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Renting a Scooter in Thailand? 28 Things I’ve Learned Over 6 Years About Staying Safe on Thai Roads

One of the most liberating things about renting a scooter in Thailand is the sense of freedom. Not only do you save money on taxis and tuk-tuks (which can quickly add up), but you get to go where you want to go on your own time and your own terms. 

Riding on two wheels is magnitudes more dangerous than driving in a car, no matter where in the world you are, but I think the most important thing to consider when doing so in Thailand is this: Thailand is one of the ten most dangerous countries in the world for drivers and the most dangerous ASEAN country.

Source: World Health Organization. 

Not only that, but three out of four deaths occur among motorcycle riders.

Still want to try your luck as a motorcyclist on Thai Roads? 

Let me share with you some of the things I’ve learned, some of them the hard way (i.e., through terrifyingly close calls), over my six years visiting and spending months at a time in the country that will help keep you safe on Thai roads. 


Shoulder check strategically

What I mean here is not that you should shoulder check (that goes without saying), but that you should carefully consider whether the risk of momentarily taking your eyes off what’s in front of you to look over your shoulder before turning or changing position on the road is outweighed by the risk of potentially being blindsided by someone or something in that second it takes to perform a shoulder check. 

As a general rule, most motorcycle training and manuals in Western countries recommend making a final shoulder check before changing position on the road. 

In theory, that makes sense. In Thailand, it’s way more nuanced.

In Thailand, especially in urban areas, people, as well as 6-inch deep potholes, come out of nowhere.

That is why it’s important to ask yourself before checking over your shoulder: given the current road dynamics (pedestrians, other cars and bikes, hazards like laneways, business entrances etc.), does it make more sense to remain stuck behind the 50 year-old mac truck spewing diesel particulate matter into your lungs that’s going to make a left-hand turn in 50 metres anyway, or quickly look over your shoulder to make sure the righthand lane is safe to move into? 

Sometimes the answer is yes, sometimes no.

You never know when some Lineman or Food Panda delivery driver might be mindlessly pulling out of a 7/11 parking area, obscured by a double-parked jacked-up Toyota Fortuner, while checking his phone for directions to his next delivery (more on delivery drivers in a bit)


The road itself is often as treacherous as other drivers

I think one of the most dangerous parts of choosing to rent a scooter in Thailand is that the roads themselves are another deadly hazard–especially in rural areas. 

In fact, it’s downright dangerous to go riding around the country in Thailand at night on a rental scooter because of how completely derelict Thai roads can be. 

Enormous potholes (the kind that could not only completely fuck your suspension but easily throw a rider off their bike) are everywhere and, in a lot of cases, go unfilled for years. The mixture of heat , extreme humidity and yearly monsoon rains, combined with negligent, sloppy roadwork and maintenance turn Thai roads (even in urban areas) into offroad courses. 

This is what scares me most about riding a motorbike or scooter in Thailand: you have to split your attention between the road itself and the other actors on and around it, often in equal measure. 

Things get dicey quickly when you have to make sure that you’re both avoiding the open manhole covers while ensuring that, in swerving to avoid the hazard, you’re not moving into the path of some asshole in a passenger van blowing by you with about six inches to spare (more on that later).


Watch out for gravel 

This is somewhat of a continuation of the previous heading.

People doing roadwork and people transporting loose material in Thailand (particularly things like soil and gravel) are careless. What this means is that slipping hazards are all over the place (sometimes even on the other side of blind corners). 

Don’t drive over gravel unless the alternative is driving off a cliff or into an oncoming tractor trailer, and certainly avoid braking while driving over gravel (particularly your front brake–more on that later). 


Don’t brake in water

Another thing about the sloppiness of Thai road construction and maintenance: there are often concave areas where water pools. 

The hydroplane risk on four wheels is already sketchy enough, but take two of those wheels away, and you’re even more at risk. I’ve had my bike go nearly perpendicular to the road (before I knew better), applying my front brake while driving over what I thought was a fairly innocuous-looking puddle. 

