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South India Road Trip: Part 1

Chennai motorcycle rental

“Where to next?”

After an awesome motorcycle adventure in southern Laos with my travel buddy Astried Huebner, it seemed a logical question. I proposed India, riding classic Royal-Enfields and she agreed. Tamil Nadu and Kerala would have the best weather in December and January and I started to investigate.

Royal-Enfields are manufactured in Chennai and the market is full of them, but the idea of purchasing two bikes sight unseen was unsettling. Researching rental options was easy as there was only one: Chennai Motorcycle Rental, with an extensive array of motorcycles on its website.

Astried didn’t like the Enfields, so I suggested the KTM Duke. My email inquiry evolved into a wonderful back and forth with Vicky—the owner. I asked about the Enfield versus the KTM and his response was clear.

“There is no comparison. KTM is better technology, lighter, more horsepower and better brakes. The ride is nimble and the bike is more reliable.”

I sent Vicky a deposit and confirmed our dates.

For four months, we exchanged emails. Some conversations were social, like me checking that the October flooding in Chennai had not impacted him. Others were straightforward: how to get a SIM card, spare parts kit, etc. Important, time-saving details to resolve.

Vicky assured me he would take care of everything, from arranging SIM cards (requires the new Indian Aadhaar biometric identity card) to sending someone to meet us at the airport. In November, he sent a message asking if it would be OK if he upgraded us to a bigger Duke at no additional charge. OK? Are you kidding me? Of course! He even texted a welcome our first night to make sure his employee met us and all was well.

When we finally walked into the office, I was a little surprised that Vicky was not there. His staff was very friendly, and they assured me he was on the way as we filled out the forms and checked the bikes. Soon enough, Vicky walked in with an infectious smile and good humour.

He walked us to the nearest ATM, which failed, as did the second and third, so we decided to drink chai. Chai is a ritual that must be observed as frequently as possible and provides a chance to chat. We learned the motorcycle rental is his second business. His team runs it well, so he hardly goes there, focusing on his engineering and construction business. But he was interested to meet me after all the emails, proving an invaluable source of information.

Although I had promised Vicky much desired U.S. banknotes, he agreed to Astried paying the rental fee with her credit card. I asked where to find the best rates for the cash.

“You must be careful with these people,” he told, “they never give you the best rate.” He jumped on the phone and made some calls.

“How much do you want to change?”

“I’m not sure. Should I change it all now or along the way?”

“Better to change now as the rates will not be as good in the countryside.”

I gave his employee a pile of Ben Franklins and off he went, returning with a wad of Indian rupees that filled a pocket in my backpack at a rate considerably better than the banks offered.

Vicky pulled out a bag with all the spare parts I requested:  throttle and clutch cables, chain links, spark plugs, fuses, etc. It was all there. He had purchased chains to lock the wheels, in response to an exchange about security. An employee installed the SIM cards in our phones, checked they worked, and connected us to Vicky. Fantastic service.

But the coup de grace was delivered just as we were getting ready to go.

“My guy will lead you to the beginning of the East Coast Highway,” he said, and our guide appeared beside us on a bike.

We thanked Vicky profusely for amazing service. He smiled, adding he looked forward to hearing our tales and seeing his new friends again. We waved and shot off into the crazy Chennai traffic chasing our guide.

For twenty-eight days and more than 2,600 kilometres, Tim and his companion explored rural Tamil Nadu and Kerala (in 2017). Few foreigners ride the back roads of southern India and they certainly attracted a lot of attention. From chai-stall stares to school children’s cheers and even newspaper coverage. Check back with Pique next week, Dec.31, for the second instalment and in the coming months as we share these stories with you. For more on Tim's adventures go here.