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Should tourists ride motorcycles in Asia?

Motorcycles in asia pollution


Asian motorcycle crash statistics are staggering and getting worse as the increase in wealth leads more people to ride motorcycles on already overcrowded and under-engineered roads. The best advice for “western” tourists is to avoid the temptation to hire a motorcycle or scooter.

Motorcycles in asia
Thick Vietnamese traffic

For those who have ridden a scooter while on holiday in a South East Asian country, it seems amazing that anyone can survive for very long on the chaotic roads. The streets are teeming with scooters and no one seems to obey the basic rules of the road. On the one hand, it seems to flow like water, bubbling over rocks and finding the easiest way around obstacles. In some circumstances it’s almost like a well-choreographed ballet as the scooters intricately weave around each other.

No one seems to be going very fast, but it all continues to keep moving. The basic rule is don’t look behind (in Vietnam most riders remove their mirrors), don’t stop for anything (traffic lights, stop signs and intersections included), blow the horn and just keep moving, even if the road seems blocked. Turning across traffic usually requires finding an early gap and then riding on the wrong side of the road until you reach the corner! It is totally the reverse of most “western” nations where you obey signals, stop to turn and keep an eye on the traffic behind you.

While it may seem enthralling to watch, Asian traffic is a disaster waiting to happen. And unfortunately, it’s getting worse as rising incomes mean more people can afford motorcycles and scooters.

Motorcycles in asia
Would you share a Cambodian road with this?

A new study from The Australian National University has found the number of motorcycles per capita increases until average incomes reach around $8,000 per person per year. The number then declines as incomes rise higher. The research has implications for road safety in developing countries, where motorcycle use remains a relatively risky form of transport. Around 300,000 motorcyclists are killed around the world each year, with the death rate higher in developing countries.

The recent Songkran holiday or Thai New Year resulted in 322 road deaths and 3225 injuries, most of which were in motorcycle crashes, simply because most people ride motorcycles or scooters. Despite the high number, the authorities were “generally satisfied” with their campaign to reduce the toll during the highly-intoxicated celebrations!

So if you are planning to holiday in a South East Asian country and like the idea of getting around on a scooter, think again. I’ve been to several SEA destinations and thought the same about hiring a scooter, especially at the cheap rates offered. However, I’ve resisted until just recently on the relatively sparsely populated north-west coast of Lombok, Indonesia.

Scooter hire was a very reasonable $5 a day and fuel about 80c a litre. The roads were also very quiet and the road surfaces quite good with stunning coastal scenery. But there were still some hairy moments riding through villages on scooters that we were promised were “new” but quite battle scarred with balding tyres.

So, should western tourists ride in Asia?

Motorcycles in asia
Quiet and good-quality roads in Lombok

While no one rides a motorcycle or scooter for safety and most motorcyclists seem to have a death wish, we are mostly aware of the dangers and accept the calculated risk. But it’s just that – a calculated risk. We know the road environment, the behaviour of motorists and are familiar with the vehicle we are riding.

However, for most tourists, riding in Asian is the opposite of what riders expect. If you do succumb to the temptation it can be absolutely exhilarating – in the same way standing next to a cliff edge can be. But study the traffic first, learn the behaviour of the traffic, find somewhere quiet to practise, hire a bike from a reputable dealer and check that the tyres and brakes are ok.

Better still, book a tour with a reputable motorcycle company that has escort riders and back-up vehicles for bike and human incidents. For example, check out Yak Trak tours in the ad on this page. MotorbikeWriter readers get a $100 discount simply by entering the code MBW1 when you book.

Enjoy and good luck!