Avoid water if and when you can–even a small amount. 


Invest in some health insurance when renting a scooter in Thailand

I will admit I was pretty cavalier with my safety when I first came to Thailand. As time has gone on, and I’ve seen some things I can’t unsee, I’ve definitely changed my tune. 

I was under the impression that it was going to cost me a lot of money to insure myself, and I was on a tighter budget than I am now, so I opted just to accept the risks of the uninsured. 

You can get really good insurance, however, for not a lot of money. Whether you’re visiting for a couple of weeks or a couple of months, SafetyWing (who I’ve partnered with) offers really good, really affordable health insurance plans–especially for longer trips and stays.


Stay away from parked cars (especially ones on the shoulder of the highway)

This one is for the simple reason that SOO many people don’t check to see who’s barreling down the road behind them before aggressively flinging their doors open. 

They drive on the left in Thailand, meaning the driver’s side is on the right, which means someone always has to get out on that side. 

Give parked cars as wide of a berth as you can while driving in urban areas, but even more of one on the highway. 

This scenario is a bit trickier because bikes are expected to either stay in the shoulder or very close to it on highways to let larger, faster vehicles go at the speeds they want to go (which is typically waaaay over the speed limit). 

You, on your little 125cc Honda with your girlfriend or buddy on the back, maxed out at 90km/h, on your way to see the Emerald Pool, will want to stay out of the right-hand lane as much as possible while riding. 

The problem is that cars and trucks will park haphazardly on the shoulder of the highway, and, again, you never know who’s carelessly talking on the phone while getting out of their vehicle as you’re zipping down the shoulder. 

I try to stay out of the shoulder whenever possible for a number of reasons (I’ll get into another reason later on), but you definitely want to stay as far away from cars parked on the shoulder as you can. 


Make sure your signal is off when you’re not using it

I don’t want it to sound like Thai roads are complete anarchy. To me, as a Canadian, they often seem that way, but, like anywhere, there is usually a certain method and cadence to the madness that locals have had a lifetime to get used to.

The problem is you, as a foreigner renting a motorbike in places like Krabi, Chiang Mai, Phuket, etc., are unfamiliar with it all.

One of those unwritten rules is that if your signal is on, people take it for granted that you’re about to make a turn and will utilize the space around you accordingly.

But people leave their signal lights on by accident all the time. In Thailand, it can be particularly dangerous to do this because if someone believes you are about to make a right turn, they may very well think it’s safe to blow by you on the left. 

This can get ugly if you don’t intend to turn right, but have neglected to turn your signal off. 

I probably over-check to ensure I haven’t left a signal on (by running my thumb over the little toggle above the horn). 


Avoid your front brake when wet

If you travel to Thailand (or really anywhere in SE Asia) during the monsoon season (typically June through September-October), you’re in for a lot of rain, which means, if you’re renting a scooter, you will be driving on wet, slick roads. 

Throw in some errant soil or gravel from a flatbed truck, some clay from the many small (and large) landslides, and you might as well be driving on ice sometimes. 

It’s a good idea to learn how to read a live satellite meteorological map if you’re travelling to Thailand (not Google Weather) so you can plan your outings around the rain and, ideally, avoid riding if it looks like you might get caught in a downpour. 

If you do find yourself out when the roads are wet–either just after a rain or during–you should avoid breaking if you don’t have to (maintain good throttle control), and if you do need to (which you will at some point), avoid using your front brake when possible. 

Source: rideto.com

Ideally, you would be using a combination of your front and rear brakes at all times because it’s the most effective way to slow down, but your front brake is potentially dangerous when it’s wet out because it’s more prone to locking up. 

You definitely want to avoid your front brake (regardless of the weather), and preferably either brake, in wet, mossy areas. Those big beautiful limestone karsts and their majestic, draping forest cover, create shady areas on roads and highways where moss and algae like to grow and I’ve fallen off my bike before (luckily going slowly down a mountain pass).

