Safety Tips for Riding in SE Asia


Junior Member
Feb 18, 2011
Last week there were two pretty grim crashes on either side of the Thai / Lao border, involving a head on with a car and a head on with a dump truck. I was involved with the cleanup of the second one and feel the need to write a few words to encourage / wake up / teach / preach / bitch slap / be a righteous prick to other riders about how to stay on the road and out of the hospital or morgue. The guy I was with was an extremely experienced rider, with full armour and gear who took the only evasion possible under the circumstances, yet he still got mashed by the oncoming truck, and is lucky to have been carried away with only a broken arm (four places), broken foot, broken leg, and broken thumb. And they had to cut his wedding ring off to stop his swollen finger from falling off.

For introductions sake, I’ve been riding in Vietnam for the last 18 years, and have just seen too many dead and worse, dying local people, on the sides of roads, and have been involved in the cleanup of about 8 nasty accidents involving foreigners, due to circumstances that could have been avoided with just and ounce of common sense.

There are limited hospitals and emergency services in Lao, Cambodia and Vietnam. Do you really want your last image of this earth in blinding pain, looking up for the last time, at a host of people crowded around for a look at the dying foreigner, doing nothing except taking a few snaps with their new Nokia?

I am going to try and pick apart why people crash, and I am going to give tips on how to stay on the road and I am going to give a list of the circumstances particular to this part of the world that I have seen cause crashes because the foreigner involved had no idea of the signs.

Bottom line, drive slow with maximum anticipation and care at all times. Drive to the conditions. Never go faster than the speed that dictates how long it will take to safely stop according to the road conditions based on the distance to what you can see ahead. And that is for a static object, anything moving halves the distance. It’s not rocket science.

First things first, while it’s easy to ride, it’s very hard to make an emergency stop. Keep that in mind if you are a yahoo backpacker on your first scooter zooming around Ko Samoi with the wind in your hair (no helmet of course cause helmets are for dags), the dirt on your toes (sandals) and the sun burn on your exposed legs (shorts) . Nothing more satisfying that seeing you guys hobbling around with dirty great big gravel rashes on your legs and arms. Pity though to see the pretty blonde in the same condition.

But the yahoos aren’t just limited to the back packers. There are plenty of guys out there with all the gear and no idea. Just because you look like Rossi doesn’t mean you can ride like Rossi. If you want an adrenalin rush, go do a few laps on track day or pick a fight with a gang of Ka Toys. The public roads in this part of the world are home to zillions of children, so the sight of a bunch of yahoos racing their 1000cc+ rockets past villages looking like a squad of power ranger faggots sickens me. If you like to race in a pack, bunched up like a Samoan toboggan team, you’re no better than those dogs that slowly nip to death baby gazelles on the plains of Kenya.

At the risk sounding even more righteous than above, I am going to start with the first rule of riding here. If you crash it’s your fault, regardless of the circumstances. I don’t care if a spotted pink cow parachutes out of the sky and lands in front of you, you should have anticipated it first and adjusted your speed, road position and riding stance beforehand. Herein lies the gist, while you might know how to ride back home, once you hit the streets of Asia you have to go back to square one, as the chaotic circumstances of the roads here will throw up dangers you would have never imagined in your wildest dreams were possible. If you ride the western way, then stay in the west.

I’ve seen heavy construction trucks go right through red lights past kids riding to school, and city buses racing each other on two lane streets. Traffic signals are ‘advisory’ at best. Stop signs are wishful thinking. Lane markings are for decoration. Red lights for colour.

Let’s lighten things up a bit with a list of some favourites, and I look forward to hearing from other people.

1. My favourite. A mate in Vietnam got taken out by a tractor and was left unconscious and bleeding badly on the road. Next on the scene were two concerned locals who sat him on their scooter and drove him about 12 km to a health station. So far so good. Problem though was that the guy was appropriated attired only with sandals and the two guys on the scooter forgot to put his feet on the pegs. Resulting cheese grater ground down the toes off both feet by about 1-2cm. Nice.

2. Coming around a corner in VN to see an oncoming Minsk, in the turn and leaning, with a coffin (empty) strapped bi-plane style on the back. While the Minsk was on his side of the road, the coffin was not.

