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Motorbiking South East Asia Guide

Dec 3, 2016

Motorbiking South East Asia is the adventure of a lifetime.  There’s everything here, from sleepy towns to bustling cities, coastal roads to mountain passes and isolated places of self reflection to backpacker party towns.  Everyone will find something to fall in love with when motorbiking South East Asia.

This guide will take you through staying safe on the road, how to get hold of a bike and our pick of the best South East Asia routes.

Safety

I hold a motorbike license, have driven thousands of miles and when I have my wife as a pillion am very cautious.  Even so, I have been involved in 5 crashes whilst motorbiking South East Asia:

  1. 3 bikes, 4 people and 2 water buffalos (needless to say, the water buffalos came out on top)
  2. A lorry side swiped me on a corner
  3. A scooter rear ended me in Hanoi
  4. Coming off whilst crossing a flooded road (2nd degree burns from the engine)
  5. Coming off on a gravel road at less than 10km

There is a very good reason why safety has been placed at the top of this guide.  The 2015 WHO Global Road Safety Report makes for pretty bleak reading for the majority of South East Asian countries.

Thailand has the second most dangerous roads in the world

Thailand loses out on the top spot to Libya, and is roughly 12 times more dangerous than the UK.

Travel Insurance

Don’t leave home without it.  Ensure you have read all the small print and check that it covers you for motorbiking South East Asia.  However, your insurance will be worthless if you are involved in an accident while breaking the law.

Driving Legally

We are purely looking at driving legally in order for your insurance to be valid.  Bad motorbike crashes in South East Asia can require extraction and lead to 6 figure medical bills; you do not want your insurance not to cover this based on a technicality.

Each insurance provider will have a different view on whether your actions will be covered, so we recommend that you contact them and discuss their requirements in each country you plan on visiting.  If possible keep a written record of advice received.

Below is a push in the right direction on how to satisfy your insurance company. (This is not legal advice; you should ensure you perform the appropriate research and as mentioned contact your provider).

Let’s tackle these in order of ease.

First off don’t drive drunk or high.

Second, in some countries wearing a helmet is mandatory in others it is not.  For the sake of ease let’s just say you have to wear a helmet in all countries.

Now the tricky part: licenses.

The most straightforward way of legally driving in another country is to obtain the equivalent license in your country and then combine it with an International Driving Permit (IDP). This should allow you to drive in:

  • Thailand
  • Vietnam
  • Malaysia
  • Indonesia
  • Laos
  • Philippines
  • Singapore

The AA have quite a comprehensive list of countries which accept the IDP and show the time restraints and other conditions.

That just leaves Myanmar and Cambodia.

Driving A Motorbike Legally in Myanmar

To drive legally you need a local license.  After several dead ends, we contacted a rental company who obtained this document on our behalf.  Our total cost was around $50 and it was valid for a year. 

Documents required (copies):

  • Passport
  • Passport photo – blue background, collared shirt
  • Driving license

Even with a license there are still areas of Myanmar you cannot motorbike.  Yangon is off-limits to all motorbikes and only motorbike tours can head to Bagan.

Conflict is still occurring in several parts of Myanmar.  Before you plan a route you should consult the latest advice from the UK Gov.  If you try and enter a conflict area the best case scenario is that you will be turned around.

 Driving A Motorbike Legally in Cambodia

It is not necessary to hold a license to drive a bike which is lower than 125cc.  Unfortunately it is a grey area as to whether this includes foreigners.  This being the case you should be prepared to obtain a local license.  The Department of Public Works and Transport are responsible for issuing licenses and the turn around time in minimal.  The fee is around $35.

Documents required (copies):

  • Passport and visa
  • Passport photos – 5, standard
  • Driving license

A potential home run, catch all scenario

Holding a driving license from an ASEAN country should legally allow you to drive in any of the 10 member states.  This is something I would confirm with all insurance companies.

Safety Gear

Full leathers are not high on anyone’s list of wants when motorbiking South East Asia.  However, there is a compromise between these and the usual flip flops, shorts and vest.

 

Helmet

Don’t ride a bike without a helmet.  Look for a helmet which is comfortable, fits snugly (if it moves when you move your head it will not protect you) and has a chin strap.  If possible do not buy a second hand helmet; a decent paint job can hide any damage that has been sustained to the protective material inside.  Pick a bright colour for the best chance of being seen.

If you purchase one in South East Asia be aware that some could be marked with fake safety standards.

 

Gloves

If you come off the bike the first thing to hit the road (aka the cheese grater) will more than likely be your hands.  Great gloves will now include palm sliders in order to prevent breaks, fractures and the complete removal of skin.  Knox

are a high end option.

However, cheaper alternatives such as this basic pair of gloves

 can make a huge difference.

 

Armour

Lightweight, breathable gear which has slots for pads can add much needed protection and will be completely hidden under a loose cotton shirt.

At the top end of the scale is Forcefield gear, which was originally designed for motocross.  It has removable pads (which make packing it a lot easier) which harden on impact.  They offer a shirt

,vest
, shorts
 and trousers
 option.

There are plenty of cheaper alternatives out there but look out for the inclusion of safety standards such as CE or EN.

 

Boots

If you planned on doing any hiking you will probably have hiking boots with you, although not perfect these will offer much more protection than those flip flops.

Motorbike

Why not a scooter?

Motorbikes are cooler, but more importantly:

They have larger wheels offering a more stable ride and deal a lot better with rougher terrain, there will be plenty of this.

It is easier to add saddle bags and additional storage to a motorbike than a scooter.  I am guessing you will need somewhere to put your backpack.