It’s scary how fast you can go from upright to completely horizontal in the blink of an eye and how powerless you are to stop it.


Watch out for people riding down the shoulder in the opposite direction

Anywhere the rules of the road are inconsistently enforced (like Thailand), you get people doing dangerous bullshit, especially if it means getting where they’re going 10 seconds faster. 

In Thailand, you often see people (especially in the country) riding their bikes the wrong way down the shoulder to avoid having to travel an extra 100 metres to make a U-turn at a designated U-turn area. 

This means that, in addition to sharing the shoulder with illegally parked vehicles, you also have to share it with people coming at you the wrong way. 

This is normal in Thailand but jaw-dropping the first time you see it. I’m pretty sure it would be a massive fine and a punitive license suspension in my home country of Canada for trying something like this. 

Another reason to stay out of the shoulder unless absolutely necessary. 


Green lights don’t mean go

Never, ever start moving the second your light turns green. I know Western driver’s ed also urges this, but holy shit, I’ve never seen so many red lights blown as I have in my years in Thailand. 

People run red lights both because they’ve failed to beat a stale green (as I’m sure we all have) and because they just don’t give a shit. 

Always, always scan the intersection before continuing on. You will be pressured by other drivers on the road to hit the throttle as soon as you see green, but that extra two-second pause could save (and has saved mine) your life. 


Mirror check strategically

This is similar to the point I made about shoulder-checking. 

Mirror checking is part of responsible defensive driving and situational awareness, especially when you’re on a motorbike. You should be checking your mirrors every so often, even if you aren’t planning on changing position.

I like to know that, in the event that I do have or want to change position–I notice someone double-parked in front of a 7/11 100 metres up ahead and don’t want to get stuck behind them–I have the space in the other lane to do so. 

It’s also a good practice because Thai drivers think nothing of hiding in your blind spot and coming into your lane to pass you–sometimes, mind-bogglingly, in the case of other bikes, to ride along beside you. 

The “strategic” part of this subheading’s title also refers to knowing when and when not to mirror-check. Like shoulder checking, every time you glance at your mirror, you lose track of what’s in front of you. 

That’s probably the most dangerous situation to be in as a scooter rider in Thailand, so, as with the shoulder check, weigh your odds. Is the coast up ahead clear enough that you can spare that one second of distraction? Or are there simply too many primary and secondary hazards around you that require complete focus?


Assume everyone is impatient and selfish

I love Thai people in most contexts, but definitely not on the road. Pose that statement to pretty much any foreigner with extensive experience driving in the country and I would be shocked if there wasn’t unanimous agreement to a person. 

This expat’s blog is probably the most thorough, albeit amateur, anthropological analysis of the various cultural reasons behind the rude and reckless driving that characterize Thai roads–if you’re interested. 

I won’t try to add or subtract anything from it, but instead will refer you back to the title above and suggest that you simply accept that’s the way things are. 

What this means for you, the scooter-renting tourist in Thailand, is don’t expect civility when you’re on a motorbike. 

It’s the law of the jungle out there. Expect the bigger vehicle to cut you off and force you to change positions simply because it can. 

Expect other bikes to cut in front of you while you wait to make a right-hand turn so they can turn first. 

Expect large vehicles to aggressively pass you with mere inches of space between you and their two tonnes of metal hurdling down the road. 

Expect people to run red lights, expect people not to care that their inability to wait an extra 5 seconds to pull out of a parking space means you have to apply the brakes, expect it all. 

Understanding that this is what you’re up against will help you make better decisions. 


Watch out for dogs

Street dogs are a problem in most developing countries, and Thailand is no exception. They’re dirty, they’re often aggressive, and they are road hazards. 

You will see them (day and night) lying in the middle of a thoroughfare, either asleep or seemingly oblivious to the traffic around them. In addition to seeing the grizzly aftermath of this tendency (I won’t go into details), sleeping and lazing dogs also cause their fair share of accidents

If you were to hit a dog on your motorbike while travelling 50+ kmph, it could easily seriously injure or kill you. 

