Cycling in South-East Asia
Cycling in South-East
Asia is a wonderful experience. Here are some notes from two cycle
we did in 2001 and 2002 respectively.
In 2001 we began in
Singapore, and went up along the
coast of Malaysia and Thailand, spent some time on Koh Samui, Koh
and Koh Tau, and then proceed to Chumphon and on to Bangkok. Our
plan was to continue through Lao to Hue and to catch a plane to Bangkok
from Danang, but as air fares proved to be much cheaper to Viet Nam
from Viet Nam, we chose to fly from Bangkok to Saigon and then follow
Viet Namese coast north to Hue and then cross to Lao. In Lao we
the Mekong to Viengchang and then crossed the bridge to Non Khai, and
south through Isan through Udon Thani and Khon Kaen, to Chaiyaphum
we caught a bus to Bangkok.
Album from 2001
In 2002 we flew to
Bangkok where we arranged visas
Lao before we took a flight to Chiang Mai. Then, we cycled north via
to Tha Ton and Chiang Rai and Chiang Kong where we crossed the Mekong
Huay Xai. As it was mid-July the roads north from Hua Xai was so
mucky that it was pointless to even attempt biking out of Hua Xai.
we shared a speed boat with Mark, an Englishman, up the Mekong to Xiang
Kok. Then we cycled up to Muang Singh, on to Luang Nam Tha, Oudom Xay,
Pak Mong, Luang Prabang, Kasi, Vang Vieng and Viengchang. By then we
for some Thai food so we cut through Isan via Non Khai, Udorn Thani,
Khaen, Korat etc., to the Cambodian border and on to Angkor Wat, Phnom
Penh, Sianoukville and back to Thailand via Hat Lek. We spent some days
relaxing on Koh Chang and then went to Pattaya where we took a bus to
Album from 2002
We used the same
Crescent Ultima bikes as in the Alps
2000 though we dumped the Karrimore panniers for brand new Ortlieb.
The bikes had the following setup: Headset FSA Orbit Xtreme, stems were
Kore and Icon, and bars were Kore items, bar ends Profile, saddles
Air Titanium, and the drive train a mix of XT and XTR components. Front
deraileur XT, 22,32,44, back deraileur XTR, cassette XT 11-34, Sachs
chain, bottom bracket UN72. Shocks were Manitou SXRs with lock out
Rear wheels were Mavic 517 ceramic rims, 32 h, DT spokes, and XTR hubs,
front wheels Mavic 517 ceramic rims 32 h, and XTR Hubs. Tyres were
Jet 2”. They did not take it well. In 2001 one burst in Quang Ngai in
Nam, in 2002 they took to sliding of the rims on Elisabeth´s
Wheras the side panel of my rear tire cracked so the tube peeped out.
Our panniers were
Ortlieb´s largest in the
and one for the front mounted on the steering bar. They were held by
chromoly steel pannier racks, about which we only can say good things.
They are durable, take incredibly heavy loads if need be, and are so
that single track riding is not hampered at all.
Sources of information
The best source for
the cyclist in South-East Asia
by far Biking
Southeast Asia with Mr Pumpy! The route descriptions are
though there are one or two large towns missing on his maps which he
has succeeded in not noticing at all, not that we blame him, and he has
a wonderful sense of humour. In fact we find his descriptions so good
it is unnecessary to write our own. Instead we will content ourselves
some notes on routes where Mr Pumpy has not gone or where we found
different from him. There are also some other manuals. All Dutchmen we
met had their own typed notes that seemed to lead them right. There is
also a Lonely Planet volume Cycling Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. It is
It is better to buy the usual Lonely Planet volumes. In small out of
way towns they are utterly useful.
There are plenty of maps available. Generally, we
those used by motorists. The by far best map for Lao is the “Golden
Rider” originally intended for motor cyclists.
In Malyasia we
followed the east coast. In July we
a nice tail wind most of the way and consistently had average speeds
to 25 km/hr. The road is fine, broad, excellent surface, bike shoulders
all the way, though at points it felt boring and somewhat ugly, as a
brutally cut through hills and forests. We stayed in hotels or
near the beach all the way.
