While it's one of the most dangerous ways to travel around in Southeast Asia, hiring a scooter and heading off into the countryside is also one of the most popular ways to get out and about.
Before we go further, we want to drill into you a couple of points before you go anywhere near a motorbike.
We can’t emphasise this enough. Aside from the fact that officially learning how to ride a motorbike will actually be useful, if you get on a scooter to drive and have an accident, if you’re unlicensed you’ll have no travel insurance.
To repeat: Riding without a licence will almost certainly invalidate any travel insurance you have.
The heat in Southeast Asia doesn’t soften the roads. They are just as hard as in your home country. If you come off a bike, even at moderate speed, and are not wearing a helmet, in the best case you’ll be in a world of pain, and worst case you’ll be dead.
Always, always, always wear a helmet, whether you are a driver or a passenger.
As with the having a license bit, if you have an accident on a scooter (as a rider or a pillion passenger) and are not wearing a helmet, and your insurance company find out, you’ll most likely not have travel insurance coverage for the accident.
Ideally, you want to wear a full-face helmet, which is one that wraps around the bottom of the face and covers the chin—a helmet like this offers far more protection than a typical “skid lid” or open-faced helmet, which might hopefully keep your head together, but won’t do much for your face as you use your chin to slow down while sliding across the road.
Unfortunately, when hiring motorbikes, or using them as taxis, you’ll almost always be offered a skid-lid rather than a full-face helmet (skid lids are cheaper). Because of this, if you are planning on doing a lot of motorbiking, either riding or as a passenger, consider buying your own helmet. They’re easily bought in Southeast Asia (and are probably cheaper here than in your home country).
Always wear a helmet.
When hiring a bike, shoot for something that is relatively new. Check the tread on both wheels, check that the horn works and check that the bike has mirrors (that can be positioned practically and don’t wobble away once you reach terminal velocity of 10 kilometres an hour). In all but the most obscure places, the motorbike should have number plates and registration papers (most often kept under the seat). Ideally you want a speedometer that works (though this is often “broken”), a fuel gauge that works and a headlight that works. Check that the indicator lights and brake lights also work.
Check the bike for any (and we mean any) pre-existing damage. Normally the owners will give you a walk around and mark any damage on a sheet of paper, but this can be very hit and miss. We’d suggest, especially if the bike is very new, to take a photo of any damage. Make it clear to the rental agent why you are doing this, so there are no misunderstandings.
Why are you doing this? Because a commonly reported scam is to return the bike and have the owner point to pre-existing damage on the bike and demand that you pay for it. By photographing any damage, you have evidence it was pre-existing. How common is this scam? In more than 20 years of living in Southeast Asia and having done probably 50,000 kilometres on rental bikes, this has never ever happened to us. That said, the internet is awash with reports of this kind of hassle, so we are mentioning it.
Assuming the bike is okay you’ll then be asked to sign a rental agreement. While the agreement may mention “insurance”, we’d be taking that with a pinch of salt. In most cases, if you damage the bike, you’ll be expected to pay for the damage. Somewhere in the contract there will be a price for a "replacement” should the bike be stolen or written off. This figure is often fanciful, but we’ve never managed to get a rental shop to budge on it. Regardless, work on the assumption that any insurance only covers damage to the bike—not you, nor any damage you may do to others.
In touristed areas, you’ll be expected to leave your passport or the cash equivalent of the replacement value as a deposit for the bike. Every man and his dog will tell you never to hand over your passport for a motorbike, but in practice this is often the only way to get one rented to you. Perhaps you’ll be able to get away with a copy of your passport, but that would be unusual. It’s your decision. In less touristed areas, we’ve been rented bikes with nothing more than a handshake.
If you’re renting a motorbike for more than a day, the other consideration is theft. If the bike is stolen, you’ll be expected to buy the rental shop a new motorbike, or at the least, hand over a big chunk of cash. Look after your bike. Always use the steering lock. In the evening, your accommodation should have a secure area for parking scooters; make sure you use it. If the restaurant you stop at has paid parking, use it. Deciding to not pay for the “secure” parking, then parking 50 metres down the road, is asking for your bike to be stolen. Yes we know, it's extortion. If you’re going to be parking the bike in remote areas (say at waterfalls), then get a chain to lock it up. The bike shop may be able to supply one, but do not use their padlock.
There is a very small risk that rental agencies steal their own bikes (or at least, knowingly work with motorbike thieves); Phnom Penh and southern Laos are notorious for this.
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.