If you can’t see any dogs, expect them, and if you can see them (the more, the worse), then it is a good time to check that mirror to see a) who’s behind you and b) if you’ve got the space to evade, in addition to covering the brake. 


Avoid driving past dogs at night

Another dog-related rule.

Not only are Thai dogs road hazards in the sense that they would be very easy to hit, but come nightfall, when they group up and start roaming around, they can get aggressive. 

I’ve been charged by packs of dogs while riding at night (never during the day), and if you panic, you could lose control of the bike and either fall or crash, hurting yourself in the process and potentially having to then deal with a pack of aggressive (perhaps even horny) dogs. 

If you see a pack of dogs on a back road and you can avoid driving past them, do so. If you can’t, pass them with some speed and don’t lose your cool if you are charged. 


If you’ve ever been to Thailand, you probably know what I’m talking about. 

Source: The Big Chilli

These guys drive balls to the wall everywhere they go, and they fancy themselves little Michael Schumachers. 

In fact, Thai racing culture has convinced a lot of Thai drivers that they are far more capable and discerning behind the wheel than they actually are. The over-confidence, combined with the inherent chaos of Thai roads, made worse by the schedules these guys are typically on, means they are one of the biggest menaces out there. 

I try to steer clear of these vans whenever I can. The drivers will pass you extremely close (both on the highway and in urban areas) and weave in and out of traffic as if they were behind the wheel of a lithe Porche 911 Turbo instead of a bulky Toyota Commuter.

Passenger vans in Thailand won’t think twice about taking serious liberties with your life and safety, so it is best to give them a wide berth. 


Be wary of food delivery drivers

Covid accelerated the food delivery trend in ASEAN countries three-fold in 2020 as people started working from home, hunkering down and doing everything online. And it’s very noticeable. 

This, of course, spurred a huge uptick in the number of delivery drivers on the road. Add to that the fact that you can get pretty much anything delivered in Thailand (want a bag of rice and a box of paracetamol from 7/11? No problem), and you get urban areas where it sometimes seems like every third bike out there is a Food Panda or Lineman guy. 

It sucks that the Thai economy is such (made worse by Covid) that so many Thais are forced into this kind of gig work, but holy shit, these guys are some of the most dangerous people on the road. 

The nature of the business model means they are always pressed for time, and they will do whatever is necessary to get to their next pickup or delivery. The result has been a surge in delivery driver accidents. 

If you’ve shared the road with these guys (and the occasional girl), it’s not hard to see why. They run red lights, they swerve dangerously in and out of traffic, they will creep alongside you in the same lane, they are constantly pulling in and out of restaurants and other businesses and, perhaps most worryingly, they are constantly looking at their phone for directions. 

I see a scooter delivery driver do something insane at least once every time I’m out on my bike. 


Watch out for bikes with no lights

Yearly inspections aren’t really a thing in Thailand (at least not something that would appear to be seriously enforced). Combine that with sporadic and unpredictable law enforcement on the road, and it gives people license to cut corners and neglect safety whenever it’s cost-effective to do so. 

This results in all kinds of irresponsible driving and vehicle ownership, but among the most wontonly dangerous has to be the motorbike without functioning lights (rear or head) phenomenon. 

I shudder every time I see a bike (often with a homemade metal sidecar attached) going down a poorly lit street at night, sometimes even coming the wrong way down the street to save time.

As a foreigner taking to the road in Thailand for the first time, you could be forgiven for failing to consider that someone might do something like this. Oh but they do, and you need to watch out for them. 


Back into parking spots whenever possible 

I’ve taken to backing my bike into parking spots whenever possible so that I can more easily scan both directions of traffic when pulling out. 

You avoid having to make a U-turn if you are returning in the direction you came from, and you are able to more quickly take in and account for vehicles and hazards coming at you from both sides. 

