Before coming to Thailand, I knew exactly one person in Phuket, Captain Mike, who was an ex-pat living in Nai Harn. Mike is a retired science teacher who sailed across the Pacific Ocean solo when he moved to Thailand. Mike’s main advice to me was to practice riding a motorbike in Idaho before my trip. I told him I didn’t have access to a motorbike, so he asked if I had a bicycle. I told him, “Yes of course, but last time I rode it, I tipped over and hit my head on a rock.” He replied, “perfect, just start with your bicycle. “He sent me messages every few days reminding me to practice... which I, of course, was not doing.
I had already done my "research” on renting a motorbike in Thailand and read horror story after horror story of people breaking their hips, ending up in a full body cast, or getting in trouble with the police for not having an international driver’s license or insurance. I was completely sure that this 49-year-old gal was not about to take that chance.
When I went to visit Mike in Nai Harn, he convinced me to ride on the back of his motorbike. He was a very careful driver, and I enjoyed the freedom riding a bike provided. But I was still sure that riding solo wasn’t for me.
Fast forward 2 days after lots of walking and money spent on taxis. I rented my first motorbike for about $6 a day. The lady who rented it to me looked very concerned when I had no clue how to start it and hit the throttle and the ignition button at the same time.
I rode the mile to Mike’s house at 20km/hour, got off the bike, threw my helmet down, and proclaimed, “this thing is a death trap!” Mike helped me calm down and then told me to “man up,” which pissed me off just enough to get back on and learn to ride.
The traffic in Thailand drives on the left-hand side of the road and no one really obeys the stop signs, so I went very slow that first day, yet I was proud to have faced my fears and to have learned a new skill. Mike told me I did great, but asked, “can you please try and go just a little bit faster tomorrow?” Within 2 days I was riding all around Phuket and even made it up and down to the Big Buddha in one piece.
Now, my first task when visiting a new place in Thailand (after securing my accommodation, of course) is to rent a motorbike. I always wear a helmet and never ride if I am planning to drink or party. I still go slow-ish and am mindful of the animals on the road, but I love it! I prefer the smaller, simple bikes...the Honda Scoopy I or Click.
Fortunately, I only have 2 semi nerve-wracking experiences on my motorbike resume so far. One happened recently when I got stopped at my first police checkpoint. I was wearing my helmet, smiled at the policeman, and said “hello.” He took one look at me with my blonde hair and American accent and said “Madam, you may go." Police bribe averted!
The other was my fault and a good lesson learned. I was in Koh Phangan riding to visit a beach on the other side of the island. I had just rented the bike the day before and wasn’t familiar with the fancy computer system so assumed that the gas tank was full. It wasn’t. I was in the middle of the jungle on a 25% grade slope when the last drop in my tank expired. The worst place to run out of gas!
I refused to panic though and just turned around and cruised back down the hill as far as I could go. I left the bike on the side of the road, grabbed my water bottle, and walked 2 km until I found a roadside gas vending machine. There I filled my water bottle with 50 cents worth of gas and walked back to my bike to fill it. I was hot, tired, and sweaty but grateful for being able to deal with it on my own. PS- The rest of that day was fantastic!
So should you rent a motorbike in Thailand? If you have a driver's license and know how to ride a bike, I say yes… or at least try it! If this clumsy gal can do it, anyone can. Just remember to wear a helmet, stay left, don’t drive impaired, be mindful of all of the animals here (ie- street dogs, big lizards, squirrels, cats, ducks, geese, monkeys, etc.), and of course, always make sure you have enough gas in your tank!