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Have you ever traveled to another country and found that you wanted to rent a vehicle, scooter, or motorbike? Did you do it? Did the chaos of driving in a place where the laws and customs of the road are foreign to you or they seem too crazy to try? I can relate to all of this and wanted to write about my experiences driving in other countries as I feel I have done it enough to help others who may be afraid to try. 

First of all I should mention that I tend to be more of a risk taker during my travels and I love to overcome a challenge. Let’s go back to 2002 when I was 20 and took a 3 month trip to Thailand. I had never driven a motorcycle at this time, although I had been around Harley’s with my family growing up. I wanted to take the journey from Chiang May to Pai, but wanted to do it on my terms. So, I rented a motorbike, left my big back pack with the company I rented from (seems crazy now) and took off with just myself, the bike, a small back pack and a generally good sense of direction. 

That first day was a learning experience! I had to act confident with the rental people so they would be willing to work with me. Then I had to drive out of there without stalling the bike too many times (twice I believe). Then I practiced my shifting and hit the busy streets of Chiang Mai. I had been in Thailand for a couple months at this point and observed how people drove and figured I would just jump in and weave through traffic and not pay attention to street lights, signs or any other “normal” road laws as I did in the states. I think this willingness to jump in along with a robust amount of naivety helped me in those first few days of learning that new bike. By the end of my 2 week tourney to Pai and back, I rolled into the rental shop like a seasoned vet and have never looked back when it comes to grabbing my own wheels when abroad.

It is clear that the rules of the road are quite different everywhere you go, especially for someone like me who learned to drive, primarily, on open country roads. In the states, people stop for red lights, rarely for bikes or scooters weave between traffic and the roads just seem to be wider. There is also a lot of anger and ego on the road. The horn is used as a way to let someone know they’ve pissed you off rather than a warning as it is used (and was intended to be used I believe) in other countries.

For me, the “chaos” that these other countries road’s seemed to have just made sense. There was more cooperation with other drivers and certainly not as much anger and ego on the road. If you find the right balance between being aggressive and patient, you will be fine. The other thing to know is that people just tend to drive closer to you. Whether you are a pedestrian or in a car or on a bike, you will have other drivers right up near you and this can be hard to trust at first. Are they going to hit me? Did I do something wrong? Are they upset? Are all questions that have popped into my head. I realized over time that this is just how others drive and my thought is it is because of the relatively smaller roads. Things just push together more.

There are obviously other challenges as well. I remember distinctly the first time I drove on the other (left) side of the road. Some friends and I had flown into Barbados. We rented a small vehicle for the 10 days there and I had not looked up to see how they drove prior to arriving. Getting in the car with all our bags on our laps I immediately knew I was in for a challenge. Steering wheel was on the right side, roads were driven on the left side and I had to use my left hand for the manual shift. That on its own was a lot! Add to that the fact that the airport had a series of round-abouts in the opposite direction and it was nighttime and you have plenty of reasons to panic.

Having had plenty of other experiences on the road in other countries, I was able to keep calm and just simply laugh about the struggles. That is where the patience comes in handy. Allow yourself to make mistakes. You may turn the wrong way down a road or stall a manual transmission in front of people or a busy spot. That is OK! Just keep on keeping on with your driving and everything will be fine. 

While traveling, I feel like I see so many people who are injured from motorbike or scooter accidents. These are dangerous vehicles and should be treated as so. If you do not think that you can handle being on the roads and are too nervous to do it, that is fine, don’t force the issue. There are plenty of ways to get around without having to drive yourself. If you are wanting to give it a go, do it! I find it to be a very fun challenge! Just remember the tips below and you should be good to give it a try:

  • Stay calm and patient
  • Take it slow, getting overly confident leads to most accidents in my opinion
  • Observe others before trying yourself
  • Have some sense of how to operate the vehicle you are driving (despite my failure to do that)
  • Be predictable on the road (no unexpected moves)
  • Be extra aware of gravel and potholes 
  • Check the legalities of driving i.e. licenses
  • Don’t be shy about asking for help and directions
  • Carry some cash in case something goes wrong with the vehicle
  • Relax and enjoy

I am likely missing some things, but these are a good place to start. Renting your own vehicle can open up your travels to doing things you want to do, on your own time. It has lead me to some of my most memorable places and journeys. Pulling off the road in some random village to grab a bite to eat can open you up to a more local experience, rather than stopping where all the other busses and tour operators stop on their schedules. As long as you drive with confidence and care, expect the unexpected and just take things as they come, you will open up your travels to new and amazing possibilities.

Please feel free to share some of your best or worst moments of driving abroad in the comments below!

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