One Failed Motorhead
It’s a tired old cliché that you learn more about yourself when you go travelling overseas. And without a doubt, I learned a great deal about being independent and other cultures. But one of the most significant and devastating things I learned is I am not a natural motorcyclist.
Renting a motorcycle is just one of those things you do in Southeast Asia, like buying harem pants and getting food poisoning. Thousands of Australians rent a bike every year from a guy who won’t question your license and then learn on the road. Across Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand, the roads appear to be governed by one rule: might equals right. That means if you’re on a motorbike, it’s up to you to avoid bigger vehicles. Some people make it seem so easy, looking completely unphased as they dodge cars, buses and even cows.
When I was in Vietnam, images of that one Top Gear episode where they motorbiked through the country continually flashed through my mind, but fear got the better of me, and I didn’t end up renting a motorcycle. Reflecting on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, choked with thousands of experienced motorcyclists, this was a wise choice for me.
Years later, I was made aware that the travel insurance I’d bought wouldn’t have provided cover for medical expenses if I’d injured myself riding a motorbike because I didn’t have an Australian motorbike license. Who’d have thought? Certainly not 19-year-old me. You also need to have a valid international license for some countries (like Cambodia) or a local license (as in Vietnam) if travel insurance is to provide you with cover. As said by Dean Van Es, the CEO of Fast Cover travel insurance, “Travel insurance will not provide you with cover for reckless and illegal activities, including riding a motorcycle illegally.” Yikes.
But my next destination was Cambodia. I fell head over heels for the country – its spectacular sites, fun people and scrumptious food. As far as I was concerned, it was perfect, and more importantly, it had quieter streets than anywhere I had been in Vietnam. So in Sihanoukville, I took the plunge and rented a motorcycle.
It’s easy to forget that riding a motorcycle is not as simple as getting on the thing. Motorbikes can be a little old and temperamental, which adds to the difficulty of learning how to ride them. Another point no one told me about was that sharing a motorcycle can be ridiculously nerve-wrecking. Any motion that my passenger made immediately resulted in the whole bike shifting. They can also be surprisingly expensive after weeks of tight penny pinching, not because they cost a lot to rent, but they can burn through petrol quite quickly (particularly if you’re a rev head).
Many of the roads in Cambodia around Sihanoukville are wide-open, and the area is incredibly beautiful to travel around. The roads appear to be well-kept for the most part, with many covered in asphalt, though there are a few dirt roads where you should be more careful. Like Vietnam, there are few road rules or traffic lights, and when they do exist, they don’t actually mean anything in practice. In many cases, you pick your path and (hope) everyone will move around you.
Unfortunately, one sandy-covered road tripped me up, and while barely moving, I managed to tip the motorbike. I came away with only a little bruising (physically and ego-wise), but even so, my motorcycling rites were promptly taken away from me and I was confined to the passenger seat. But our troubles weren’t quite over.
The other major speed bump you need to watch out for in Cambodia is the police. Rental stores across Southeast Asia are pretty lax when it comes to renting to foreigners, and you’ll be hard pressed to find one that won’t give you a motorbike despite it being against the law if you don’t have the appropriate licensing. And it’s true, the local police didn’t really care that no one had a license. But that didn’t stop them from pulling us over and charging us the “international driving fee” for foreigners – a whopping $20USD. Gutted, we got the hell out of there. As we drove away, the group of British boys who were pulled over just before us were still arguing their case to a thick crowd of officers. I have very little doubt they each got away without paying anything.
We returned our motorbike after that. It was a more expensive day than anticipated, and my dreams of zipping around the countryside like a Top Gear star were dashed by the discovery that I was completely unskilled when it came to two wheels. Was it worth it? Well – I did get a pretty cool photo…
Riding a motorbike through Southeast Asia can be a wonderful experience and a stunning way to see a country. But it can also be dangerous. If you feel uncoordinated on your motorbike, don’t push it. Some of us just weren’t meant to be motorcycle-travelling legends.