Monday, 5 January 2015

Staying Alive on a motorcycle in Thailand.



Hi, CJ here, I qualified as a British Motorcycle Instructor in 1987. I have worked for four of the largest training schools in the UK as an Instructor trainer. I have passed the IAM advanced motorcycle test and have held a full UK motorcycle licence for over 30 years. I am also a professional Driver with multi vehicle experience.


Recently, along with my partner Jayne, I have spent three months touring Thailand using various mods of transport but mostly hire bikes. On our last visit I planned and arranged a months tour including hiring bikes on Koh Samui, riding across the country to Phuket for the Tenth Phuket Bike week. Then back to Koh Samui via a ten day stay at a lodge in Koh Sok National Park.

Hopefully sharing our experience of this amazing adventure will help others to do the same. Follow in their footsteps. Or plan adventures of your own. I do not claim to be an expert on Thailand's affairs or to have all the answers. Just a wish to help make Thailand's roads a little safer for everyone to enjoy.


Experience
So have you ridden before? A push bike is a start. Common in Thailand are twist and go scooters have the same brake controls as a push bike but with a twist-to-go throttle. These are often 125s that can do 60 mph or more. The streets in tourist areas of Thailand are full of companies offering hire scooters. On the tourist islands like Koh Samui for instance, there are thousands of hire bikes available. Often seen as easy money for Thais or even sometimes just as a courtesy vehicle for an out of town hotel. Everyone is using them. Must be easy?

In the UK there is a requirement to have at least done a basic training course before being allowed loose on the road on even a 50cc moped which is restricted to 30mph. This basic training course covers simple stuff like – how to start and stop the bike, how to move off and stop the bike via use of the brakes. Gives you a chance to get used to the bike and make sure you are safe before you head out onto the road. It also makes sure that everyone has at least got a basic level of competence before being let loose onto the highway. When hiring a bike in Thailand there is no need to worry about any of that is there?

If you start digging then you can easily find statistics that suggest some caution before just jumping on a hire bike. Thailand is the second most dangerous place to be a road user in the world. Ok that's a headline statistic. But ask around. You do not have to go far before you will met someone who has been affected by a road accident. Many horrific stories. I have the honour of counting as a friend a guy who is both a Thai Police Officer and Volunteer rescue Crew. He says that there are motorcycle accidents every day and regular fatalities. There are two state-of-the-art hospitals on the island of Koh Samui. Both have all the time, a number of patients injured in road accidents on hire bikes and scooters. I have heard many horror stories. Unless you are really sure you know how to operate one. Don't hire one.

It seems there is always many who will. On our travels we met many genuine bikers. Both Thai and Tourists/Ex-pat's. We have had the pleasure of riding alongside many of them. But we have also seen many Idiots. People with no experience and no riding gear, jumping on to large bikes and riding around at high speed. Darwin award winners in the making. I value the freedom Thailand offers and respect someones right to kill themselves, I however will take issue with people who endanger others.

Who am I to deny others the freedom and pleasure that riding a bike brings me?
That is not my wish. Just if you want to tour Thailand on a bike at least get some training first. Do a basic training course at home. Easy to approach a local training school and ask for some guidance. A days CBT in the UK will cost you £100 (5000 bht). It will at least give you some basic skills.


Hire Bikes.
We have used a whole variety of hire bike shops. We normally have tended to go for the cheap scooters. Preferably the semi automatic Honda 'clunks' that are legendary but getting harder to find. Most tourist shops offer a range of scooters that start from about 250-300 Bht per day. We found that, as with all things, the price goes up with demand and they go up with CC as well. Scooters are common as muck, dirt cheap to hire. Bigger jap bikes can easily be around 1000 bht + per day for a 650cc or bigger. When only staying local to a hotel or for getting around the local tourist spots a scooter is great. We also hired larger bikes on Koh Samui with the intention of touring the main land. Although we did find some it can be hard to find a Hire shop that will allow you to take the bikes on a longer excursion especially if you don't want to leave your passport, unless you are paying them to guide you as well. We ended up leaving a heavy deposit for the privilege.

