Car Rentals in Southeast Asia: Where Is It Possible?
Many older travellers like the independence of hiring a car and driving themselves when travelling the world. It’s common practice in the U.S., Canada, Australia, New Zealand and many European countries. But are self-drive rental cars a practical option in Southeast Asia?
Car rental counters are a ubiquitous sight at most airports in western countries. Travellers book ahead, collect their bags, go to the car rental counter, swipe their credit card, collect their keys and they are on their way. No waiting for hotel shuttles or queuing for taxis. It’s the preferred way to go for many middle-income travellers.
In some Southeast Asia countries though, car rental counters are nowhere to be seen, and in those airports where they do exist, the process of hiring a car may not be as easy as it is outside of the region.
There are many reasons for this. In cities like Singapore and Hong Kong there is little demand for rental cars because public transport is so efficient, taxis are cheap, clean and plentiful, and finding parking spaces for rental cars in many parts of the city is either impossible or very expensive.
There are still quite a few countries though in Southeast Asia where it is possible to pick up a rental car at the airport in the same way as it’s done in western countries, but this is only recommended for travellers who have had previous driving experience in those countries. In other countries, the usual practice is to hire a car with a local driver.
Outside of Singapore, many drivers in Southeast Asia have never had driving lessons or taken a driving test (they’ve bought their licences on the black market or through ‘fixers’), they have little or no knowledge of road rules, and in some countries it is not even possible to procure a copy of what the road rules actually are.
For drivers not familiar with the road conditions in those countries, driving can be quite hazardous – especially at night when there are many cars, motorcycles and bicycles on the road without lights, stray animals, unmarked road works and pedestrians in dark clothing who do not realise that they can’t be easily seen by approaching drivers.
Therefore hiring a car with a local driver who is familiar with local driving conditions is a much safer option, and can avoid expensive run-ins with the local police in the event of an accident.
Here’s a rundown of what’s available in Southeast Asia (in alphabetical order):
Taxis can be hard to find in some parts of Brunei, and public transport is very limited, so this is the one of the few countries in the region where renting a car from the airport makes a lot of sense.
Some of the international car rental firms like Avis and Hertz have booths in the arrivals hall at Brunei International Airport enabling travellers to book and pick up a car in much the same way as they do in western countries. Several local car rental companies can arrange to pick up passengers from the airport and bring them to their depots near the airport.
Driving in Brunei is much like driving in Malaysia (see below) but with less traffic, so most drivers find it an easier experience. Certainly, anyone with driving experience in Malaysia, should have no difficulty driving in Brunei.
There are several self-drive car rental companies with depots in Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, but unless you are very familiar with driving conditions and dealing with traffic police in this country, renting a car to drive yourself is not recommended.
The better option is to hire a car with a driver. Having a local driver who knows how to react to the erratic driving habits of other drivers in the cities, the unpredictable movement of motorcyclists and pedestrians on both urban and rural streets, and avoid accidents with fast-moving, overloaded trucks and buses on the national highways, is well worth the extra $20-$30 that it may add to the daily cost.
Local drivers can deal better with corrupt traffic police and resolve issues with locals in the case of accidents. Cambodia is definitely not a country where you can arrive at the airport, pick up a rental car and head out onto the highway unless you have previously lived or worked in the country as an expatriate, or have driving experience in one of the adjacent countries.
As is the case in many other Asian countries, motorbike rental is much more common in Cambodia than self-drive car rental, but only seniors who are experienced motorbike riders should consider this option, and perhaps limit it to hiring in Siam Reap for tours around Angkor Wat.
The question of whether it is practical or sensible to hire a self-drive rental car in Indonesia depends largely on which part of Indonesia you will be travelling to. Car rentals are relatively easy in Jakarta and Bali, but may be more difficult in other parts of the country.
Jakarta is notorious for its traffic jams, so this is one reason why it’s better to hire a car with a driver in the capital. Sitting in the back of an air-conditioned car, having a nap or checking your email, is a much better option than being stuck behind the wheel in a traffic jam.
