Driving in Asia

Driver's Licenses, Safety, Police Interaction, and Renting Vehicles

Driving in Asia - Bangkok
••• Driving in Asia can be tough at rush hour!. Greg Rodgers

Driving in Asia can be a hair-raising affair for first-timers. In big cities, impossibly clogged roads and anxious drivers are typically the biggest stresses.

In rural settings, road hazards can range from live animals to damaged bridges and long-haul trucks that literally run people off of roads.

But despite the challenges, having your own mode of transportation greatly increases flexibility and the ability to see sights on the fringes, those most often missed by other travelers.

The advantages of driving in Asia are clear, assuming you have the confidence and experience to squeeze onto the roads!

If driving in Asia isn’t for you, there are more than enough transportation options for getting around.

What Is an International Driving Permit?

International Driving Permits are about the size of a passport and are recognized in various countries throughout the world. An IDP must be used with an accompanying driver’s license from your country to be valid, so you’ll still need to carry your actual license card.

The primary strength of an IDP is that they are translated into 10 or more languages, providing a form of identification that can be read by police anywhere in the world. This could come in very handy if you had to leave your passport with the rental agency and are involved in an accident. A policeman may not be able to read -- and won’t care much about -- a driver’s license card issued by your home country.

Unfortunately, the rules and enforcement are completely muddled and inconsistent between countries in Asia. To make matters worse, the conventions for the IDP have changed several times, causing some countries to reject newer implementations.

Do You Need an International Driving Permit for Asia?

In Asia, many travelers rent and drive scooters without any sort of driver’s license.

Whether or not you are asked for one is often up to the whim of the police (and whether or not they’re seeking bribes). To rent a car, you’ll definitely be asked about a license, however, the license from your home country will sometimes suffice.

If you do choose to get an IDP just to be sure, apply at least six weeks in advance. Fortunately, getting  an IDP is inexpensive and doesn’t require passing a test; you’ll just need a valid driver’s license in a participating country along with two passport-sized photos.

The minimum driving age for most countries in Asia is 18 years old. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia are exceptions.

The Right-of-Way Driving Hierarchy

Driving in Asia, particularly in developing countries, conforms to an unofficial right-of-way hierarchy much different than what the average traveler expects; this causes numerous accidents involving visitors.

The model we follow in the West that awards pedestrians the right of way by default, mostly because they’re soft and squishy unlike a vehicle, is essentially the mirror opposite of the “rules” in Asia.

The road survival hierarchy in Asia follows one basic rule: the bigger you are, the more priority you get. Don’t think that a larger vehicle will yield to you or grant you any special concessions just because you’re on a bicycle or scooter!

The right-of-way hierarchy goes as follows: pedestrians yield to bicycles, which yield to scooters, which yield to cars, which yield to taxis and professional drivers, which yield to SUVs, which yield to buses, which yield to trucks.

What to Expect While Driving in Asia

The frenetic roads in Asia can intimidate even seasoned drivers from big cities in the West. Road hazards in developing countries range from live chickens to street-food carts and their customers sat on plastic stools. Traffic signals are often ignored altogether, and watch out for those determined tuk-tuk drivers!

  • Cutting off other vehicles is fairly the norm. If you leave more than a few feet of space between yourself and the vehicle in front of you, expect someone to squeeze in!
  • Traffic-control signs and signals are largely ignored in many countries. Don’t assume that you’re clear to cross an intersection simply because your light is green.
  • In Thailand, many traffic signals have a countdown timer to the next light change. As the timer runs out, expect a surge of vehicles trying to rush through at the last second.
  • Roundabouts are the norm in countries such as Vietnam. Lanes are rarely ever observed, and roundabouts become jammed with motorbikes; approach them with caution.
  • The rules of saving face often apply to scenarios while driving in Asia; be familiar.
  • Fines for driving infractions and violations, whether legitimate or not, are often paid on the spot to police officers.
  • Taxi drivers and other drivers who earn a living on the roads are often in the biggest hurry. Generally give them right of way, if they haven’t already taken it by force!

Renting Vehicles in Asia

Finding cars and motorbikes to rent in Asia is rarely a problem. At least in larger cities and popular tourist areas, you’ll recognize many familiar car-rental chains. In some places, the only rental agencies are located outside of town by the airport.

Try to avoid renting from individuals who are simply looking to rent out their personal scooters or cars for the day. Not only will you not be covered for any mechanical problems, a scam in Vietnam exists in which the motorbike is followed and then deliberately damaged or stolen back by the individual!

What to Do If You Are Pulled Over in Asia

Assuming there has not been an accident and no one is injured, dealing with a warning or citation shouldn’t be a big deal. For better or worse, fines are typically paid on the spot to the officer in cash. At least you won’t need to deal with bureaucracy or finding where to pay a fine later.

Stay calm, turn off your engine, and be especially courteous to the police officer. To prevent a possible loss of face over the ability to communicate, have some form of identification handy immediately.

Arguing about being pulled over is a sure way to turn a potential warning into a guaranteed fine, or worse. Uniformed officials demand respect -- and are often feared in developing countries -- so don’t make matters worse by acting the part of a privileged tourist.

If required to pay, ask for a receipt; you won't always get one. The police often work in teams and you may be stopped again just down the road.

If your gut feels a scam unfolding, know how to best deal with police corruption in Asia.

Precautions for Motorbike Drivers in Asia

Renting scooters and small motorbikes is a great way to see sights scattered around tourist areas in Southeast Asia.

Unfortunately, many travelers also end up leaving skin behind on the roads between sights. So many tourists crash scooters in Thailand that the road-rash scars have been deemed “Thai tattoos,” a rite of passage for backpackers.

  • Even a minor motorbike crash in the islands could keep you out of the water for the rest of your trip as wounds heal. Motorbike rental shops make most of their profit by penalizing drivers for damage -- don’t be a victim!
  • Most motorbike rental shops will ask to keep your passport. On rare occasion you can provide a photocopy and cash deposit instead.
  • If a rental shop keeps your passport, ensure you do have a photocopy on hand to show at police checkpoints when asked.
  • Wearing a helmet is obviously the right thing to do. Even in places where locals avoid helmet laws, you could be stopped -- and fined -- for not wearing yours. Some places are more strict than others; the police in Bali love to bust tourists for not wearing their helmets.
  • Many rental contracts have range restrictions due to insurance limitations. For instance, some shops in Chiang Mai don’t allow customers to drive to Pai -- a popular motorbiking route in Thailand.
  • Scooters have a limited fuel range and are mostly meant for getting around one locale. When driving long distances, don’t always assume that you can make the next fuel stop -- there are no guarantees!
  • Flat tires are a fairly common occurrence, especially on Southeast Asia’s rough roads. Fortunately, a flat tire can usually be replaced for under US $5.
  • The way fuel is designated and sold differs from country to country. Know in advance what type your scooter requires and how to ask for it. Fuel labels may be based on octane and ethanol content.
  • If you are involved in a minor accident, you’re probably better off finding a mechanic and paying for simple repairs yourself (e.g., broken mirrors, skinned grips, etc). Rental agencies will understandably charge a premium markup for any repairs.