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Monday, 30 April 2007

South East Asia on a Scooter

Written by Rhys Stacker
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scooterWhen it comes to cheap thrills in developing countries, it’s hard to do better than a motor scooter. During a recent three-month trip through south east Asia, I found no greater pleasure than blasting past villages and farms, taking in the menagerie of smells and seeing the countryside as many locals see it - from the saddle of a step-through motorbike.

It's not hard to see why scooters are so popular in countries like Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand. They’re relatively inexpensive, easy to park, great for weaving through diabolical traffic jams, and amazingly versatile. Who needs a family sedan when you can fit a family of four on a 50cc Super Cub?

For travelers who don't need to transport a family to school or take two full size pigs to market, scooters are a great option to get you off the tourist trail and exploring the sights outside of cities and towns. For less than US$5 per day, a scooter can take you places a bicycle can't or a tourist bus won't.

Of course, like many activities (especially those in the third world) there are risks. As anyone who's tried to cross the street in Ho Chi Minh City or experienced Bangkok traffic jams will know, Asian roads are not for the faint hearted.

I'm happy to confess my own scooter riding was typically confined to smaller towns and rural areas where traffic was light. In the bigger cities, I preferred to go on foot or let motor taxis drive me.

But piloting a scooter need not end in tears. With an understanding of local road rules, patience, an insight into the Asian psyche, and a little bit of luck you can get your motor running and get out on the highway.

Staying safe is largely due to common sense. Always wear a helmet. Watch out for vehicles entering the flow of traffic - in many Asian countries they have right of way. And remember to take it slow – as most of the locals do. Narrow roads busy with bicycles, livestock and pedestrians aren't suitable for trying to ride like Valentino Rossi.

scootersRenting a scooter is as straightforward as handing over your passport and the fee in advance. Paperwork was scarce in the smaller Vietnamese and Cambodian towns I visited so make sure you check out the bike first, point out any faults and reach some sort of agreement that you won't be charged for them when you return.

Be ready to bargain. In Vietnam, scooters can be hired from around US$5 per day. In Hoi An, I hired one for a week and was able to bargain the price down to US$20, or less than US$3 per day. Thailand was the most expensive at US$6 per day, but they also have the best motorbikes. In Ao Nang I rented an almost new Honda Wave 125cc with just 850 kilometers on the clock.

Fuel is inexpensive by European standards and a full tank should get you a whole day of riding for just a few dollars.

If you're a scooter rookie, there is no need to be worried. Scooters are an exercise in simplicity. On bikes with gears, the throttle is on the right handlebar, along with the hand brake which controls the front wheel. A foot brake is on the right, and the gear selector is on the left foot peg - pressing down moves the bike up through the gears, usually up to fourth gear. There's no clutch to worry about, but it does take a little bit of practice to change the gears smoothly.

Automatic scooters are even simpler, with just stop and go to worry about. However, they tend to be of the traditional scooter style, with feet placed on a running board in front of the rider. Combine that with their smaller wheels and I thought they were a little unstable for the often rugged terrain that passes for roads in some parts of the region.

Automatic or manual, the fun really starts once you shake off the beginner wobbles, get in tune with the traffic, and enjoy the road.

beachIn Sihanoukville in southern Cambodia, my girlfriend and I rented a beat up Chinese made 'moto', as the Cambodians call it. It allowed us to escape from the hawkers and other tourists on Occhueteal Beach and spend a relaxing afternoon at Otres, five kilometers out of town.

We reached the secluded bay after skirting around a water treatment plant and following a rough dirt track through an incredibly poor village. At times, Jacq, my pillion passenger, had to get off to allow me to navigate solo through deep potholes. But the pay off was worth it at Otres. Shaded from the sun in our own beach hut, we ate fresh crabs expertly grilled in front of us on a coal brazier by an elderly lady.

In some areas, riding a scooter is the only way to go. Koh Lanta in southern Thailand is big enough to warrant hiring a scooter each day to visit the various beaches along the island's 26 kilometer length, yet small enough that traffic is still quite sparse on the wide roads

At Mui Ne, on the Vietnamese central coast, a motorbike was also the ideal way to get around town, which was essentially built around a single coconut tree lined road that followed the beach for several kilometers. I rented a Suzuki Smash from my waiter one sunny day and rode out to the famous yellow dunes north west of town. I tried my hand at sledding down the steepest slopes on a piece of laminate rented by a local boy.

A scooter came in most handy in Hoi An – although the ancient town is compact enough to stroll around in a single afternoon – having wheels opened up the nearby sights to us. The relaxing atmosphere of Cui Dai Beach, five kilometers from Hoi An, became the destination for our regular morning swim. Half an hour north along a newly widened and sealed highway, I tried my hand at surfing the breakers at China Beach and later scaled the craggy cliffs of Marble Mountain.

ridingIn four months of riding scooters, we only had three breakdowns. Two were flat tires from over-exuberant exploring of rough tracks in Cambodia. The third was in Vietnam when the bike simply refused to start. With the sun setting and us a good hour walk from our guesthouse along a lonely road, we began to weigh up our options.

Luckily, the proprietor of a nearby cafe summoned us over into the shade and offered us a seat. As we sat around deciding what to do, the local mechanic arrived on his own scooter with a collection of tools in the front basket. He began disassembling both bikes, cannibalizing his Honda to repair the magneto on our rented Halley.

Ten minutes and US$10 later we were back on the road. As we cruised between the paddy fields, the setting sun, which a minute before had been an ominous sign, was now a beautiful show complimenting the sound track of our repaired 100cc scooter engine. It didn't miss a beat.

©Rhys Stacker

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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