I learned to ride a scooter for the first time on the island of Koh Phangan, and it wasn't nearly as hard (or scary) as I feared!
If You Can Ride a Bike, You Can Ride a Scooter!
Many articles and travel blogs advise you against riding a scooter in Thailand. Initially, I believed them, but now I doubt some of those people have ever been to Thailand. Here is how I learned to ride a scooter for the first time on the island of Koh Phangan.
I'd never ridden a motorized bike before, but I had experience riding a mountain bike and a hoverboard (self-balancing scooter), and I was in good physical condition and had pretty good balance.
Now I absolutely love riding my Honda PCX 150 around the island; I find the experience to be very immersive, and the variety of road types and road hazards always keeps me engaged. In a way, riding a bike on Koh Phangan is a meditative, sportlike experience.
If You Have Never Been on a Motorized Bike Before, Do This!
Have someone give you a ride on the back of a bike or scooter. This helps you understand what to expect from riding. Thailand has professional (and sometimes licensed) bike-taxi drivers who can take you on short trips around the city or island.
Thailand's bike-taxi drivers are pros, and you have quite a lot to learn from seeing how they operate their bike. They veer through traffic, pull up to the front of traffic lights, avoid buses and other large vehicles with ease. I took a bike taxi for four weeks before renting my own scooter.
A better option would be to get a scooter riding instructor to give you a ride for fun and explain the finer points of handling a scooter, while you are sitting on the back.
Get Scooter Safety Gear
Tens of thousands of tourists come to Koh Phangan every year. Hundreds of them sustain injuries due to lack of experience riding a scooter, lack of protective gear, and driving while intoxicated. The good news: over 40 clinics on the island offer medical aid. The bad news: walking around with a cast around your arm while on vacation is not fun. Thais call it "getting a farang tattoo" when a foreigner loses skin in a motorcycle accident. Don't be one of these.
Tip 1: Get Motorcycle Riding Fingerless Gloves
The natural instinct while falling off a scooter at low speed (as when learning) is to break your fall with your hands. Having protective gloves would significantly reduce this kind of injury. You would avoid hundreds of dollars in medical expenses, as well as the horrible process of cleaning road grit out of open wounds to your hands.
I love driving with gloves on, as I have more control over the bike, I avoid the sticky feeling of handle grips, and I can drive in the rain without discomfort. Gloves should fit you well. Fingerless gloves allow you to operate a smartphone without taking off a glove; they are are also easier to fit and more suitable for a tropical climate.
Get gloves before coming to Thailand, as the local selection is rather poor and overpriced.
Tip 2: Get a Good Helmet With a Transparent Face Shield
While most rental places have a small selection of beat-up helmets, you would find that many of these are mostly for show and would offer very little protection in a real crash. If you intend to stay for a long time, consider investing around $60 in a full face helmet with a clear visor.
Make sure the face shield is not too scratched up and can be locked in an upward position. A face shield is great for riding in the rain, as rain droplets sting at 50 km/hr and are unbearable at 80km/hr.
The face shield should be transparent or very lightly tinted, otherwise, you will not be able to use it at night—when you might need it the most.
Tip 3: Get Decent Sneakers for Riding a Scooter
You will see people riding scooters in swim shorts and with bare feet all around the island. This is a horrible idea for a beginner, because you will be using your feet a lot to balance your bike and handle tight corners. In these situations, your foot touches the pavement. Sneakers are good for this, while flip-flops and bare feet are not.
Sneakers are especially important if you are riding with a passenger (like your girlfriend). In this case, you will need to use your feet to balance yourself around corners.
Tip 4: Wear Long Pants When You Ride Your Scooter
Beginners may lose control of the scooter at low speeds or while parking; you may not be used to the weight suddenly shifting onto its side. When a scooter falls on its side and you fall with it, your knee touches the pavement. At that moment, wearing long pants is the difference between a two-day minor scrape, fixed with a bandaid, and cleaning sand out of a scrape that will take twelve days to heal.
I found that REI desert pants were perfect for me as a beginner riding a scooter in Thailand—they are light and breathable, and survived a couple falls without damage.
Tip 5: Get a Breathable, Waterproof Jacket
Riding a scooter in the rain without protection sucks. While you can get a $1 rain poncho from 7-11, these are hot and get very sticky. A much better option is to get a breathable and waterproof jacket from Columbia or REI. I still can't believe how comfortable they are for riding. I don't feel the wind or rain; instead, it is as if the jacket gently caresses my arms, as I ride 80 km/hr. I kinda laugh at people trying to ride a scooter with an umbrella or doing 30km/hr on the side of a road in a rain poncho which catches the wind and looks all blown up like a balloon.
To some, these precautions seem extreme, in view of all the tanned shirtless men riding bikes barefoot on the island of Koh Phangan. It's true there's a certain appeal to being able to jump on a bike and go. Yet protected the way I am, I can ride my bike more confidently and have more fun in all kinds of weather, day or night. This to me is true freedom to explore.
Which Scooter to Rent?
