Where to Hire Campervans in Asia
In Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand, hiring a campervan, motorhome or RV (the terminology depends on what part of the world you are from) is a popular way of touring countries – especially for retired couples.
It’s a way of taking a holiday or vacation at a very leisurely pace, and experiencing new places away from the confines of tour buses and hotel rooms. It’s especially popular with those who like to get close to nature and enjoy the camaraderie of other like-minded travellers.
But you don’t see many campervans on the roads in Asia. In many countries a campervan is a novelty, and in other countries sleeping in a campervan would raise serious safety issues. So where can campervans be hired in Asia, and is renting a campervan in Asia a safe thing to do?
There are in fact only three countries in Asia where renting campervans is possible – Japan, Indonesia and Thailand – and Japan is the only country where RVing is as well organised as in the West, with a network of campgrounds throughout the archipelago.
In Japan, campervans are known as camping cars. However, those companies that cater for travellers from overseas will usually use the terms campervan, motorhome or RV on the English versions of their websites.
There are dozens of companies hiring campervans in Japan, but only a few are geared up to catering for hirers from overseas. The major ones are Japan RV Rental, Fuji Cars Japan and McRent.
All of these companies offer a range of campervans that will sleep 2-8 people, and their websites detail what is included in their rental rates. They can be driven almost anywhere in Japan but to travel between islands you will need the advance permission of the rental company. They can also assist you to make ferry bookings.
Japan Campers is a smaller company based near Narita airport that is run by a team of expatriates and Japanese nationals. They specialise in smaller vehicles and provide a home-grown navigation guide that includes recommendations to places that they have visited themselves.
The US-based RV rental company, El Monte RV, also has a depot in Tokyo enabling US customers to make bookings through their US sales agents.
Some companies offer one-way hires for an additional fee (for example, pickup at Narita and drop off at Kansai) whilst others require the vehicle to be returned to the same depot from which it was rented.
Japan has a very well established network of over 1,000 campgrounds where campervans can park for a fee of about 5,000 yen (about US$45) per night. These campgrounds have a range of facilities similar to what you will find in other countries.
Many of these campgrounds, particularly those in the more popular locations, require reservations to be made in advance. This is probably the biggest challenge with RVing in Japan, because many of these campgrounds have websites that are only in the Japanese language.
For overnight stays there are also a large number of RV Parks, which are parking lots with more basic facilities than campgrounds. The cost of staying overnight at these will vary between about 1,000 and 3,000 yen depending on the facilities offered. Most of these don’t require advance reservations.
A third option is to park overnight at a roadside rest area. These are called Michi-no-Eki in Japan. There are 1,145 of them on highways throughout the country. They are similar to the roadside rest areas that you find on major highways in other countries with restrooms, cafes and shops.
The one big difference between these rest areas in Japan and other countries is that you are permitted to park overnight, and the parking is free. But there is also an unwritten rule that you shouldn’t overstay your welcome at these rest areas, so they should not be used for parking for more than one overnight stay or for an extended lunch stop during the day.
In the event that you are in a remote area of Japan and cannot find a campground, RV park or rest area, then parking at a scenic spot or by a beach is another option. Most campervan hire companies say that’s fine to do, as long as your vehicle is off the road and not on private property. You will have no safety concerns because Japan is one of the safest countries in Asia.
If you do envisage that there will be many nights when you will be staying outside of campgrounds or away from rest areas where restrooms are available, then you will need to ensure that you select a van with a chemical toilet on board. Usually the smaller models do not include a toilet.
Shower facilities in the campervan are not so important because in Japan there are public baths that have shower facilities in nearly every town. Only the largest models of campervans in Japan are equipped with showers.
Finding places to eat and to stock up on provisions is easy in Japan. As well as the shops and eating places at the Michi-no-Eki, there are 24-hour convenience stores all over Japan that sell both Japanese and western snack foods, and pre-prepared meals that can be heated in a microwave oven at the convenience store.
Indonesia & Thailand
The only other countries in Asia where campervans can be hired are Indonesia and Thailand. In both of these countries there have been many startups of campervan hire companies that have come and gone over the past decade or so.
Most have failed due to a lack of demand because campgrounds that cater for campervans are few and far between. As well, the cost of transportation and accommodation in budget hotels is very reasonable in Indonesia and Thailand, so touring by campervan doesn’t offer the same cost savings as in other countries.
However, for those who like to get off the beaten track, and are looking to experience something different to staying in hotels, RVing is still possible in these two countries – with some limitations.
Indocamper Van is the only hire company still operating in Indonesia, aside from a small family business hiring old VW Combi campervans in Jakarta.
There are campgrounds on Java that cater for campervans in places like the Kampung Cai Ranca Upas in the mountains near Bandung, the DeLoana ‘glampground’ near Yogyakarta, and the Bidadari waterfall near Mt Bromo in East Java, but the facilities are very basic compared to those in western RV parks.
In most parts of Indonesia it is possible to park overnight in the mountains or by beaches, but it’s wise to seek permission if there are people around. Generally speaking, free camping is considered reasonably safe in Indonesia, but not to the same level that it is in Japan.
In Thailand, Campervan Thai is the only hire company still operating. It has an agreement with about 15 campgrounds and guesthouses around Thailand where you can park overnight for a small fee. So your itinerary will be limited to travelling between those locations.
Although it may be possible to find other locations in which to park overnight, this is not something that is commonly done in Thailand, and may result in problems if you do not have anyone in your party who speaks Thai and can secure permission to camp. In many areas of Thailand, it would not be considered safe to park overnight outside of a designated campground or guesthouse.
As is the case in any country where you might hire a campervan, it’s important to read the rental contract carefully and select the appropriate level of insurance. Hiring a campervan is more complex than hiring a car because there are many more inclusions to compare, and insurance conditions may be more restrictive.
Some of the campervan hire companies in Asia have an upper age limit for their hirers. Usually is it 70 or 75 years of age, so be sure to ask about this if you’ve reached your 70s. Sometimes companies will waive the upper age limit if the hirer takes out the highest level of insurance.
Others require higher security deposits for drivers over 70, and apply higher insurance excesses in case of accidents. Some also require a doctor’s certificate stating that the hirer is fit to drive if the driver is over 80.
And do spend some time in researching what’s included in the hire fees in terms of the daily mileage allowance, accessories such as GPS navigation and electronic toll cards, whether the company offers an English language campground guide, and whether linens are included. Some companies require hirers to bring their own towels.
Check also as to what security deposits are required and the conditions for refunding these. This advance research will ensure that you have no surprises upon picking up or returning the vehicle.
Although drivers from a few European countries can drive in Japan with an Japanese translation of their licence that’s been authorised by the Japan Automobile Federation, it’s just as easy to obtain an International Driving Permit as this is widely recognised throughout Asia.
Touring a new country in a campervan can be an exciting way to experience it, but it’s best to experience RVing first in your own country if you’ve not done it before. That will give you a feel of what driving and parking a campervan is like in a familiar environment before you head off to strange lands.
That’s especially true for those who come from countries where vehicles are driven on the right hand side of the road, because in all of the three countries in Asia where campervans are available, driving is on the left.