There is no escaping it, two-wheeled transport (the motorised kind) is a big thing in Thailand, whether you are a local or a visitor. Much of the Thai population use motorbikes and scooters as their main mode of transport, balancing babies, extended family, pets, recreation equipment in the most creative and precarious ways. Many cannot afford cars. Sometimes the riders are children, nipping through the city on the way home from school. Sometimes the riders are drinking, texting, talking on the telephone or even brandishing an umbrella before their face as a futile defence against the monsoon rain. Motor scooters swarm along the town and beach roads like ants do the side walks.
And, like ants, if something gets in their way then they find a way around it; and it most likely will not be legal. Undertaking, overtaking, pavement mounting, riding on the wrong side of the road against the traffic, illegal U-turns, emerging without checking their mirrors, ploughing across lanes and lanes of traffic…And the police turn a blind eye. When I asked one drunken moped rider what would happen if the police realised he was inebriated, he shrugged his shoulders and said he did a lot of drinking with the police. Anecdotally, it seems that what the law says and what the police actually enforce are two entirely different things in Thailand. A major case in point: motorcycle helmets. You will most likely see that the majority of riders are lidless, although this is not what the law says.
Which brings me back to the visitors. Amid all this chaos, they can’t seem to wait to join the swarm. Because, to get off the beaten track, there is no better form of transport. They’re quick, cheap and cool (aerated, that is); not so cool if you get a pink ‘Hello Kitty’ design. Or, worse still, Man United.
As far as I was concerned this was retro-cool
But locals will tell you that statistically, an average of seven tourists a day are injured riding motor scooters or motor bikes. Depending on what statistic you are reading, they might tell you that there are 28 to 38 deaths per days relating to motorcycle accidents. The locals will shake their heads and bemoan the dangers of tourists on motorcycles. Any injury you get will be assumed to be a from a motorcycle or scooter (personally, I would rather that than tell someone I fell down a drain), because that is the main source of injury to foreigners out here. And those injuries, they could run from gravel rash to something much worse; life changing even. So, do the risks outweigh the rewards? Actually, do you really know the risks you are taking?
Insurance is what I do for a living and personal injury is something I think about a lot! The best way of reducing a risk is to make sure you know as much as you can about the one you are taking. Hind sight is a wonderful thing…
…so make sure you do the thinking before the worst happens.
ARE YOU INSURED?
Insurance for the physical damage to the bike is one thing. You can purchase this for an additional sum when you hire the bike (more on that later). But in the first instance, do you have travel insurance? If so, have you actually read the policy to affirm that it covers you for riding a moped or motorcycle? Many will not. My policy with Post Office Insurance EXCLUDES riding a moped or motorcycle unless I or the rider of the bike (if I am the passenger) have a licence to ride the bike. Some insurers may exclude this risk altogether due to the high risk of injury.
It is crucial that you are insured a) for the medical costs (including repatriation) arising from any injury you sustain, and, b) the costs of medical treatment/personal injury sustained by anyone else in the accident for which you might be responsible. These costs could be astronomical. Enter Thailand motorcycle accidents into Google and you will get a good idea of the ‘worst case scenario’ here.
DO YOU HAVE A LICENCE?
So, do you? In the UK, a standard UK driving licence obtained before February 2001 will cover you to ride a 50cc moped, limited to 31 mph. Beyond that you are required to take various CBT (Compulsory Basic Training) and written exams.
INTERNATIONAL DRIVING PERMIT (IDP)
The jury is out on whether you need one of these or more importantly, whether not having one could invalidate your insurance. You can apply for one through Post Office, AA, and RAC. It is applied for and granted on the strength of having a UK licence and simply sits alongside your UK licence, satisfying the terms of the 1949 Geneva Convention. If planning to drive or ride a moped while in Thailand, one should be obtained before leaving the country.
If you are driving for a sustained period in Thailand, longer than a year, then you need a Thai driving licence.
HAVE YOU RIDDEN A MOPED BEFORE?
Basically, if you haven’t, is the the chaotic buzz of a Thai town or beach resort the place to learn? A lot of riders can have an accident by failing to read the road conditions (wet or gravelly), not paying attention and hitting a pot hole, swerving to avoid the ever-present and much-more-road-smart-than-you stray dog, twisting the accelerator when you should be braking…
I could go on. If essential, then chose somewhere quiet. I hired this retro-gem on Koh Lanta, where there was very little traffic on the road and I could take my time over every manoeuvre (some people would say this is uncharacteristic). Having said that, I rode a moped for a year or so on the the UK roads (and fell off!) about 12 or so years ago.
The beast and I, on the road together
WEAR A HELMET
This should be provided at the time of hire. If you are not given one, do not hire the bike. Sure, the thought of the wind blowing through your hair evokes a romance and freedom that we will never enjoy in the UK, but it is not worth the risk. The helmet could be the difference between walking away from something or having someone else brush your hair (and perform other basic personal tasks for you) for the rest of your life.
DO NOT HAND OVER YOUR PASSPORT
Some hire outfits will ask for your passport as security. Do not give them this, in the event of an accident or damage, they could refuse to hand it back. Allow them a copy of your passport and perhaps a security bond/deposit to offset against any damage, but never your passport.
OBTAIN INSURANCE COVER
As hirer of the bike you will be liable for damage to the bike during the hire period. The hire company should offer insurance cover. Take it and ensure you are aware of the excess and are willing and able to pay this in the event of an accident.
INSPECT THE VEHICLE CAREFULLY
Make sure you identify any scratches or other damage to the vehicle before you leave and discuss it with the hirer. Take photographs. It is not unknown for hirers to be billed for pre-existing damage on return of the bike.
Make sure the vehicle is roadworthy. If you have a driver’s licence, in theory, you should be able to do this. Check the tyres and ensure that it is taxed – this should be displayed on the bike.
WHEN YOU HEAD OUT
Take your licence, IDP and insurance documents (travel and insurance for the damage to the bike) out with you.
And, sorry (yes the final nail in the fun coffin), wear some sensible clothes/shoes which might afford a little protection if you do come off.