We had agreed we would never do it. We had heard the horror stories, read the warnings, seen plenty of the evidence. It’s just not worth it, we said. And then we did it anyway. We hired a moped in Thailand.
The travel hazards that top most backpackers’ worry list tend to be the dramatic type – robberies, attacks, that kind of thing. But statistics suggest that something else should be the greatest concern. The number one way that tourists come to harm in south-east Asia is, by some distance, moped-related incidents.
Thailand ranks highest in the world for motorbike accident deaths, with 5,500 victims on average each year, nearly half of which are below the age of 20. Hiring a moped there is hideously cheap, and you don’t even need a driving license. Kids with no experience of any kind of road vehicle are known to hire them, ride them after a few drinks, and wind up crumpled in a ditch.
But with a bit of road experience and responsibility, surely it would be ok? It’s something we had been contemplating very early in our travels, long before we set foot anywhere near Asia. We met a British couple in Uruguay who told us about the Thai moped phenomenon. “Never give them your passport,” they warned. It is a known scam for moped rental companies in Thailand to demand westerners’ passports as a deposit, and then when they return the bike, to claim they have scratched it and demand an astronomical fee before returning the documents.
We spent a week in Bali, where moped is the dominant form of transport. Streets all around the island were crammed with them, and we couldn’t walk more than a few strides without being asked if we wanted to rent one. It was very tempting – it looked fun! But we erred towards caution and decided against it.
Then we went to the Philippines. After a day of scuba, we went for a few beers (which turned into a few cocktails) with one of our diving group, a Brit called Chris. He had travelled widely in Asia, and we got talking about mopeds in Thailand. “It’s exhilarating,” he told us, describing how he tore around the coastline and the wilderness with the wind whipping against his face. But…
“I fell for the passport trick when I first came,” he said. “I was young and naïve at the time!” We wouldn’t have that excuse if we did it at our age, I thought, after hearing all the warnings. Chris had to pay a fortune for damage he did not inflict, and it nearly ruined his first backpacking trip abroad.
On a different Filipino island a few days later, we started to notice the injuries. Within the space of a couple of days, we encountered four or five travellers bandaged from head to toe, all with the same story. They’d skidded off a moped. This was the kicker for us; while it looked like a blast, we liked having skin. We decided that we weren’t going to do it.
How, then, just a few days later, did we end up hiring a moped on our first full day in Thailand?
Our first Thai destination was Phuket, where we planned to stay for two nights before launching off to the country’s idyllic southern islands. With one full day, we had nothing planned, and we didn’t fancy spending it just wandering around Patong Beach.
We looked at day tours. Wow! They were expensive. Not what we were expecting from Thailand at all. It would cost well in excess of a hundred pounds for the two of us to take an island tour up to Phang Nga. Even the iconic attraction of Phuket island itself, the Big Buddha – a huge statue overlooking the coastline from a towering hill, just a few kilometres from our accommodation – was extortionate to reach. We couldn’t really justify any of the trips on our shrinking budget.
We resigned to our hostel lounge area, mulling our options over a cold beer, when we saw a sign at reception: MOPED HIRE 350 BAHT PER DAY. 350 baht. That’s about eight quid. If we were to do it, we would be able to see the whole island, go up to the Big Buddha, even go to Phang Nga if we wanted, without overspending. But wait! We had already agreed not to do it…
We saw that the hostel required a passport as a deposit. That sealed it; we definitely wouldn’t do it. We had another beer and forgot about it for a while. But then, we saw a couple rock up with a moped they’d hired that morning. They took the keys to the desk, and the staff on duty handed back their passport – they didn’t even check the bike!
After seeing this happen a couple more times, we glanced at each other. At least it was our hostel, not some dodgy back-street company – we can trust them, can we not? Lisa opened the laptop and we looked up the passport scam again. “It’s only a few criminals that ruin it for the rest”, was the general message.
“We would be very careful with it,” said Lisa. From what we heard, the people we’d seen bandaged up in the Philippines had all driven recklessly one way or another. We wouldn’t do that. If we just rode slowly and sensibly it would be fine, right? And didn’t we come travelling in the first place to try new things, take the occasional and make stories? We had talked ourselves around. We would get an early night, get up early, and hire a moped for the day.
