You arrive on a tropical island and the first thing you decide to do is rent a motorbike in order to avoid the excessive public transport costs and get to places not served by local buses.
You’re not alone: many people do this, and quite a few come a cropper. Here are a few tips and dangers of motorbike rental in Phuket and other parts of the country.
First of all, it is cheap, and that attracts tourists to ride a bike. 200 baht a day in Phuket, rising a little for a new bike, or if you want a big bike you can multiply that amount several times. A little 100 or 125 cc bike. That’s the price of a one-way tuktuk ride between Karon and Kata! What can go wrong?
Plenty, is the answer.
First, and very importantly, a licence is required to ride in Thailand. Not a car licence, a motorcycle licence. If you are stopped or have an accident you will be fined if you do not have a current licence and, in theory at least, it should be an international or a Thai licence. Most police will accept a licence from the renter’s country but that is not universal. Different police have different rules. Get an International Driving Permit from your home country before you arrive if you want hassle-free motorbike riding.
It is also the law that riders and passengers wear a helmet. Yes, that’s correct, it’s the law, despite what you may see the locals do. You will be fined if you don’t wear a helmet. Now, most Thai helmets are of poor quality and certainly nowhere near the standards you’d expect in the West. Many that you’ll be offered are old and these just crack upon impact; OK, that’s better than cracking the skull but the protection is minimal. If you are riding a bike here long term it is worth investing in your own helmet; a few long-stayers even bring one from their own country.
When you rent a bike you will more often than not be asked to deposit your passport as security. You should try to avoid this where possible. Under Thai law you are supposed to carry your passport at all times. Try to offer a photocopy or another form of ID, though not your motorcycle licence! If that’s not acceptable then try renting from your hotel or guesthouse; as a resident they may be more lenient. Shop around and you should find someone willing to rent without your passport.
You’ll be asked to sign an agreement. It’s written in Thai and basically makes you fully responsible for loss or damage to the bike and any third party damage payment if required. No rental companies purchase insurance to cover the riders as it’s too expensive.
This can lead to scams, the most common of which is to charge you for pre-existing damage or overcharge for any damage you may have caused. The former can be prevented by photographing any scratches, scuffs or dents before you take the bike out. If you do cause damage, get your own estimate at a bike repair shop (there are loads of them on any roadside) so you can argue your case if the amount quoted by the rental agent appears excessive. If they have your passport and you are due on a flight later that day, remember they hold all the aces.
A much rarer scam is the stolen bike; it disappears overnight. You are liable under the terms of the agreement you have signed. That bike may miraculously reappear shortly after you leave Thailand. I’ve never come across a victim of this particular scam but apparently it does occasionally occur.
For security always use the steering lock and don’t leave anything in the under-saddle compartment.
So, you have a licence, a helmet and you’ve handed over the money. You should familiarise yourself first. I’ve seen people go straight out onto the open road and immediately crash! You might also find something wrong with the bike, in which case return it. When you’re happy and you hit the road, remember a few things: Thai drivers are not the best; be careful and try to work out what they’re doing; tourists are often worse bike riders than the locals, especially the Chinese for some reason, so beware of non-Thai faces. Trucks are dangerous, as are minibuses, cement trucks, in fact everyone. It’s worth knowing that Thailand has the second highest road-death rate in the entire world! You should always keep to the left where dedicated motorcycle lanes often exist, though you will encounter dogs, street food carts and cars and other bikes often driving against the traffic flow, a practice that, although common amongst Thais and occasionally those used to driving on the right, is both illegal and dangerous, hence not advised.
Accidents do happen. What do you do?
If you are involved in a very minor at fault accident then you may be able to fix this with a high denomination banknote. If you get a puncture, have it fixed at a local shop. It’s cheap. For any more serious accidents you should call the rental agency immediately. They will negotiate on your behalf but you’ll end up paying if you are at fault and in the majority of accidents involving tourists on bikes, the tourist will be considered at fault. Your travel insurance will not pay for such damage.
You might need hospital treatment. This too will generally be at your expense. You may or may not be covered by travel insurance, depending upon the wording of your policy. Motorcycling may be excluded altogether, it will almost certainly be excluded if you are without a licence, if you are deemed to be riding recklessly, if you are not wearing a helmet and/or if you are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. So check your policy before renting a bike. Too many tourists rent bikes then have to plead for cash to settle their medical bills. Columbus Travel Insurance does not exclude motorcycling on bikes/scooters up to 125cc. Check them out here.
Don’t drink alcohol and ride a bike. It’s against the law and you are a hazard to yourself and other road users. Phuket police are much less lenient these days and if you are caught you might end up with a Court appearance and/or a large fine. The drink/drive limit is 50mg per 100ml of blood. That’s similar to most European countries and lower than the UK or most of the USA!
To sum up: only rent a bike if you are an experienced rider with a motorcycle licence; wear a helmet; wear appropriate clothing, as swimming trunks and bikinis give zero protection even in the event of a minor fall; check your insurance to see if you have cover; drive carefully and keep left as much as possible; beware dogs, trucks and Chinese tourists; don’t get drunk; don’t get scammed.