I got my first motorcycle when I was sixteen years old and I have ridden in the USA, the Dominican Republic, Vietnam, and now Korea. A lot of people think I’m insane for taking to the streets in notoriously hectic major cities like Saigon and Seoul, but to be honest the scariest country to ride, in my experience, is far and away in the United States.
A Note on Staying Legal
As a foreigner, it is amazingly easy to buy a motorcycle with no paperwork, ride it without a helmet (despite a nation-wide helmet law), with no insurance, and with no license. A large number of expats do this throughout their stay in Korea and never have any problems. But to me, the risks far outweigh the rewards of saving a couple hundred bucks and a few hours of your time to do everything legitimately.
Also, I don’t know how true this is, but my Korean friends tell me that lawsuit artists are quite common in Seoul and there are some crazy old folks who intentionally jump into traffic hoping to get a hefty payout. Traffic laws in Korea are very, very different than in the West. Essentially the larger entity is always at fault. If a bus hits a car, the bus is at fault. If a car hits a motorcycle, the car is at fault. If a motorcycle hits a bicycle, the motorcycle is at fault. And if anyone hits a little old lady you’re in for a world of fines, litigiousness, and paperwork hell.
So don’t be a butthead, get your paperwork.*
So what kind of paperwork do you need? Well, a clear title will allow you to go to your neighborhood “citizen services center” (usually at city hall, which usually has its own subway station) and pick up insurance, a license plate, and peace of mind. It’s horribly confusing and I suggest you bring a Korean friend if you don’t speak any of the language, but I was able to navigate it on my own and everyone was helpful and polite throughout my ordeal. I’m 29 and my insurance cost me $220 for an entire year. Strangely I had to pay exactly no taxes, and that might be because my motorcycle is so small and cheap.
Selecting a Motorcycle
There are all sorts of motorcycles in Seoul, ranging from high-end sports bikes to dirt bikes to commuter scooters and mopeds to more-expensive-in-Korea-than-
There are basically two kinds of delivery guys.
The first class are the ancient, proud, weary-yet-strong hardware delivery guys who tend to ride bigger Daelim Roadwins and Daystars. Welded precariously to these rusty hulks are tubular frameworks that bear gravity-defying loads of concrete blocks, pipes, bricks, produce, or whatever else needs to be taken from one part of town to another lickety split.
The Daelim Citi Ace
What do all these guys have in common? They ride all day, every day, they rely on their motorcycles to work as hard as they do, and their business models do not make any allowances for downtime, delay, or wasted expense due to malfunctioning equipment, yet they all go for the same three models of small engine Korean-made motorbikes.
For starters, the Daelim bikes are incredibly inexpensive. I got a Citi Ace that ran well for about $250. You can find them on Craigslist, easily, for around $350 – $500 any day of the week. You can find Daystars and Roadwins for around twice that, easily.
Although they do require more maintenance than a Japanese or American or European bike, the parts and labor are dirt cheap for Daelim bikes and garages are almost always within pushing distance if things go wrong, and every Korean mechanic knows how to take apart and put back together a Daelim engine. From what I can tell, it is far more difficult and expensive to find foreign parts and skilled mechanics to work on your Yamaha or (in case you’re a trillionaire) Harley.
I’ve only ridden the Citi Ace, but I’ll do my best to break down the strengths and weaknesses of those three top models:
This is the most maneuverable motorcycle I’ve ever ridden and the parts are laughably inexpensive. I got a new carburetor, new spark plug and a new chain, including labor, for about $60.
If you live out in the countryside they might be great for the winding mountain and river roads, but in the city where you’ll be spending a lot of time winding through gridlock traffic, lane splitting and hopping onto sidewalks, they just won’t be as peppy or versatile.
Is it Safe?
Well, like I mentioned above, the drivers in Korea are generally pretty aware of their surroundings. There are a few things you need to be aware of. First of all, I am a big advocate for proper safety gear. I recommend at least a ¾ helmet, a visor, a good biker jacket with armor at the elbows, shoulders and back, and I also like the little knee/shin guards. You would also be well advised to have good riding books that go over the ankle. I brought mine from America but the biker gear shops have pretty good deals on all of the above. The best place for gear that I’ve found is a place called Motorcycle Bank near Chungmuro Station. The old guy there speaks great English and offers incredibly fair prices to friendly foreigners. I’ll try to give better directions in an update soon.
The traffic laws and customs for bikers are completely different in Seoul than in the US. I’ll do my best to take you through a typical ride for a commuter in Seoul.
Once you’re on a main road you’ll notice there’s a real ecosystem to the traffic, and motorcyclists are the kings of the asphalt.
Buses probably kill a lot of motorcyclists, because they tend to give less of a shit about the puny vehicles that may be in their way than they do about keeping their route schedule. But the key to driving safely around buses is relying on their predictability. NEVER EVER EVER GET ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF A BUS. If there is a stop, it will always be on the right, and I have seen bus drivers swing through five lanes of traffic with complete disregard for any and all around them to get to the stop. Stick to the left side of the bus and, to be extra safe, try to avoid lane splitting around them or getting too close and you should be fine.
Korean Taxis have the most impatient mother effers in the entire world behind the wheel. They will tailgate at you, honk at you and generally drive very aggressively in the name of maximizing their fares. If I have a taxi behind me I just do what I can to let him get around, because if you try to fight them you’re always going to lose and end up with their headlights pressing snugly against your butt cheeks.
Truck Drivers who drive the little blue produce trucks are generally pretty stable, though I think the drivers tend to be country folks who don’t know the city very well because they seem most likely to suddenly shift lanes or make a wide, hectic turn, so just try to keep your distance and assume they may do something sporadic at any moment.
Lane splitting is completely acceptable in Korea and at traffic lights I find it fun and satisfying to weave through all the schmoes in their big steel cages winding my way up to the traffic light. Ahead of the cars, at the end of the crosswalk, we motorcyclists all line up and wait for our opportunity to bolt ahead as soon as the light turns green (or before).
Here’s a 35 minute video I recorded of me getting lost in Seoul, to give you some idea of traffic conditions:
That’s right. With a few exceptions at particularly busy or hectic intersections, red lights are merely suggestions for motorcyclists. As long as you’re paying strict attention you can feel free to blow through a red light and I do it more often than I’d care to admit.
Meanwhile, cars adhere pretty strictly to the red lights, although taxi drivers will scoot through them when the street’s dead empty, especially at night. Also, car drivers are not supposed to take left turns or U turns unless the road markings or traffic signals specifically indicate that they should, and bigger vehicles tend to follow these rules. You should, too, unless you see an obvious opening.
Watching the other motorcyclists rocketing around town, and being constantly tailgated by impatient cars, you’ll have an urge to jet through the city, as well. But keep reminding yourself, you haven’t been on these roads for twenty or thirty years like most of the folks you’re sharing the road with. I try to stick to the speed limit and keep a lot of distance on all sides with traffic.
If you are not an experienced motorcyclist, I honestly don’t know if I could recommend Seoul as your first city to ride in. It definitely requires some finesse and control, and there are fewer margins for error. That said, if you’ve ridden in America for at least a year, I think you’ll find Seoul to be an exhilarating and rewarding city to conquer.