3. Driving down a fast, winding road to come across a guy on a scooter herding about four horses up the road by beeping at them with his horn. Horses all over the road and skitty.

4. Driving past and ignoring a road worker who was waving pretty franticly at me to then have the explosion go off about ten seconds after I had driven past the place where they had laid the TNT.

5. Seeing a truck in Hanoi reverse down a street, fast, which was one way, through a set of traffic lights, which were red, which he could not see, because they were facing the other way.

6. Missing by inches getting skewered by a large length of freshly cut bamboo that was slid down the steep slope above the road to the collectors on the road.

7. Coming into a corner to see a guy dragging about 10 long bamboo poles by a long rope from his bike. No problem when on a straight road, but the bamboo swings out into your lane in the turn. Another time it’s the same situation but instead of long bamboo poles, this time it’s his mate with the broken bike who is getting towed, and he too drifts over into your lane in the turn.

8. Having a really drunk guy who’s asleep on the back of a scooter ridden by another drunk guy drift out and fall into me while slowing down for a red light.

9. Seeing a small Matiz car with no gas getting pushed, yes pushed, by a scooter (slight incline) coming to some lights, which turned red just before they got there, so the car just continued through the red light, and ran out of momentum in the middle of the intersection, causing huge jam.

I’ll keep it to nine for forms sake, but the guy with all the broken bones over here in Laos I mentioned previously was minding his own business in the middle of his lane on a very wide dirt road with an oncoming truck also doing his thing on his side of the road. Problem was the first truck was spewing out tonnes of dust, which was pissing off the truck behind him, who was then good enough to pass the first truck, via my mate’s side of the road, while being completely immersed in the dust storm from the first truck, until it was too late for my mate to make nothing but a slight an emergency turn, and by the grace of god just clip the front corner of the truck with the handle bars, there by whipping him off and away from the bike, while the bike got mashed into the truck. Seven bones are very good result all things considered.

Apart from those ten stories, (and let’s get a master list going) there are all the normal ones like fresh diesel spills covering the whole road just on the turn. Gravel road works in the corner. Trucks passing cars passing buffaloes in blind corners. Articulated trucks in tight corners that result in the entire road taken over by the back of the truck. Dogs chasing each other across the road. Buses that screech to a halt to pick up a fare. Mechanics who put barbs on the road so they get a little extra business fixing flats. Green lights which just signify give way rather than go cause everyone else races through red lights without thinking. People speeding up to get home when it starts raining just when all the oil comes to the surface. Guys staggering blind drunk for a puke out of wedding parties positioned right on the road. Kids playing cards or football right in the middle of the road. Fighting buffaloes going for it in the middle of the road. Twisty roads which are great to ride till you get to the turn where the camber is the wrong way round and you find yourself not being able to turn.

The whole point is that none of these things happen back home, so unless you are very familiar with the possibilities, you should ride with vigilant defensive anticipation.

The most important precaution you can take are to keep sensible speed, keep safe distances between other riders (minimum 50 metres), expect oncoming vehicles at every turn (in other words never go wide on any corner), keep an eye on the gravel at the sides of the road and use your horn to warn all animals and people of your approach.

But perhaps the most important thing of all is to be responsible enough to accept that regardless of the depth of your driving skills and experience, in Indochina you are a relative beginner, because the conditions are very different from other countries.

Safety is paramount, so always drive with maximum care.

The best way to mitigate the risks of riding a motorbike in Indochina is to ensure that driving speeds are moderate and reflective of the conditions. Riding here is an experience of sights, feeling and culture. The actual driving experience, which is also inherently wonderful, comes second. Essentially, if you drive fast, you won’t see anybody or anything.

The countries in Indochina are rural economies, which mean that there are free roaming livestock like buffaloes, cows and goats, and road awareness is not as strict as in western countries, meaning local people often fail to check for oncoming traffic when turning or entering a road. While there is no harm to open up on a sealed, straight and empty road, you should always slow right down when passing through populated areas like villages or schools.