We were both shaking with nerves when we went to reception in the morning. Lisa would ride first with me on the back, we had decided, and I would have a go later. The young woman on reception handed me a form to sign. I agree to pay up to 50,000 baht to compensate any theft, loss or damage of any part of the vehicle, I read. I gulped, closed my eyes, signed it, and handed over my passport and 350 baht. No driving license was required.
The woman and her assistant, another young woman, led us out front to our wheels. We put our helmets on. “I’ll give it a quick ride around the block,” said Lisa. This was the thing; neither of us had ever ridden a moped before. We were about to do it for the first time on the chaotic roads of a Thai tourist hotspot, where no love is lost between road users. This was certainly not the greatest act of adult responsibility in our lives.
Lisa mounted the bike, turned the key, twisted the handle… and went shooting forwards straight into the table and chairs at the front of the hostel, sending them flying. The look of alarm on the two young women’s faces was palpable. “Sorry!” said Lisa. “I just need to practice a bit.” My face turned a little green at this point.
As Lisa slowly got going and headed down the road and around a corner, one of the young women turned to me and said: “you can ride, yes?” “Ummm…” I murmured… “I’m sure we will be fine. We will be very careful!” The alarm on her face intensified. But Lisa came back around the corner, looking a lot more steady, and everyone relaxed a little.
I hopped on the back, with our minimal bag containing just our camera and purses, and we got going. “This is terrifying,” said Lisa, and it was. Just 30 metres or so at the end of our hostel’s road, we turned onto a busy main street. We were straight in at the deep end.
After a couple of early jitters though, Lisa gathered confidence, and once we got out of urbania and onto the coastal road, the traffic eased, and we felt that exuberant liberation that everyone talked about. The view was glorious, the fresh air blasted in our faces. This was what travelling was all about!
But it didn’t take long for things to start going awry. We reached the next beach spot, Karon, and the traffic cramped up once again. We approached a roundabout; Lisa didn’t see at first that it was a roundabout, and veered slightly to the right to go across it. At the same time, a woman on a moped cut left across us, overtaking, and we missed collision by millimetres. We wobbled. A car whizzed past inches to our right.
“Fuuuck!” I stifled. I didn’t want to get on Lisa’s case but I was shaken by that – she was even more so. After the roundabout, we pulled over on the left where a row of mopeds were parked, got out, and breathed. But as soon as we did, another rider stopped and approached us. “You can’t park there,” he said in a thick Russian accent. “Black and red on the kerb, it’s forbidden. They will fine you.”
It was nice of him to stop and warn us. But now we had to go back the other way to another parking spot, which meant turning around on the busy road. “You go across by foot and I’ll turn it around,” said Lisa. It was harder for her to get started again with me on the back.
I crossed the road and was walking towards a convenient spot for her to pick me up, when I heard a loud CRUNCH behind me. My heart skipped a beat. I knew what I would see before I turned around. Lisa and the bike were crumpled in a heap at the side of the road.
I bolted straight over, heart pounding, but when I got there Lisa was already at her feet, dusting herself down, looking flustered and distressed. She had accelerated by mistake while turning, and toppled over. “Are you okay?” I said. “I’m fine,” she replied. There was a graze on the inside of her leg, but the skin wasn’t broken. “My toe hurts,” she added. It looked a bit red, but nothing worse. Phew. “The bike…”
We hauled it up from the floor and inspected the affected side. Miraculously, it appeared to have emerged unscathed. I couldn’t see any damage. “Shall we just take it back?” Said Lisa. Maybe that was the best idea. “How about we park it up here and go down to the beach to cool off, then see how we feel?” I suggested.
“Okay,” said Lisa, “I’ll take it to the parking bays, and meet you back here.” She looked terrified. “Let’s wait a bit first,” I said. “Don’t get back on the bike until you feel ready.” I would have offered to take it myself, but the only thing more dangerous than Lisa getting back on the bike right then would have been for me to try and ride it on that busy road for the first time.
So after a few minutes, Lisa got back on and went to park it. I waited for what felt like a painfully long time. Had she come off it again? I started to worry. But there she was – with an ominous expression on her face.