I really have an issue with leaving my passport with someone as collateral on a hire bike return . I will not do it and have always found a way not to. Thailand's law has recently changed so it is no longer a legal requirement for you to have it on you however the UK government advises me not to leave it with anyone and I prefer it that way. I have normally either left a bigger deposit. Left a photo copy of my passport or lucky to have been vouched for by one of my friends.

Insurance? What Insurance? I know there is limited insurance and some companies do offer some proper good packages but with most hire shops its going to be down to you to put right any damage caused to the bike.

Maintenance can either be really good or completely non existent. Some Hire shops look after and maintain there fleet of bikes in a professional manner. Normally the ones offering larger bikes. But it is always a good idea to check over your hire bike before you use it. Your vehicle will not be subject to an MOT or you home countries standard hire safety requirements. It may be in very good condition or just as easily could be a dangerous death trap. If you don't know how to check it out then find out before you go, or ask a friend to look over it for you.









Helmets and Equipment.
I have a flip front Shoe helmet for my home use. £550 worth (27000 bht). They are a real pain to carry when you are travelling economy. They take up a lot of room and I have heard of horror stories where they have had to be transferred to hold luggage and then returned damaged (normally due to not being able to fit in over head lockers on smaller local connection planes). We have in the past used helmets borrowed from the Thai hire shops. However we decided that it was very important to have a better quality of head protection when we returned to go on a long distance road trip on bigger bikes. We consider it to be insurance for our heads, what's your head worth to you?

The sort of helmets generally available in Thailand are more akin to Cycle helmets or Building Site Safety helmets than what is required for EU or American Road Safety Standards. You can get better quality full face helmets but they are hard to find. The hire shops often have a poor selection of tatty helmets that I really don't even want to put on my head let alone consider if they will save my life. One thing I also noted was that even those wearing helmets often did not fasten them on. What's the point in wearing something that when at the very second you actually need it to save your life - it falls off?

If you want to ride with the wind in your hair then that is up to you. I value the freedom. However My father who spent many years in the Ambulance Service put it in simple terms “I've scrapped too many vegetables off the road – always wear a helmet!”
Also I consider that when I ride at home, if I was to have an accident, the local Ambulance should be with me in a reasonable time. I can then assume I will receive top notch care at a local hospital. I know |I can expect this as I have experienced it first hand. I also know that I am not going to get that treatment if I have an accident in Thailand. Don't get me wrong. Thailand has some top rate, top notch hospitals that I would trust with my life. But more often than not the local ambulance crew is volunteer service. It is a basic mini bus with limited equipment. There is no Air Ambulance and depending on where you are, you may find that the hospital is not to the standards that you would expect.

We carried cordura bike jackets with us from the UK. Cordura or Ballistic Nylon motorcycle jackets have similar abrasive resistance qualities to leather but some are more breathable so help to keep you cooler. We left the linings at home and opened all the vents. In traffic they still got hot but it was bearable when we were moving. I also found that spending too long enjoying riding in just a T shirt and my waistcoat led to sunburned arms. I would always wear at least Jeans and Boots when riding a Bike. Too many hot sticky out bits!

Also don't forget your gloves. As I have always told people on basic training days – how you gonna wipe your ass when you got no skin on your hands? Find Thai wipe ass cheapy cheapy? Think not!

On the Road
they mostly drive on the left. But don't be surprised if you find a vehicle going the wrong way down a duel carriageway or along the verge in order to get to their exit. If where they are heading is located half way along the duel carriageway or so then they will just cross onto the other side at the start of the split in order to get to their destination.

Oncoming vehicles will overtake others coming towards you. It is assumed you will get out of the way. This is especially if they are mini buses and Coaches. When you board nearly any Thai vehicle you will always find many charms hanging in the windscreen. Possibly even obscuring a large chunk of the view. The driver is of the opinion that if he reaches his destination then his spirits have looked after him that day. He has a schedule to keep. Planes to catch, connections to make. If he leaves a few mins late then he will try to make that time up. Coaches can only do 60 or maybe 70 mph. But the driver is intending to keep that speed as long as poss. If that means he has to overtake on a bend then he puts it in the hands of the spirits as to keep all concerned safe.