Vietnam and Laos’s countryside is bustling with activity and its roads are busy with traffic, people and livestock alike. It is unwise to mix a lack of concentration with incredibly distracting scenery and an air of excitement. Thus it’s imperative that you keep your concentration on the road and not be over-distracted by the scenery and events surrounding you. Watch the road ahead. Only enjoy the scenery when you are sure there are no rocks, potholes, kids, pigs, chickens, road workers, trucks, cars, buses, carts, horses, bamboo poles, avalanches, soccer games, market stalls, wedding processions, gravel pits or buffaloes etc. ahead!

Experienced drivers must understand that their skills are compromised on roads and in conditions unfamiliar to them. Newcomers must appreciate that regardless of their skills, they have to start at square one, learning to recognize the signs of problems ahead.

It’s all about anticipation. If you expect trouble then you will be in a better position to avoid it. If you look for tell-tale signs then you can adjust your speed and driving position to be ready for any outcome.

For example, if you see a child running along side of the road, think about the other kid that might be chasing him. If you see a cow, think about its calf. If you are approaching cyclists that are near an intersection or side path, think that they are about to turn. If you see piles of rocks along the side of the road, then get ready for some road building. If you pass a soccer game, get ready for a loose ball. If you see a road worker waving a red flag, then stop immediately because they are about to set off explosives further down the road. If you are heading to a corner which has a grazing buffalo or cyclist on one side, then slow down and move slowly through the bend as an oncoming vehicle could put you at great risk as they will be in your lane in order to miss the a for mentioned obstacle.

In remote regions such little traffic can be experienced during the course of a day’s ride that riders may forget the possibility of an oncoming vehicle. Every single corner must be taken with the assumption that there is an oncoming vehicle just around it on your side of the road. Therefore you must stay on your side of the road and never go wide when turning to the right or turning tight when turning to the left.

You really should stick to correct attire at all times. This includes gloves, sunscreen, strong long pants, sturdy boots/shoes, armour and helmets. Drink lots of water, keep covered up and wear sun block. It is very easy to become dehydrated when driving under a hot tropical sun. Even though you might not feel the heat while driving because of the wind, you must keep drinking water. Warning signs of impending dehydration are fatigue, aches and stronger coloured urine. If you don’t drink enough then you will not enjoy the ride as much and you increase your chances of making a mistake.

Golden Rules

Don’t drive fast. Don’t drive fast. Don’t drive fast.

Assume a vehicle will come around every bend and drive in anticipation of it. Never take a right-hand corner wide.

Use your horn ALL the time (especially in VN, not so much in other countries where the locals are much safer and polite riders / drivers), especially when overtaking trucks, passing kids and animals or driving through intersections. The horn is there not to tell people that you’re frustrated with them. Rather, it is there to be used as a safety tool to communicate with other road users. Tell people all the time what you are doing by using the horn a lot – every time you see kids, pedestrians, dogs or cyclists, and every time you pass something (even passing other members of your group). Remember that truck drivers do not check their rear vision mirror unless they hear a horn behind them.

Keep your distance behind other riders!!! Not only does this help to avoid accidents but it means that you are not taking in a face full of grit thrown up by the bike in front of you, nor a lungful of exhaust fumes. Plus if you drive up the other rider’s arse, you’re vision is limited, you’ll tend to follow his line and worst of all, he might kick up a nail that you will take in your front, rather than rear tire. A blowout on the front tire is a real bitch and scary as hell. Avoid it.

Never race. Be wary of the testosterone rush from riding in a pack of Sunday riders.

Give way to anyone or anything that is in front of you. You are responsible for not hitting anything in front of you, even if that person or thing has cut in front of you. If it’s in front, it’s in the right as far as Vietnamese and Laotian traffic systems are concerned.

Beers taste much better at sunset than at lunch time.

Slow down while driving through populated areas.

View every single human or animal on or near the road as a potential accident victim. Look out for bikes which have slowed down and look like they are about to turn, and for kids running away from you with their backs turned. Be particularly wary of kids playing soccer or badminton on the pavement or at the side of the road, pigeons (they can fly up into your face), cows and buffaloes, and kids running away from you on the side of the road (they might suddenly cut onto the road). Be especially wary of calves as one cry from their mother and they could bolt across the road. Give them a blast on your horn, slow down and pass the herd on the other side of the road. Don’t be startled by chickens. The best thing is to accelerate, go straight and don’t stop if you hit one. They are very soft and don’t pose a problem. Dogs, pigs and goats may break your suspension and send you over the handle bars so keep an eye on them and use your horn. Goats are stupid so watch out. Buffaloes, however, are much more solid and will take you out, so try another strategy! And watch out for their horns as they sometimes whip their heads around to get rid of flies on their backs.

