“Give me my passport or I call the police. Your choice.”
Momentarily taken aback, the 70-year old Laotian woman across from me paused her tirade and sized me up, trying to decide if I was serious.
I was and then some. Having politely but firmly been asking for my passport for nearly half an hour, my patience was at the breaking point. Steph had looked up the number for the tourist police earlier, just in case the situation devolved as it so clearly had. This was not a bluff—I was ready to go nuclear.
Motorcycle rentals gone bad are, unfortunately, not an isolated incident in S.E. Asia; a quick Google search of “motorcycle scams Asia” reveals it is all too common. However, after 21 months of essentially trouble-free travel, this was not where I expected to find myself, and certainly not over something as simple as a broken shock absorber on an old motorcycle.
We’ve ridden at least 40 different motorcycles since we began our trip. If I close my eyes and do some really rough math, I’d say I’ve probably clocked over 10,000km on two wheels in Asia in the last two years, and I’ve never had any real problems. Sure, there have been breakdowns, flat tires, and some scrapes and bumps, but that all comes with the territory. When I say “real problems”, what I mean is that I’d been lucky enough to avoid the really sticky issues of having a bike stolen or totaled and negligent/deceptive renters for our entire trip.
That is, until Laos.
Let me back up and tell you how I wound up seething on a sidewalk in Laos, demanding the return of my passport, hoping things didn’t get really nasty. We had a few days to kill in Vientiane, and one of the things Steph had been waiting ages to see, the crazy Buddha Park, was calling our names. Situated about 20km outside the city, it was an ideal target for a quick motorcycle trip. On top of that, having the bike opened up certain areas of the city we might have missed otherwise. We’d seen shops flogging motorcycles on every corner of every street in the tourist area of Vientiane, so I knew it would be easy to find a bike and get on the road, and I had a general idea of how much it should cost to rent one for a day.
Walking literally one minute down the road from our hotel, we stopped at a little bookstore/massage parlor/motorcycle rental “agency” and took a look at their bikes. Their selection was small, but featured real brands, not junk Chinese copies at reasonable (for Laos) prices, so we decided they were as good as anything else. At 70,000LAK for a semi-automatic 110cc Suzuki (the same bike as many, many other places), they were running one of the cheapest operations in Vientiane, so we filled out the paperwork, grabbed some helmets and were ready to go. And then the first red flag appeared: the girl renting the bike very carefully wiped the entire thing down, checking for scratches before we left. I’ve had other renters check for scratches before, but this was definitely the most thorough inspection I’d ever seen.
At this point I wasn’t worried enough to give it much thought; after all, I’d never had a single damage issue in almost two years. I snapped a few quick smart-phone photos of the bike to fend off spurious scratch claims, and was very confident that, between my riding experience and use of paid parking areas, the bike would come back exactly as it left.
For the most part, the day went according to plan. We made it out to the Buddha Park with no problem, and rode around Vientiane, enjoying the freedom of two wheels, as we knew we would. Late in the afternoon we decided to check out one of the wats a little bit east of town. The motorcycle parking was across the street on the sidewalk and as I rode down the curb into the road to leave, I heard a metallic snap and some clattering. Heart sinking, I looked behind us and saw that the rear right shock had snapped off at the base and the spring was rolling down the street.
Both our minds began to spin, and we started spit-balling ideas for what to do. I didn’t want to ride the bike any more than I had to: with the both of us on only one shock I was afraid that the other strut would blow from the strain and then we’d be really stuck. Steph immediately suggested that we head to a mechanic to get it fixed. Upon inspection, it was clear the shock was original equipment on a 10+ year-old bike, and had simply worn out, so I didn’t feel we should be responsible for its repair. Also, I hadn’t seen any mechanics that day, and unlike Vietnam where you can’t swing a wrench without hitting a repair shop, I wasn’t sure where to find one. So, despite Steph’s better (in hindsight, vastly superior) judgment, I decided to give the owner a chance to do the right thing and give us a new bike while they fixed this one… after all, the girl who rented it to us seemed a decent enough sort and this was clearly their problem.
Now, my experience should have told me (as Steph did) that it would have been simpler to just go to a mechanic, get the thing fixed, and the owner would never have been the wiser. This was most likely true, but it wasn’t what I did. Live and learn. And learn. And learn.