Obviously, it’s not always going to be possible because it can take some extra time to properly park a bike backwards, but if you can, I suggest you do. A lot of Thais also do it, and it allows for better decision-making.


Wear eye protection

I wear glasses, so I’ve got this covered by default, but based on the number of times that I’ve had insects crash into a lens while travelling at 60+ kmph I’m glad I do.

My girlfriend had some sort of flying insect crash into her eye while we were riding just a couple of days ago, and she was lucky it only made partial contact because a spiky bug leg at 60 kmph, plus whatever velocity it happens to be travelling at, can easily scratch a cornea. 

This safety recommendation can be a bit trickier to implement for a couple of reasons. The first is that not everyone wears glasses. You can always don your sunglasses, but sunglasses can sometimes complicate things out there–particularly by making potholes and speedbumps appear less vivid than you would like them to be, especially on overcast days or at dusk or dawn. 

If the helmet that comes with your rental bike has a functioning visor on it, it is are very often so scratched up that it actually impairs your vision. 

It’s your call on how you want to protect your eyes, but flying insects, combined with a ton of dust, dirt and gravel, are real threats. 


Look both ways before U-turning

The closest call I’ve ever had on Thai roads came when I once made a U-turn without looking both ways.

It was at night, I was pulling into a designated U-turning spot on a section of the highway I was very familiar with; the coast was clear, so I prepared to go ahead and thank god I hesitated because a Toyota pickup truck doing 100 kmph the wrong way down the road came within inches of my bike.

I pulled into the gas station on the other side of the highway to ponder life for a moment and then continued on my way. 

It goes without saying, I always check both ways at U-turns.


Be cognizant of extra stopping time required when two people are on the bike

This one seems obvious and it only takes a couple of minutes with another person on the back to understand what I mean, but it doens’t hurt to be aware of this before departing with your friend or girlfriend/boyfriend along for the ride. 

It is especially important to know this when going downhill and driving over wet ground. 

The extra momentum you gather with two bodies has a significant effect on how much distance you need to safely stop.


Strategically cover (and use) your horn

Covering and using your horn is part of good defensive driving no matter the vehicle, but they are even more important tactics when you’re a motorcyclist. 

They are crucial for letting other motorists (especially larger vehicles) know you are there, particularly when passing. People change lanes rather aggressively in Thailand (often without signalling), and you would think, given the sheer number of bikes on the road, that people would just naturally be cognizant of that before changing position. Think again. 

It’s your responsibility to give other drivers and motorcyclists a honk; it could save your life. 

“Strategically” also means knowing when not to use your horn. I will use the diagram of the bike I used above to illustrate what I mean. 

The position of the horn on most scooters is usually between the high beam switch and the signal light. 

To use it, you have to relax the bottom of your hand a bit to exert pressure with your thumb. What this does is add milliseconds to your reaction time when you then need to divert all of your hand muscles and fine motor skills back to the brake. 

These milliseconds could be the difference between avoiding an accident or being involved in one. 

Like your shoulder and mirror checking, you sometimes need to ask yourself, “is using my horn safer than simply preemptively slowing down?” 


Don’t go out with a preoccupied mind and don’t let your mind wander

Another one of those things that you could say about driving any vehicle in any country, but you need to be doubly on your Ps and Qs in Thailand.

If you’ve just had a big argument with your girlfriend or boyfriend, don’t go for a ride to clear your head. Your head should already be as clear as possible when you start that ignition. Riding a scooter or motorcycle requires hypervigelence, especially in one of the most dangerous countries in the world for motorcyclists.

You also need to be good at catching your mind wandering while riding, whether it’s to the time you peed your pants at a sleepover in fourth grade, or spending too much time taking in the sights and sounds of the surreally beautiful Thai countryside.


You have to account for traffic in both the oncoming lane and your own lane when turning

If what I’m saying here is not self-evident, let me clarify with the below image. 

What often happens on Thai roads is that multiple bikes will crowd into the same lane. Sometimes they are right up against you, which is nerve-racking enough, but at least you can see them. 

