Although the internet has many posts about renting a scooter in Southeast Asia, I still feel compelled to write a comprehensive guide of my own as we have learnt so much about this topic along the way!
This post is not trying to convince you to give up on renting a scooter, in fact my intentions are quite the opposite. We have rented scooters a number of times now in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam, and will no doubt rent many more as we continue our travels through Asia. Our favourite destinations seem to consistently be when we have the independence of a scooter.
This guide is written in regards to the automatic scooters we have been renting, though many of the points are also applicable to semi-automatic and manual motorbikes. It was also written with plenty of input from Alan, my Chief Scooter Driver - because I trust his driving way more than mine!
Tips for renting a scooter in Southeast Asia
Before you hire
- Before you leave home, ensure to get your International Driver’s License. In New Zealand you just need to pop into the AA with a passport photo and your regular driver’s license, pay $20, and you’ll be given a little booklet with your photo stuck inside that is valid for 1 year. This is your International Driver’s License, which you legally need to drive in most (if not all?) Southeast Asian countries. If you’re stopped and asked to show your license you need to show both your regular license AND your International License. That said, many people do drive without an International Drivers’ License and if stopped by police simply pay a bribe instead, but if you want to avoid all possibility of being on the wrong side of the law then it makes total sense to just hand over the $20 before you leave - the whole process took us both less than 10 minutes, its worth it!
- If you want to rent a manual motorbike you obviously need to know how to manually change gears (duh) and also hold a valid motorbike license. If you have a regular drivers license you can legally drive a moped/scooter.
- Expect that you will have to hand over your passport or a big bond (for example on Koh Samui we handed over a 5000 baht bond, NZ$210), which we got back on return). It is a much better idea to leave a deposit, I know I'd rather lose 5000 baht than have my passport held ransom for way more $$!
- Find a reputable company to rent from or rent from your guesthouse. Take a business card with their name and number on it so you can call should you need to. You'll also usually have to sign a document stating that you're liable for any damage, etc. Make sure you know what you are signing and that you are comfortable with it. There are some dodgy companies out there that have been known to follow you and steal your scooter back after you park it somewhere, then you have to pay them reparation for the missing scooter. If it feels dodgy, it probably is, so use your common sense.
- Wear a helmet. Yes, I realise this is the most repeated tip of all time. One thing I’ve noticed from our journey so far is that some places it is the norm to wear a helmet (Malaysia springs to mind), and other places no-one wears a helmet (Bali, Koh Samui, and plenty more). Buck the trend and wear a helmet! Just do it. Also, police are way more likely to target foreigners who aren't following the 'rules' because we are known to have, uh, fat wallets. It is also important to note than a helmet should be included for free with your rental, if they make you pay for it rent from somewhere else!
- Drive safely. You may be the greatest driver out there, but at the end of the day everybody on the road is not under your control. Be as aware and defensive as you can.
- Don't be in a rush. Come on, you're on holiday! No need to be speeding and rushing around just to create more danger for yourself and others on the road.
- Again, please wear one! You'll be surprised how many people (locals and foreigners) drive around with their helmets in their basket, or anywhere on their bike other than their head! This is so they can put it on quickly in case stopped by police. But still, the best and only place for it is on your head.
- When you park the scooter and your helmet won't fit under the seat, the best way to store it is open up the seat, then close the seat with the strap inside and helmet hanging out. That way there is no chance of it getting stolen, plus you don't have to carry it around when you're out and about. Here's a picture of what I'm talking about...
Picking your scooter
- What power to get? Depends on how hilly the terrain is and if its just you or if there will be two of you on the scooter. We had a 110cc scooter on Koh Samui which was fine for generally driving around but when we ventured inland into the very hilly areas there were a few times I had to get off and walk up the hill instead, ha!
- Don't rent a brand new scooter. The natural inclination is to rent the flashest, coolest-looking one. But, chances are you may drop it or scratch something, so if you go for a less fancy scooter that already has a few light scratches here and there they are less likely to notice if you also add a scratch or two.
- Before you commit, take it for a quick drive down the road. Check the brakes work, the light works, the indicators, the horn, the speedo (we have had a couple of rentals where the speedo hasn't worked which isn't a big problem, it is just important to make sure the rental company are aware it doesn't go before you drive away, otherwise you may get blamed and made to cough up for fixing it when you return).
- If there are some minor scrapes or damage to your scooter, make sure you point it out to the dealership AND take some photos as evidence before you drive away, just in case they question it upon your return.
- Make sure you ask how to open the seat up and unlock the ignition as this can vary between models.
Filling up the tank
- Ask how much petrol is per litre and how many litres it will need to fill up. Petrol stations sometimes rip you off so be careful (we got ripped of at a petrol station in Hoi An and have been super cautious about this ever since!). Think about how much driving around you're going to do before returning the scooter, you may only need half a tank.
- Ask where the nearest petrol station is. Often your scooter will come with an empty tank of gas and your first stop is going to be to fill it up!
- Are you expected to return your scooter empty or full? Obviously, if you hired it with an empty tank you should never be expected to return it full - go hire somewhere else! But if it comes with a full tank when you rent it, you are usually expected to return it full.
On the road
- Always park your scooter with the wheel locked. Just the other day on parking our scooter in Mui Ne, we came across some concerned travellers whose scooter had been stolen (literally, wheeled away like a push bike!) when they forgot to lock the wheel. Locking the wheel makes it a lot harder for someone to steal your scooter.
- Don't be afraid to use the horn! When overtaking someone is the most common, but some local drivers are known to just speed down the road absuing their horn non-stop. Don't go overboard, but do use it when you need to.
- You're in Asia, meaning there are more hazards on the road than just cars and an overload of motorbikes. Also watch out for dogs, cows, snakes...you name it! We had two near-misses with snakes in Thailand already! Slow down, beep your horn and gently swerve around them.
If something goes wrong
- Usually, you'll have to pay out of pocket if you get a flat tyre - it should't cost more than a few dollars. This has only happened to us once, but one of the friendly guys from our guesthouse in Ubud, Bali, took it to get it fixed and wouldn't accept any of our money to pay for it!
- Accidents happen - this is where you are going to want to make sure you have comprehensive travel insurance that covers mopeds. You don't want to end up paying for an unexpected hospital visit out of pocket...
If you haven't driven a scooter before
- Don't learn in a busy area. Start somewhere quiet and empty (like a parking lot, or I learnt on an empty basketball court!) and practice starting, stopping, corners, indicating, and parking. I wouldn't recommend learning anywhere like Koh Samui or Kuta, Bali.
- Remember that road rules barely exist in much of Southeast Asia. Don't expect for people to look out for you, give way for you and make sure you know what side of the road you're meant to be driving on (e.g. in Thailand its on the left but in Vietnam its on the right). If you are not very confident, slow and steady is best.
- Always keep your left hand over the brake - this is the back brake and obviously the one you want to be using the most pressure on. A good guide is 90% of the braking should come from the rear and 10% from the front.
- Especially if you're on the back of the bike, make sure your leg doesn't touch the scalding exhaust pipe or you will quickly end up with a nasty burn.
- Adjust your mirrors before you drive - seems obvious but don't forget! As you will have traffic swerving around you constantly, its very important you can see whats coming up behind you and either side of you.
Some of those tips may make hiring a scooter sound scary, but it is truly so much fun! There is nothing better than streaming along with the wind flowing through your hair and the independence of driving wherever you like that day. Many of our favourite travel days have been when we have hired scooters and explored the area we were in. We have seen so much more of so many places than we would have otherwise!
Have you hired a scooter in Southeast Asia? Any further tips you can share?