People are friendly.
Malaysian Islam is rather
Women cover their hair but only rarely cover their faces. Elisabeth had
no problems at all though she cycled in short tights. In some areas
priests have made a point of banishing beer and other alcohol from
life. However, a town that may appear dull is not necessarily so.
is a multi-ethnic society. Just search out some Chinese quarters and
are places to have a cool beer.
There are some good
bikeshops in Malaysia. We had a
short B-screw replaced in a friendly little shop shortly before Kota
The stock of components was so good that they could have handled almost
Thailand is always an
utterly friendly country.
are polite, friendly and fun loving, food is excellent, and hotels
Some areas have had extremely rapid growth in tourism and have been
into a kind of South-East Asian Mallorcas, with the same type of
you find there. Not too exciting. Outside these areas things are far
interesting. There are still plenty of nice and cheap hotels and
restaurants to make cycling a pleasure.
Traffic and dogs are
the main problems in Thailand.
road system is almost German. There are four lane roads, with a
separating the traffic, from the Golden Triangle to the Malaysian
Most have been constructed by using an old road, building a new one
to it, thus creating a four lane motorway. Hence, the traffic is not
from the surroundings. All along are houses with their own entries to
motorroad. As the traffic is one way, and it is far between places to
from one direction to the other people quite frequently drive on the
side, for kilometres, in order to get home or to a place where they can
cross to travel in the other direction. By larges villages and small
are “frontage roads”: i.e., there is another two separate lanes on
side of the main highway. The result is long stretches that have eight
lanes of traffic. Pretty much like LA. Along the frontage road are
restaurants, hotels, houses, and lose dogs. Travelling along a motorway
is not too fun. On the other hand it is probably quite safe as there
broad bike shoulders and there is no overtaking. You are not likely to
get crowded off the road.
The approch roads to
Bangkok are incredibly busy.
may be 16 or even 20 lanes of fastly moving cars. So, approaching
we put the bike in the boot of a bus. On the other hand cycling in
it self is all right. The traffic is so congested that it is quite safe
and people are polite and friendly.
Dogs is a main
concern in Thailand. People
keep dogs. They are well fed and sometimes quite large and they love to
chase cyclists. They are a real hazard. In densely populated areas you
have to look out for them constantly and if you try to pedal away you
accidentally veer into traffic. The best way to handle them is to stop
and grovel back at them. Show any fear and you are lost. Trat seems to
be the worst province for dogs.
Thailand has several
good bikeshops. Probike
at Sarasin Road near Lumpini Park in Bangkok has almost every possible
component in stock and prices are reasonable. In Chiang Mai is a shop
Top Gear, that specialises on Mountainbikes. They have a good selection
of components that would allow you to fix most mechanical problems.
There is an excellent description of cycling from
to Hoi An by Felix and Mr Pumpy. However, they did not do the Saigon
An stretch so here are some notes. Getting out of Saigon is a bit of a
trial. Traffic is extremely busy. But it is slow, lots of
and not at all unfriendly. On the contrary. Once one has left the
town one rides on the bike shoulder of road 1 all the way to Na Trangh.
We enjoyed it immensely.
We spent a week riding riding from Saigon to Hoi An.
nights were spent in Phan Thiet, Ca Na, Nha Thrang, Tuy Hoa, Qui
Non, Quang Ngai, Hoi An. We stopped to swim and relax in Nha Trang for
a couple of days. Hoi An is well worth some time too, so we stayed
some days before we proceeded to Hue and Khe San at the Viet Nam Lao
The best bit was
between Saigon an Nha Thrang, for
simple reason that there was a broad bike shoulder all the way. Further
up north menacing trucks and buses would sometimes force us of the
However, they were broadening the road all along. So, it might be
Dogs are not a
problem. Dogs are regarded as a
So, there are not too many of them around.
Bicycles in Viet Nam
are local or Chinese brands.
if any parts would be compatible with a modern mountain bike. Though
have excellent mechanics, if you need to have the a wheel trued.
