Ten Tips Riding Motorcycle in Philippines

Kawasaki Rouser 200 NS on a road to Port Barton, Palawan
Kawasaki Rouser 200 NS on a road to Port Barton, Palawan

Driving a motorbike in South Asia countries may seem challenging at first, but once you understand several simple rules of the road, you will feel safe and confident. In fact, for novice riders, the Philippines is probably the best place to start and learn.

In this article, I am sharing my own experience riding a motorcycle in Philippines: it was the first time here when I got a motorbike to a public road, and since that moment, I really do enjoy riding it.

Tip #1: Choose Your Route

Typical Palawan Road
Typical Palawan Road

Roads are different. Period. Some are crowded highways, others are mountain serpentines or gravel surface. Proper roads are fun and safe to drive, while wrong roads may kill you.

In provincial areas like Palawan, most roads have one lane in each direction, and once you get outside of a city proper, you will be surprised how empty they are. Moreover, most of them have a flat and high quality concrete surface with clear marking, proper barriers and inclines.

There are many mountains here, and when the road crosses a mountain, it winds, giving you a real fun of curving (probably, the best you get from riding a motorcycle).

Expect to meet gravel or dirt roads time to time. Though government is replacing them with concrete roads, some destinations on Palawan still require traveling a couple of dozens kilometers on a gravel or though under constructions zones.

Do not worry - traveling on dirt roads is much easier that it may seem– all you need is just to relax and your motorcycle will do the rest.

Tip #2: Choose a Motorcycle

Motorcycles on National Highway, Palawan
Motorcycles on National Highway, Palawan

Selecting a proper motorbike that matches your skills and road conditions is critical for safe and fun travel.  Here are the factors you need to consider:

  • Weight: the lighter is the motorcycle, the easier it is to control, especially for unexperienced drivers and in heavy city traffic.
  • Type: simply put, some motorcycles are designed for roads, others for off-roads, and some are good for both.
  • Transmission: automatic (no gears, no clutch) and semi-automatic (no clutch) transmissions are easier to operate for beginners, while manual clutch gives more control over an engine power.
Road Destination Take
City Within Puerto Princesa City
Crocodile Farm
Baker's Hill
Novice: Scooter
Experienced: Honda XRM
100% Concrete Sabang (Underground River)
Quezon (Tabon Caves)
Novice: Scooter or Honda XRM
Experienced: Kawasaki Rouser 200NS
Mostly concrete El-Nido Novice: Honda XRM
Experienced: Kawasaki Rouser 200NS
Mixed concrete & gravel Port Barton
San Vicente
Novice: Honda XRM
Experienced: Yamaha XTZ

Scoters and small bikes like Honda Wave or Honda XRM are ideal for city driving where maneuverability is a key.  However, their comfort and engine power are limited, and you would not enjoy riding them at speeds above 50 km/h.

Yamaha XTZ 125
Yamaha XTZ 125

Off-road or "Enduro" motorbikes such as Honda XRM, Honda XR or more recent Yamaha XTZ are best choice if you are planning to spend significant portion of your trip on a gravel, for example when going to Port Barton or to a far South of Palawan.

Road bikes, like Kawasaki Rouser 200NS provide excellent handing on concrete roads, and enough comfort and power for longer rides, however bringing them to a severe off-road requires significant rider's experience.

Tip #3: Technical Condition

The worst thing that can happen is when a motorcycle you rent turns out not to be road-ready. You would not enjoy standing in the middle of nowhere when you suddenly run out of gas due to malfunctioning gauge or find yourself without brakes on some steep decline.

Majority of motorcycle rental agencies in Puerto Princesa hold their motorbikes for years and focus on saving costs. I know from my personal experience how it feels like to ride a bike not having blinkers and speedometer, realizing that some tube just disconnected from a wheel just before steep decline, and fighting with a central stand every time I need to park for 2 minutes because a side stand had rust so much that it simply fell off.

That is why when I started the motorcycle rental business I decided to keep only new motorbikes, implement mandatory checkup after each return, ensure all maintenance as recommended by a manufacturer, and never let a motorcycle even with minor mechanical issues to leave a property.

Safety first! So be sure to take your motorcycle form a trusted agency with good reputation (or buy your own).

Tip #4: Do Not Speed

Filipinos do not speed, and you should not.  Police do not even have radars – there is simply no reason to use them.  Most motorcycles here are 150cc or less, and seeing anything above 200cc is rare.

Living in the US, Europe or Australia you probably got used to highway speeds of 70-80 mph, while it seems that going faster remains safe. Here normally the speed on a highway tops at around 50 mph on an empty road, while in a city it is virtually unrealistic to go faster than 25 mph due to slow tricycles and other vehicles.

Such speeds make driving safer, where most accidents result on or little damage. So be smart and do not drive faster than everyone else does.

