to twice its usual size. In Kampot Cambodia we drove past the mangled remains of a scooter that was hit my a large truck, the only sign of the rider was a bloody smear on the pavement.
The amount of people I have seen wandering around with bandages, plasters and even casts covering their arms and legs in idyllic Pai was shocking. In Myanmar I met a girl who had been involved in a crash and had a deep cut the size of a tennis ball on her upper thigh.
All of this was enough to give me some undesirable flashbacks and reaffirm my decision to stay far, far away from scooters.
The Ugly Truth About Scooters in Southeast Asia
Everyone rides scooters in Asia. They’re the most popular method of transport by far. Mothers and fathers manage to fit their entire families on the back, often amounting to four people on one bike. I’ve seen kids under the age of ten driving scooters! It must be easy, right? You won’t need a license. You probably won’t even need a helmet. Even if you do get pulled over by the police, a simple $5 bribe is all that’s needed to dispel consequence and send you on your merry way.
There have been countless reports over the years regarding foreigners involved in motorbike accidents. Recently, a Chinese couple plunged 25 metres off the road in Phuket; the man was killed and the woman rushed to hospital. Stories of tourists’ island getaway turned horror story are easy to find with a quick google search. There are literally thousands of them, and more with each passing day.
There’s a dark side to the romanticized “easy, breezy, beautiful, cover girl” feeling that comes with zooming through the countryside with the wind rushing through your hair.
Southeast Asia as a whole has an extremely high road death toll rate. Safety precautions are often ignored, traffic is chaotic in the cities and the roads are ill-maintained; often covered with potholes or gravelly surfaces which are easy to skid on. Motorbikes pose huge risks to locals and tourists alike.
In 2015, the WHO Global status report on road safety posited that 73% of road deaths in Thailand directly involved motorbikes. In Cambodia it was a close 71%. The report also found that in Thailand only 52% of riders and 20% of passengers opted to wear helmets, despite the fact that it is law. It isn’t uncommon for people to disregard their helmets as a necessary precaution. Thailand is ranked second in terms of the most dangerous roads in the world. Being on the road in any kind of vehicle is a risk, and the exposing nature of motorbikes all but increases that risk.
Ultimately It’s Your Decision
I’m not saying you shouldn’t rent and ride a scooter while traveling in Southeast Asia. I’m just explaining why I’m personally choosing not to do so again.
If you’re inexperienced and planning to hop on a motorbike, be aware of the potential consequences, and ensure you’ll be covered by travel insurance if anything were to go wrong. It may be simple enough to learn how to ride a motorbike initially, but the roads are dangerous even for locals who have been navigating them for years and years. Exercise caution, wear a helmet, and like Han Solo told Luke once – “don’t get cocky, kid.”
Or you might end up spending your holiday much like I spent my Christmas. Bruised, battered, and never riding a scooter again.
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