Why I’ll Never Ride a Scooter in Southeast Asia Again

riding scooters in southeast asia

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.

 

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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

renting scooters in southeast asia
Y si nos vamos en moto?” by Eduardo Bertran is licensed under CC BY 2.0

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

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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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8 thoughts on “Why I’ll Never Ride a Scooter in Southeast Asia Again

  1. It’s a difficult one. On the one hand you want to experience new things on holiday, get around quickly and easily, and also do things cheaply to stretch the travel budget just that bit further. You also want to do what the locals do. Unfortunately, what the locals do a lot is die in scooter accidents.

    We started our 14-week long South East Asian adventure in Lombok, where we tentatively practised riding a scooter a few times in a quiet area to get used to it. My husband drove, I was pillion. We then moved on to Bali and had been there for less than 2 hours when we saw the aftermath of a serious scooter crash, with dozens of people crowding around the badly broken man who’d come off his bike, and did not appear to be moving. Okay I thought, there’s just really awful heavy traffic around Denpasar. 2 days later, we hired a scooter to zip around Ubud and were around 3 kms outside it at a temple when a girl came off her scooter after hitting a huge pothole at speed, and ate tarmac. She hit the ground awkwardly, de-gloving both her knees and giving herself multiple scrapes but thankfully no head injury. We gave her first aid, and then gave the cops shit after they arrived on the scene, paid her bike more attention than her, and then tried to get her to ride to the hospital on the back of one of their scooters with her kneecaps exposed. I made them take her in their van, and helped her inside. 2 days later we passed another accident in our host’s car. There was a girl on the ground, circled by a crowd standing at a distance from her.You could see her weakly trying to support herself on her arms and move for help, from someone, anyone, with a huge puddle of blood underneath her. Our host refused to stop and I wept.

    2 weeks later, us and another couple came across the scene of another scooter accident in Yogyakarta, on our way back from a day trip. This was a 2-scooter crash, with one guy dazed and bruised, and the other in a very bad way indeed. His leg was broken with a huge puncture hole from his smashed femur pouring blood down his jeans, his front teeth were smashed, and it seemed as though he had broken ribs and possibly had a punctured lung and internal bleeding. One of the other couple was a doctor, and she did an assessment and we used our first aid kit as best we could and tried to keep him still as he writhed in agony, semi-conscious, for an hour until the appallingly equipped ambulance arrived through the crowd of about 300 people that by this point had engulfed the road around the accident site. The ambulance guys used our first aid kit scissors and some cardboard boxes and packing tape to splint his leg, threw him in the back of the ambulance, and took him god knows where. We were all pretty distressed afterwards.

    A few weeks later in Cambodia, a French tourist came off her scooter on a dirt track and was helped to a cafe we were at by some passing tourists who didn’t know what else to do with her. We were in a group with 2 tuk tuks, and split ourselves so that we could take her back to the main town in one of them, to a hospital, as she’d smashed her ankle pretty badly, and had other cuts and bruises. We swapped email addresses with her and she ended up fine, but it was scary. She’d been on her own and had been found by chance – she was lucky.

    Our trusty first aid kit went everywhere, and was used so extensively we actually had to re-stock it. Not just for scooter accident victims, but for all sorts of travel mishaps and naiveties. We met so many people who were careless across the board: cavalier with scooter riding and not wearing helmets, didn’t bother with vaccinations or take any preventative medicine or recommended precautions for deadly diseases, travelling without so much as a plaster or hand sanitiser, drinking local rice wines and spirits that are notorious for alcohol poisoning and even death…the list went on. There are also a lot of things you just can’t control, and things do go wrong and people can get very unlucky even if they do all the right things. Getting on a scooter is a very conscious choice though – you can openly see the danger and chaos, and you really do get on one at your peril. We did drive scooters, but less than half a dozen times in 14 weeks, in quieter traffic locations, always out of necessity due to lack of other options, at low speeds with huge caution, and always wearing a helmet. I’ll never do it again.