Naturally, when we limped up on our broken motorcycle the person that we ended up dealing with wasn’t the original girl from earlier, but her shark of a mother (let’s call her Greedy Granny), who was not present when we rented the bike. Everything about this woman’s demeanor said she was on the make and my heart sank at the sight of her. Spying the issue, Greedy Granny leapt into action, claiming the part would need to come from the Suzuki dealership only, which was not open. She then promptly made a phone call and claimed that a new shock was going to set us back 1000 baht, or just over 31USD, according to “the dealership” at the other end of the wormhole she used to call them while they were closed. Why it was quoted in baht and not kip, I don’t fully know, as I assumed the “Suzuki dealership” was in Vientiane. My working theory is that Greedy Granny thought we’d be more inclined to shut up and pay what seemed like a lower number without thinking, since 1000 baht certainly sounds like a lot less than 250,000LAK.
It didn’t matter that the contract stated we pay for what was our fault and they pay for what was their fault, because it quickly became obvious that “our fault” clearly included maintenance issues as well as literally everything else. Had the chain broken, or the oil gone dry, or the handlebars came off in our hands, or the engine turned into a goose, it was clear that this woman would regard anything that happened to the bike in our care to be entirely our responsibility, regardless of whether it was because she had failed to care for the machine in the first place or not, and no amount of arguing or impassioned jabbing at the contract would change that.
I’m very level-headed guy, but I’ll admit that, at that moment, all the blood rushed to my head at this obvious, and disgustingly avaricious rip-off. I had fixed bikes in Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, and I knew, with absolute certainty, that 31USD for a single shock was a minimum of 25USD too high. Hell, we’d put an entire transmission into our motorcycle in the remotest part of northern Vietnam and it had only cost 12USD. This crone had smelled money and thought I was an easy mark. She was wrong. I had made a laughable error in judgment thinking I could trust her to do the right thing, but now she’d poked the hornet’s nest, and I was willing to go to great lengths to deny her any satisfaction.
I immediately rode back to our hotel and asked the desk clerk where the nearest mechanic was. He gave me some simple directions (“very far!”) and I set off down the road, hoping the breeze from the ride would help me cool off. I found the mechanic, showed him the issue and asked the price. 50,000LAK, or about 6USD, for the part and labor. I knew this was the Sunday afternoon, walk-in, tourist-special price, but it was so much less than what I had been quoted by Greedy Granny that I laughed with relief. Not that it was surprising (it was, in fact, almost exactly what I was expecting), but it was certainly satisfying. Unfortunately, the mechanic discovered that both shocks had to be replaced, as the only size shock he had was slightly different from the intact original, so my total jumped to 100,000LAK for parts and labor.
At this point, our “cheap” rental had now cost us more in repairs than the original rental fee. Despite this, I still felt relieved. 100,000LAK is not, ultimately, a lot of money and it was certainly better than Greedy Granny’s outlandish sum, so I had dodged a bullet, of sorts. Maybe half a bullet at least, and I had stuck it to Greedy Granny. I’m rarely vengeful, but damn.
Thirty minutes later the bike had two new shocks and I was on my way back to the rental agency.
By the time I arrived nearly everyone was gone, leaving only the original girl and her brother. The girl inspected the new shocks with a confused look and called her brother out to take a look as well. While he tried to figure out what the hell had happened, the girl oh-so-carefully checked for scratches once more. With the confusion still evident on their faces, I politely asked for my passport, left as a deposit, now that the issue was so obviously fixed. Leaving a passport as a deposit is standard procedure in many parts of Asia, and unfortunately, as much as it keeps some tourists honest, it also allows some renters to be dishonest, as I was quickly learning. Looking rather scared now, the girl mumbled something about it being in a lock-box and that she had to call her mother to bring the key. Sure.
After 10 long minutes, Greedy Granny arrived on a broom scooter, immediately made for the bike and thoroughly looked the shock over, obviously in utter disbelief that it was fixed. When it was clear that she had seen that the bike was repaired, I asked her for my passport. She waved me off and told her son ride the bike down the road to “test” the shock. He produced a spare key from his pocket and jumped on the bike, roaring off down the road hitting potholes the whole way, doing his level best to shake the part loose, leaving me to wonder if that spare key might not have been used to “recover” the bike from our hotel had we parked it overnight, another fairly common scam in Laos. I already knew we were not dealing with the best operators here, but this was just one more little thing to add to the pile. He returned, with nothing to report, and quickly dodged away from his clearly apoplectic mother, never looking up from the ground.