In many parts of Indonesia it’s actually cheaper to hire a car with a driver than rent a self-drive car. In many provincial cities you can hire a taxi for the day at a lower cost than renting a car. Therefore the only situation where rental cars are more practical than cars with drivers in Indonesia, is if you are intending to tour for a week or more and don’t want the hassle of finding accommodation for the driver at night (although many are willing to sleep in the car).
There are several international car rental firms with depots in Vientiane as well as a number of local companies. All have self-drive cars and cars with drivers available. The advice given for Cambodia applies to Laos as well. If you’ve not had previous experience driving in Asia, then driving a rental car in Laos is not recommended.
As is the case in many other Southeast Asian countries, the cost of hiring a car with a driver is not much different to renting a self-drive car, and in some cases may be cheaper.
For those intending to do more than just driving to Luang Prabang, the car with driver option is strongly recommended because the driver can act as a guide and ensure that you avoid those parts of the country where unexploded ordnance might still present a danger to travellers.
Aside from Singapore and Brunei, the easiest country in Southeast Asia in which to drive is Malaysia. It has a good system of freeways, national highways are in generally good condition, signage is good and is in both Bahasa Malaysia and English, traffic police are not as corrupt as in other countries, and drivers are reasonably well disciplined most of the time.
That’s not to say that driving in Malaysia doesn’t have its challenges for drivers who have not previously driven in the country. Whilst adherence to road rules may be better than most other Southeast Asian countries, this tongue-in-cheek summary of the Malaysian road rules provides an indication of some of the surprises that may be in store for drivers who are new to the country.
Malaysia has some of the best freeways in Southeast Asia outside of Singapore, but this does mean that there are many drivers breaking the speed limits. Therefore when driving long distances in Malaysia it’s important to stay alert and check for speeding drivers approaching from behind before overtaking.
Most of the major car rental firms have desks at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and local companies have depots in Johor Bahru and Penang. One-way rentals are available for additional fees but these fees vary a lot between rental firms, so comparing prices before booking can save a lot of money.
Self-drive rental cars are not available in Myanmar, although there is talk that may change in the near future. There have been discussions at government level about allowing foreigners to drive rental cars to help boost tourism income.
At present, to the best of our knowledge, the only option is to hire a car with a driver. Unfortunately this costs more in Myanmar than most other Southeast Asian countries.
When hiring a car with a driver, ensure that the driver speaks good English so that you can use him as a translator because English is not as widely spoken in Myanmar as it is in other Southeast Asian countries.
Rental cars are widely available in the Philippines, but if you’ve had no previous experience of driving in the country, then hiring a self-drive car is not recommended. You are likely to be having panic attacks as soon as you leave the airport. Most expatriates who drive in the Philippines say it takes a minimum of two weeks of white knuckles and cold sweats to adjust to driving conditions in the Philippines.
A large proportion of Filipino drivers, and nearly all public transport drivers, drive aggressively and show little regard for road rules or any courtesy to other road users. It’s a common sight to see buses, jeepneys, taxis and tricycles jumping red lights and undertaking maneouvres that in most other countries would warrant a ticket for dangerous or careless driving.
Combine that with the fact that there are thousands of so-called ‘traffic enforcers’ monitoring traffic -- many of whom are corrupt and will demand bribes for non-existent traffic offences (licence confiscation being the alternative to paying a bribe) – and you will understand why the Philippines is not a country in which visitors should consider a self-drive car.
The only exception to that advice is if you are flying into Clark and heading north to tour northern Luzon. The traffic around Clark and further north is not so heavy, but even then this is not to be recommended unless you’ve had some previous driving experience in a country like Malaysia or Thailand.
Most of the major international car rental companies are represented in Singapore. As mentioned in the introduction, there is little need to rent a car in Singapore, but if there is a special reason for doing so, the process is much the same as at any major airport in the rest of the world.
Driving in Singapore is safe. Singapore drivers are generally well disciplined, signage is good, and it’s probably the only country in Southeast Asia where you won’t have any experience with corrupt traffic police. The road rules are much the same as in western countries, and you will be expected to comply with them.
Some rental companies do allow their cars to be taken into Malaysia from Singapore (but this has to be arranged at the time of booking) and some offer one-way rentals, but often it is cheaper to take a taxi or bus to Johor Bahru and rent a Malaysian car there.
