Cycling in Asia forum

Cycing in Asia FAQ

  • somtam2000

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    This cycling in Asia FAQ is based on Simon's cycling FAQ over at Silkwheels -- thank you. If you're a cyclist with more suggestions to add, please feel free at add your thoughts below. If you've got a question though, you'd be better off to start a new thread. Thanks!

    When is the best time for a cyclist to travel in mainland South East Asia?
    What should I bring?
    Should I bring a map?
    Are guidebooks useful?
    Should I take a partner?
    Is cycle touring safe in Southeast Asia?
    Is camping necessary in South East Asia?
    How far should you plan to cycle in a day?
    How do I plan a route?

    When is the best time for a cyclist to travel in mainland South East Asia?

    Southeast Asia (SEA) has three main seasons. If you're cycling, the best and most comfortable season is from November to February, which is the traditional 'cool' season of little rain and lower average daytime temperatures. Be aware, however, that during the cool season in the northern parts of the region it does get quite cold at night -- down to almost freezing at higher altitudes -- so you really need to pack warmer clothes. Then temperatures can still jump to more than 30 degrees Celsius during the day. Click here to see detailed information on average temperatures and rainfall for Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam.

    Between the months of May and October, it rains. You'll get wet. In general the roads in Malaysia and Thailand are good and sealed, but this cannot be guaranteed in Cambodia, Vietnam or Laos. Cycling in the rain can be fun on sealed roads, but hell on unsealed mud. I have come off my bike twice (once Cambodia, once Laos) during the rain while aquaplaning on the silt mud on the road surface. Mud and rain also demoralise you and make camping tougher. On the other hand, the rain usually lasts only an hour or two. As well, accommodation is usually cheaper and easier to find during this season, and fewer people will be in tourist areas.

    If you plan to take on the rain, it is essential to bring some waterproof gear to protect your clothes and other stuff -– panniers. The best panniers I have seen are the Ortlieb. These are pricey, but they do the job. For the last few years I have been using some panniers from Altura which are not rainproof, but with their yellow rainproof covers. This isn't ideal, as I have to get off and pull out the covers each time it rains.


    The third season is HOT and particularly unpleasant for cycle touring. It can be hot all year round in SEA, but in the months of March, April, May and June it can be blisteringly hot (yes there are some overlaps in seasons). I have tackled a few mountains in these months and have been really challenged. Coupled with the uncertainty of liquid refreshment it can be a deadly pursuit. Think very carefully about undertaking a tour in these months. If you do plan a trip during this period, try to reduce your mileage and certainly take precautions against the heat.
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    What should I bring?

    Esesntially, you want to keep your weight to a minimum so you can save yourself as much effort as possible in the tropical heat. The heat is a real drain and it helps if your bike is as light as possible to begin with.

    I have seen both ends of the spectrum: bikes laden with four panniers (front and rear), a box on the handle bars and bungee keeping various items on top, as well as a guy with only a tiny backpack and nothing on the bike. I believe the ideal is somewhere in between. I usually tour with an Altura front box on my handle bars and two rear Altura panniers. I try to keep my load light, especially if I am heading for the hills.

    Another method of carrying your gear is in a trailer -- these are usually used by extreme long-distance tourers. I have not tried one yet, so I cannot really comment on how they work.

    I carry two water bottles on my bike and this is what I suggest to other cyclists in SEA. This has been adequate for everywhere I have been, apart from one particularly bad, hot climb in the mountains of Thailand's Kanchanaburi. You will find water or refreshment stops at very regular intervals, but it is always good to be prepared.

    Other typical items I usually carry are:

    T-shirts (3)
    Shorts (2)
    Underwear (Undisclosed)
    Jeans
    Toiletries bag (soap etc.)
    First aid kit
    Bike multi-tool
    Puncture repair kit
    Pump
    Water bottles (2)
    Spare inner tubes (2)
    Camping gas stove
    Gas canister
    Camping set plates and cutlery
    Hammock
    Mosquito net
    Torch

    Cyclists like to debate which bicycle equipment/spares to take. Some, mostly round-the-world cyclists, take along every conceivable spare, including tires, spokes, inner tubes and chains. When touring in SEA I personally take a minimum: two spare inner tubes and a puncture repair kit. Most towns and villages in SEA have at least one bicycle repair shop and failing that you are quite likely to find an ingenious and multi-talented repair peson lurking around somewhere in most villages. I usually take a packet of cigarettes (Western brand) to hand around in situations of minor problems with my bike and the result is I often have a whole village helping me do the repairs.

    I used to pack for convenience and space. Now I find it is far better to pack to anticipate what you may need on a journey. This includes putting any spare/bike equipment in easy reach and putting my camping gear at the top. I now keep my dirty clothes firmly at the bottom of my panniers.

    If you do not have waterproof panniers I would strongly suggest 'sectioning' them. This means separating things inside with plastic bags, which not only adds an extra layer of waterproofing but also makes packing easier -- and unpacking when you are exhausted -- much easier.
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    Should I bring a map?