At this point no one but Greedy Granny had much to say. I asked for my passport, again, pointing out, again, that the bike was fixed, and that she had no complaint against us at this point. She responded by hitting me with a barrage of questions about the shock. Where did I get it fixed? How much had it cost? Was it second-hand? I gave her the only answer that was reasonable: a mechanic fixed it, it was clearly fixed, I did not know if it was second hand, but that was certainly irrelevant since it was better and newer than the original shock from that morning. Looking her straight in the eye, seeing that she was only getting started, I decided I’d had enough of arguing. I told her that if she didn’t give me my passport back, I would call the police, and they could figure this out.
She took half a step back, straightened her back, and doubled down on her play. She started going on about how she was certain the shock was used, and if it was a cheap, used Vietnamese shock then it wasn’t as good as a Suzuki shock, and this was her bike, and it was very important to her that it was fixed right (so long as we were paying, I assumed) and we had tried to blame her, an innocent, for all this, and, and… I cut her off, so completely disgusted by her persistent, blatant cash grab that I am certain the look on my face was what actually ended the argument, and not my threat of calling the police. Finally, Greedy Granny had run out of words.
I looked at her children, and saw their obvious shame as they tried to hide behind whatever they could find, not wanting to see or be seen. She cast her gaze on them as well, which they avoided. It was clear they weren’t coming to their mother’s aid; she’d crossed the line. This was her gambit and I was not the easy mark she’d hoped for. She had still come out ahead, but it was clear that this was the end. She stood around a bit more, unsure what to do, so I got my phone out of my pocket and as I flipped the cover open, she started grumbling and told her son to get my passport. He dug it out of a clearly unlocked drawer and handed it back to me (so much for the key she “had” to bring). Silently, Steph and I left the shop and walked to our hotel. It was nearly dark out and as all the adrenaline left my system, I felt very tired and in need of a very big, very cold beer.
Our (Costly) Lesson
Our cheap rental ended up costing us not only an extra 100,000LAK beyond the 70,000LAK rental fee (that’s right—we paid more to fix the bike than we did to rent it in the first place!), but also subjected us to some of the most stressful hours we’d experienced in years. It’s not always easy being in a foreign land to begin with, but fending off a greedy local trying to take advantage of our supposed ignorance was just too much. After nearly two years of relative peace and ease in Asia, this was by far the worst situation we’d been faced with at any point up to now. Fortunately, we’d come out all right in the end, it hadn’t cost us that much money and we never had to see this woman again. We were able to walk away with no larger consequences than a slightly lighter wallet, and let this become just another interesting story from our time in Asia.
So what’s the moral of the story? Sometimes the cheapest option… isn’t. If you can afford it, paying a little extra for peace of mind is always worth it, whether it’s to avoid shady operators or just to know that you have nothing to worry about.
Tips for renting a motorcycle in Asia
Based on our experience, renters like this are the exception, not the rule, so don’t use our cautionary tale as a reason to avoid motorbikes (or locals!). Instead, learn from us and arrive prepared. Here are my tips on how you can reduce your risk to the lowest possible level with any rental:
Do your research. Find out if there are reputable operators that others have used and head for them first. Don’t go off book unless you have to, or you have enough experience to know better. Even then, be careful.As a general rule, we only hire bikes from actual shops, never off of random touts (though they are certainly abundant).
Read (& understand) the contract. Make sure the language is clear. If you have a question, ask (we should have clarified what the agency would consider “their fault”). But, be warned that the answers you receive might change once you’re back if something goes wrong, especially if you’re dealing with someone who wasn’t there before, so try to get it in writing if it’s not clear. If costs are quoted in a another country’s currency (other than USD), take extra care and consider finding someone with a contract that seems less fishy.
Thoroughly inspect the motorcycle. Check for damage and photograph everything that even looks like a nick. They won’t fix any superficial damage (as the myriad previous scratches makes clear), but they will still charge you as though they intend to make the repair. If the renter only gives a cursory glance, or makes no inspection when you take the bike, it’s likely that they will not hold your feet to the flames over trumped-up damage claims, but don’t be complacent. Be prepared to pay for damage you cause, even if you know that they won’t repair it, as most contracts do stipulate that you pay for damages.
