Tuesday, 16 May 2017

How and why you should hire a scooter in SE Asia

Hiring a bike is undoubtedly the best way to get around in SE Asia. Push bikes are fun, but Asia is all about the scooter. In countries like Vietnam and Indonesia, scooters reign supreme on the road. Join in, you know you want to!

Of course there are other ways to travel.

You've got your standard taxis - something I may go for in the UK; an Uber or black cab can be a quick and cost effective way of getting from a to b. In SE Asia however? Not so straightforward. First, most have a meter but many refuse to use it, so you never quite know if you're paying a fair price or being ripped off. Experience tells me its usually the latter, sadly! Second, in some parts of Bali, Uber is banned - taxi drivers have got some sort of dodgy monopoly, where they have joined forces against the low-cost taxi firm. You can still find Uber drivers (we did on several occasions), but at your own risk. And finally, the traffic is so insane in many of the tourist spots it just takes forever getting around by car. The upside? At least you usually benefit from the luxury of air con!

Tuk tuks. They're fun, right?! Wrong. Enough room for one but usually a bit cosy for two, expect to get thrown around and come away feeling battered and bruised. Again, you have the problem of being ripped off - and boy do they do that. In Penang the cost of a trishaw (like a rickshaw) was so extortionate we chose to explore on foot and make use of local busses. And of course you are met once again with the problem of traffic - and this time you don't even have the benefit of air con! I mean, they're worth experiencing for the lolz at least once in your life, but I wouldn't use them as a means to explore.

Organised tours. And let's face it, countries like Thailand are so set up for tourism now you can get around with relative ease. Coupled with some good haggling skills and you can grab a real bargain. The downside? Annoying gap-yah teens - hell, I took a sabbatical to get away from them! They are everywhere. On all the tours, being irritating.

Of course, you can explore on foot. And we did a lot of that. Places like Penang, Malaysia and Hanoi, Vietnam we saw largely on foot - with the odd taxi or bus to get further afield. Make the most of the slower pace to lust over the perfectly imperfect building facades and hidden nooks and alleyways. In Penang you might stumble upon some street art, if you know where to look! Islands like Koh Phi Phi or mainland-meets-island Railay there just isn't the need to hire a bike... partly because there aren't any proper roads to drive them on!

If I were you? I'd hire a scooter. Here's why:

1. Scooters are cost effective - when we visited SE Asia (Feb-Aug 2017) we paid on average £3 a day for a scooter. Petrol is ridiculously cheap, so you can get around without breaking the bank. I'm laughing whilst reading back in my diary at complaints at paying £2.50 for half a day's hire in Nusa Lembongan - that was pricey... in comparison to the usual pittance!

2. You have total freedom - no being squeezed into a minivan like sardines, or being forced to pay to see lame tourists spots because they come as part of the tour. You can pick your route and get to see the best bits without the crowds; go early to avoid the minibuses, or whilst they eat their tour package lunch at that crappy tourist trap down the road. You structure your day as you want to!

3. The views are insane - some of our best travelling moments were experienced on two wheels. The Hải Vân Pass is something you have to see on a bike! The coastal roads around Kuta in Lombok, Indonesia are absolutely stunning and cruising the hidden tracks in Ninh Bình in Vietnam is just beautiful. Prepare to be awe struck! Note: you can't stop on every bend to take a picture - just take it all in, and feel the wind in your hair. But wear a helmet. Don't be that idiotic tourist.

4. You can get off the beaten track - some of the best bits are off the tourist map. Our Hà Giang motorbike trip was out of this world; going totally off the grid, we didn't see other westerners for days! In Palawan (The Philippines) we hired a scooter to visit Nacpan Beach before continuing further to Duli beach - completely remote, we found a bar-meets-surf shack and enjoyed a couple of San Miguels in complete serenity.

As with most things in Asia, there aren't many rules. You may want to consider the following, however...

You might want to get an International Driving Permit. Just £5.50 from the Post Office, it could save you a hefty fine from a slightly dodgy Thai police officer. I'm talking from experience! (We didn't have a permit, paid the 500 baht fine, and counted ourselves lucky...). More info on driving abroad here.

Start slow, and easy on the corners! Don't be one of those heavily bandaged westerners hobbling around with crutches - take it easy, and give yourself some trial runs before hitting the main roads.

Do as the locals do. There seem to be few road regulations in SE Asia... or they're not followed, at least! Follow suit and go with the crowds of bikes (you will be one of many!) if you're unsure. The locals wont be cautious, so they wont expect you to be.

Wear a helmet, always. We saw so many tourists riding scooters without a helmet... and so many crashes. Protect yourself, as you would do at home. In some places you will get stopped and fined for not wearing a helmet, even if the locals aren't.

Check your travel insurance. For many cheaper options you wont be covered on a bike. We took the 'fingers crossed and go for it' approach and were lucky enough to be fine. Probably not the safest, but ya know (sorry, Mum).

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