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Motorbikes are great. They effortlessly weave through dense traffic jams and are cheap to hire and hit the road. They are also the main reason for hospital admissions and the deaths. Be smart: wear a helmet.
Technically, most countries require that you have a license to drive. However, all the motorbike rental companies will likely not check if you have one. The vast majority of foreigners you see driving around will be doing so illegally and with little to no interference from the police.
Before you leave the rental shop, photograph or take a video of every inch of the bike and make sure they watch you do it. That way, when you return it they can’t make you pay for minor scratches because you'll be able to show that they already existed.
Drive slowly and follow the driving style of everyone else. Don’t assume people know what indicators mean. Small vehicles give way to large vehicles regardless of other rules most of the time. If someone flashes their headlights, it means they’re not stopping for you.
Police sometimes see foreigners as easy targets to supplement their meagre wages and will stop them for doing things that locals regularly do. Usually the fine is quite small ($20 or less) and can be bargained down with the right attitude and confidence.
If there is a crash, don’t expect any fairness or perspective-taking from the other person. They will do almost anything to pin the blame on the ‘rich’ foreigner. Immediately take photos of the scene, cars, license plates, and everything else before they are moved and call the tourist police.
Thailand is relatively safe. People drive fairly sanely (but still in a way that westerners find insane at first), roads are in good condition and sidewalks keep pedestrians out of the way. Traffic lights exist and are obeyed for the most part. Police are effective and active. If you’re going to choose a southeast asian country to learn to ride a motorbike, the only better choice would be sleepy Laos. Just don’t do it in Bangkok - way too busy.
Wear a helmet - not wearing one will get you pulled over and fined very quickly. Along with fining you 500 baht for no helmet they will also fine you for no driver’s license (sometimes a foreign license will be enough to avoid this), or anything else they can invent. Sometimes the fine is real and you’ll need to go to the local police station to pay it. Often the officer will ask you to pay them directly to “save time” (it’s a bribe). The save time fines are negotiable but you’ll need to be good at bargaining because the unique power dynamic must be mastered. It's an art that needs to be mastered way more than bargaining while shopping.
In Chiang Mai, police regularly set up roadblocks and stop every foreigner they see. Some foreigners have a second wallet with a couple of hundred baht in it “here officer, this is all I have with me, take it” for those situations. Avoid the big square road next to the moat in the evenings.
If you get a flat tire you can try calling your rental place but they'll probably tell you it's your problem to sort out. Look for a sign beside the road that looks like this and call the number. They're everywhere.
Poor roads, drunken drivers and inadequate policing make Cambodia a challenging place to ride. Don’t let this be your first location for learning how to ride - you might not make it to your next location.
The driving style in Cambodia is very dangerous - being on the wrong side of the road while turning a corner is quite common, as is not looking before joining into traffic. Be on high alert and way more cautious than normal. Drive 30 kph.
Renting a motorbike in Siem Reap is only possible if you have a local driver’s license. The police got tired of the carnage and started impounding motorbikes, making the renters wary. Driving a motorbike in Phnom Penh is not safe, so don’t do it. In smaller towns like Battambang, you can rent a motorbike and drive around with no issues.
Don’t have your light on during the daytime in Cambodia. It’s illegal and increases your chances of sparking the police's interest in fining you.
People in Bali drive almost as erratically and irrationally as in Cambodia, but more aggressively and at a higher speed. Avoid using motorbikes in Denpasar and Kuta because the traffic is too crazy to be safe. Less busy areas like Ubud and Amed are doable.
Traffic is very scary in the two main cities. The places outside these cities are similar to Thailand but with less active police. Don't be afraid to use your horn - honk it all the time. Motorbikes often form snakes of mutually shielding riders in order to navigate intersections. Join one that’s going in your direction, don’t try to battle through alone.
Traffic is very bad in the cities but in a different way to Vietnam. There are more cars, making it more dangerous for motorbike riders, but rural areas and small/medium towns are okay.
