One of the omnipresent aspects of any backpacking destination that I have ever been to is that there are always motorbikes for rent. The reasons for this is pretty simple and that is that budget-travelers tend to want to do things on their own terms and are willing to embrace the adventure of getting lost in order to save some money while also having the opportunity to stay somewhere as long as they want to, or to go off the beaten path. It makes sense seeing as how the daily rental of a motorbike will normally cost about half as much as one taxi ride to a single place nearby.
The prices vary, but in certain parts of the world it is very easy to acquire a motorbike for as little as a few dollars a day. These places don't seem to be overly concerned about whether or not you are actually capable of driving a motorbike because if you damage it, you pay for it - often a cost that is much higher than the cost of the repairs. There are a lot of ripoffs in this realm that have existed in the past but thanks to the wonders of internet reviews this has kind of become a thing of the past.
This doesn't mean that renting a motorbike is necessarily a good idea though, especially if you have never done it before.
You'll never encounter places like this on a tour...
I think it is a wonderful way to experience a country, especially these days where getting lost is almost impossible since we have apps to guide us to just about anywhere. Back in the day getting lost was actually part of the fun though and there is very little chance of running out of gasoline with a little bit of preparation. Gas in rural areas tends to be sold just about everywhere, even out of 1 liter repurposed liquor bottles.
the butchered English in some places is just an added bonus
The downside of renting a motorbike is that a lot of people tend to forget that this is something that can cause you great harm or even death when used by someone that doesn't know what the hell they are doing.
I have seen many people in guesthouses around the world that were missing large portions of their skin and had developed painful road rash on their elbows and knees from crashes. One time it was my own sister who suffered this fate and after I witnessed her crash for the 2nd time, I told her that "this is not for you" and just had her ride on the back of my own bike. Even though she really wanted to be part of the fun, it was really stupid for her to stay involved in this game that could result in her own demise.
I don't know if you have ever had road rash, but it absolutely sucks. It's sensitive, it's itchy, and it takes forever for it to heal. Also, if you are in a beach environment, and many budget travel destinations are precisely that, it hurts like hell to get in the ocean. Basically, these silly and avoidable accidents can ruin weeks or even months of your travels. Then there are the extreme cases where people actually lose their lives in horrendous crashes but I'm not going to talk about that in great detail. I do know several people that have met their end on motorbikes on backpacking roads though.
The law in most of these countries states that they are not allowed to rent the bikes to anyone that doesn't have a motorcycle license from some country but because competition is so high, the businesses do not enforce this because if they do so, a place down the street is going to rent the bike to the customer anyway.
A few tips to avoiding ruining your vacation from this all-too-common injury is pretty simple
- Wear protective gear including real shoes (not flippy floppies) and pants / sleeves
- Definitely wear a helmet
- Don't drink and drive
- Don't rent the bike at all if you are uncomfortable driving one
The last one is likely the most important and was the case with my sister when she joined me for a while on my travels. She wanted to experience the adventure but was clearly not up to the task. This became evident, thankfully, at low speeds when she crashed the bike twice in the first couple of hours.
In a particularly funny (only because no one was hurt) event I was sitting having a coffee at a place across the street from a motorbike rental shop in Guatemala and I saw a group of girls in beach gear had just rented some bikes. They took off down the street and one of the girls immediately froze up and crashed her bike through the glass entrance of a minimart less than 50 meters from where she rented the bike. Miraculously, she wasn't even cut or bruised because she was moving so slow at that point. The crazy thing was that the owner of the motorbike shop still wanted her to carry on renting the thing. She wisely declined to do so as she was rightfully rattled from her "near death experience." In the end I would imagine that was a very expensive 5 minutes as she no doubt had to pay for the broken glass door as well as any damage to the bike.
Renting a bike while backpacking can produce some of the greatest memories of your life and for the right person, it is a fantastic way to experience things that other travelers are never going to see. For others, it can make the entire vacation or at least a big part of it, absolutely miserable. So if you find yourself in a place where renting a motorbike is an option, keep these things in mind. I always say to hope for the best but prepare for the worst and since the owners of these places actually make MORE money if you crash the bike, you can't really count on them to look out for your best interests.