Honda Scoopy 110
Light, agile, slow, good leg room, cargo hook, female rider friendly
Slow and not well suited for 2 riders
100–150 baht per day
Honda Spacy 110i
Light, agile, decent leg room and cargo hook. Modern design, Novice friendly
Not quite as powerful as 125cc scooters
100–150 baht per day
Honda Zoomer X
Stylish, more aggressive looking, fast
"Naked" bike design offers no leg protection in case of accident
150–200 baht per day
Honda Click 125i
Very agile, fast, has cargo hook and cupholder. Has combi brake and kickstand-ignition lock
Narrow handlebar - may feel cramped and small
100–200 baht per day
Honda PCX 150
Fast, ergonomic, spacious trunk, good for 2 people, newer models have 12v power outlet.Has combi brake and kickstand-ignition lock
Heavy, no cargo hook or cupholder
200–300 baht per day
Honda Forza 300
Very fast, ergonomic, a lot of cargo space, great choice for 2 people. Has combi brake and kickstand-ignition lock
Very large and heavy, not a beginner scooter
500–600 baht per day
Some of the Most Common Scooter-Rental Scams in Thailand
While scooter rental fees in Thailand go as low as 100 baht per day, hidden charges and scams may cost you tens of thousands of baht.
At Koh Phangan, you will find scooter rental places everywhere. Everything from large shops offering top-of-the-line bikes and scooters to tiny private places offering a beat up old Honda Wave. How do you find a place you trust?
- Scratches. Bikes fall and get scratched. Many shops scam customers by charging them unbelievable amounts of money to replace scratched plastic. These start at 500 baht ($15) for a mirror and add up quickly. You can end up paying hundreds of dollars if you rent a bike from a shop and fall. In reality, it would cost about $150 to replace all the plastic on a new rental scooter. Many shops make more money by scamming than by renting.
- Existing scratches. The owner did not fix the previous client's scratches. You missed them. Now they are yours.
- Scooter theft by owner. Suppose the bike owner has a spare key and knows where you live. It is not uncommon for the owner to come at night and take the bike back, charging you almost $2,000 for a stolen scooter.
Solutions to Scams
1. Never Leave a Passport at a Rental Place
A common scheme which makes scamming you easier is them making you leave your passport at a rental place. Now it's much easier for them to make you pay for any kind of real or imaginary damage to the bike. Instead, try to negotiate leaving a deposit or a copy of a passport.
- Worst case: they ask you to leave a passport and they got you by your nose.
- Middle ground: they ask you for a 3,000–10,000 baht deposit and give you a depository note back with the amount and signature. This limits the amount of money you may lose for repairs
- Best case: they take a copy of your passport. You can negotiate a reasonable repair bill.
2. Check Facebook Classified Groups Before You Arrive
There are hundreds of bikes for rent on the island. Some of the best deals are available through facebook groups. Many facebook deals either do not charge for scratches (they accumulate) or charge you a very reasonable amount (like 1500 baht).
3. Take a Thorough Video of the Bike Before You Rent It
Use your smartphone to take a picture of yourself with the owner. Then use the video function and make a thorough inspection of the bike. The video should be at least 1 minute long. Slowly move the phone and point it at the following locations:
- All over the plastic fenders on the sides
- Underside of the bike, especially in front
- Wheels, brakes, and shocks
- Handlebars, hand brakes, and dashboard
- The backside of the mirrors
- Take pictures of the rental contract and the bike owner for your records
After a couple minutes of recording you should have a video documenting the condition of the bike when it was rented. Even if you missed something, the video would capture it. Do not rely on pictures alone, as they miss obscure angles.
4. Lock Your Rental Bike at Night
- Park your bike in a well-lit area, preferably within range of a CCTV camera. Many hotels have these pointed at the entrance to the property. This helps deter theft by owner.
- Turn the steering wheel all the way to one side and move the key to the lower left position. This locks the steering wheel, meaning a thief cannot just roll your bike off the property.
- Close the magnetic ignition key cover (newer bikes have it)
- Buy a 200 baht lock at 7-11 and put a lock on the front wheel. This makes it so the owner cannot silently take the bike back at night. Riding a bike with a lock makes a lot of noise and the lock would hang up on the brake line.
While these steps may seem excessive (real bike theft on the island is rare), they make it exceedingly difficult for a person with a spare key to steal your bike and leave you with a bunch of trouble.
Finally: drive your scooter carefully during the first few days and follow the safety instructions below.
Learning to Ride a Scooter on Koh Phangan
So you signed an agreement or got a scooter from a friend. Now what? Make sure they show you the controls,
Get comfortable with the scooter. Ensure you have a clear street in front of you (learning to ride a scooter where a crowd of people just disembarked from the Haad Rin Queen ferry is not a good idea).
- A scooter may have a rectangular knob on a back of a key: this opens the ignition slot
- Insert the key into the slot. If the steering is locked, turn the handlebar and wiggle the key to unlock.
- Turn the key into the "On" position; the dashboard will light up.
