If you have ever visited Thailand, then you know that the primary mode of transportation for locals is the motorbike. You see them everywhere, but especially in the countryside and smaller towns where this isn’t much public transportation. If you are going to visit Thailand for an extended period of time, then learning to drive a motorbike will be key to your convenience and enjoyment. However, learning to drive a motorbike in Thailand is not for the faint of heart.
My First Experience Driving a Motorbike in Thailand…Not Good
A few years ago when we first visited Thailand, we saw motorbikes all around. I remember thinking “I can totally ride a motorbike!” But if you have read our story “Tourist Fail – My First Time Renting a Motorbike in Thailand,” then you know that didn’t work out so well! From that moment on, I swore I wouldn’t try to drive a motorbike in Thailand again. Even when we were recently on Koh Samui for a month, a motorbike would have been so useful but we resisted getting on that “death machine.” (Koh Samui just happens to lead Thailand in accidents and deaths on motorbikes, so we still feel good about our decision not to ride one there).
You Can Get Around Chiang Mai, Thailand Without a Motorbike
If you are a visitor to Chiang Mai city, then you certainly don’t need a motorbike to get around. While there isn’t mass transit like in Bangkok, you will still find taxis, tuk-tuks, and lots of Songthaews (trucks with seats in the back that you flag down for rides around town). While the taxis and tuk-tuks can be expensive, Songthaews tend to be much more reasonable. But as is the case in all of Thailand, it’s all about negotiation. If you plan to stick around the old town and main parts of Chiang Mai, then you can get by with just those forms of transportation. These main areas are also quite walkable. If you want to venture outside of town, you can take the motorbike, or take a bus or train.
If You are Living and Working in Chiang Mai, a Motorbike Will Make Your Life Easier
But we were planning on living and working in Chiang Mai for some time. After a couple weeks in town, we became tired of walking and the constant negotiation with drivers for transportation (especially when we knew we were paying far more just because of our skin color). We realized that if we just sucked it up and learned how to master the motorbike that our life would be much easier. Plus, we really needed more dependable transportation if we were going to start working here.
Unfortunately, my first experience on the motorbike back all those years ago in Ao Nang really shook my confidence in myself. It took a couple days of me walking around Chiang Mai looking at bikes, trying to talk myself into giving it another go. One day, I pumped myself up and was determined to redeem myself on the motorbike. So I just went out by myself and rented a bike. And luckily, I didn’t kill myself driving it home!
Learning to Drive a Motorbike in Thailand
Surprisingly, this bike and I got along right away. Perhaps it was because I was by myself and focusing very hard. There was no one else riding on the back of the bike, like last time when I tried in Ao Nang, so balancing the bike was much easier for me. Plus, I was scared to death. So I was holding on tight and focusing ever so carefully on what I was doing. Once I got the bike home, I really felt good about it.
I practiced a bit more on some of the side streets near our apartment, and even had Josh get on the back so that I could practice driving him around. Everything seemed to be going well. So that night, we took it out on the town together — and what a difference that bike made in our experience here in Chiang Mai!
Motorbikes Rule the Road in Thailand
At the beginning, we were still being extremely careful. We watched our speed on the roads and stayed to the side so that other cars (and bikes) could pass us easily. We didn’t get too confident in driving up through traffic at stop lights or driving on sidewalks (as other bikes do to bypass traffic). But slowly, we really got the hang of riding that bike around town. We also quickly came to realize how much easier our life became here in Chiang Mai by being able to get around easily with the bike – whether we were going out for dinner or going to the grocery store.
After some time, we felt like we were finally blending in while riding with the locals and didn’t look much like the “scared tourists on a bike.” We zipped through traffic making our way up to the front of the line at stop lights, to congregate with all the other bikes. When the light turns green, everyone takes off in unison as if they are in a race! I told Josh “doesn’t it feel kinda like we are in a biker gang?!?” It was like bikes ruled the road and we all came busting through stop lights together. Look out cars, because this is the way to get around Chiang Mai!
Living Like a Local and Riding a Motorbike Around Chiang Mai, Thailand
Having the motorbike has really helped us to enjoy our time here in Chiang Mai. We have not only saved money by not having to pay for public transport, but we’ve saved a lot of time and headaches by not having to flag down Songthaews and negotiate a fair price. We were able to drive to and from our teaching jobs and have even become comfortable taking the bike on the “super highway” to get across town quickly.
One weekend, we even rode the bike 25 km one way to attend a golf tournament, and on another day we took a ride up a windy mountain road to a temple. We have really enjoyed our bike, which we nicknamed “Ritchie” after the cool Thai kid who rented it to us. “Ritchie” really added a lot to our experience here and made us feel like we were among the locals, living the typical Thai life.