    Get a map published as recently as you can, as well as a good compass. Both will add to the safety and enjoyment of your tour, even if you shouldn't ever trust your map 100 percent.

    In Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam, maps may seem a bit redundant as there are so few roads, but a time will come on each trip when you are very glad you've packed one. Usually, even in rural Cambodia, the signage is good, but sometimes it will be inadequate (or not in English).

    I have taken a variety of maps, but the one I find most useful for the region is one I bought recently for Laos and Cambodia. I have a few larger maps which show elevations and these always prove useful for planning as well as consulting on the ride when I want to know what mountains are coming my way. I find my maps at Stanfords or Amazon.

    I also have a 2001 Lonely Planet road atlas. A lot of cyclists have given this atlas a bad review, but I always take it and use it. It is out of date and some of the distances are bad, but it does give you a good indication of things and is more durable than other maps I have. It does get frustrating with its missing roads, missing villages and plain wrong spelling, but for me it's been a useful resource.

    Locals and maps is another issue of concern in SEA. Locals usually do not know how to read a map -- even if it has the local language on it -- so it is completely useless getting out one and asking for directions. People will tell you all sorts of rubbish to look smart in front of their peers. Avoid the risk and don't do it! The best map-readers in SEA in my experience work in the de-mining units in Cambodian towns (for obvious reasons). People in cities may help you a bit more, but don't bother in rural areas.

    On a final note, road building, major projects and renewals of existing infrastructure are all going on at a cracking pace in the region, which of course affects existing maps. I find that there have been differences in road surfaces (dust to tarmac and back again), new roads and upgrades during every trip I've made in SEA in the past decade.
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    Are guidebooks useful?

    Guidebooks are a rich source of information and an excellent resource for planning your trip, but I advise caution about taking them on your travels.

    A guidebook may be useful for telling you about accommodation and attractions in tourist areas. But these same books often give out-of-date information on places and prices. They are also useless to the average cycle tourer as they do not give information on the smaller towns and villages where cyclists stay. Most guides to Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam do not offer information on towns unless there is a fairly large tourist attraction. This does keep away those (sometimes) pesky backpackers, but it also means you are sometimes cycling blind into areas without any knowledge of accommodation and attractions. Guidebooks for Thailand are better, with many listings for smaller towns.

    The other downside to guidebooks is their bulk, particularly if you want to take a few books to read for pleasure. The problem intensifies when your route takes you through several countries. You must weigh the potential use these books may have to the space they take up.

    One way I have found of dealing with the bulk of a book is to photocopy relevant pages.

    Guidebooks can be purchased at bookstores, on the Internet and also in the main tourist areas around SEA. There is a growing niche backpacker market in used books. Secondhand book stores are springing up everywhere, from large stores on Bangkok's Khao San Road to small guesthouse-run affairs. These places can often be a good place to swap (at a small price of course) one guide for another.
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    Should I take a partner?

    Many people plan tours in groups, in pairs and solo. Cycle touring in Thailand, Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Malaysia is easy. Enjoy it however you prefer!

    I have toured with a partner but mostly I prefer to cycle by myself as I can choose where I go, I can change direction on a whim and I can stop wherever I want and for however long I desire. The primary downside to solo touring is that it can be a bit lonely. There is no-one to share the awesome experiences with. Safety can be a concern, especially for female cyclists, though I personally have never been in a situation where I've felt under threat, either physically or psychologically. SEA countries
    don't really have that random abuse mentality that the West has.
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    Is cycle touring safe in Southeast Asia?

    In all my rides over the years I have never felt overly concerned about my safety. While backpacking, before my riding career, I was robbed at guesthouses twice. Nevertheless, you should of course take appropriate precautions when you are cycling.

    My anecdotal experience is that cycling in the region is safe. (The only problem I have had was through my own stupidity -- I became dehydrated.) I had many more problems cycling around London than I have cycling around Bangkok, as the traffic moves more quickly in London and is a bit more deadly.

    In Cambodia I have seen minefields, however these tend to be well marked and are well off the beaten track. The locals are extremely good at signage and telling you if you are heading for danger. UXO (unexploded ordinance) in Laos is an issue, but again it tends to be well off the beaten tracks. Other risks and hazards are around, but genuinely they are low and with simple mitigation you can have a wonderful ride.

    A few basic tips to keep in mind are:

    1) When handling money, keep it hidden from view as much as possible;
    2) Always keep your money split up in several places on your bike in case of robbery;
    3) Tell people (via e-mail or phone) where you are going each day and when you should arrive;
    4) Tell people when you should contact them next. They will worry if you are late in the contact;
    5) Be cautious of everyone around you, including other tourists. In my experience tourists are as likely to rob you as locals are;
    6) When cycling outside main tourist areas, keep on marked roads and paths - a huge amount of UXO and mines are still out there;
    7) Always ask before taking photos of people;
    8) Always wear a hat, it's hot as hell out there;
    9) Only drink bottled or purified water. Don't accept water that people offer you unless you are sure about the source;
    10) Take a first aid kit; and
    11) Cycle at the side of the road and close to the bail-out line.
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    Is camping necessary in South East Asia?

