Driving in Asia can be a hair-raising experience for travelers who learned to drive in the Western world.
In big cities, vehicles ranging from bicycles and street carts to buses and massive trucks compete for space along clogged roads. Many of the medieval streets weren't designed with modern vehicles in mind. Motorbikes jockey for position like it's the Kentucky Derby.
Just when you think you've got the system down, a cow wanders into the middle of an intersection and anarchy ensues.
Rush hour never ends in places such as Bangkok. The flow of traffic is fast and furious. Taxi and tuk-tuk drivers don't cut any breaks for foreign drivers. At times, it may even seem as though they have a personal vendetta against you and your family!
But don't take the attention too personally. The rules of the road differ in Asia from what most Westerners learned in their home countries.
Despite the challenges, having your own transportation greatly increases flexibility and opens up sights on the fringes, those that are inaccessible by other means. 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. The extensive public transportation networks in places such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore are easy to use.
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 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 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 (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.
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 a permit 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, 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 frequently.
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.
Rules of the Road in Asia
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 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 opposite of the road hierarchy in much of Asia.
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! 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
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 and lanes are often ignored altogether, and watch out for those determined tuk-tuk drivers!
- 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 brake quickly.
- 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 (Thailand is one), 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.
- Massive 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 also apply to scenarios while driving in Asia.
- 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!
Using the Horn
A cacophony of horns often provides the soundtrack as you travel throughout Asia.
Although to Western drivers, too much horn use sounds rude or like a perpetual case of road rage, 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 carries 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).
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 with a spare key!
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 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.
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 — drive safely!
- 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.
- 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 scooter requires and how to ask for it. Fuel labels may be based on octane and ethanol content.
- Many petrol stations in Asia are full service. Tipping attendants isn't expected.
- 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.