Driving in Asia can be a hair-raising experience for travelers who learned to drive in the Western world. In big cities, vehicles of all sizes compete for space along clogged roads, many of which weren't designed with modern vehicles in mind, and motorbikes jockey for a position like they're competing in the Kentucky Derby.
To make matters worse, livestock often roam the streets, and rush hour never really ends in places like Bangkok, where the flow of traffic is always fast and furious and tuk-tuk drivers race to their destinations. In general, the rules of the road differ in Asia from what most Westerners experience in their home countries.
Despite the challenges, having your own transportation greatly increases the flexibility of your itinerary and opens up destinations on the fringes, those that are inaccessible by other forms of transit. The advantages of driving in Asia are clear, assuming you have the confidence and experience to squeeze onto the roads.
However, if driving in Asia isn’t for you, there are more than enough transportation options for getting around most places, and the extensive public transportation networks in places such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are easy to use.
In Asia, many travelers rent and drive scooters without any sort of driver’s license. Whether or not you are asked for a permit is often up to the whim of the police (and whether or not they’re seeking bribes). To rent a car in most places, you’ll definitely be asked about a license, but the license from your home country will sometimes suffice, and all countries in Asia require insurance.
However, some countries require their own form of driver's license—even if you're an international driver. China, for instance, requires that visitors get a temporary Chinese license and pass a written test instead of simply carrying an International Driving Permit (IDP) with a valid driver's license from their home country.
If you do choose to get an IDP, 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. Unfortunately, they have to be renewed more frequently than driver's licenses.
Rules of the Road 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. Additionally, traffic signals and lanes are often ignored altogether, and determined tuk-tuk drivers often make driving even more hazardous for tourists.
- Age: The minimum driving age for most countries in Asia is 18 years old. The Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia are exceptions with a minimum driving age of 17.
- Fines and fees: Fines for driving infractions and violations, whether legitimate or not, are often paid on the spot to police officers.
- Signals and lights: Traffic-control signs and signals are largely ignored in many countries. Don’t assume that crossing an intersection is safe simply because your light has turned green. In some countries including Thailand, many traffic signals have a countdown to the next light change. As the timer runs out, expect a surge of vehicles trying to rush through at the last second.
- Traffic flow: If you leave more than a few feet of space between yourself and the vehicle in front of you, expect someone to squeeze in. Any gaps will inevitably be filled, and you'll be forced to pump your brakes quickly if you're not prepared for sudden merges. Additionally, right-of-way laws differ in much of Asia and are based on the size of the vehicle rather than its position on the road to determine who has the right of way.
- Gas stations: The way fuel is designated and sold differs from country to country. Sometimes the system is numeric; sometimes, it is color-based. Know in advance what type your vehicle requires and how to ask for it as fuel labels may be based on octane and ethanol content. Additionally, many petrol stations in Asia are full service, and tipping attendants isn't expected.
- In case of emergency: Contact numbers for emergency services vary greatly by country in Asia. For instance, China has separate numbers for each emergency service (110 for police, 119 for fire service, and 120 for an ambulance) while India's emergency services can all be contacted by dialing 112. Check for a full list of emergency numbers in Asia and make sure to carry your insurance and consulate information on you when driving in case you get in an accident and need medical assistance.
Road Survival Hierarchy: Right-of-Way
Driving in Asia, particularly in developing countries, conforms to an unofficial right-of-way hierarchy much different than what the average traveler expects. More often than not, a misunderstanding of the "rules of the road" in Asia is what causes tourists to end up in accidents.
The road survival hierarchy in Asia follows one basic rule: the bigger you are, the more priority you get. Don’t assume that a larger vehicle will yield to you or grant you any special allowances just because you’re on a bicycle or scooter because the opposite is actually true: the truck driver is expecting you to yield. The right-of-way order from most authority to least goes as follows:
- Vans and Minibuses
- Taxis and professional drivers
- Large motorbikes
When it comes to navigating cities, massive roundabouts are the norm in countries such as Vietnam. Lanes are rarely ever observed, and roundabouts become jammed with motorbikes, so you should approach them with caution and keep the hierarchy of right-of-way authority in mind when merging across these roundabouts. Additionally, taxi drivers and other drivers who earn a living on the roads are often in the biggest hurry. Generally, give them the right of way if they haven’t already taken it by force.
International Driving Permits
International Driving Permits (IDP) 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 from home.
The good news: Getting an international driving permit is really just a matter of paying for one and printing it out. The bad news: The police in many countries will still claim it to be invalid so they can attempt to "fine" you for pocket money.
The primary strength of an IDP is that it is 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 (common practice as collateral) 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, enforcement of the rules is 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.
What to Do When Stopped by Police
Assuming there has not been an accident and no one is injured, dealing with a warning or citation shouldn’t be a big deal. However, for better or worse, fines are typically paid on the spot in cash to the officer issuing the citation.
If you are pulled over by the police, stay calm, turn off your engine, and be especially courteous to the 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, but you won't always get one. The police often work in teams, and you may be stopped again just down the road. If getting a receipt isn't possible, some travelers ask to take a photo with the police officer to show down the road if necessary.
Fake officers on scooters pull tourists over in Bali. Don't hand them your passport; you'll have to pay to get it back. If your gut tells you a scam unfolding, know how to best deal with police corruption 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. However, 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, but a scam in Vietnam also exists in which the motorbike is followed and then deliberately damaged or stolen back by the individual with a spare key.
Using the Horn
A cacophony of horns often provides the soundtrack as you travel throughout Asia. Although Western drivers consider too much horn use rude, the horn is used as a tool for communication while driving in Asia. You should use yours correctly, too, as you drive.
- Use your horn to alert other drivers when rounding blind curves.
- A quick beep of the horn is considered a courtesy. It tells the other driver that you are nearby, approaching from behind, or about to pass.
- Two quick beeps of the horn is also an indicator that you are passing someone or perhaps in their blind spot.
- Three beeps of the horn obviously carry more urgency (e.g., you're in someone's blind spot, and they are indicating they may change lanes soon). It's a way of telling people to "stay put."
- A continuous horn blast is either punishment for your poor driving or a means of saying, "get out of the way! I'm coming through!" Professional drivers may hold the horn to tell everyone to clear the way now (e.g., they're running late with a load of airport-bound passengers).
Precautions for Motorbike Drivers
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 their skin behind on the roads between sights. In fact, 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 so drive safely to avoid any hidden fees in your rental.
- Most motorbike rental shops will ask to keep your passport as collateral. Occasionally, 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. Keep the rental receipt and paperwork handy to show as well.
- Wearing a helmet is obviously the right thing to do for safety. Thailand has one of the highest road fatality rates in the world. Even in places where locals ignore helmet laws, you could be stopped and fined for not wearing yours.
- 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 destination in Thailand.
- Flat tires are a fairly common occurrence, especially on Southeast Asia’s rough roads. Fortunately, a flat tire on a scooter can usually be replaced for less than US $5.
- If you are involved in a minor scooter 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.