Driving in Asia is unlike anywhere else in the world having driven through the chaos of Paris, the beauty of Valencia and mountain roads of Switzerland, nothing could prepare me for what Asia has to offer.
Nepal provided the most challenging roads imaginable, India the most insanely frantic traffic, Thailand’s landscape is the stuff of dreams and Indonesia is a wonderful mix of it all. I would highly recommend it for those seeking the independence and adventure of driving on Asian roads.
Travelling has teaches many life lessons. In this post I will share the distinctive beauty of driving in this remarkable continent and four first-hand tips to ensure you fully enjoy the experience.
Do I Need an International Driving License?
The short answer is yes, it is a legal requirement to carry an international driving license on you, if you get caught by the local traffic police without one expect to pay a fine ($5-$20 depending on the country and police officer).
The slightly longer answer is you should have one. I have been driving through Asia for over 12 months and I have been stopped by the police once (in Bali) and paid a fine of 500,000 IDR roughly $5. I read multiple stories about the dread of the police and corruption, from my experience they couldn’t be further from the truth. I have had multiple pleasant experiences with the local police, enjoying a range of conversations including; where I’m from, what I love about their country and appreciation for my motorbike (Royal Enfields get a lot of love).
It is a legal requirement to obtain and carry an international driving license, which I would recommend to anybody planning to drive in Asia, but the traffic police are not a mafia trying to intimidate every dollar they can from tourists. As long as you show you’re safe and able to ride the bike without being a liability to yourself and others on the road, you will be just fine.
Renting a Bike
Renting a bike is a fairly similar process across Asia, but don’t always expect a well established storefront or rental company like Enterprise or Hertz. You may end up renting from a local burger shop, an old lady’s home or a coffee shop, there are no shortage of bike rental options across Asia.
Most of the time they will not ask you for an international license or license at all, they are happy to receive your money. If you have never been on a scooter or motorbike before and you are determined to ride one (this is a frequent occurrence) I would highly recommend spending an hour or so in a quiet area getting comfortable with it. The roads and traffic are much easier (and safer) to navigate when you’re not paralyzed with fear.
You will either be asked to leave you passport or cash as a deposit, I have had no issues leaving my passport with rental services, it is a very common practice.
Prices will vary depending on country, rental place and bike, but you may be surprised at how cheap it can be with a bit of negotiation.
My best prices were:
- Royal Enfield (India) – $15 per day
- Honda Unicorn (Nepal) – $10 per day
- Scooter (Thailand) – $5 per day
- Scooter (Bali) – $50 per month
Driving in Nepal
Nepal was my first introduction to Asian roads, and Kathmandu is completely different to anything Europe has to offer. The traffic seems chaotic at first, bikes would be zooming in and out of cars from every angle, horns were blaring and the congestion is overwhelming.
Once you acclimatize to the traffic, the roads are the next challenge, Nepal struggles with infrastructure, but delivers some of the most majestic scenery imaginable. Take a ride out of the city and you will be greeted with a backdrop of the Himalayan mountain range, take a ride through these twisty roads and you will be rewarded with an abundance of natural beauty.
My First Accident
The roads got the better of me in Nepal, and I would advise extreme caution, some of the potholes remind you of moon craters. The resilience of your back, neck and ass will be tested on the longer rides.
While returning to Kathmandu, a combination of loose rocks and wet gravel caused me to stumble off my bike at very low speeds. The accident itself was harmless and there was no damage to my bike or myself…for about 10 seconds until a truck ran clean over my foot.
The locals were immediately present to ensure my safety and offered to call an ambulance. I was very fortunate that there was no permanent damage and after a couple months in a cast I was back on my feet. This was a good reminder that accidents happen and caution is of the utmost importance.
If you are planning on taking a trip to Nepal I would highly recommend driving the Kathmandu – Pokhara route.
This 6-8 hour journey through the Himalayan mountains and has some of the most picturesque scenery for you to enjoy. Stop for a coffee and embrace the fresh mountain air and take in the majestic Himalayas.
Driving in India
India is unique in every sense, not just from the rest of the world, but within India no two places are the same. Driving through this glorious and testing country is a memory you will treasure for a lifetime and gives you skills you didn’t know you had.