With a road fatality rate more than three times that of the Philippines, Thailand is the most dangerous country in which to drive in Southeast Asia. Despite that, renting self-drive cars is popular in Thailand because the roads are good and it’s a great way to see the country.
However, as in Malaysia, speeding is common, and this is the primary reason for the high number of road deaths. Generally speaking, driving in Thailand is not much different to driving in Malaysia. However, you will need a navigation app because many road signs are in only the Thai script.
The level of corruption amongst traffic police in Thailand falls somewhere between that of Malaysia and the Philippines, so you’ll need to always keep a few hundred baht handy to deal with any ‘situations’.
Most of the international car rental firms have desks at the major airports, and there are many local companies through which you may be able to negotiate a better deal for a long-term hire. Renting a self-drive car to get around Bangkok is not recommended because of the traffic congestion.
Although foreigners are now permitted to drive in Vietnam (with an international driving licence), the renting of self-drive cars has not yet taken off in a big way -- although that may change in the future given the increasing popularity of Vietnam as a tourist destination.
Although there are several car rental firms in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City now offering self-drive cars, this option is not recommended to first-time visitors except for those with previous driving experience in either Vietnam or the Philippines.
Vietnamese roads are nearly as dangerous as those in Thailand (based on road fatality rates), and traffic is as chaotic as it is in the Philippines. Hiring a car with a driver is a much safer and less stressful option.
Most of the countries in Southeast Asia in which it is practical to hire self-drive cars will accept international or overseas domestic driving licences.
However, Cambodia requires drivers to have a local licence. Although this rule may be ignored by car rental firms, and is often overlooked by the police, sometimes it is not, and may result in the driver incurring hefty fines. For those looking at long-term hire in Cambodia, most local car rental firms can help to secure a local licence within a few days.
According to ASEAN agreements, drivers from ASEAN countries are supposed to be able to use their domestic driving licences in other ASEAN countries, but in Cambodia and Vietnam, few traffic police seem to be aware of this agreement.
There is a wide range of navigation apps that work in Southeast Asia, but the one most widely used is Waze. This app features up-to-date traffic conditions based on the inputs of other Waze users. It is essential to use in Jakarta and Manila to avoid traffic jams, and is very useful in those countries where there is not a lot of English signage. Waze is not supported in Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
Some of the built-in navigation systems in rental cars, or those plug-in systems offered by the car rental companies, do not feature real-time traffic conditions, and are therefore only useful to find your way around a city with which you may not be familiar. Waze can be downloaded to any smart phone and is the better option provided you have a reliable data connection.
In the Philippines, it is illegal to mount a smartphone on the car dashboard. This is a foolish rule because it means drivers have to take their eyes off the road to check the navigation. However, it is a rule that drivers need to comply with because traffic enforcers will seek a substantial payment or confiscate the driving licence in cases of non-compliance.
Insurance & vehicle check
Rental cars are much more likely to suffer minor bumps and scratches whilst out on hire in Southeast Asian countries than they are in most western countries (motorcycles being a primary culprit). Therefore it is highly recommended that the highest level of insurance cover be taken out to reduce the excess to nil.
Be wary of any local rental firms that don’t offer a zero excess option as this could indicate that they are in the habit of scamming renters out of their security deposits by claiming that the renter was responsible for damage that had already been suffered by the vehicle when out on previous hires.
In most western countries, the vehicle check at the airport usually comprises a quick walk around the vehicle to ensure than any visible damage is marked on the vehicle inspection report, but in Southeast Asia it is recommended that this check be done more thoroughly and in the presence of one of the employees of the rental firm.
Take photographs of any damage if you feel it is not adequately described on the inspection report, and have one of the rental firm’s employees point to the damage in the photograph. That way the rental firm cannot claim that the damage was done and the photograph was taken after the car left the airport.
There have been many stories of renters returning vehicles to find they are being charged for small dents and scratches that were already on the vehicle but not marked on the inspection report. Whilst this does not happen often with the larger international rental companies, unscrupulous local firms or franchisees in some countries will take advantage of any renter who does not check the vehicle properly when picking it up at the airport.
Header image: Arne9001 | Dreamstime