- Sit on the scooter
- Locate the kickstand on your left side and lift it. Many scooters would not start with the kickstand down.
- Hold the brakes and tap the ignition button with your right thumb.
- The engine is now started and you are sitting on the scooter.
- Your right hand controls the throttle. Turning the handle towards you gives gas to the scooter
- With your feet touching the ground, keep your left hand on the brake and gently give the scooter some gas with your right hand.
- You will feel the scooter's engine rev up.
- Gently loosen the left brake and the scooter will roll.
- Ride at very low speed and move your feet along the ground to keep steady.
- Experiment with gas to pick up speed to 20 km/hr.
- Lift up your feet, but do not put them on the scooter yet; keep your feet just an inch above the ground.
- Return the right handle to its original position to stop giving the scooter gas.
- Engage the left brake handle and come to a complete stop,
- Engage the kickstand with your left foot.
- Get off the scooter and remove the key from the ignition.
You have now ridden a scooter for the first time. Initially, you will find the process confusing—there are too many things to keep track of (your balance, pedestrians, direction, speed, etc).
Riding Your Scooter
Once you get a hang of the controls, take your scooter back to your bungalow or hotel. Remember that in Thailand, everyone rides on the left side. You want to be as safe as possible during your first ride.
- Sit on your scooter and adjust the mirrors—you should be able to see behind you with both mirrors.
- Ride on the left side of the road.
- Keep your speed under 40km/hr.
- Keep to the shoulder, allow people to pass you.
- Do not pass cars yet.
- Use your shoes to stabilize yourself as you turn corners (you may fall if you move too slowly).
- Get to your place and find a place to park the scooter.
Now you can learn to ride the scooter.
Top 10 Dangers to Scooters in Koh Phangan
Thailand has days of about 12 hours, so chances are you will find yourself riding after dark very soon. Keep in mind the following dangers while you ride:
- Sand, Sand, Sand. This is your worst enemy on the road, and Koh Phangan roads get quite a lot of sand washed on them after rain. Sand looks like yellow blotches as you scan the road ahead. Do not brake in the sand; you may lose control. Keep the bike steady and cross patches of sand perpendicular. Do not tilt the bike while you are on sand. Watch for sand as you park, as you may slip then as well.
- Dogs. They just love to sleep and hang out on roads in Thailand. Steer around them, do not try to blow your horn at them. Just slow down and focus on avoiding them.
- Potholes. There are a few of potholes on the main roads. Typically these get patched quickly, but can still feel very bumpy. Be especially careful if you have a passenger while you cross over these.
- Unpaved roads. Sections of road around the north of Koh Phangan are not paved. Such roads get eroded by rain and are very dangerous to novice bike riders. Follow a scooter in front of you—let them find a suitable path. Keep your feet off the bike to balance yourself.
- Flooded roads. After heavy rain some roads flood. Slow down to 20 km/hr and cross these roads in the middle, where the water is shallowest. Riding into deep water at high speed is likely to cause you to lose control of your scooter.
- Blind turns. While you are learning the roads, slow down before blind turns. Otherwise, you may end up on the opposite side of the road, or fall into a ditch.
- Worn-out pavement. You will recognize this by black pebbles sticking out from the concrete. These roads are heavily worn, and the pebbles are smooth, making the concrete slippery. It's hard to brake on such pavement. it may cause you to overshoot a turn and end up on the opposite side of the road.
- Bridges and sharp hills. These can cause your scooter to jump a little bit so that you lose contact with the seat. Always slow down as you approach a bridge; otherwise, your scooter can fly, and you may not be prepared for this.
- Haad Rin Road. The most extreme road on the island with sharp turns, steep hills and beautiful views. Do not let some taxi driver push you; keep to the side of the road to let them pass. Use both brakes at the steepest hills.
- Other riders pulling onto the road. These are very dangerous. Remember that there are plenty of older riders on crappy bikes on Haad Rin. Some of these have no taillights or mirrors. Some drivers may be intoxicated or old and may not see you.
- Cyclists and pedestrians. People walk and ride on the street in Koh Phangan, because there are no sidewalks. Some of these people wear dark clothes or have a bicycle with no reflectors. Be especially aware of these after dark and in bad weather.
- Riders passing cars on the opposite side of the street. They expect you to move over to the side to avoid a collision with them. While most bikes have headlights, some of the cheaper local bikes don't. Watch out for these guys passing.
Some of the More Exciting Road Hazards
Bring Your Own GPS!
There are no bike GPS mounts available for sale on Koh Phangan.
Would Getting Motorcycle Insurance Help Me?
I've researched insurance options for renting a motorbike in Thailand and found no good options. The universal answers are as follows:
- You need an international motorcycle license to file a claim. Most Western licenses, such as the American Class C license, specifically exclude motorcycles. An insurance company would not pay a claim for you operating a motorcycle or scooter without a license.
- Insurance companies do not offer scooter insurance to international travelers—you are expected to pay for damages out of your pocket.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2016 GreenTieCommando