    Camping isn't really necessary in SEA, though if you'd like to, you can.

    Usually you'll find a town or city with a guesthouse every 50 to 100km. There are exceptions to this (in Laos especially) and there may be days when your ridden distance may be less than 50km due to poor road conditions or geographical barriers such as mountains. Guesthouses will mostly still appear, even in the most unlikely places. Often the signs in small towns will be in the local language, so just ask the locals and often you'll find them very helpful in pointing you along to somewhere to stay. The next option is the local temple -- though this may be a little difficult for women for religious reasons. I have slept in a few temples and have always found the monks to be extremely welcoming and helpful. Please leave a donation for the monks if you stay. I leave $10, but anything is gratefully received.

    Another option, if you don't want to resort to a tent, is to ask a friendly local to sleep in their house. This can be done quite easily for a small donation to the family. It can be fraught with language and cultural problems, but I have done it before and it can be a rewarding experience. In remote places it can lead to wonderful insight into the lifestyles of the local population. The culture of hospitality is so great in SEA that it made me feel awkward staying in someone's house like this as they really roll out the welcome, often trying to stuff you full of food and dodgy local brew. My offers of money have been accepted, but felt inadequate when compared to the hospitality offered.

    If you are planning on sleeping in a tent, make careful plans. Canvas is an alternative arrangement to guesthouses, but a few things should be considered first, including the season you are travelling -- this should affect the style of tent you purchase right at the start. The other major factors regarding your choice of tent are size and weight. You must get one that fits on your bike -- the smaller, of course, the better. The best way I have seen of putting your tent on a bike is to tape the poles to the
    cross bar and put the canvas in your panniers. The other alternative is to put the whole lot on your rear rack.
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    How far should you plan to cycle in a day?

    You will usually find accommodation within every 100 km in SEA, so you should shoot to cycle roughly this distance each day.

    Many different factors will affect how many kilometres you can cover in a day. One key factor will be topography, so when planning a day's ride, always consult a map showing elevation. You don't want to get caught, after riding 80 km, with a big mountain between you and your rest stop for the evening. Mountains, hills and undulations will always cut your daily distance, often by as much as half.

    Some of the mountains in northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam can take a serious toll on your planned distance. I once made a serious mistake when I was planning a day's ride between Vang Vieng and Phu Khun in Laos. The distance I had planned was reasonable by my normal pace (about 100km), bit I didn't realise that past Kasi there was a 34 km section of serious mountains, mostly uphill. The last part of the ride was a serious challenge. I ended up arriving in Phu Khun at dusk, a sweaty, dishevelled, exhausted mess!

    Another hindrance can be road conditions. Often in SEA, but particularly in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, you will find poor roads when you turn off the major highways. Conditions can be terrible. In dry conditions you will have to deal with dust, pot-holes and bumps. In the wet you will have to deal with mud and sludge. All of these things may hinder you in achieving your target of 100 km.

    Some other factors that may slow your pace are heat and tiredness. In SEA sometimes you will be cycling in 35 degree Celsius heat. Coupled with an unrelenting sun and humidity, you'll have a slower daily pace than in cooler parts of the globe.

    Overall, if you plan your trip with the 100 km objective per day, you will be able to find accommodation in most cases. You will also arrive at your destination within your body's physical limit.
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    How do I plan a route?
    Many things may determine your route, from places of interest you'd like to see to the availability of accommodation. Thanks to the internet, you can plan your route and find most information before you depart. A number of sources away from the internet can also assist.

    Your first port of call should always be a map. Get one covering your entire route. The map should give you an indication of the size of towns and cities and it should also show elevation. I use a variety, from Lonely Planet to more sophisticated ones from specialist vendors. I find myself increasingly using Stanfords.

    After maps I then search the net for blogs, route information and forums. Most rides in the region have been covered either fully or partially somewhere before. A number of websites give accurate information, but do be warned that some websites are not up to date. While I find Mr Pumpy's site excellent, some of the ride information is old and developments in roads and accommodation have superseded what's on the site.

    I also tend to find a lot of information from guidebooks. I use Lonely Planet guides and while I find them helpful, I never rely on the information to be 100% correct. I try to carry a guide book on each journey I make.

    You might want to consider some of SEA's classic journeys. The ride from Hanoi down through Ho Chi Minh, across Cambodia and down to Malaysia and Singapore is probably the most travelled route by world cycle tourers. There is also the route from China, down through Laos, into Cambodia and then into Thailand. There are so many permutations that it is impossible to list them all here. You must pick a route then look for the information available. About the only place for which there isn't a wealth of information available is Burma.
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    Many thanks to Simon at Silkwheels for the original version of the cycling in Asia FAQ.

    #1 Posted: 5/9/2009 - 14:52

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