There is no lane discipline. On a duel carriageway there is no urgency to keep left. If someone wants to do 30 in the right hand lane then so be it. I tried keeping the self discipline of only overtaking on the right but with so many vehicles crawling in the outside line often the only choice is to pass on the left. On certain roads you will find signs telling Motorcycles and/or Slow Vehicles to stay left. This can be good but is often ignored or used as an overtaking lane. There is also a risk of vehicles pulling out across the bike lane to give way to the main carriageway.

What ever you feel is a safe gap between you and the person you are following a Thai driver will try and put something in it. Mini Buses and Motorcycles will all bunch and cram into whatever space there is. Meaning at light controlled junctions, the free for all as the lights change often nearly stalls into a road block. But then by some miracle normally just works out. Something to note is that at Junctions the common practice is that you can turn left through a red light, long as you give way to the right, or you are bigger than the other vehicle and can push your way through!

Thai vehicles are often heavily overloaded and badly maintained. Also make sure that you keep your self out of harms way. You might be in the right, but that is not going to save your life.

Weather conditions can change rapidly, as a rule of thumb it is normally better to stop and rest when the road turns into a river as it normally does not last long. The Thais are used to regular short rain storms and you will find many shelters dotted along the roads. Although riding in warm rain is a beautiful experience especially when used to the cold rain of England.

For an experienced rider the Thai roads can be a satisfying ride. Many are in good condition and there is some great routes to be enjoyed. But if you are looking to have a knee down experience save it for the racetrack at home. Road conditions change very quickly. You will find big potholes, lips at the ends and starts of Bridges. Missing drain covers, lanes that end abruptly. Also it is common for roads to flood. It is a amazing experience to come round a corner and find an Elephant coming the other way. However it is not so much fun if you are going too fast. Many of the Thai duel carriageways have U-turn points. You can often find lorries and Coaches doing a U-turn across a busy highway.


Petrol is cheap, you will find many different petrol stations. From big multi-pump filling stations with attached eating areas and shops (never self service – they will always serve you). To local shops selling bottles of petrol. There are also some barrel and hand pump stations. We stopped at one station, they overfilled our bikes by a few bahts each, rounded down the figures to the nearest –0 then gave us a free bottle of water each. Don't get that service in the UK!

When Training to Advanced Standard you are warned about Red Mist. I found my biggest issue that started my blood boiling was aggressive tail gaiters. Any attempt to leave a safe travelling distance between me and the vehicle in front would lead to vehicles coming right up behind me and where possible (and often when not) trying to get into what ever space was in front. This was not a reflection on my riding as we would often witnessed it from the drivers of coaches and mini-buses. As if the only thing that matters was getting to the destination as quick as possible regardless of safety. On a few occasions I decided to back off. On our ride to Phuket bike week, for example: I was waiting at lights to turn right at a major junction. Centre of the right hand lane. A mini Bus pulls up to my left. Then tries to force its way into the lane in front of me, I really don't know what he was trying to achieve as the space was occupied by a car. I used the bikes acceleration to get out of the situation soon as the lights changed. But that left me with the bus driver still behind me. A few miles on I pulled over just to let all pass by. I do not think he was being aggressive towards me, just they don't understand that it is wrong in some way. Better to have aggressive drivers in front than behind. After all what is the Rush? As the Thais say Sabai sabai.


The Thai's are naturally nice courteous friendly peaceful people. But they are also very spiritual. On a dangerous corner where Westerners would place traffic calming measures the Thais will place spirit houses as obviously the reason for so many accidents in one place is that the spirits are angry there.


One thing that Thai's generally don't like is aggression, which makes some of the driving exhibited hard to understand. I think that a lot of it is related to the eagerness to please? Maybe the lack of aggression makes it harder to confront issues such as bad driving as it involves correcting someone else? Loss of face is very important in Thai society. You will also find people are often very polite at junctions, giving way to others.
 A 'thank you' is not normally expected from the person who has been given way to, as the person giving way is gaining merit from being good to others. I love Buddhism.

I hope this information is of use to you and I also hope this has not put you off riding a motorcycle in Thailand. It is a beautiful experience. Just try to do it safely.
Ride free