Sometimes your home country motorcycle license will do, sometimes the local police will insist you need an International Driver's Permit too, and in some cases, you'll need to sit and pass a local test for a local license.
In the countries where an International Driver‘s Permit is accepted, it allows you to drive/ride the same class of vehicle covered by your home country license.
So, if you're licensed ONLY to drive a car at home, you are NOT covered to ride a motorcycle or scooter just because you have an international permit. Similarly, if your motorcycle license restricts you to a certain engine size, you cannot jump on a pimped-up scooter with a throbbing engine. It's up to you to make sure you are licensed for the type of motorbike (or moped) you hire.
Some travelers openly admit to ticking the “motorcycle“ box on their permit even though they don‘t have a valid license at home. That might fool the traffic cop who pulls you over in Phnom Penh, but it won‘t cut it with your travel insurance.
Plus, if you have absolutely no training and no experience at handling a two-wheeled machine at home, what makes you think you‘ll magically acquire those skills in a foreign country where the roads are shoddy, the vehicles dodgy, the congestion is mind-boggling and the road rules boil down to “might equals right“? Seriously, Ho Chi Minh City is NOT the place to learn to ride. Thailand and Vietnam have shocking road accident fatality statistics, among the highest per capita in the world. The other regional nations aren‘t far behind.
But if you DO have a valid motorcycle license from home, the International Driver‘s permit will be accepted in: Bali, Indonesia, Laos, Thailand, and Cambodia. But get the license before you leave home, the permits are not valid in the country of issue – so you can‘t apply from within Thailand for a permit to use in Thailand.
Tens of thousands of visitors each year rent a motorcycle/scooter and ride around Southeast Asia totally unlicensed. That doesn't mean it's legal.
What if you‘re stopped by police? In the poorer, less-developed countries, it‘s easier to bribe your way out of trouble. “Tea money“ of a few dollars and the problem disappears.
Many travelers report bluffing their way out of police checks with the official-looking International Driver‘s Permit (even though they don't have a valid license from home to back it up). Because the policeman lets you go on your merry way - after paying the "fine" - it does not mean you are riding legally; you‘ve just avoided the law by paying a bribe. But we recommend that you don't pay a bribe, it's illegal.
The fact that the shop rented you the bike without asking for your license doesn‘t mean you don‘t need one. They know you‘re coming back (they have your passport), and it‘s not their responsibility if you don‘t check out the local law.
It‘s also not true that you don‘t need a license for a scooter under 50cc in Southeast Asia. Apart from the fact no one should be seen on a scooter with a sewing machine engine for propulsion – it‘s only some European countries that have this law.
If you‘re still tempted to roll the dice, (unlicensed and uninsured) do everything you can to make sure you don‘t get hurt in a crash.
The protective clothing is the toughest one – it‘s stinking hot and humid, you‘re just zipping back from the beach to your room, you‘re on holiday, who wants to follow rules! Just make sure you have cash in the bank to pay your medical bills.
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