I am a digital Nomad who has made Koh Samui a home base where I spend 5 to 6 months of the year. This year I arrived at the start of December just before the big tourist season begins. With sadness, this is also when the big accident season begins, namely motorbike rentals. It got so bad in Bali last year that local politicians were considering the ban on motorbike rentals. Here is my digital nomad's guide to safety and sanity.
My First-Hand Experiences at Bangrak Clinic
When I visit my local medical clinic in Bangrak, it is filled with people who have suffered minor motorbike accidents. Scratches, stitches and sometimes a broken wrist. These are the lucky ones. The more serious cases end up in hospitals and the most serious ones in the local newspapers and even international newspapers. Some of them are life-threatening and almost 90% of these accidents are not covered by your travel or health insurance and become very costly when there is organ damage or facial repair. I have heard of medical bills going into the six figures. This could seriously end your digital nomad lifestyle.
GoFundMe pages are the last resort where people try to get the funds to pay for medical bills or a medical flight back home. Whenever I see these appeals I feel sad. Going by the local Facebook groups of local expats it is a continual story of tourists not learning, even some of the expats follow the trap until the inevitable happens. I hope people reading this blog post take note and learn.
It is a motorbike not a moped
Motorbikes in Thailand may look like 50cc mopeds but are motorbikes at heart with of 125cc to 160cc engines. They are heavier and a lot faster and require a motorbike license. The heaviness and powerfulness can lead to a lot of silly accidents at low speeds. Just turning a bike around or balancing a bike can lead to an accident. I have seen people trying to turn a bike around and accidentally revving it too much and lose control. I kid you not I have seen someone crashing a bike in the first 10 meters of getting it from the bike rental shop. If you are not confident driving on motorbikes, book a tour, take a taxi or rent a car with or without a driver.
Travel Insurance will find ways not to pay
Travel or health Insurance will use any situation not to pay for your medical bills, most of them break down into the following.
- You are driving the bike without a proper license. Thailand & Indonesia and many other countries require you to carry a valid international driver's license, not having one or having the wrong type of international driver's license (there are 3 different types, so make sure you have the right one for the country that you visit) will invalidate most insurance policies even if you have a proper motorbike license from your home country. You can even be the passenger on a bike but if the driver has not got the proper driver's license you will get stung. Get your international license before you set off, once you are travelling it is almost impossible. Alternatively, get a local license. In Thailand, it is very easy for a tourist to get a local driver's licence valid for 2 years.
- Not wearing a helmet. You see more than 50% of the drivers, including the locals not wearing a helmet and you think it is not compulsory. Only when local police are doing some fundraising do they start fining riders without a helmet. Sadly they seem to target tourists more than locals.
- Forgetting to strap the helmet. Yes, those straps are cumbersome but once you are in an accident and your helmet is separated from your head, there goes your insurance claim.
- Not abiding by the speed limits. The fact that there are no speed limit signs does not mean there is a speed limit. It is very easy to go too fast. Local police will most of the time favour the local over a foreigner in an accident even if you are not speeding, so better to be on the slow side.
- Driving on the wrong sides of the road. Our brains are so wired to the driving side back home that we forget that the other half of the world drives on the opposite side. Please do not rent a bike on day one of arrival, but get familiar first.
- Driving intoxicated We all enjoy a few drinks on the beach or like to party and with Thailand now having legalised cannabis it is easier to get on your bike under the influence. The same rules that apply in your home country also apply here, but on holidays people flaunt those rules.
Helmets save lives and serious harm
Even if you decide to wear a helmet, most helmets that are handed out by the motorbike rental place are of poor quality. Would you risk your head on a $1.50 helmet or a helmet that does not fit your egg-shaped oversized head? Invest in a helmet and get one that covers the chin as well, you can find pretty decent ones for about $30 at the large supermarket chain.
Don't drive your whole family on a bike
You see locals sharing a bike with 3 people or sometimes even 5 on a bike. The fact that they do it does not mean you should try. I even see the worst examples where I see 3 tourists with a toddler and no helmets sharing a bike in their swimwear. When will they learn?
Check there is enough thread on the tires and that the brakes work
You will be surprised how many poorly maintained bikes are rented out with low thread on the tires or brakes that do not function as they should. Before you agree to rent check and do a little test drive.
A car is a much safer alternative
Car rentals are more expensive but are so much safer. For example, motorbike rental in Thailand is about 200 to 250 THB ($5 to $7) a day and 3000 to 5000 THB ($95 to $140) per month. Whereas a car will start at 1,000 THB ($30) a day and cheaper ones can be rented for about 10,000 to 12,000 THB (starting at $300) per month. If you can squeeze it out of your budget, go for the car. You have a nice safe and dry cocoon when travelling.
In my 25 years of driving motorbikes around the world, I have made some of the mistakes listed above. Especially not driving with an international driver's licence. It could have gone horribly wrong for me. Luckily I have not been in any accidents, however now that I stay in one place I see accidents almost weekly and see the mistakes. I hope you have learned and I do not want to come across as patronising but as someone who genuinely cares. Safe travels to everyone and that you may enjoy 2024.