Using the GRAB app to get around Bangkok. How did I ever live without it? Motorbike taxis are the way to go for short rides, but how safe is it? There are pros and cons of riding a motorbike taxi, and tips for making your ride as safe as possible.
GRAB is the Uber of Southeast Asia and offers both car and motorbike taxi service that’s convenient, affordable and efficient. There’s no language issue, no haggling over fares, no money changing hands, and there is a record of your trip, your driver and your route, which is an extra level of security for women travelling alone (or for that matter, anyone traveling solo). Plus, you get a receipt emailed to you, which is absolutely brilliant for taxes or business expense reimbursement.
You may have heard that traffic in Bangkok is insane. You can be sat at an intersection for well over ten minutes waiting to get through the light. This gridlock makes getting around the streets of Bangkok a nightmare in a car during heavy traffic hours (which are most hours).
Taking a GRAB motorbike taxi is cheaper than a car, but even more compelling is the fact that motorbikes maneuver around those cars stuck in traffic right to the front of the lane, and can get you where you want to go much faster. For trips of less than 15 minutes (assuming it’s not raining), I’d definitely choose a motorbike taxi.
But is it safe?
After all, you’ve seen how chaotic the roads are, right? I’d love to say, yes, it’s perfectly safe! Even though it looks chaotic and like everyone makes up their own traffic rules on the spot, it only looks dangerous because you’re a foreigner and you don’t understand the underlying order. It all works out in the end and they all know what they’re doing. Um…that’s rubbish. Riding a motorbike anywhere in the world is dangerous, carries a much higher risk of injury and death and you need to take it seriously.
With that said, I’ve only had very good experiences using GRAB motorbike taxis in Bangkok. I ride a motorbike in my home country and have ridden in SE Asia as well, and I can tell a good rider from bad. I can also tell you that being a good passenger is critical for a safe journey. If you’re flipping around on the back of that bike while your driver is trying to maneuver through tight spots, you could be jeopardizing both of you.
Follow these simple tips to be a good passenger and have the safest ride possible.
Wear a helmet
Your driver will provide a helmet. The helmets they use are absolutely crap by US standards. They’re like toy helmets. Some drivers have better passenger helmets than others, but they’re still kind of hinky. Even so, adjust the strap to fit your face, and put that thing on. Anything is better than nothing.
Protect your eyes
Sunglasses are better than nothing, but do not kid yourself…there’s nothing to stop all that dust, random bugs and debris from going around those lenses and right into your eyes. Since I ride at home, I have riding goggles already, and I always bring them when I travel and keep them in my daypack in case I end up needing to get a motorbike taxi. They’re not expensive, and seriously, they are not optional. You will thank me, and you’ll thank yourself that you took my advice! Riding goggles are a must. I use the Red Baron goggles. They come with interchangeable day/night lenses and are very affordable. Any goggles that conform to your face so that nothing can get into your eyes will do.
Wear a mask
Riding a motorbike means you are right in the middle of all that exhaust and pollution, and it’s all getting sucked into your lungs. People often get respiratory illnesses after being in polluted cities and think it’s the flu or some kind of cold. It’s because of the pollution. It is a side effect of the pollution, not because some sick person coughed in your general direction on the subway. In my experience just a few 15 minute rides through thick Bangkok traffic can easily bring on a serious bout of sinusitis a week later. You can take the time to hunt down and buy a proper mask while you’re in Bangkok, but it’s much easier and faster to just get it at home before your trip. You want a mask that will filter out particulates, which is different than those medical type masks people often wear in Asia.
They’re so elegant! All over SE Asia you’ll see elegant Asian ladies riding side saddle in skirts with their legs casually crossed and their sandals dangling. They look so relaxed, it looks so easy and…NO. Just don’t. Don’t try this. Throw your leg over that seat and ride astride.
Hold on to the back bar
Does this seem obvious? It’s not! If you’re not experienced being a passenger on a motorbike, you might automatically want to hold onto the driver. This is not done. Reach around behind you and hold onto the bar on the back of the bike. And if you’ve got a purse or a backpack or anything, make sure the weight is centered, balanced and secured.
Your driver might have to do some rather interesting moves through traffic. Remember, you’re not just a passive thing attached to the back of the bike. It will really help the driver and make the ride safer if you are paying attention to what is ahead, anticipate his moves and balance your body accordingly. You and the driver move together, in a sense. It’s fine on open stretches to take in the scenery, but when you get to intersections or conditions where your driver is maneuvering, pay attention.
Arms and legs in
Drivers in SE Asia give a whole new meaning to, “Would you have any Grey Poupon?” Vehicles get so close to each other it is not uncommon to brush up against another vehicle or another rider or the stuff they’re carrying or hauling on their bikes. It’s best to always keep your arms and legs close in, and as mentioned above, especially when your driver is trying to get through tight spots. This goes for any bags you’re carrying. There have been plenty of times when the driver was trying to determine if he could get through a spot and as soon as I pulled my knees way in, it told him I was paying attention, realized what he was trying to do and this gave him the confidence to push on through.
Don’t use electronics
You know I’m talking about your phone and your camera, right? As tempting as it is to whip out your phone to shoot a cool video or take an awesome selfie, please don’t. And you know, if you’ve taken my advice to wear a mask and goggles, that selfie isn’t going to look very good anyway. Besides, it’s just not the time for this kind of thing. First of all, it goes against the eyes forward and arms and legs in advice, and you also run a real risk of having a thief reach out and grab your phone or camera-gorillapod right out of your hands. Gone. Dumb. Don’t.
Have fun. Be safe!