Motorbikes in Phuket

It took Jon three days to convince me to get on a motorbike in Phuket.


Renting a motorbike in Phuket required just a driver’s license. Any driver’s license, apparently. Layered beneath the glitz and bustle of a tourist beach town, Patong was a canvas of derelict buildings, one-way streets, and tangled electrical wires overhead. I’d been here twice, so the place felt a little like home, full of distant memories of cheap (not sleazy) massage parlours and excellent manicures, of gold-limned shores beneath a scorching sun. Traffic was always heavy on the roads. The locals went everywhere on motorbikes, if they weren’t delivering people or produce—anything bigger got tedious in the traffic—and the tourists did the same, dressed in the cliche fashion of tank tops, board shots, and Hawaiian slippers. They carved their paths through the thick morass of vehicles on the road.

Motorcycles were always parked along the streets, so orderly in a town so disarrayed. Some belonged to someone, a local stopped to grab a meal, but more belonged to the string of motorbike rentals on the street side. There were several along the stretch of road where we stayed, so we checked them out the first day we arrived. Jon went store to store, enquiring about the fees, while I figured out where to go for lunch. The rates were good. They were great, even, better than any private hire or taxi or overpriced tuk-tuk ride; something less than 10 Singapore dollars for a whole day of rental. Over the next two days, in between surfing, snorkelling sessions, and meals of tom yam and fried omelettes, Jon would give me all the reasons we should rent a motorbike even though we’ve never been on one before. Ever. “Think of all the places we can go if we got the bike.” “There’s a night market there. It’s far, but it wouldn’t be far if we had the bike.” “Aren’t you bored of the things here already?”

That was how things had been from the beginning: Jon, quiet but occasionally reckless; me, loud but wary and cautious. Eventually I conceded, less because I was convinced than it was to make him happy. We ended up settling on the rental store right outside our hotel for convenience’s sake, where we got ourselves a fancy white scooter and two helmets. The owner told Jon not to leave his license or our helmets behind.


Drivers in Phuket could either be really kind or really dangerous, depending on your luck, but there’s a sense of comfort in watching them expertly avoid other cars, bikes and the fearless pedestrians dashing across the streets. Still, we kept to the side of the roads and let the seasoned riders pass us by while we went at a measly 40 kilometres an hour. But we went places. On the first night we had explored nearly every street surrounding the beach. By the second day we’d gotten so comfortable that we decided to venture out of Patong to explore its outskirts. An hour out it starting drizzling, so we found ourselves in a small kitchen in which we were the only two customers, Jon nursing a cup of Thai milk tea while I sipped on tea steeped with the largest lime I’ve ever seen. Later we tried to hunt for a waterfall, but got lazy and turned back. On the third day we went south to do some wakeboarding, and then further down still to Karon Beach, where the waves broke the shore with raging force. Every night we’d ditch the famous walking street of Phuket in favour of a smaller night market called Malin Plaza halfway across the town, where the food was cheaper but just as good. One evening we got stopped by the traffic police, who merely checked that Jon had his license and let us go.

Then there was the issue of refuelling. Gas stations were almost non-existent, so the fuel for bike came in old whiskey bottles, perched on metal stands under signs that read Gasoline or Gasoling or Gassolin, price tag scrawled in big fat numbers below. You’d pop the seat open, uncap the fuel tank, throw in a funnel, and pour the fuel in like a drunk downing his liquor. There was no grace to it. It was fascinating.


There were other small moments—missing turns back to our hotel so we just kept going in circles; choosing to get off the bike to walk because the traffic was mad; manoeuvring the bike slowly uphill to a bar to watch the sunset; the treacherous ride downhill after the sun had dipped beneath the horizon. But really I only remembered how it felt stopping halfway to Karon to watch the sea. Standing on the side the highway, the wind threaded through my hair, carrying the smell of brine and the sound of the waves crashing across the rocked below. The sea blinked back at us in the afternoon sun, surface scattered with diamonds. The horizon was clear. This was what motorbikes got you in Phuket—views for a memory. Views for a lifetime. I only wished I’d gotten pictures.

On the morning of our flight back home, we decided to have one last adventure, to search for this small beach we’d found on the map, nestled into the cove, an insignificant sliver of sand. We had to double back twice before we found the entrance in a nondescript dirt path so steep I thought the bike would tip. But standing on the beach, I knew it was all worth it. Beneath the halcyon waters the sand was almost white, surface spanned with miniature ridges disturbed only by our feet and the occasional crab scurrying deeper into the water. Sometimes I’d catch a glimpse of colour, in shoals of small fish darting in the shallows. The sky was free of clouds, and the sun beat down on our backs relentlessly. We were alone. This was what motorbikes got you in Phuket, too—a moment of quiet. Of peace. Of a defiance to the tourists’ desecration of the larger beaches north and south.


When else will we get to be this reckless again?


Footnote: Don't tell your parents that I recommend renting a motorbike in Phuket—I don't. It's fun but dangerous, and other drivers sharing the road with you might not have the same sense of decency or safety. So if you'd like to rent a motorbike in Thailand or anywhere else, please be careful and do it at your own risk. We're pretty sure that we needed a motorcycle license to ride; we were just lucky the traffic police let us off with Jon's Class 3 driver's license (plus, keep in mind that illegal things aren't covered by insurance). Go slow and always keep to the side of the road with one eye on the vehicle closest to you. Keep your helmet on at all times, and get off the bike and walk if the traffic gets too crazy, as it usually does in the evening. Don't ride in poorly lit areas and don't drink and ride. Be very careful—your life isn't just your own, so keep it safe.