Life-saving tips to travel in South East Asia by motorbike

Life-saving tips to travel in South East Asia by motorbike

South East Asia by motorbike

This is not a post for people that have never driven a scooter in their lives and decide to give it a try in Ko Phangan to reach the Full Moon Party. Which, by the way, it’s something that I don’t recommend considering that Ko Phangan has probably the steepest roads of Thailand, usually followed by sharp turns. You’ll see plenty of bandaged backpackers there; they call it “the Thai kiss”. Anyway, this post is for the experienced drivers, the ones that are comfortable with bike riding at home and want to travel independently and adventurously. Long distance travel by motorbike in South East Asia is for motorbike lovers, those who do not fear dust, misadventures and a fair amount of super-fast and life-challenging decision making.

If you fit this description, check out my guide for travelling around South East Asia by motorbike!

Getting the bike:

  • Get an international driving licence before you leave home. Not that it’s really needed, but this is just one of the trillions of excuses that a local policeman will find to fine you.
  • Make sure that your travel insurance covers motorbike accidents.
  • If possible, rent (or buy) from a local place that has been suggested to you by fellow travellers (either online or live). This way you will probably find a seller / renter that speaks English and is kinda trustable. Otherwise, if you feel rich, rent from a foreigner business. You will find them in major cities. They are definitely twice or trice more expensive than local business but you will actually get insurance and a customer service.
  • Choose the most common model on the market. In Asia it’s Hondas. Choosing a common model is fundamental to be able to find spare parts easily along the journey (yes, the bike will break down, it’s a matter of fact).
South East Asia by motorbike
  • If your bike breaks down, you will have to pay for the mechanic even if it’s not your fault and you just rented it 2 days ago. Don’t be afraid, it’s usually minor fixies that will cost you a few dollars. Anyway, it’s always a good idea to have the mechanic to call the renter. This way they can agree on the solution to the bike problem and you’ll probably get a better deal.
  • If the bike gets stolen, you’ll have to pay for it. Same for accidents. This is always true, road insurance is almost never included (it never was in my experience)
  • It is normal to leave your passport to the renter as an insurance that you won’t stole the bike. It’s a common practice that everyone requests. Just take a big breath and trust the renter (but carry photocopies on you). If you’re pulled over, the police will ask for your licence but is well aware that the renter has probably kept your passport as a guarantee.
  • Renting from locals is cheap, but you won’t have a big choice of bikes. Usually they rent only 100cc or, when you’re lucky, 250cc up to 600cc (that only happens in the most tourist destinations like Bali). If you’re planning a long trip, rent one bike per person. Please don’t assume that you can travel with your girlfriend behind you just because you do it back home. Even if you rent the biggest and “comfiest” bike, you will still have to secure some luggage behind the passenger. The restricted space, the dust, corrugated or semi paved roads and the hectic traffic will be a little too much if you’re travelling on the same bike of your partner. I tell you this from experience.
  • Always ask for a helmet. I know that wind in your hair is the best feeling ever and that locals almost never wear helmets, but please, do. First, because driving in South East Asia is crazy dangerous most of the time. Secondly, because not wearing a helmet is a popular excuse for police to fine you (even if no one else wears it).
  • On police: avoid them. If you see a patrol on the right side of the road, drive as left as you can. Do not stop unless you really have to (like there’s a bunch of cops on both sides of the road).
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

What to do if the police stop you

In South East Asia you will notice that locals travel on motorbikes in a very creative way. You will cross entire families of six on the same scooter, people carrying animals (dead or alive) or transporting massive loads of goods. Sometimes I even crossed people driving with a sick relative behind them, who was carrying a medical drip along. Despite this street anarchy, you will notice that policemen tend to stop only pale foreigners. They will then fine them for whatever tiniest problem they may or may not have (no helmet, no local licence, lights not working, speeding, running a red light, you name it). This happens because fines are a big part of their wages. That’s exactly why you should avoid them as much as possible, but if the police stop you, remember to:

South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike
  • Take the keys out of the bike and put it in your pocket. This is the first and most important thing to do straight away. If a policeman gets hold of your keys he will be able to ask you whatever amount of money to give them back to you.
  • Have a close look on where your documents go if you hand them out to the police (for the same reason of above).
  • Don’t be scared by the random menaces (“you will have to come to the police station with me” / “we will take your bike”). Try to play it cool and negotiate your way out.
  • Start haggling the “fine”. Propose at least half of what they ask and keep on bargaining. Police “bribes” standards vary a lot from Country to Country. In Cambodia, 1 to 5 dollars is considered ok for minor issues, while in Bali they asked us 30$. Just keep it cool and work it out like it was just another market negotiation.
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

Unwritten rules of the road

In Asia they honk a lot. But fear not, there’s always a good reason. With so many vehicles doing whatever on the road, honking means “watch out I’m moving close to you”. So it is usually a life-saver used to signal overtaking, turning, sudden U turns or simply that someone close to you is going to do something risky.