    Please ALWAYS take out travel insurance, but check your policy with a fine tooth comb. Most standard travel insurance policies DON’T cover riding scooters as it is considered one of the most risky and unregulated travel activities. Also, if you ride one and crash, ambulances can take hours, hospitals may be poorly equipped and unhygienic, and there will likely be translation issues. The police do not turn up to help, they turn up to assign blame and are not medically trained. It is also very unlikely a local person will help, as first aid response is uncommon, people are scared of the police, and they are worried about being given your hospital bill if they stay with you and you are unconscious. The odds are NOT in your favour, so don’t say we didn’t warn you!

  2. A really good article to read. This is my second time in SE Asia (currently in Vietnam), and on both trips I haven’t rented a scooter/motorbike. I can’t even legally drive a car! Driving on roads I don’t know with limited knowledge of scooters isn’t for me. I’ve met a lot of people who tell me I should and that it’s really easy, but I feel like I’d be so nervous that I wouldn’t enjoy it. I’ve also met a lot of people with stitches/bandaged feet etc..

    I’ve taken plenty of day-trips and tours on the back of motorbikes, with Vietnamese drivers who know the roads well and do it often, I feel much safer and can enjoy it loads. Granted, it is more expensive, but I’d rather be safer!

    The buses are also super cheap to travel from place to place. Horray!

  3. I have visited Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam ,Cambodia an Singapore – and I have to say it never once crossed my mind to drive a motorbike in any of those places! ( well I did rent a regular bike in Hoi An, ). The sheer amount of them jostling for road space and the close proximity they operate to each other was scary enough. Having said that I do agree they would be a very convenient way to get around, providing you are someone with a great deal of experience beforehand. I remember riding in a tuk tuk in Hanoi and someone came by so closely on a motorbike our knees touched! Ya, not for the slightly nervous driver!

  4. This is an old post, but I experienced a crash in Bali back in December 2016. I won’t go into great detail regarding the crash, but basically, an idiot driver in a truck was driving extremely closely behind my scooter. It was so close, I felt extremely uncomfortable and scared that he’d ram into me from behind if I stopped to even make a turn or slowed down just a tinsie bit. I tried to create some distance away from him for about 5 minutes but he’d be behind me the entire time. The road was too narrow and there were too many swings for him to overtake me, and even if he did, I was 100% sure that the truck’s back end would hit me if there were to happen.

    I ended up speeding up extremely much to the point where I wanted to create some distane so I could hit the breaks and stop off-road so he could pass by. I did just that.. And I lost control of the scooter. I had too much speed coming off road and I ended up falling off my scooter. Thankfully, it was grass that I fell on and not solid pavement or worse, a cliff. I escaped with some scratches and minor wounds.

    It’s 6 months now since it happened, and every now and then I think of how even more badly it could have turned out if I lost control in front of a speeding car heading towards me, or on a bridge. I do intend to return to South East Asia in the future, but whether or not I’ll use the scooters, I honestly don’t think so.

  5. The above comment just highlights the problem – inexperienced riders. Alex, you did precisely the wrong thing. You should have maintained your speed or even slowed down. I have a full licence and a 600cc sportsbike at home. I see 18 year old kids in SE Asia hop on a scooter here and tell me it is easy. Yes, it is easy going on a straight line on a nice, sealed road. Yet, whenever a bend is met, or someone pulls out unexpectedly, you see the panic and indecision kick in. People trying to corner way too fast, sitting bolt upright as they try to fight physics and corner the scooter going 50 kph.

    Furthermore, most travel insurance policies do not cover motorbike usage unless you hold a full licence in the country of issue of the policy. If you survive major trauma with your rice-ball ‘helmet’, no protective clothing, gloves, boots etc….you will be faced with a $20,000 aeromedical repatriation bill.

    I would love to know why people behave so stupidly on holiday? Seeing grown men putting their toddler child on their lap and driving about in flip-flops. I bet if they saw someone doing that in Germany/US/UK, they would be on the phone to the police.

  6. Horrible. Yeah people, you better not touch scooters or anything on 2 wheels with an engine and nott just in SEA. Lived in SEA for 6 years.

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