Never drive fast in wet conditions, especially when there be a light shower. Rain causes any oil in the road to rise up, making it very slippery.

When entering a zone of unpredictability – an intersection, an adjacent pig and buffalo etc. – then slow down and expect evasive action.

Remember that larger, moving vehicles can often hide other bikes behind them which can cause havoc if you make false assumptions at intersections when blindly cutting in front of the larger vehicles either travelling parallel or at right angles to you.

When you’re turning then indicate and make a long, curved turn – never slow down to a virtual stop and then turn sharply.

If crossing a busy intersection then move into the ‘down traffic’ side of another vehicle. The vehicle’s ‘traffic shadow’ will buffer you against other traffic and you can then cross with ease. Otherwise, just cross right in the middle of the intersection, regardless of how much traffic is coming. Don’t make any sudden jerks or speed changes. Just cross consistently and slowly. People will see what you’re doing and they will make room for you to cross. You can witness this process by watching how pedestrians cross the street in busy traffic.

Ok, that’s enough of my spleen. Let’s hear from some other older riders with plenty of crashes under their belt. That old adage is so true: there are only two types of riders -- those who have crashed and those that will.

One last thing, if you do come across a mate who’s had a crash, then pull out your cash and start handing it out as quickly as possible, regardless of who was at fault. Also, take care of the local person who is injured first. You don’t want an angry mob to turn up and you don’t want the old bill involved. So just pay generously, be seen to be concerned for the local guy, get out of there quickly, and then take care of your mate a couple of clicks down the road…… nuff said.


Senior member
Jan 11, 2011
Chiang Mai, Thailand
2007 KTM 990 Adventure Suzuki DRZ 400
I would say EVERY time we do a several day trip into the provinces of whichever SE Asia country there are always at least 3 emergency avoidance situations that could have produced a life threatening situation.

The more you do it the more ready you are, but as happened to the friend mentioned above even on your side of the road, here in Asia you have to be totally on guard all the time.

Great information Digby, thanks for taking the time to write it

Bush Pilot

Jan 13, 2011
Yep plenty of good advice there.
You can't be too careful.
You have to be aggressively defensive in your riding style.
Expect people not to see you.
Expect the guy on the scooter holding the baby and talking on the cell phone to run the red light.
Expect a high on yaba maniac in a brand new Vigo to attempt an idiot passing maneuver in your face.
Expect all that and just about any idiotic driving you can imagine and you surely wont be disappointed or surprised.
And then learn to take it all in stride. This is the hard part for me as some of the stupid stunts I see really piss me off.
Always something to work on I reckon. :roll:


Senior Member
Jan 13, 2011
Another problem in SEA is road works , in Europe and USA you get ample warning but here if you are very lucky you may get warning 100m before the problem but 2 of my friends have been seriously injured due to UNMARKED road works .
One guy was travelling at night on Highway 4 near Hua Hin on a Goldwing when the road just dissapeared , they had dug a section 1km long down half a metre to re =lay the road but no barriers or warning !!!!!!!!

Constantine Phaulkon

Senior Member
Jan 13, 2011
That was well written, even better than the best stuff in Lonely Planet.

Digby said:
Last week there were two pretty grim crashes on either side of the Thai / Lao border .. Seeing a truck in Hanoi reverse down a street, fast, which was one way, through a set of traffic lights, which were red, which he could not see, because they were facing the other way.
The reminds me of in Greece when they race down narrow one-way streets the wrong way...because they don't want to meet oncoming traffic (since the wrong-way driver will have to reverse course) so the wrong-way driver goes extra fast.

And cows in the road at night...big widow maker. Or deers. Or sheep. Use your horn and turn on your lights.