South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike
  • Before overtaking, always check that no one is overtaking you already and then honk while you accelerate. While you do this, you may notice that someone else is doing the same manoeuvre in the opposite direction. Try to stay cool, zig zag the least possible and move quickly.
  • Cover yourself up with long sleeved T-shirts and long trousers if you do not want to be beaten up by the strong sun and the dust. For the same reason remember sunglasses and a scarf to put on your mouth when the dust / smog situation becomes too much. Put heavy sunscreen on your hands and knuckles. If you burn them, you will have to buy gloves (not the easiest task in rural Asia) to be able to drive again.
  • Secure your backpack behind you with hooked elastic bands. Don’t carry it over your shoulders or you’ll suffer from back pain for the rest of your life.
  • Always carry a rain cover for your backpack and a plastic poncho that is large enough to cover your legs as well. Tropical rain is sudden and strong.

A SUV that overtakes a bus in the opposite direction
while you’re overtaking a massive truck full of rocks
which is exhaling black exhaust gas will soon become familiar.

  • It’s cool to have a local sim card to be able to use data and google maps while driving, but bringing a good old paper map is a good idea. If you’re lost, ask the locals. In the most faraway places they may not be able to read a map but they will be more than happy to point out the direction of your destination.
  • If you can, refill in gas stations, but don’t be afraid to stop along the road to the local mamas that sell gas in old coca cola glass bottles. It’s a bit more expensive but a life-saver in most cases.
  • Never underestimate distances. What looks like a major state road on a map can turn out to be a super busy, one-lane road used by oxcart, scooters, huge trucks, SUVs, local bus, etc. In Sumatra it took us a good 12h a day to cover 350km.
  • When you park in crowded areas, along with many other scooters, it’s normal to find your bike somewhere else. People will move it in order to get theirs out. Before panicking, have a look around. Top tip: if you just rented the average black scooter, try to personalize it with a ribbon or something that will help you spot it easily.
South East Asia by motorbike
South East Asia by motorbike

In general, keep it cool, travel at slow pace and enjoy the journey. Sometimes you will be driving through horrendously polluted and busy cities. Other times you’ll peacefully ride along jungle roads or close to the ocean. You will end up in places that are impossible to reach with any other mean of transport. You will really eat and sleep with the local communities and you will find yourself laughing together even if they don’t speak a word of English. You’ll break the bike, repair it, and then break it again. You may get sick. Or very sick. And convince yourself that you’re gonna die that night, in the middle of nowhere.

Well, It may not be for the faint-hearted but it’s very, very rewarding. So good luck and enjoy travelling South East Asia by motorbike!

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On splitting up, fear, and solo travelling as a woman

On splitting up, fear, and solo travelling as a woman

woman solo traveller

I often make this metaphor: for me splitting with my long-time partner has been like losing a leg. Suddenly I stumbled at every step. Loosing him didn’t just meant to lose the man I loved, the engine of my adventurous life and the closest person I had, but it also meant losing his family, which I considered as close as my kin, our loving dog and the future that I thought was expecting me. I was heartbroken and terrified, but the leg was gone anyway, and I had to relearn how to walk, even if crippled.

Splitting was like losing a leg,
I had to relearn how to walk,
even if crippled

 

Truth is, you never know how much you depend on a person until they’re gone. I always considered myself an independent girl and a badass traveller. But when he was gone, I realised that he was the badass traveller and I was mostly following him. He was always the one to push me further into adventures. It was his idea to cross the Australian desert on a 4WD, or to travel three months through Asia overland. It was him that convinced me to trek in the middle of the jungle to meet local tribes in Burma, or to ride motorbikes for days across Indonesia. He was the one who teach me how to surf and encouraged me to dive. All the coolest things I ever done, I did because of him.
When I realized that, I was struck with fear. How will I keep doing things I love if he’s not there to hold my hand, play it cool and fix problems?

 

I always considered myself a bad ass traveller.
But when he was gone,
I realised I was mostly following him

 

woman solo traveller

Well, instead of not doing things because I was scared, I chose to learn from our years together and to become the brave one. I made it a point to choose adventure, to travel alone and to play it cool when shit happens (like when I was stranded by a typhoon in the Philippines on my way back home, without electricity nor internet and a blocked credit card).

 

I choose to learn from our path
and to became the brave one

 

I went for my first solo trip, and then for another. It was something that I always wanted to do but I never found the courage for. I chose a destination that I always wanted to visit but never had because he didn’t like it, and just went. I spent 10 days hiking on Norway fjords, meeting wonderful people. It was great. I then took a second solo trip, this time lifting the bar higher. I went to bustling Philippines, a place that I also always wanted to visit but that was definitely out of my comfort zone as a woman solo traveller, and it turned out to be the best holiday ever.