Test-ride the bike thoroughly. If it has gears, ride far and fast enough to shift through all of them, up and down. The shifting should be easy, smooth, immediate (no hunting or surging), and make a satisfying thunking/clicking noise. Get up to speed and hold it for a bit (40kph or more). Drive very slowly and listen for odd noises and shuddering/stuttering. Check all the lights and indicators. Test the brakes in a sudden stop. Try to stop with only the front brakes and only the back brakes to see if they are worn or if they squeak excessively. Check the tires for remaining tread.
If something is broken, get the shop to fix it before you go or change bikes. Don’t take a bike with an issue, even if it’s minor. You’re paying for the privilege, so make sure it’s right. If your brake light doesn’t work and you get a ticket, guess who is paying for it? That’s right.
Find out what you are responsible for. Find out what the procedure is if something breaks. Ask them what you have to pay to repair. Things like brakes, chains, belts, and the engine should not be your responsibility, but don’t assume the renter is on the same page. Flat tires are always on you, however, so don’t start fights about that.
Get a phone number. On the off chance that something major does break on the bike, you’ll want to be able to get in touch with the rental office so that they can arrange for the bike to be transported back to their office (or fixed) if they have made provisions for this. Conversely…
Fix it yourself. If something breaks, unless you’ve been explicitly told otherwise, just get it fixed. If your renter makes it clear that THEY are going to pay for repairs, and what repairs they will pay for, then go with that, otherwise just get it fixed yourself. Repairs are generally dirt cheap in Asia, so it will always be cheaper to just get it done yourself. We once replaced the entire front right side of a Honda Wave (fender, headlight, console, mirror, rack) for just under 35USD. Seriously, these bikes are ubiquitous and cheap.
Try to get a real Honda, or a very good copy. See the previous tip… Hondas are very common, easy and cheap to fix, and they tend to be very reliable as well. “Hondas” take real parts as well as fake, so while they may break more, they’re just as easy to fix as the real thing. Don’t know how to tell what’s real and what isn’t? If it has gears, look at the engine: if it has the word “Honda” stamped on it (usually above the gear shift or on the opposite side above the brake) it’s real. Any other name = Chinese. Fake automatics are rarely hard to spot, because, for whatever reason, off-brand automatics are almost never carbon copies of Hondas.
Try not to hand over your passport as a deposit if you can avoid it. However, there will be times when you have no other option, and if you’re not comfortable doing so, then you may have to go without. Sorry.
Trust your instincts. If the person you’re dealing with rubs you the wrong way, for any reason at all, walk away. If they’re too pushy, or indifferent, or distracted, or anything that bothers you, imagine dealing with them if there is an issue. Rent from someone you like and your chances for success go up a lot.
If there is a problem, stay calm. Shouting, making a scene and being crass will get you absolutely nowhere in Asia. That’s just not how things are done as a foreigner. If you can, stay calm, stick to your guns, and simply repeat what you want, in a polite way, chances are good that you’ll emerge in considerably better shape than you might otherwise. Plus, if the person you’re dealing with flips their shit, and you don’t, that only helps your cause.
If you feel you are being bullied or a situation cannot be resolved, don’t be afraid to call the police. Yes, some places in Asia are known for corrupt police officers, but in most cases, they really are there to help. Additionally, if you believe you are in the right and have acted fairly, offering to bring the police into things will generally put an end to any shenanigans on the renter’s part.
You get what you pay for (most of the time). Generally if a place is offering their bikes at a substantially lower cost than other places in town, this is not a reason to rejoice, but a reason to be suspicious. This is often a sign that the bikes are poorly maintained or unreliable, and you may be better off going with a more middle-of-the-road operation. Additionally, many places charge different rates based on the age/make of a bike—you may pay less up front for a 10-year-old shit Chinese knock off, but when it dies on you halfway through your day in the middle of nowhere, you’ll kick yourself for not springing the extra buck or two for a better bike.
Do your best and have fun! I try to follow all these rules all the time, and trouble like the unfortunate confrontation related here generally only happens when I get complacent and don’t listen to my own advice. Sticking as close to these guidelines as you can manage will greatly improve your odds of a positive rental experience.
Tell us: Do you rent motorcycles when you travel? If so, have you ever experienced anything like this? How would you have handled this situation?