Laos is our favourite
country for biking. People are
friendly. Mr Pumpy´s descriptions are excellent for the route
Viengchang and Lao Bao, the Viet Namese border. The only thing we would
like to add is that there are nowadays several guest houses between
and Pakxan, so you don´t have to make 210 km in one day. There
also some between Savanakhet and Lao Bao. They are brand new guest
with tiled bathrooms, neat and clean.
Mr Pumpy did not go
to the north of Lao so here is a
description of our route. We entered Lao crossing the Mekong from
Khong to Huay Xai. It proved to be next to impossible to get out of
Xai except by boat. The road to Luang Nam Tha reportedly had long
with deep impossible mud. So we bet on taking a “speed boat” to Xieng
some 250 km upstream on the Mekong. A seven hours journey in a craft
a reputation for capsizing frequently. Essentially, it is a kind of
long tail, hardly larger than a bath tub, and equipped with an
powerful and noisy engine. Foreigners are required to wear helmets by
law. Generally, to plane, they go more than 30 kph sometimes as fast as
50–60. Not a dream ride. However, The ride was quite all right. After a
while we realised that the craft was skillfully piloted through rapids
and around various flotsam and submerged rocks and we rather enjoyed
up the Mekong between Lao and Burma.
In Xieng Kok we
rented a bungalow and had a splendid
meal while some locals kids were drinking, dancing and singing karokee,
by the next table. The following day we set off up the new road to
Sing. It was not paved and a bit muddy in a few places, but on the
it was a very enjoyable day, not least because the locals were still
traditional dress. We had a decent lunch in Long.
From Muang Sing we
continued on a paved though pot
road to Luang Nam Tha along a splendid mountain road. Jungles
with tribal villages. In Luang Nam Tha we stayed at the friendly
The next day we
continued to Oudom Xay, a long day,
several passes. The road goes through high forested hills. Lunch at Na
Toei. The road has plenty of pothols and in some places it is muddy,
it is paved. We had the only accident here, when my front wheel drifted
away on some slippery red mud and I fell hitting the ground with my
first. Luckily I wore a helmet. Otherwise I would have cracked open my
skull. It was a long and strenuous day. We arrived in Oudom Xay just
an hour before sunset. We took into a friendly Chinese hotel that made
us a delicious meal.
The road between
Oudom Xay and Pak Mong crosses high
country. One reaches a saddle and thinks it is the highest point, only
to find that there is yet another ascent, several times. The ride took
us a whole day.
From Pak Mong one
reaches Luang Prabang easily in
day. Athough one rides down stream there are a couple of severe ascents
before one is down on the valley floor of the Mekong Valley.
The ride from Luang
Prabang is the object of a lot
lore. According to the Lonely Planet one is ill advised to cycle
Luang Prabang and Phou Khoun. That is bad advice. There are regular
houses in Kiu Kacham. So there is really no reason not to cycle. We did
not know. And, no one in Luang Prabang seemed able to give us accurate
information. So, when we got Xaing Ngeun we rented a local taxi to take
us to the top of the hill, to Phou Khoun, saving ourselves from
slowly uphill for a day. If we would have known that there were guest
in Kiu Kacham we would have cycled.
From Phou Khoun it is one and half day of staright
riding on good road to Viengchang.
Cambodia we followed the same route
Felix and Mr Pumpy to Phnom Penh. The road had been improved. Although
it was monsoon we moved ahead swiftly, never got stuck up to our ears
mud. Think that the horrors of monsoon cycling is exaggerated. Some
are wet, yes, on the other hand there is hardly any dust.
Angkor Wat was
absolutely stunning. It is as
as the pyramids, but more beautiful. We spent three days and could
have spent more.
From Phnom Penh we
cycled down to Kampot, a friendly
seaside town famous for its peppers and on to Sianoukville (Kampong
Then, we took a boat to Koh Kong and entered Thailand. There is a new
from Koh Kong to Sre Ambel. In August it was reported to be extremely
only 4WD vehicles got through.