Junior Member
Jan 8, 2012
Another safety risk is of course a roadside mechanical breakdown leaving the rider and bike alongside speeding intercity traffic or alone by the side of an empty road with hardly any traffic at all. Combine these scenarios with hot sun, pouring rain, or darkness and a breakdown can lead to a disaster, especially when riding solo.

When a major breakdown occurs the easiest solution may be to flag down a passing truck and negotiate a life to town, for example to:
(1) your previous hotel, where you and the bike are known and will be safe while you consider repair options, or
(2) the nearest big city where repair facilities may be available, either to a major hotel (with English-speaking staff and a secure parking) or to a repair shop you know.

In both cases, it helps to have a battery-powered GPS with you with your preferred evacuation points (hotels and repair shops) loaded as waypoints. You will need to direct the driver, probably turn by turn.

But how to arrange roadside evacuation in Laos, Cambodia, or Thailand after you flag down a farmer in his pickup truck if the driver does not understand your sign language? For the toolkit, and passport case I made this one-page A4 phrasebooklet. So far I have not needed it, but I no doubt I will ... and when that happens I hope the farmer is literate.

I wanted upload a PDF or the original Excel document, but that does not seem to be possible on this site; however, this GIF can be pasted into Word or Photoshop and printed. The Thai (also readable by Laotians) is courtesy of the Chiang Mai Dusit D2 and Eagle GPS. The Khmer was translated by the Cambodia Embassy in Singapore.

Please improve upon this Biker's Phrasebook and please share, along with other ideas for dealing with a breakdown up north.



Senior Member
Jan 23, 2011
'12 KTM 690R & '09 KTM 450EXC
That's a great idea, but as someone said, what if they're illiterate & can't read it?
Can someone put the phonetic words together on the reverse side so someone like me can at least try talk to people.

Edit. I see that what Ally has just done with the Thai (I think?)

Constantine Phaulkon

Senior Member
Jan 13, 2011
I have seen the original post was posted at least a year ago...exact same language about the pretty blonde getting hurt. A well written passage I may add.

And yes, motorcycle safety is important. I think I saw a statistic once: riding a motorcycle over the course of your life is statistically a bit more dangerous than piloting a small airplane. But of course you can "walk away" from a motorcycle crash more easily.

Constantine Phaulkon

Senior Member
Jan 13, 2011
Constantine Phaulkon said:
I have seen the original post was posted at least a year ago...exact same language about the pretty blonde getting hurt. A well written passage I may add.

I is the original post after all...just resurfaced since somebody replied to it.


Junior Member
Sep 19, 2015
Koh Samui
Kawasaki Versys 650 Black
First things first, while it’s easy to ride, it’s very hard to make an emergency stop. Keep that in mind if you are a yahoo backpacker on your first scooter zooming around Ko Samoi with the wind in your hair (no helmet of course cause helmets are for dags), the dirt on your toes (sandals) and the sun burn on your exposed legs (shorts) . Nothing more satisfying that seeing you guys hobbling around with dirty great big gravel rashes on your legs and arms. Pity though to see the pretty blonde in the same condition.
Reading Phuket news and Samui news every morning there is always an article starting: "2 Chinese tourists died in the crash"...."young French man killed by passing truck"..."Young Australian couple heavily injured when crossing the intersection..."

If in the UK 4,000 people die on the road every year, in Thailand it's 12,000 and rising. There was a statistics somewhere that only on Koh Samui there are about 15 deadly accidents a month! involving mostly motorbikes.

Heard from a friend, his colleague was late to work, rushing to get his finger scanned before 9 AM. Speeding up to 80 km/h in the town he was passing a standing truck when suddenly another motorbike was crossing the road just in front of the vehicle.....that young guy who was called to come to work on his day off died in the hospital 3 hours later....anyone shocked? Welcome to every day traffic!

Got involved in an accident? You will be lucky to get covered by insurance because I doubt many tourists have any sort of motorbike licence.

Another thing I have learned is that on a single road when there is a long stretch and a truck or bus on the horizon coming towards you automatically I go to one side as much as possible because most likely there will be another car/truck/bike matter if they see you coming or of the traffic rules in Asia.

The key is to be always faster than other person's mistake.
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