Tourists in Asia seek freedom, find pain on two wheels

Thais look fabulous whizzing by on scooters in the Chiang Mai night. Tourists don't always fare as well.

Thais look fabulous whizzing by on scooters in the Chiang Mai night. Tourists don’t always fare as well.

PreviewThe scooter was difficult to control, the road a bit sandy, and before he knew it, the 30-something Irish tourist was on his way to a hospital with a dislocated ankle instead of enjoying his vacation on the sunny island of Ko Samui, Thailand. That is how one man described what happened when he rented a motor scooter last month.

I’ve been taking a small survey of people who have had accidents on rented motor scooters in Southeast Asia, and so far, nearly everyone one I’ve spoken to has a story. Almudena, a 32-year-old from Spain, escaped with only bruises and scrapes, but her sister needed stitches in her knee after the scooter they had rented in Vietnam last month slid out on a slippery road. She was glad that her trip was not ruined, but recognized the incident as a close call. I became curious after I wiped out riding a scooter we had rented for the day in Chiang Mai, and had my own close look at a Thai emergency room. When I began asking around among young expats in Bangkok, every person either had experienced or knew someone who had experienced an accident on a rented motorcycle or scooter.

Thailand and Vietnam are, in fact, the second- and third-most dangerous countries in the world for tourist fatalities from road accidents, according to a report from 2010. “Road crashes represent the highest fatality risks that international tourists are likely to face,” the report notes. Data from 2013 show that more accidents happen on motorcycles than cars, taxis, “tuk-tuks” or any other mode of transport in Thailand. Statistics do not clearly show the role of rented motorcycles or scooters in these accidents, but anecdotes have filled the gap. “Proportionally, Brits are most likely to be hospitalised in Thailand,” according to a report by the British Government. A major reason for hospitalizations is road traffic accidents, “many involving young people on mopeds.”

In both Thailand and Vietnam, motorcycle rental companies depend on tourists for daily rentals. Exploring a tropical country on foot can be tiring, and zipping around on a scooter to beat the heat is enticing. Rental shops line the streets of the most heavily visited areas, close to famous temples in Chiang Mai, Thailand, or on popular main streets on party islands. Scooters often rent for less than $10 per day, making them seem like an economical option compared with taxis or tuk-tuks. However, the scooters at daily rental shops tend to be poorly maintained and difficult to steer. Tourists, unfamiliar with road conditions and traffic patterns, or simply disoriented in a new place, are especially vulnerable to accidents.

“They look so easy; its hot out and people look like they are having fun zipping around with the wind in their faces” explained one traveler, referring to the scooters available in a sidewalk rental shop, “but they are not; they are hard to control and dangerous.”

One other issue is that rental companies often hold a passport as collateral for the scooter. For travelers who have accidents, the rental company may not be willing to return the passport until the traveler has paid for damages to the scooter. The young Irishman I spoke with lost a few hundred dollars, having paid hastily to get his passport back when the company demanded the money, even though he did not see any damage on the scooter. Several government websites recommend against handing over a passport as collateral for scooter rental.

The lesson here is that if you are traveling in Southeast Asia, think twice before renting a scooter. It may not be all it’s cracked up to be.

Do you have a story of your own? Share in the comments below.

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One Response to Tourists in Asia seek freedom, find pain on two wheels

  1. Don’t go to the train station by motorcycle with a heavy backpack? That’s how I had an accident – thankfully not too serious just donated some flesh to the road gods in Delhi! Goa is full of stories of tourists having troubles… quite similar to the ones you shared!

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