Other times, like in the above image, they are back and to the right (or left). In the scenario, imagine that you (the red bike) are driving down a single-lane road in Krabi on your way to a new restaurant you just read about on TripAdvisor. 

There is no oncoming traffic, so, believing you are good to go, you signal and begin to veer off to the right. What you should have done is check your mirror (and/or shoulder) to make sure a Lineman or Food Panda driver wasn’t speeding past you down the other half of the lane. 

Doesn’t matter that you had your signal on. People will often not give the person making a turn, especially if you’re on a bike, the space they need. 


Accept that you will be bullied by larger vehicles

I refer you back to the “selfish and impatient” section earlier in this article, where I linked to a pretty thorough exploration of the hows and whys of incivility on Thai roads while also adding that, once again, it’s just something you need to accept. 

Drivers of larger vehicles have very little sympathy for lowly motorcycle and scooter riders. Thais, of course, don’t even question this. It’s what they’re used to.

The weak fearing the strong is the status quo on Thai roads and I would imagine, although I haven’t asked around, that people more or less accept this without even thinking about it. 

Ride long enough on Thai roads, and you will be cut off; you will be forced to change position so that some big fuck-off huge SUV can pull out of 7/11 five seconds sooner, and you will have enormous death machines pass you with a couple of inches to spare. 

That said, it’s very important to remember this next point. 


Don’t be rude to other drivers

It’s fairly normal in most Western countries (maybe outside of the heavily-armed United States) to be a bit rude to drivers acting uncourteously. You might lean on the horn a little longer than you normally would to let someone know their bullshit is not appreciated. 

You might mouth and pantomime a “what the fuck are you doing?” through your window as you pass. I will admit to flipping off a few people in my time. 

Don’t do this on Thai roads. The below headlines should reveal why: 

Here’s an anti-road rage sign from Thailand: 

So prevalent that they need public service announcements to address it…

It does make perfect sense, however. I’ve been left fuming more times than I can remember driving on Thai roads. The audacity of some drivers and the arrogance and flippancy with which they risk your life to gain a few extra metres of road or seconds of time is enough to make even the most peaceful person think ugly thoughts.

But this is not Germany, or Canada, or Australia or France. 

People carry all sorts of weapons in their cars in Thailand, including guns, knives, parangs (SE Asian machetes), mace, etcetera, and the macho culture (combined with drugs and drinking) is such that people, apparently quite often, do very brash, violent things. 

As much as it might hurt your ego to just accept your inevitable mistreatment on Thai roads, keep your emotions in check. 


Keep your distance

The ebb and flow of Thai traffic is such that you might find, after getting used to how things work, you are tempted to start tail-gaiting other drivers the way Thai drivers do. 

I’m always amazed, especially any time I’m in a passenger van, just how little space they allow for emergency braking. It’s even crazier how motorcyclists will do this–sometimes to very large (and poorly secured) commercial vehicles. 

I’ve seen some horrendous Liveleak footage of the aftermath of this kind of irresponsibility in places like India. 

Do yourself a favour. Don’t drive like the Thais. Account for their driving, accept it, but do not adopt their bad habits. 


That’s all for now

That’s all that I can think to include in my official unofficial manual for foreigners renting scooters in Thailand. If you’ve got any more tips, feel free to leave a comment.

My intention is both to inform and to scare. You run serious risks zipping around Thai roads, and I wish I’d had a manual of this kind given to me when I first started visiting the country. 

I would also like to reemphasize the health insurance bit. Foreigners end up in Thai hospitals all the time because of scooter accidents. Not saying that you will, but why risk being uninsured?

I also don’t want you to leave with a bad impression of Thai people. I love Thailand, and I love Thais. Outside of perhaps the areas most sullied and exasperated by mass tourism, they fully deserve their reputation for friendliness, humour and generosity. 

A lot of them just go full Mr Hyde when they get behind the wheel. Account for that during your adventures, and you should be just fine.

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