Driving a motorbike in Chiang Mai is by far the fastest, easiest and cheapest way to get around the city. I love, love, LOVE the freedom I feel whenever I’m on my bike. The traffic here can get pretty bad, some days it can be comparable to rush hour traffic in Chicago. It can take you up to 10 minutes to get through one stop light- unless you’re driving a motorbike, wink wink. When you’re on a motorbike traffic doesn’t exist. You’re usually able get to your destination in a timely fashion no matter how congested the streets are.
But, as awesome as it is riding a motorbike, it’s equally as dangerous. I’m not sure if you drove a motorcycle or motorbike in your home country, but if you have, I’d still guess that it’s nothing like driving a bike here in Chiang Mai. Overall the Thai people are very kind, patient and polite- until they get on a motorbike. When you get on that bike, you better be a defensive as well as a skilled offensive driver or you’re going to have a difficult time adapting to being in the road here. I’ve just been blessed with so much suppressed aggression that I was able to take to the ‘Thai’ way of driving with ease. I try to be aggressive, yet sensible in my maneuvers.
As I mentioned earlier, traffic really doesn’t apply to motorbikes, that’s because motorbikes weave in and out of traffic, and in between and around cars. They also bypass traffic by driving in the opposing lane, riding the wrong way down one-way streets and its petty common for bikes to ride on the sidewalks as well. I may or may not be guilty of some or all these actions, but that’s just the culture of driving a motorbike here. Get to your destination by any means necessary.
If you aren’t an experienced motorbike rider and you plan to stay here long term, or any place where a motorbike is the preferred method of transportation, I recommend taking a riding course. Or, if you have balls of steel like I do, just have a local give you a two-minute tutorial on how to ride, and then learn the ‘trial by fire’ way. I don’t recommend that method, but it worked for me. Looking back on it now, that was a bit selfish and reckless. I’m lucky I’ve never hurt myself or anyone else while I was getting my bearings. If you’re an inexperienced rider, only here for holiday but still insist on renting a motorbike, good luck to you. When in Rome right? I would suggest that you at least practice in a less populated area, or a large parking lot before taking to the busy streets. In Chiang Mai we also have Grab, it’s Asia’s answer to Uber or Lyft. They recently introduced Grab bike, so you’d still have the opportunity to travel around the city via motorbike if you were uncomfortable driving one yourself.
Unlike the US, in Chiang Mai anyone can rent a motorbike whether you have a license to legally drive one or not. Sure, you’re riding a motorbike in Thailand on holiday, how awesome is that right? But what if you crash, damage other property, hurt yourself or someone else? I know of 2 people that have had crashes, one was injured and now is afraid to get back on a motorbike, and the other totaled the bike and only had minor scrapes and bruises, but the rental company refused to return her passport until she made arrangements to pay for the damages. Neither of them were experienced drivers.
Of course, experienced drivers get in to accidents as well, but I feel that they are more likely to make an effective split-second decision to avoid an accident that a novice driver. But again, driving a motorbike is dangerous in general, so why not have the accident-free odds in your favor? Take a little time to learn how to properly operate a motorbike. It’s not just about you having fun on your vacay, think about how your driving can affect everyone around you.