Motorbike Observations in Southeast Asia

When I travelled in Southeast Asia in 2017, I was blown away by some of the practices of motorbike riders! As a motorcycle rider at home in Canada, where the norms is full gear, including riding boots, jackets, pants and helmets (ATGATT! as they say, “all the gear, all the time”), lots of safety rules, and a western culture that favours bigger bikes* , the contrasts were fascinating to me.

Traffic experience in Hanoi, Vietnam (video taken on a rickshaw ride)

What are something the things that struck me in particular?

Bike sizes

A “big” bike is anything over 125cc, and that’s about as big as it usually gets. Most riders are on scooters, and any actual motorcycles are still no larger than 125cc, which somehow doesn’t seem small when you are there. We did multi-day tours double-up with luggage on 125cc bikes and were completely comfortable. One day in Sihanoukville Cambodia I saw a guy on a Harley (the only time I saw a large western-style motorcycle), and frankly, it looked odd and out of place.

Traffic in southeast Asia can be an overwhelming experience

How much can be fit on that little bike?

People move enormous things on these little moto scooters! Just some examples of things I observed being transported on scooters include:

  • A wardrobe;
  • Construction rebar;
  • A kitchen table;
  • Families of 5 (including babies sandwiched between mom and dad, one kid standing in the foot well, and one kid perched hanging on the back);
  • Large planters with lush kumquat trees heavily laden with fruit;
  • Loads of various boxes and items so big you can’t even see the bike!

There are definitely some things you see you see in southeast Asia on motorbikes that seem peculiar to the North American eye!

I wish I had been fast enough with my camera to capture all the amazing feats of scooter balancing that I saw. Some of it never stopped amazing me throughout the whole nine weeks I was travelling in southeast Asia.

Riding triple on a motorbike is not unusual in southeast Asia

After a while, it stops being surprising

On the other hand, there were some things we saw so often, they stopped seeming peculiar and just started to appear normal, such as:

  • Hundreds of motoscooters crossing intersections all in different directions at once (and somehow never colliding!);
  • Groups of only 3 on a moto scooter
  • Passing on all sides;
  • Parking on sidewalks;
  • People driving in opposite direction of the traffic flow;
  • People texting and riding;
  • People talking on the phone and riding;
  • Women riding moto scooters side-saddle;
  • Women driving motorbike while wearing a skirt and heels.

All in all, experiencing southeast Asian moto scooter culture was an exciting experience.

If you already know how to ride, then I do recommend renting a scooter while you are travelling in southeast Asia, but recommend keeping that as an activity for the less traffic-intense locations. If you don’t already know how to ride, I would not recommend that this is the time and place to learn. Even though I already ride, would not try to drive myself in the midst of Hanoi traffic! It’s safer to get comfortable with the basics of riding at home in an environment that is familiar.

If you don’t know how to ride yourself, but still want to experience this, you can book a scooter ride to get around using the Grab app, or for a longer experience, consider taking a multi-day motorbike tour (future review of our awesome 2-day Nha Trang to Dalat tour with Nha Trang Easy Rider to come).

Motorbikes in Southeast Asoa
Motorbikes in Southeast Asia

Share your own interesting travel motorbike experiences in the comments below, or drop by the Travel Variety Community Facebook Group to share your stories.

* Note: At home in Canada, I ride a Honda Rebel 250. In motorcycle circles at home, I have often felt the need to apologize on group rides or somehow justify my love of my “little” bike. Fellow riders sometimes referred to my motorcycle as a “scooter” because I don’t ride a 1000+ CC bike (not because I can’t ride a bigger bike mind you… but that’s a topic for another post!).


About Jocelyne Smallian-Khan

Jocelyne is pretty much always up for a trip, a dance, a game of cards, reading a book, a cup of tea, or a glass of wine (not necessarily all at the same time, or in that order!)

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