The horns never stop, the cars are very dangerous and the traffic is mayhem. I truly believe that if you can drive in India you can drive anywhere in the world. It will give you Himalayan passes, remote villages, chaotic cities and glorious beaches, India truly has it all.
My favourite area was Goa, it is a relatively relaxed, beach filled area spreading almost 2,500 miles. Here you will find some of the most glorious landscapes as you cruise through and take a moment to enjoy a relaxing India.
Take the coastline from the south up to the north and simply enjoy.
Driving in Bali
Bali is often called paradise, and rightly so. A small Indonesian island, Bali has everything. Volcanoes, beaches, rice fields, cities and remote villages, and it is a pure dream to drive around. The roads are mostly in perfect condition, the traffic is much calmer than India or Nepal and there is no legal speed limit (some of your faces just lit up).
My Second Accident
Bali was also home to my second accident, and it was entirely my fault. When it rains it pours, driving back to my hostel one evening I was caught out by the rain and slipped horribly on the wet surface. My head, body and bike scraping along the floor.
Luckily the medical center was on the very same corner I crashed and they were incredible. This was another stark lesson, for all the beauty that these roads offer, be careful.
I was in Bali for five months and drove around this island multiple times, and never once ceased to be amazed by its beauty and people. Take a scooter along the coast and then head into the center of the island around the volcano Mt. Batur. You will wind up through beautiful villages, rice fields and have a panoramic view of the ocean at times, it is simply mind-blowing.
Driving in Thailand
Northern Thailand is a dream. The traffic is calm and the people are incredibly friendly. Drive anywhere, this place is designed to be explored. Glorious mountain roads, jungles and smooth roads, this country is simply incredible.
I took the Chiang Mai – Pai route through the mountains and it is otherworldly. The road is in perfect condition the entire way, the weather was glorious, the fields, mountains and villages produced stunning backdrops. Oh and there are over 700 corners on this 80 mile trip, that should rightly excite you.
4 First-Hand Tips to Enjoy Driving in Asia
I have enjoyed driving over 5,000 miles of Asian roads and here are the four most important tips I have picked up along the way.
1. Be Confident
The roads here are a world away from what we are used to in the west. The key is to drive with the flow of traffic, remain calm and keep a confident composure. If you are nervous on a bike it is best to practice in a large car park or quiet area before navigating the main streets.
Don’t look scared and guilty when going through police patrols or riding past police stops. Look like you belong on the road and continue with the flow of traffic, they will be much less likely to pull you over.
2. Always Be Friendly
Road rage may be a comical discussion among friends at home, but highly unnecessary here, remember we are guests of the host country. There is method in the perceived madness on the roads. Smile when cut off by a fellow driver, they will blindly come out of corners. When a car pulls out on you navigate around it or slow down and don’t expect lane markings to be observed by other drivers either.
If you are stopped by the police act innocent, smile and be friendly. It is always a good idea to keep small change easily accessible and separate from your larger notes.
3. Pay Close Attention to the Roads
The conditions may be much trickier than the well maintained roads back home, dependent on which country you are in. Potholes, gravel, incomplete roads, mud & dirt paths and heavy rain are commonplace.
Wild dogs and other animals freely roam the streets and can come out of seemingly nowhere. If you come across a cow in India, make sure to drive around it. While driving at night, be extra careful, dogs will roam around in force. The cars on the road will probably blind you with their full beams, be sure to take it nice and easy.
4. Get Lost
You have given yourself freedom to explore by renting a bike, don’t stay tied to Google Maps. Allow yourself to take the interesting roads, drive because you fancied turning left and take yourself through the unexplored territories of the country.
My most treasured memories have come by going through remote villages that have rarely seen a tourist and immersing with the locals. The intrigue from both sides makes it a much richer experience and throws up wonderful surprises that are waiting for you to go and discover.
Driving in Asia is vastly different from back home, it takes some getting used to but once you get the hang of it a whole new world opens up. It is important to remain safe, but don’t let fear stop you from an adventure of a lifetime.
I would love to hear about other awe-inspiring drives through Asia that I have yet to experience, leave me a comment below and share your greatest driving experiences in Asia or beyond.