Tip #5: Acquire Skills

Forget everything you know about traffic rules in your country and learn how it' done here. Driving may seem chaotic at first, but after a couple of hours you understand that there is a logic behind this chaos: drivers let others pass even if they have a right-of-way, and can pretty much anticipate what others are about to do.

  • Watch for hands. Many drivers use their hand instead of blinkers to show their turns. You can use your hand in addition to a blinker as well because it is significantly more noticeable in a bright sun.
  • Horn when taking over. Do not hesitate to use you horn just to show you are there. Many drivers do not have mirrors mounted, and even those who does may not use them – they expect you to indicate where you are.
  • Share a lane.  Yes, motorcycles here often travel by two or three in a single lane, so when changing your position within the lane, take same precautions as when changing a lane.

And for the novice drivers, here are a couple of advices o handing a motorcycle:

  • Relax. The more relaxed you are, more stable you motorcycle is. A motorcycle is like a gyroscope, it will stabilize itself when you do nothing.
  • Counter-steer. It may sound strange, but on speed above 20 mph, in order to turn right you actually need to turn handlebars to the left, and then lean to the right. Simply try pushing you right handlebar to tur right, and left handlebar to turn left, and you will notice how willingly it leans and turns.
  • Brake slowly.  The worst thing that happens to a motorcycle is when wheels lock. ABS is very uncommon here, that is why it is your responsibility not to apply excessive pressure on brakes, and if the front wheel locks, react quickly to let it go before it slides.
  • Do not brake in turns. Breaking in turns can be very dangerous because it greatly increases a risk of wheel sliding and motorcycle fall. You should always break before a turn, and while already in a turn that seem too narrow, you have more chances to negotiate it by leaning more rather than by breaking.

Tip #6: Plan Your Distances

Know how long you want to go in a single day and plan your route accordingly. While experienced rider can safely drive from Puerto Princesa City to El Nido in one day, for a beginner such a trip may become a torture and even not safe.

I think it is safe to say that a beginner can comfort travel 100-150 km in a day, while a driver with a little bit of experience can go as far as 300-400 km.

Plan your time accordingly to finish your trip during a daytime which ends around 6.00 PM. Average speed on a highway would be around 50-60 km/h on concrete and 20-35 km/h on a gravel, and do not forget to plan enough time for stops every 50-100 km to stretch up and relax.

The table below show approximate road distance between destinations.

Puerto Princesa
Port Barton
Long Beach
Puerto Princesa -        
Underground River (Sabang) 75 km -      
Roxas 125 km 120 km -    
Port Barton 145 km 140 km 22 km -  
Long Beach (San Vicente) 175 km 170 km 52 km 72 km -
El Nido 270 km 265 km 145 km 165 km 115 km
Nactabon Beach 30 km        
Talaudyong Beach 37 km        
Tabon Caves (Quezon) 145 km        

Tip #7: Be Alert

In Philippines children oftern play near the roads; and dogs, chicken or even ducks can cross the road at any time in any place. Add to this Philippines way to dry rice on a concrete road, or manure, which is quite slippery.  I believe I do not need to convince you of importance of being alert.

While Filipinos are born with a motorbike between their legs, you should expect that many of them are not reach enough to afford buying a motorcycle; hence, you may encounter some novice drivers who may not even have a driver's license (or tourists). 

Just do not assume that if you have a right-of-way other people know this, slow down and prepare to any situation development.

Tip #8: Keep Driver's License

It is very rare for a police to check your documents. In fact, I have been stopped by the policy (or a military) just once, and they only asked me a couple of questions not even asking to present any papers.

However, in case of an incident, the fact that you cannot show a valid driver's license will be an ultimate proof of your fault. Also, think what your insurance company would say.

Is foreign driver's license enough? I believe it is safe to answer yes. In fact, my Massachusetts driver's license is good enough even to buy and register a vehicle.

Tip #9: Wear Helmet

Distribution of impact locations on motorcycle helmet
Distribution of impact locations on motorcycle helmet

For your safety – please, ware your helmet! You may notice that many Filipinos do not, but it is barely a good reason for you to risk your life.  According to statistics, helmets reduce the risk of head injury by around 69% and death by around 42%

Do not forget to fasten your helmet; otherwise, it is likely to fell off before an impact. In fact, not fastening a helmet is almost the same as not wearing it at all.

Besides, not wearing a helmet is probably the only reason why the police may stop you and issue a citation.

Tip #10: Beware of Rain

Rain on Palawan
Rain on Palawan

Depending on a time of a year, rains are common in Philippines. Often they start and end suddenly and may only cover an area of several kilometers, making them very hard to predict.

It is usually best strategy to find a shelter and wait (everyone will welcome you in his or hers house). However, there might be different situations, and overall, you should be prepared to drive in a rain. It is not as bad as it may sound if you have a good raincoat, while helmet protects your head from the water. Just remember to slow down because wet road may be very slippery and dangerous.