Every second backpacker you meet in Southeast Asia talks about riding scooters around Thailand or taking a motorbike across the length of Vietnam. It has almost become a rite-of-passage for travellers in Southeast Asia to jump behind the handlebars of a Honda Wave or Win and zoom through the countryside. After our 8 months and 15’000km riding across the region, we can honestly say that this is perhaps the best way to explore the countries of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. For those that want to do it themselves, here is our guide on buying a motorbike in Southeast Asia.
Legally, no. Intelligently, yes. Accidents do happen every day and, unfortunately, we have had a few friends be seriously injured and worse, killed on the roads in Southeast Asia. Motorbiking is dangerous, and there is no denying that.
You might think that this won’t happen to you, or that if you are injured that medical care is cheap. But not if you end up in a serious condition or have a collision with another person and you are liable for personal injury. Seriously consider getting travel insurance before you ride a motorbike in Southeast Asia!
If you know the right company, you can even buy travel insurance while you are already on the road (in case you have already started your trip). If you want to know more, read our article Do I Need Travel Insurance.
The most popular types of bikes found in Southeast Asia are 100-125cc scooters, in particular Honda Waves and Honda Dreams. These solid, reliable bikes seem to last forever, and finding parts to fix them is extremely easy. If you ride big bikes back in your home country you may be put off at the thought of downsizing to a moped. Before you write them off completely however, keep in mind just how hard it will be to find parts for a CBR600RR in rural Cambodia.
In Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia another popular option is a Honda Win. These are actual motorbikes as opposed to scooters, with a full manual transmission and taller suspension. Finding parts for these are also a piece of cake and just about every mechanic in Southeast Asia will have no problem fixing one.
Another thing to keep in mind is licensing. In Vietnam, any engine over 175cc requires special permits – not something that one can attain in a month, or even 3 month long stint in the country without putting in considerable time and effort. For the sake of ease, we recommend buying a motorbike with a smaller engine size. Also you will unlikely be able to utilise a big bike to its full potential on much of the traffic-filled, potholed roads of Southeast Asia.
Our recommendation – Buy a Honda Win or Honda Wave.
We suggest buying a full manual or semi-automatic bike. NOT an automatic. Automatic bikes are more expensive to fix, burn through a lot more fuel and are far less trustworthy if you are riding on mountainous or gravel terrain. Take our word for it – if you are riding down a steep dirt road, you are going to want the option of selecting your gear before descending.
If you are worried that you don’t have the skills to ride a semi-automatic bike, relax! They are very easy to ride and after about one hour of practice you will be building your confidence up very quickly. It is not complicated.
Buying a brand new motorbike in Southeast Asia may require a lot of paperwork. In Thailand for example you need a housing agreement to prove you actually live there. However if you are only planning on riding your motorbike for a few months, getting a second hand bike is the best option. For this you only really need a fistful of cash. Just make sure that the previous owner gives you the registration papers. In Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia most people just leave the bike registered in the original name as they don’t need to be renewed.
If you are thinking about crossing borders with your motorbike, we recommend buying a Vietnamese-plated bike. These can enter Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam legally with minimal fuss. Any other registration can be very difficult to move across borders without full ownership of the bike.
Technically yes, you do need a licence. In Thailand, Cambodia and Laos an International Drivers Permit will be enough to avoid trouble with the police (although Cambodian police are quite corrupt and may not accept it). In Vietnam a local licence is required, however this is very rarely enforced. Chances are you will never be pulled over by a police officer in Vietnam unless you are involved in an accident or are driving in an unsafe manner.
Keep in mind that your travel insurance will not cover you unless you have a valid licence accepted in the country you are riding in. This means your car licence from back home doesn’t cover you for riding a motorbike in Cambodia or Laos. In Vietnam you WILL NOT be covered by insurance unless you get a Vietnamese licence. Remember all this next time go to open the throttle around a blind corner.
You can really spend as little or as much as you want on a bike. As a rough ballpark figure for backpackers, you should be looking at around US$250 for a second hand Honda Win or Wave. This can vary by a couple of hundred dollars either side depending on condition, where you buy it and brand. Bikes in Cambodia and Laos are more expensive.
The local price on a Honda Win in Vietnam is closer to US$100, but don’t expect to get one for this price unless you have a Vietnamese friend who makes the purchase for you.
If you go to any of the backpacker districts in Vietnam, you will find hundreds of people selling their motorbikes. You can usually get a better price for a motorbike off of a backpacker, as they are often short of time when it comes to selling. But don’t be a douche bag and throw out a ridiculously low-ball price in the hopes of screwing another backpacker out of $50. Remember, we are all travellers and should all look out for each other!
Something to keep in mind when buying a motorbike off of a backpacker is that some (not all) try to spend as little money as possible on maintenance and repairs. If a biker tells you they did one oil change in 2000km, their bike is probably going to fall apart on you. You can almost tell straight away from the person and the way their bike looks whether they took care of it or not. Use your instincts.
If you buy a motorbike from a shop they usually do a full service before they sell it. The cost of these bikes will usually be higher, but they often come with a riding lesson and some gear. From the larger and more reputable shops they may even have a guaranteed buy-back scheme at the end of your adventure.
This is not to say buying a motorbike off of a backpacker is a bad idea – they at least know the recent history of the bike compared to a shop that just bought it from someone. Just make sure they regularly maintained it.
Most motorbikes in Southeast Asia have ridden thousands and thousands of kilometres around the region. Luckily they are reliable and often get new parts throughout their entire history. If you are unfamiliar with motorbikes and engines, be sure to at least look at these few things when you take it for a test ride:
Note that your odometre and speedometre will probably not work. This is normal when it comes to motorbikes, and chances are if you get it fixed that it will break again one day soon. Don’t stress about this. Also remember that repairs are cheap in Southeast Asia. You can buy an entire new engine for US$50 if you go to the right place.
When taking your motorbike for a test ride make sure you take it out on a highway (if possible) and really push the engine to near full speed. This is the only way to know whether the engine is actually in good condition. Most bikes sound fine in third gear pottering along at 20km/h. You really need to start hitting 50 or 60 to see if the bike starts shaking violently or if it starts spluttering. Do a brake check at a decent speed as well. If you can, ride up to about 40km/h and brake hard in a straight line (remember not to lock up the front brake). If a kid runs out in front of you, you are going to want to know you can actually stop the bike.
Once you have reached the end of your adventure you are going to want to sell your motorbike again. The easiest way to do this is to sell it directly to a motorbike repair shop. You will not get a great price for this, but at least you will get something and it is hassle free.
If you are desperate to get some more cash back for your bike, your best bet is to sell it to another backpacker. Go to a popular hostel in a backpacker district and make a poster. Also make an advert on an online classifieds website such as Craigslist or an expat site.
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