Riding a motorbike is extremely dangerous in Thailand (especially as a passenger)!
But it’s a really cheap and convenient way of getting around. So we nearly all rent or buy a bike and takes our chances.
Please be aware of the risks, develop a healthy sense of paranoia, be constantly alert and be proactive about anticipating accidents and addressing the medical consequences.
Car, truck and bus drivers have no respect for motorcylists! I see accidents virtually every day, even on what seems to be safe, empty roads or during “rush hour” where there’s slow-moving traffic.
Most of us in Thailand do eventually buy a bike, but it’s almost like playing Russian Roulette. You have to be super-vigilant and paranoid in order to survive. I wouldn’t ride in Bangkok at all, but it is convenient to be able to get around on the islands and in the other towns.
Here are some ground rules for those of you who insist on renting/riding a bike:
1. Make sure you have a valid license. Most bikes here are 110-125cc. If you have little experience riding a bike then never go above this. Get an automatic scooter, so you can focus on the road.
2. Wear a proper, full face helmet AT ALL TIMES. To check if you need one, hit your head hard against a wall. Consider that the speed your head hits the wall when you do it yourself is about 5km/hr (3mph). Now think of how much it’ll hurt if you land on your head at a mere 30km/hr (20mph).
You WILL fall off, it’s inevitable. You may only scrape off large patches of your skin (think sliding along extra course sandpaper for about 5-10 metres/yards at speed) – in which case, count yourself lucky!
Wear it even when “just” going down the road to the 7-11 or market or even when “just” crossing the road. Make it a habit. There are other advantages – it acts as an effective hat against the sun and rain (it’s difficult to see ahead when the sun is shining in front of you), reduces noise and helps to keep insects or stone chips getting into your eyes.
3. The passenger must also wear a helmet without exception. It’s more dangerous for the passenger than for the driver (even with a helmet), for a number of reasons. One is the greater likelihood of being ejected. But also because the bike is more unstable. As a driver, you need to be extra careful because it’s much more difficult to maintain balance, especially if you have a smaller bike/scooter and your passenger is heavy. Whenever the passenger adjusts his/her position or moves in any way, it changes the balance of the bike and the sheer suddenness of it can cause you to lose control.
Also, bikes have a tendency to fall to the right. If you are losing control then do what you can to fall left if at all possible. If you fall right you will be entering into zone of the confluent traffic and the passenger is more likely to fall into the path of a vehicle. There’s an infamous case in Phuket of a pregnant mother crushed by passing truck when she fell off the bike because her boyfriend lost control when a car in front stopped too suddenly. That’s the story that made it to the newspapers because she was a minor celebrity. There are hundreds of almost identical incidents that aren’t mentioned at all because they’re so common.
4. Get proper travel insurance that covers you for motorbikes (as a driver and as a passenger). Check the exclusions very, very carefully! If you survive a motorbike accident then the treatment is very expensive – and may take months (so you’ll need to pay for your living costs and a visa agent to help you extend your visa every 3 months).
5. Make sure the tires are in excellent condition and pumped up properly. (Change them if necessary, even if at your own expense: they’re not so expensive.) Check the brakes. But be especially cautious when turning, bikes have a habit of slipping from under you. Driving on the gravelly (and often wet) roads in Thailand is like skating on oil. Avoid gravel on the road, or if you’re driving along a gravel road go extra slow and keep your bike as straight as possible. Also avoid driving on painted lines, always cross them at a good angle. Check that your lights are working. And it helps hugely to wear a reflective jacket, because you’re super visible (without one you’re a dark shadow in the night with a pinprick of a light in the eyes of the drivers around you). An added advantage of this is that other drivers seem to be more careful to avoid you, perhaps because they presume that you’re a policeman!
6. Take a course in driving safely. Honda and Yamaha have training centers where they show you how to handle a bike in various conditions and how to think about your driving and your surroundings. Don’t assume you can figure it out. All of us in Thailand will eventually make just about every mistake that can possibly be made – and some of these mistakes can’t be make more than once!
7. Be paranoid about other vehicles and pedestrians. Most of the time they don’t look; so be vigilant of cars/bikes coming out from side roads without bothering to stop and look. Pedestrians will sometimes hesitate to cross the road and then suddenly decide to dash across just as you’re getting close. Cars will overtake right ahead of you, assuming you’ll just get out of the way (and sometimes you can coz there’s usually a motorbike lane, but sometimes you can’t because there might be cars parked in the lane and so may have nowhere to go)!
8. Be extra vigilant of vehicles (and pedestrians) that might turn across your path (usually from out of nowhere, between cars stuck in traffic, from an intersection that’s blocked from view, etc.). People undertake and overtake all the time, even round corners where they can’t see you coming! And don’t assume that it’s safe to cross an intersection if the light is green. Cars, bikes and TRUCKS routinely run the red lights! Even if the light is green, wait an extra five seconds.
9. Wear long pants and a long-sleeve jacket (or arm socks) during the day. You won’t notice it because of the slipstream if you don’t, but you will get severely burnt.
During the raining season (or anytime from April to November), keep a thick, heavy duty, two-piece raincoat. It rains hard and it’s very difficult to drive or pay attention to your surroundings when you’re soaked through.