Perhaps due to the average driving standard, foreign travellers hiring a car in Southeast Asia is less common than you may expect—which is a shame as travel by car can be a great way to explore each country in the region.
That’s not to say hiring cars for long trips doesn’t happen, nor that it is difficult; most of the time it is no more challenging than hiring a scooter or bicycle. Obviously it costs more than either of the two-wheeled options, but especially if you are a travelling as a threesome or foursome (or as a family, in which case hiring a car can be a really smart move) it can make a lot of sense.
There are though, some things to keep in mind.
While you may well not be asked for it, legally you’ll be required at a minimum to possess either a local license or a license in your home country, along with an International Driving Permit. If you don’t have this paperwork, you’ll be driving illegally and your travel insurance may be invalidated.
Car hire firms tend to be a little more switched on than motorbike hire outlets when it come to insurance, but it pays to read the small print, especially with regard to excess and responsibility for damage and theft. Insurance offered by a car hire establishment often only insures the vehicle—it doesn’t insure you, nor any damage you happen to do to somebody else or their property. Importantly, check with your own travel insurance that you are actually covered for driving a car and be sure to read up on any unexpected conditions they may have.
This is perhaps the biggest adjustment you’ll face driving in Southeast Asia for the first time. While off the expressway, speeds are (generally) moderate, drivers can be extremely unpredictable, and we want to emphasise the extremely part of that. You need to drive defensively, slowly and always be expecting the unexpected. Motorbikes in particular can be maddeningly unpredictable.
Regardless of the actual give way road rules, larger vehicles, particularly trucks and buses, will expect you to yield. If you try to “retain ownership of your lane”, it will most likely not end well.
Inexplicably, seat belts are still often not present in backseats (and sometimes still front), so when renting a car, specifically ask for a car with seat belts.
As you would in any country, check the condition of the car. Any reputable rental agency will have a form where you can mark any pre-existing damage to the car. Watch out for chipped windows. Check the tread on the wheels and that the horn works. Check that the car has a decent spare tire containing air and that the car has a jack.
If you’d prefer not to drive yourself (an understandable reaction after seeing capital city traffic for the first time) it is worth considering hiring a car with a driver. This will obviously cost more again, but, depending on the country, it may not be as much as you imagine.
If you decide to do this, it is important to agree on the price up front and agree on who is paying for what. Determine who is paying for petrol, who is paying for the driver’s food and accommodation, tolls and so on. Always insist on having a driver who has a license—ask to see it and check that it's not expired.
Among a group of travellers or a family, you’ll be not paying that much more than if you were hiring three or four scooters. You won’t get wet when it rains, you’ll have far more storage space, and, in the event of an accident, you’ll be much safer than if you were on a motorbike. In more remote areas, you may struggle as roads degrade, and a motorbike may be better if you're really going off-piste.
Aside from the cost, the big one is parking. Trying to find a parking spot near Khao San Road in Bangkok is an absolute nightmare. If you’re staying in mid- to upper-range hotels, parking will be less of a problem, but in many, many cases cheaper accommodation will not have parking and this can be a major inconvenience.
While car theft isn’t much of a problem, it does happen. Always lock your car and don’t leave valuables in positions that are just a smashed window away from potential thieves.
Major international chains like Avis, Hertz and so on will be will represented at international gateways, but, as with motorbike hire, plenty of small-scale rental agencies also offer car hire.
The smaller operators may be more flexible on price, and pick up and drop off times, while the international chains are often a better set-up for pick up in one place and drop off in another. For example if you want to pick up a car in Bangkok and drop it off in Chiang Mali, a larger chain may be a better option.
Rental cars cannot be taken across international borders. Renting a car in Singapore to drive to Hanoi is unfortunately not possible. One day, maybe!
Planning well is an integral part of getting the most out of your trip. Be it picking the right backpack, the right vaccinations or the right country, the simple decisions are often the most important.