Fun fact: when me and my partner split ways, we took very different life paths. Now I’m the one who’s doing adventurous stuff and kept travelling, and he’s the one working day and night! Isn’t that ironic!?

 

woman solo traveller

It took me quite a while to untangle all the things that loss and failure teach me, and I’m still in the process. That’s why I feel a bit overwhelmed when people underestimate my separation, or that took theirs in a lighter way. Of course It’s impossible to generalize, but I think that it’s how you react to situations and how you choose to deal with your feelings that makes a huge difference. You can choose to avoid pain and walk away as quickly as you can. Or you can choose to start from desperation and to grow from it.

It is the journey that you make
to get back on your feet
that changes you.
Make it count.

 

How to find a job or farm work in Australia

How to find a job or farm work in Australia

How to find farm work in Australia

How to find farm work in Australia? This is still the most asked question that I get even 4 years after I came back. The answer varies depending if you’re looking for a job in the city (say bartending or waitressing) or if you’re looking for regional work to be eligible for a second year Visa.

For hospitality city jobs it works just like in any other city: you look upon the local ads online (in Australia they mostly use Gumtree ) or print a decent CV an you start the tour of the local bar/eateries with a gorgeous smile stamped on your face. By “decent CV” I mean that if you’re looking for a waitressing job try to stress on similar experiences you had in your Country, even if this means cheating a little bit 😉

 

 

For regional work or farming, things are a bit more difficult. Everyone that wants to extend their Visa needs to complete 88 days of regional work, which means farming, mining, pearling, fishing, working on roadhouses in the middle of nowhere, working in aboriginal lands, etc (full list here). Because of the increasing amount of backpackers who travel to Australia every year, decent farm work (or farm work at all) is starting to be scarce. Scams are also very common. Speaking of:

How to avoid scams

  • Never EVER send money to a possible employer to “pay the accommodation deposit” in a farm or to ensure yourself the job. Those are scams. Stay away from it.

 

  • Do not accept to work without a contract. First, farm work can be very tiring and also dangerous if you work with machinery or livestock. No contract means no insurance: BIG NO. Secondly, you’ll need the contract to have your employer to sign the documents to prove you’ve done your regional work.

 

  • Be aware of fake woofers that will tell you that volunteering in their farm will count for a second visa. This is not true anymore, exactly because the existence of these scammers that exploited backpackers promising to sign their regional paperwork in exchange for free work.

 

  • Beware of farmers that offer you to sign your regional paperwork in exchange of money. Those are scammers too and the Immigration Office will eventually find out. This is also true even if your employer is just trying to help you offering you to sign for extra weeks of work that you haven’t done there. Immigration CAN check your credit card movements to see if they match your permanence in the farm. I mean, have you ever seen Airport Security Australia? Those guys know their shit, don’t try them 🙂

Working hostels, a useful help or a scam?

Working hostels are expensive hostels located in rural Australia that offer to look for farming jobs for you and even to drive you there every morning if you stay at their hostel. The problem is that that you will spend way more time in their hostel than working (because of the great number of backpackers on the same hostel/area). Moreover, when you work, the hostel typically takes a share of your pay. I heard plenty of sad stories about people that are desperate for farm work (because they’re running out of time and they still haven’t completed their 88 days) and end up in these sketchy places.

That’s why when I was in Australia in 2013, me and my boyfriend decided to avoid working hostels completely. We started looking for regional work as soon as we got to Australia (that’s where buying a vehicle straight away comes in handy).

 

So how to find work in Australia?

First thing we made sure that at least one of our CVs (my boyfriend’s) was farm-friendly. Which meant that his dad backyard with chickens became an Italian agricultural business to which he had contributed since he was a child. Don’t be scared to “enhance” your story a little bit, farmers will take you for the least qualified job in their property anyway, but a resume with farm related skills will stand out.

We found our first farming job (Farm hands in Western Australia –  you can read about the experience here) scanning gumtree all day long and calling every farmer that put his number in there, until it worked.

The second one was a little bit trickier to find. We were in rural Queensland driving around farmland to look for mango picking jobs, without much luck. Discouraged by the mango fiasco we gave a try to the yellow pages online. And with “giving a try” I mean that in 3 days we called more than 200 numbers under the “farmers” label on the yellow pages website.

As boring as it can sound, we finally managed to talk to a farmer who had a neighbor that looked for workers in his cattle property. We got the job and we drove 400km (100 of which off road) overnight to get there. You can read about the experience, one of the craziest of my life, here.

 

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OUTBACK AUSTRALIA