Cycling in South-East Asia

 

Cycling in South-East Asia is a wonderful experience. Here are some notes from two cycle trips we did in 2001 and 2002 respectively.

In 2001 we began in Singapore, and went up along the East coast of Malaysia and Thailand, spent some time on Koh Samui, Koh Phangang, and Koh Tau, and then proceed to Chumphon and on to Bangkok. Our initial 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 than from Viet Nam, we chose to fly from Bangkok to Saigon and then follow the Viet Namese coast north to Hue and then cross to Lao. In Lao we followed the Mekong to Viengchang and then crossed the bridge to Non Khai, and continued south through Isan through Udon Thani and Khon Kaen, to Chaiyaphum where we caught a bus to Bangkok.

Photo Album from 2001

In 2002 we flew to Bangkok where we arranged visas for Lao before we took a flight to Chiang Mai. Then, we cycled north via Phang to Tha Ton and Chiang Rai and Chiang Kong where we crossed the Mekong to 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. Instead 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 longed for some Thai food so we cut through Isan via Non Khai, Udorn Thani, Kon 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 Bangkok.

Photo 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 Avocet 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 power chain, bottom bracket UN72. Shocks were Manitou SXRs with lock out option. 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 Micheline Jet 2”. They did not take it well. In 2001 one burst in Quang Ngai in Viet Nam, in 2002 they took to sliding of the rims on Elisabeth´s bike. Wheras the side panel of my rear tire cracked so the tube peeped out.

Our panniers were Ortlieb´s largest in the back, and one for the front mounted on the steering bar. They were held by Tubus 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 light that single track riding is not hampered at all.

Sources of information

The best source for the cyclist in South-East Asia is by far Biking Southeast Asia with Mr Pumpy! The route descriptions are excellent, though there are one or two large towns missing on his maps which he somehow 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 that it is unnecessary to write our own. Instead we will content ourselves with some notes on routes where Mr Pumpy has not gone or where we found things 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 lousy. It is better to buy the usual Lonely Planet volumes. In small out of the way towns they are utterly useful.

There are plenty of maps available. Generally, we prefer those used by motorists. The by far best map for Lao is the “Golden Triangle Rider” originally intended for motor cyclists.

Malaysia

In Malyasia we followed the east coast. In July we had a nice tail wind most of the way and consistently had average speeds close 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 scar brutally cut through hills and forests. We stayed in hotels or bungalows near the beach all the way.

People are friendly. Malaysian Islam is rather tolerant. 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 interdictive priests have made a point of banishing beer and other alcohol from public life. However, a town that may appear dull is not necessarily so. Malaysia is a multi-ethnic society. Just search out some Chinese quarters and there are places to have a cool beer.

There are some good bikeshops in Malaysia. We had a too short B-screw replaced in a friendly little shop shortly before Kota Barhu. The stock of components was so good that they could have handled almost any problem.

Thailand

Thailand is always an utterly friendly country. People are polite, friendly and fun loving, food is excellent, and hotels cheap. Some areas have had extremely rapid growth in tourism and have been turned into a kind of South-East Asian Mallorcas, with the same type of tourists you find there. Not too exciting. Outside these areas things are far more interesting. There are still plenty of nice and cheap hotels and excellent restaurants to make cycling a pleasure.

Traffic and dogs are the main problems in Thailand. The road system is almost German. There are four lane roads, with a shoulder separating the traffic, from the Golden Triangle to the Malaysian border. Most have been constructed by using an old road, building a new one next to it, thus creating a four lane motorway. Hence, the traffic is not separate from the surroundings. All along are houses with their own entries to the motorroad. As the traffic is one way, and it is far between places to cross from one direction to the other people quite frequently drive on the wrong 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 town are “frontage roads”: i.e., there is another two separate lanes on either 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 shops, 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 are 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. There may be 16 or even 20 lanes of fastly moving cars. So, approaching Bangkok we put the bike in the boot of a bus. On the other hand cycling in Bangkok 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 frequently 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 might 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 called Top Gear, that specialises on Mountainbikes. They have a good selection of components that would allow you to fix most mechanical problems.

Viet Nam  

There is an excellent description of cycling from Savannakhet to Hoi An by Felix and Mr Pumpy. However, they did not do the Saigon Hoi 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 bicycles, 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. The 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 there some days before we proceeded to Hue and Khe San at the Viet Nam Lao border.

The best bit was between Saigon an Nha Thrang, for the 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 road. However, they were broadening the road all along. So, it might be better now.

Dogs are not a problem. Dogs are regarded as a delicacy. So, there are not too many of them around.

Bicycles in Viet Nam are local or Chinese brands. Few if any parts would be compatible with a modern mountain bike. Though they have excellent mechanics, if you need to have the a wheel trued.

Lao

Laos is our favourite country for biking. People are incredibly friendly. Mr Pumpy´s descriptions are excellent for the route between 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 Thakhek and Pakxan, so you don´t have to make 210 km in one day. There are also some between Savanakhet and Lao Bao. They are brand new guest houses with tiled bathrooms, neat and clean.

Mr Pumpy did not go to the north of Lao so here is a brief description of our route. We entered Lao crossing the Mekong from Chiang Khong to Huay Xai. It proved to be next to impossible to get out of Huay Xai except by boat. The road to Luang Nam Tha reportedly had long stretches with deep impossible mud. So we bet on taking a “speed boat” to Xieng Kok, some 250 km upstream on the Mekong. A seven hours journey in a craft with a reputation for capsizing frequently. Essentially, it is a kind of monstrous long tail, hardly larger than a bath tub, and equipped with an tremendously powerful and noisy engine. Foreigners are required to wear helmets by Laotian 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 bursting up the Mekong between Lao and Burma.

In Xieng Kok we rented a bungalow and had a splendid evening 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 Muang Sing. It was not paved and a bit muddy in a few places, but on the whole it was a very enjoyable day, not least because the locals were still wearing traditional dress. We had a decent lunch in Long.

From Muang Sing we continued on a paved though pot holed road to Luang Nam Tha along a splendid mountain road. Jungles interspersed with tribal villages. In Luang Nam Tha we stayed at the friendly Darasavath Guest House.

The next day we continued to Oudom Xay, a long day, with 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, though 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 head 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 half 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 mountainous 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 one 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 of lore. According to the Lonely Planet one is ill advised to cycle between Luang Prabang and Phou Khoun. That is bad advice. There are regular guest 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 spinning slowly uphill for a day. If we would have known that there were guest houses in Kiu Kacham we would have cycled.

From Phou Khoun it is one and half day of staright forward riding on good road to Viengchang.
 

Cambodia

Riding through Cambodia we followed the same route as 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 in mud. Think that the horrors of monsoon cycling is exaggerated. Some bits are wet, yes, on the other hand there is hardly any dust.

Angkor Wat was absolutely stunning. It is as monumental as the pyramids, but more beautiful. We spent three days and could easily have spent more.

From Phnom Penh we cycled down to Kampot, a friendly little seaside town famous for its peppers and on to Sianoukville (Kampong Som). Then, we took a boat to Koh Kong and entered Thailand. There is a new road from Koh Kong to Sre Ambel. In August it was reported to be extremely muddy, only 4WD vehicles got through.



 
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This page was first mounted 2002-12-10 and last updated  2002-12-12 by Per  Löwdin