No one really walks in SE Asia. We've already established that numerous times in various blog posts. Whilst we don't mind sticking out like sore thumbs and walking certain distances, it's sometimes impossible to get to certain destinations or attractions on foot. Not wanting to spend a fortune on taxis, we eventually plucked up the courage to rent a scooter.
Now, SE Asia is full of people riding scooters. It's the most common form of transport for locals, and if you've ever been to Vietnam you'll know that there is rarely any visible road - just scooters swarming every inch of ground space. Scooter rental is an incredibly popular money-maker in almost every place we've been, with many hostels and guest houses offering rental bikes and hundreds of motorbike shops in town centres offering the same services.
I have read hundreds of horror stories about tourists and scooter accidents. And I have seen first hand the walking wounded - leaving Koh Pha Ngan in Thailand was like being in the midst of a warzone: bandaged, bleeding, stitched up and scarred people every way you looked. All as a result of crashing scooters, being crashed into, a brake failure... Any number of reasons - all scooter related.
Needless to say, I was firmly against renting one. Neither of us had ridden one before, Harry has only just passed his driving test back home, and the roads and driving standards in Asia are mighty different from those back home in the UK. Add in to the mix the swathes of drunk people who think it's a great idea to ride a scooter after drinking buckets of alcohol and you can see why I wasn't overly keen. Harry, whilst trying to persuade me to get one, quoted a statistic about how many people die per day in Thailand as a result of a scooter accident. Not the way to get me to agree. I managed to put him off til we were in the Philippines, and we were really, truly stuck in the middle of nowhere. Renting one was our only option.
I scoured the internet for guides on how to ride a scooter, and how to not die. I couldn't find any information, other than blogs telling you that under no circumstances should you rent a scooter. Great. So, to anyone out there who is nervous or wants the dummies guide to renting and riding a scooter in SE Asia.. This post is for you!
Before you set off, as Scar would say, Be Prepared!
⦁ Insurance - don't even think about getting on a scooter if you don't have travel insurance. Self explanatory.
⦁ Take pictures - relating to the above, take pictures of any damage that the bike may already have. You normally have to put down a hefty deposit, or leave your passport with the place you rent from - you don't want them to sting you for damage that wasn't caused by you.
⦁ Rent from a reputable place - your guest house is a good idea if they have them on offer. If not, ask around for a good shop - we've heard horror stories of dodgy places taking your deposit, or refusing to give your passport back unless you pay a horrible sum of money. Also some places don't give the bikes the maintenance they need - you want one with working brakes!
⦁ Wear shoes - if you've never ridden before, wear proper shoes the first time. Flip flops are difficult to push off in and may give you more wobbles than you need.
⦁ Wear clothes - sounds silly, but you see a lot of people going around topless or in bikinis. You also see a lot of people with their entire backs scratched off, hips bruised and arms covered in gravel rash. Wear clothes.
⦁ Wear a helmet - please, please wear a helmet. Places should give you one for free. If they don't, ask. Most people don't wear them (locals and tourists alike). They may not be the coolest headgear around, but if you have an accident, that's the only thing standing between you and the ground. Wear a helmet.
⦁ Practice - before you hit the road, ask the guy you're renting off if you can scoot around a little to get your balance and confidence up. He should be happy to give you some tips - it's his scooter after all. I was a jibbering wreck, so Harry practiced and I waited til we were on a clear stretch of road to try it out.
⦁ Ask what colour gas you need - you buy petrol off the road sides in bottles. Normally there are two colours on offer - blue or yellow. We've seen red too. No idea what the difference is, but it's good to know what your bike needs before you're half way round the island and outta gas!
⦁ Try to get an electric ignition scooter, not a kick start one.
⦁ Familiarise yourself with where the lights, horn and indicators are.
⦁ Learn how to pop the seat up (this is where you will put more gas!)
⦁ Check the tyres are pumped up before you set off. They'll happily pump them up.
⦁ Adjust your mirrors!
How do you even drive this thing?!
The act of actually driving the scooter is really very simple.
⦁ Right hand has the accelerator (to go!)
⦁ Left hand has the back wheel brake (to stop!), let your hand always rest on the brake lever so you don't have to fiddle for it when you need to stop.
⦁ The right hand also has a brake (for the front wheel), generally not needed much unless you need to stop real quick.
⦁ Twist the throttle towards you to go.
⦁ To set off, put the left brake on, gradually add a little throttle then release the brake slowly to go. When you're a beginner this is the easiest way to control your initial acceleration.
⦁ Keep your feet out as you start until you've built some momentum then bring them in.
Corners are probably the hardest thing about riding a scooter.
⦁ Try to approach corners from the outside and turn through the inside. This will lessen the sharpness of a corner, give you a better view of the corner, let you be ready for a counter turn that you may not be aware of etc. All the good things really.
⦁ Approach slowly and accelerate through the corner.
⦁ Be extra cautious around new corners, you may not know how sharp they will be.
⦁ Keep your head up and look at the road ahead.
⦁ Don't drive while drunk (duh...)
⦁ Try to avoid night time excursions or driving in the rain until you're a little more practised.
⦁ In SE Asia, the horn means 'YOOHOO I'm here!!!' Don't be afraid to use your horn to let people know you're there if you're worried they don't know. Especially when overtaking, passing a parked car or heading round a corner. Don't be offended when a million people beep at you within 60 seconds - they're just letting you know they're there too.
⦁ Don't speed. It's fun. But it's also stupid.
⦁ There is a certain exhultation to be had when riding a scooter in the sunshine. Don't forget to stay alert and not be dumb; keep yourself grounded with a hefty dose of good common sense to keep the adrenaline at bay.
Above all, be confident!
That's about all the advice I can offer at the moment. I'm still not exactly enthused whilst riding on the back (read: clinging on for dear life trying not to cry) and I can barely drive one myself, but I'll be sure to update with more tips if I get any better! Stay safe out there!