Everything You Need to Know Before Renting a Motorbike in SE Asia


Before venturing to SE Asia, I swore up and down I’d never drive a scooter.

As someone who used to experience high anxiety driving a car, driving a motorbike around by myself seemed unfathomable.

But, in Vietnam, when I had to ride on the back of one for the first time in Sapa in order to make my bus back to Hanoi, I was forced to get over the fear I had pretty quickly. There, the choice was simple- hop on the back of a bike or miss my bus, and consequently, miss the overnight trip I had planned the next day to Ha Long Bay.

Spoiler: I got on the bike and was fine. Riding around the twisting, rocky roads of Sapa was at times a bit nerve-racking, but nothing happened.

Later that week, back in Hanoi, I decided to take a Grab bike. The Uber of SE Asia, Grab bikes are hugely popular in Vietnam. There are also cars, but bikes typically cost 1/3 of the price, if not less.

Again, things were fine.
Taking bikes around Hanoi meant I got places much quicker than I would have otherwise.

And so, I continued taking Grab in Da Nang, Hoi An and Sai Gon.

It was in Sai Gon that I considered learning how to drive in Bali. Around this time, I friend confirmed she’d be visiting Bali right after I arrived. And, as if the stars were aligning, this particular friend happened to have 15+ years of motorbike experience.

When she offered to teach me on rural roads in northern Bali, I said yes. What’s the worst that could happen, I figured?

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Aside from a crash into a field my first day learning (got a bit too cocky), I had no other incidents during my six months of driving.

There were definitely moments when I questioned if I was able to drive down a busy highway, or up a winding mountain road. But, when those moments came, I just took a deep breath and told myself it’ll be fine.

And, fortunately, it always was.

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I’ve learned a lot about renting in Bali, which from what I can gather pretty much applies most places in SE Asia.

Whether you’re coming to Asia and driving for the first time, or a seasoned rider, these are my top tips for renting a scooter (or motorbike).

The Guide to Renting a Motorbike: 15 Tips for Renting a Scooter in SE Asia

If you haven’t driven a scooter before, and are only coming for a short stay holiday, you may want to reconsider renting. 

I’m not in the business of fear-mongering, but driving a scooter in SE Asia is unquestionably dangerous.

Locals have been riding since they were infants, and likely driving since they were kids. There’s little to no regard for people who may be newer to driving a scooter or unfamiliar with rules of the road.

And really, your biggest threats on the road likely won’t even be locals. They’ll probably be other tourists, animals and unkempt roads (dirt paths with rocks and potholes, really).

The worst roads I’ve seen in SE Asia were in Laos and on Nusa Penida- 4WD cars struggled on both. I can’t even fathom taking a scooter on those ‘roads’.

It’s my honest opinion it’s not worth renting a scooter on a short-stay holiday. Hire a driver or take a tour, unless you have someone to teach you and time to practice driving.

Before renting, ensure your travel insurance covers medical emergencies and know where the nearest covered hospital for surgery is.

This may seem extreme, but it’s a true reality. Over half of the people I know who’ve been in motorbike accidents in Asia have needed complicated surgery.

There’s a good chance wherever you’re staying will not have the latest medical facilities. You may need to fly to Bangkok- will your insurance cover that? What if you need to be airlifted somewhere? Is that covered?

In all likelihood, you’ll be fine if you drive carefully. But things happen- someone else could hit you.

I’m currently insured with SafetyWing. They cover emergency medical attention, but will not pay for bike repairs or damages. I’ve also been insured with World Nomads- same story.

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Budget for the worst case scenario- destroying the bike. 

Will this happen? Probably not. But, what if it does? Do you have a few hundred (or thousand) dollars you can pay for repairs to leave the country?

Most repairs are done without a contract and places expect you to pay cash.

I can’t believe how many visitors don’t think about these things before renting. I’m all for a carefree holiday, but you also don’t want your vacation to end with you going into debt.

Google bike rental companies and read the reviews. 

People are honest- I use Google reviews and TripAdvisor as a barometer for 1) how often the place rents (volume of reviews) and 2) what they’re like to deal with (sentiment of reviews).

And before you rent, ask about their rental policies. Do they require you leave your passport for the duration of the rental? Do they take a deposit? Do they include a helmet with your rental?

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Take photos of your bike when it’s dropped off, and test ride it to ensure lights, brakes, horns, etc. all work fine. 

Make it obvious you’re photographing the bike. I’ve heard countless tales of people returning bikes and being forced to pay for ‘new’ scratches they were accused of causing.

Ask about repair company preference. 

If you’re renting for a few days/weeks/months, make sure you know if they have preferred mechanics, and how involved they want to be in repairs.

It’s their bike, they should be involved with any issues that arise (e.g. a flat tire). Many of the vendors I’ve used in Bali and Thailand want to stay connected via WhatsApp- this makes it easy to shoot them a quick text if something is wrong or the bike needs a minor repair.

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Also ask about the petrol tank policy before you head out. 

Do they expect you to return the bike full? Some places give you the bike on empty, and don’t really care what level it’s returned at. Best to ask to avoid any confusion down the line.

Ask whether helmets are included before agreeing to rent. 

Often, this is something you may be able to negotiate before you pick-up, if it’s not already included.