“We’ve scratched it,” she said. My heart sank. We went over to the bike together, and sure enough, there was a scratch on the body that hadn’t been there when we set off from the hostel. It wasn’t huge – it was subtle enough for us to have missed it on first inspection – but it was a scratch nonetheless.
“What are we going to do?” said Lisa. We knew the stories. For scratches that were not even genuine, tourists had been charged hundreds of pounds. What would happen with one we’d actually caused? The little scratch wouldn’t cost much to fix, but it seemed possible, even probable, that we would be absolutely rinsed for it.
We pondered our options. We decided that we would just take it back, act like nothing had happened, and leave the outcome to destiny. If the hostel noticed the scratch, we would deal with the consequences. But if we were going to have to fork out a fortune, we wanted to get our money’s worth. “Let’s keep going,” said Lisa. And we did.
We decided to try and ride up to the Big Buddha. But that happy statue on the hill decided to play hard to get. We passed a sign: “Big Buddha 7km”. We kept going in that direction, rounding the hill. We saw no more signs for about 10km. Then another: “Big Buddha 4km”. We kept going. Eventually, we rode all the way around the hill, all the way around the island, and we didn’t see any turnoff. We suddenly realised we were back at Patong Beach. It just wasn’t meant to be for us and the Buddha.
We filled up on gasoline and headed back down the coast, Lisa riding with new-found purpose and confidence. Stopping for lunch at Karon, Lisa bought some light trousers to cover up the graze, and we strolled down to the beach. We took it in turns to go in for a swim while the other guarded our stuff. The seawater was bliss! The warmest, lushest, clearest and most refreshing that we had yet come across.
The redness on Lisa’s toe had transformed into an ugly bruise, though, and she couldn’t move it. It looked broken. As it became increasingly painful for her to walk around, we took things much slower.
We spent the rest of the day hopping down the coast, dipping in the sea, drying off, rinsing and repeating. Finally, we went up to Karon viewpoint for a spectacular panorama of Phuket Island, before facing up to the inevitable and making back towards the hostel.
We did not exactly time our return to perfection. We arrived back in the Patong Beach area with rush hour traffic infesting the streets. Lisa did her best to balance fear and adrenaline as she navigated the chaos, with bikes zipping in and out in front of us, and snarling trucks impatiently shunting past. We rode past Patong Hospital and had the same thought; it could have been a lot worse.
One last little trifle – we took a wrong turn (or perhaps a subliminal procrastination), and had to loop the entire circuit of the town to get back around to our hostel, taking another 20 minutes. No more delays to be had. The moment of truth had arrived.
We disembarked with excessive joviality, took our picture in front of the bike, remove our helmets, and swanned into the lounge area. The two young women looked genuinely shocked to see us back in one piece, and tittered to each other.
Rather than take the keys straight to the desk, we settled into the lounge with a beer, opened the laptop and started looking into hostels for our next destination. As we were doing so, the young woman in charge walked past us, out to the front and towards the bike. We held our breath and watched out of the corner of our eyes.
She looked the bike up and down thoroughly on the untarnished side, and then moved across and did the same on the other, where the scratch was unmistakeably on display. She didn’t seem to pause or react; she walked back into the lounge, said something quietly to the younger woman, and they giggled together. What was going on?
Lisa went upstairs for a shower. “I’ll give the keys back in,” I said. I approached the desk.
Before handing the keys over, I asked about booking island transfers for the next day. “That’s 900 baht,” the young woman said.
“I’ll give you the bike keys back now as well – we don’t need it anymore.”
She said a word to the younger woman, who went out towards the bike. I tensed up. But then she reached into a bag, took my passport out, and handed it over. The younger woman had just gone out to get the helmets. We were not going to be charged! Lisa did a little dance upstairs when I told her.
The overwhelming likelihood was that the young woman saw the scratch when she inspected the bike, and chalked it down as acceptable wear and tear. She was just being reasonable. Rumour and prejudice can make you feel as though everyone is out to get you. We were humbled to find that it’s not always the case.
What a day it had been. We were both exhausted from stress and adrenaline, and Lisa moreover for having rode the whole way after the morning tumble. We headed out into the night for some hyper-spicy Thai food, followed by celebratory beers on the raucous Bangla Road.
We lived to ride another day. Perhaps.