Scooters do have their benefits; being automatic they are much easier to learn to ride and are generally more fuel efficient. However, I feel like ride stability and dealing with rough terrain is more important.

How powerful

A 125cc will get you most places and will attract a lot less attention than a bigger bike.  Even with all the correct paperwork it is not unusual for a policeman to find something to fine you for.  You may consider going for a bigger bike in the mountainous regions of Northern Vietnam or if you have a pillion.

What make

Your bike will probably need a lot of love and care to get from each destination.  I do not remember a day when I was motorbiking Vietnam which didn’t include a trip to the mechanic.  If you buy the most common bike in the country, finding spares will be drastically easier.  Honda dominates most of South East Asia, especially the Honda Win.

However, our favourite bike ever was from our motorbike trip in Myanmar, the Honda XR.

 

How to buy

Take your time, this bike is going to be your best friend or your worst enemy for the length of your trip.  If you are not happy walk away, there are plenty out there.

As a loose rule you will always get the best price from backpackers.  After a long trip most backpackers feel as though they have got their moneys worth out of the bike and are normally just happy to recoup what they paid before they move on.

Second hand bike shops have been well known to buy cheap bikes from desperate backpackers, clean them, touch up the paint and sell them for 5 times as much.

When buying from a backpacker it may be worthwhile to get an inspection done by a local mechanic before buying for any hidden problems.  If this is not practical, ask what repairs they have made to the bike.  If they say none then they are have been extremely lucky, are lying or the bike is due a big breakdown.

Ensure you get any ownership papers for the bike.  This will be crucial if you plan on crossing any borders or can keep you out of trouble with the police.

Most hostel notice boards will have a bike advertised on their notice board or you can find one online at sites such as Craigslist or Facebook groups such as this one.

 

What to check

Make sure you meet somewhere you are comfortable to have a proper test ride of the bike. Try and get the bike up to at least 30mph and performing some emergency brakes.

Keep an eye out for the following when buying a bike:

  • Tyres – still has tread, no eggs
  • Brakes – smooth operation, pads still intact
  • Battery/starter – does the bike turn on easily
  • Has is been crashed – are there long and deep scratches or cracks
  • Clutch – does the clutch release when squeezed, where does the bite point sit
  • Does the bike tick over or cut out
  • Leaking fluids/oil
  • Missing wing mirrors

Motorbiking South East Asia Tips

  • Leave the cities early – Ho Chi Minh has over 7 million motorbikes  – that is not a rush hour you want to find yourself in
  • Do not drive at night
  • Watch out for oncoming traffic – seriously bikes will be on both sides of the road
  • Might is right – lorries/cars/taxis will pay you little respect
  • Keep an eye out for wildlife/livestock – in the countryside this will have free reign and can pop up anywhere
  • Keep luggage to a minimum – racks are not particularly built to last
  • Carry spare inner tubers – if you have the space a pump and spanner to take off the wheel would also be handy
  • Don’t worry about repairs – if you get a common bike everyone seems to have the knowledge to fix it
  • Crossing borders – the rules seem to change on a weekly basis. Nomadasaurus’ article on crossing borders has become a real time forum on the current situation with fellow travellers posting their recent experiences.

Routes

The beauty of a bike in South East Asia is the freedom.  Look at a map, find something of interest and drive towards it.  The most amazing experiences happen en-route, whether this is the unexpected vista, eating dinner in a local family’s front room or finding a beautiful temple.

However, our favourite 3 routes are:

1) Ho Chi Minh to Hanoi

Immortalised by Top Gear, this is almost a rite of passage for backpackers.

Follow the coast from Ho Chi Min through Hoi An over the Hai Van Pass and into the DMZ.  Combine spectacular views with a stark introduction into Vietnamese history.  Once past the DMZ cut inland, backtrack slightly to Hang Son Doong (world’s largest cave) and then drive the Ho Chi Min trail all the way to Hanoi.

2) The Thakhek Loop

A short one but a good one.  This 4/5 day trail takes in some of the very best that Laos has to offer.  With scenery that gets better around every corner, this loop trail starts and finishes into Thakhek making it accessible to those who only want to rent a bike.

Make sure you take advantage of all the points of interest on route like the amazing natural springs.

3) Northern Myanmar

Most tourist routes in Myanmar include Bagan, Inle lake and Mandalay.  We picked a bike up in Mandalay and just headed north.  Our plan was to make it to Indawgyi lake, a place of holy pilgrimage.  We didn’t really know what to expect but were blown away by the raw beauty of the place.

I also proposed at Indawgyi, somewhat immortalising this route for us and giving it an unfair advantage.

Do you have any tips on motorbiking South East Asia or any stories to tell, leave them in the comments.


DISCLOSURE: DRIVE AND HIKE (TS & EJ HAMMOND) ARE PART OF THE AMAZON ASSOCIATES AFFILIATE PROGRAM. SOME OF THE ABOVE LINKS ARE AFFILIATE LINKS. THIS MEANS THAT IF YOU PURCHASE A PRODUCT BASED ON OUR SUGGESTION WE WILL RECEIVE A COMMISSION.  THIS IS AT NO EXTRA COST TO YOU.

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About The Author

Strategy consultant by week, explorer by weekend. His first ever hike was a 9 day thru-hike at Torres del Paine and it was love at first hike. He now sleeps better in a tent than a bed. He would rather drive for 2 hours down a country lane than sit for 2 minutes in traffic. He has been known to lead driving safaris in areas without wildlife with a Justin Bieber soundtrack.

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