Under no circumstances should you ride around without a helmet on. Motorbike accidents are extremely common in Asia- wearing a helmet is the bare minimum you can do to protect yourself.

Often, the helmet the bike agency gives you will be the cheapest model on the market. If you’re renting for months on end, or moving to Asia and will be driving frequently, consider buying a much safer, sturdier helmet for your rides.

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Be prepared to negotiate the cost of your rental. 

You’ll get the best prices if you rent for more than a few days. Renting for a month in Ubud, I paid ~$1.40 a day. If you only rent for a few days, day rates may range from $4-5 per day.

Again, this is where reviews can be helpful. It’s not uncommon for people to be candid about the rate they paid as part of reviewing their experience.

Before your trip, arrange for an International License. 

US citizens- you can get one from AAA for $20 (discounts are available to AAA members). You just need to bring a passport photo, money, and your driver’s license. Once you have one, they’re good for a year.

You may not need it to pick up your rental, but I have been asked by rental companies to see it. And, I’ve heard if the police pull you over in Indonesia, which is common for foreigners, they’ll fine you for not carrying it.

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Know that as a foreigner, you’re basically a target. 

Someone bumps you from behind? Or, someone hits you? It’s likely you’ll be found at fault, simply because you’re a foreigner.

You should think about driving in Asia from the mindset of police are looking for reasons to pull you over. At times, they’ll even do it without one. Don’t speed, don’t drive without a helmet, don’t drive without both mirrors- essentially, don’t give them ammo.

Research your destination before you visit. 

Are there tons of TripAdvisor reviews or blog posts complaining about how terrible the roads are?

If so, maybe consider hiring a driver.

In Bali, I’ve used drivers for day trips to Munduk and Nusa Penida. I know how to drive a bike, but after reading countless reviews of how beat up, confusing, or steep the roads in those places were, I decided I didn’t want to risk it.

And, when exploring Sideman and East Bali, I hired a driver because I didn’t fancy driving myself 2.5-3 hours both ways.

I know my comfort level is driving around Ubud/Canggu, and anywhere within an hour or so of where I’m staying.

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Know where the petrol stations are and having a plan for refueling. 

Generally, gas will always be cheapest at the major stations. You can also buy bottles from small shops, but they usually run a bit more expensive.

Still, anything is better than running out of fuel on a road trip. In Bali, I usually refuel at the major stations around Ubud, and only stop at roadside stands when I’m running low.

Understand that the rules of the road means there are no rules.

Sure, in Indonesia, you drive on the left side, and it’s helpful to know that.

At least most of the time.
It’s not uncommon to see people driving down both sides, swerving in and out without signaling, carrying obscenely large items on the back of their bikes, or any other number of seemingly unsafe, potentially disastrous things.

Remember: These are people who grew up on bikes. Their comfort level is exponentially higher than yours.

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Feeling good about what you need to know to rent?

The Guide to Renting a Motorbike: A Few More Tips for First Time Drivers- 

  • Practice makes perfect: Try to find back roads to practice driving on before you hit the major roadways. I did this in northern Bali, and it made all the difference in helping me get comfortable
  • Keep your grip on the handlebars light: Just like with loosening my first grip while running to release tension, I constantly check in with myself on the bike- I keep my shoulders dropped, elbows low and hands light. You don’t need to apply much pressure for the bike to move- if you’ve driven before, you know what I’m talking about
  • Go only at a speed you’re comfortable at: It’s rare I exceed 40-50 km/h driving around Bali. Even if there’s not traffic, I’m not comfortable speeding around blind turns or winding roads. It’s okay to let people pass you, don’t feel pressure to speed up
  • And, related to the above, know that it’s okay to park your bike and walk the rest of the way. Especially if the roads are bad en route to a waterfall or temple- only do what you’re comfortable with
  • In Southeast Asia, it’s less about traffic laws and more about the flow of traffic: Don’t wait for a break in traffic to merge- just pull out (within reason, don’t do this if a huge truck is barrelling your way). Usually, people will see you and stop for you
  • Don’t panic if you get honked at- that’s simply people’s way of saying, hey, I’m coming up alongside you/passing you. Just keep driving as you normally would
  • When you get on and off the bike, always do it on the left side: The piping hot exhaust pipe is on the right side
  • Be sure to apply your back brake on wet surfaces: So many bike accidents are caused by people only using their front brake, which causes the bike to slide when the road is wet
  • If you come across a stray dog (or animal), don’t panic: Slow down and beep your horn. The animal will likely move out of the way
  • If you’re riding for the first time with two people, practice on back roads first to ensure the driver is comfortable with the additional weight and able to balance

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The Guide to Renting a Motorbike: Checking In

So, after several months of driving, do I enjoy riding a scooter? 

Most of the time, yes.

I love feeling the wind in my hair, sun in my face and being able to easily get around places as I please.

I’ve also found driving a scooter to be a bit meditative. Perhaps because I’m new-ish to it, but I can really only focus on driving when I’m on the road. I don’t think about what I’m doing that day, or any other things that may be trying to snake their way into my mind.

Driving a scooter, for me, has been an excellent, yet admittedly a bit odd way to find focus.

Have you ever driven a scooter in SE Asia? Any tips you’d add to this guide to renting a motorbike in Asia?

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