Low cost airlines
There are several airlines that only fly to SEA destinations. These are great because they are significantly cheaper than the big international players. Air Asia is included in the ‘find a flight with any airline’ systems but others can only be found by going to their websites and booking directly.
Flights on these carriers are not as comfortable as more expensive airlines. There is less legroom, no entertainment and often no snacks or food. For flights within SEA that is not much of a problem as they are all quite short (and some of the prices can't be beat).
- Air Asia - this one flies everywhere and sometimes have ridiculously cheap promos. Often they integrate ferries and vans into the fare to further extend their reach and save customers some time. If their web site won’t accept your credit card (it’s unreliable) book them through Expedia.com instead.
- Nok Air - within Thailand. Cheap. Their planes are painted to look like angry bird characters. Because a bird crashing into stuff is what you want in a plane, right?
- Lion Air - all over Indonesia and Malaysia.
- Tiger Air - mainly to and from Singapore. Good for visa runs from Krabi or Phuket
- Bangkok Air - unusual routes within Thailand, e.g Chiang Mai to Koh Samui, direct. Not cheap.
- Cebu Pacific - within Philippines but also to Philippines from most capital cities. Avoid Manila even as a transit stop as it is the fifth worst airport in Asia. You need to go to places like Uzbekistan, Pakistan or Afghanistan to find a worse one.
There are many web sites that will find you the cheapest flight between two points using as many airlines as necessary. They don’t always incorporate every airline and often the tickets are non-refundable so sometimes it is best to use these sites to find the flight you want and then book with the airline directly.
- Skyscanner - pretty good for visa runs because for the destination you can put ‘Anywhere’ and it’ll find you the cheapest flights out of the country. Has a solid mobile app also.
- Expedia - great for flights and booking the hotel for the first couple of nights in the destination, in one process. The search tool has a filter to find refundable flights, good if you need a cancellable onward ticket for immigration/visa purposes.
- Google flights - easy to use and powerful.
- Jetabroad - simple, effective. Good phone support.
- Kiwi - If you’re not sure exactly when you want to fly then this site is pretty amazing at helping you find the cheapest price. The UX is very well done.
Flying vs Bus vs Train
Vans and busses really suck. They are long and often uncomfortable rides. But they are considerably cheaper than flying. When making a booking be very clear with them about the type of bus you’re using - the ones for tourists are completely different to the ones for locals. Don’t just choose the cheapest option available. If you do you could end up sharing a seat with a rooster or trapped in a windowless hell with 20 chain smoking Chinese for 16 hours yet thankful that the smoke covers the stench from the toilet most of the time (China is tough, don’t go to China).
Trains in Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam are much much more comfortable than busses as they have proper beds to sleep in rather than reclining seats. Due to the plethora of low-cost airlines in the country, long train rides in Thailand cost the same as flying. That combined with the time investment (often 12+ hours) may mean it is not really worth it for most people. However sleeper trains leave in the evening and arrive in the morning, so it can be a very efficient use of time provided you sleep well. Earplugs make or break your whole experience.
If your airline doesn’t include a way to pay for the emissions generated by your flight during the payment process, offset your flight’s emissions manually. Taking responsibility for the side-effects of your lifestyle is the adult thing to do. The return flight to CM from Europe is approximately 1.4 metric tonnes of CO2 which will cost you between $10 and $30 depending on which scheme you pay into.
You’re going to be using taxis. A lot. Just wave at them as they drive past and they’ll stop for you if they can. If language is a problem, show them where you want to go on Google Maps (have it ready before stopping them) and they’ll figure it out relatively quickly. Very rarely you’ll need to know the name of a nearby landmark because your driver doesn't understand maps or read the english alphabet.
Uber is active in most countries, although sometimes the local taxi drivers will be trying very hard to stop it. Threats and intimidation are common in Bali. If you’re waiting for a pickup and a taxi guy on the street offers you a ride don’t say anything about Uber or there might be trouble.
A service similar to Uber is Grab which can have more drivers available and a less contentious relationship with local drivers.
Both Grab and Uber are available in all major cities in SEA except Cambodia.