Despite the fact that my panniers contain guidebooks, each of a few hundred pages, for Thailand, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia this blog acts as my overall write-up and guide to cycling in south east Asia.
When planning bike routes, given I am of course also a tourist, one of the first places I often start is by looking at the routes chosen by cycle tour operators in the region. I won’t know exact routes and don’t have access to support vehicles for bus transfers between areas where there may be little to see but the itineraries will give a sense of key places to visit, an idea of where there are places to stay and an indication of what’s possible in a given time period. Having been on one of these trips to Vietnam around ten years ago for a three week holiday I was also aware that just over three months to tour all of south east Asia would be a significant challenge. It would require careful reading and selection, a good understanding of border crossing points and possibly a train or two. As ever, I started off with a very optimistic plan and one that has been constantly adapted throughout this tour.
The original intention had been to cycle all the way from Singapore to Bangkok – it always felt like quite an iconic journey. We knew to avoid the border between Malaysia and South West Thailand though had no exact plan for this when we started and from Bangkok to Vientiane, in Laos we had always planned to take a train before riding to Vinh and up to Hanoi, in Vietnam, crossing the border at Lak Sao. As things turned out, some of this worked out as planned and some of it…well, it was changed either following further research, talking to other travellers or, in the case of one border crossing was a force majore.
So, as outlined in a previous blog we left Singapore in a thunder storm, rode up through a very generous Malaysia and then made our way to Thailand. Given border complications we decided to take the boat option using a ferry from Langkawi to Saturn. However, given we arrived at a land border we had a visa in Thailand for only fifteen days. We didn’t want to detour to get this lengthened and so we would use public transport between Krabi and Hua Hin and then again, this time as planned, from Bangkok to Nong Khai. As it turned out this worked out for the better or we really would have run out of time here.
We were only due to be in Laos for a very short time but as soon as we arrived it felt so calm, comfortable and welcoming we wanted to stay longer. I love being in the hills and we decided to go to Luang Prabang and Vang Vien though yet again we had time for this only if we left the bikes behind. We would have to cheat. This was our trip after all.
One week later and we were back on the bikes making our way towards Hanoi. Some of my favourite days riding came as we pedaled our way to the border near Lak Sao. We were climbing and our route took us through beautiful paddy fields, past limestone crags and friendly villages. Just glorious. We also hit more rain and as we passed through muddy roads and landslides up to the border we had no idea that we would soon be riding back the same way. Vietnamese soldiers would not let us continue and border control showed us photographs on a mobile phone to explain why. The road ahead had actually slipped away in the rain leaving a gap of around two hundred metres. While a detour was possible by foot – a bamboo ladder and forest trek we later found out- they would not let us through with The Captain and Kylie. Back to Lak Sao; back to the drawing board; back on the bus!
Thirty six hours later and we were in Hanoi. More sightseeing, a trip out to Halong Bay and then another bus down to Dong Hoi. Well, we are tourists as well as cyclists and we were now really running out of time.
Our detour here came as we decided to visit Paradise Caves following a glowing recommendation from another traveller. The walk through the cave would go beyond the standard visitor route, following guides and headtorches through rivers in the cave, clamouring over rocks and getting wet. The cave was vast and it’s hard to imagine it hasn’t long been discovered with no previous signs of human visitors.
It was another fabulous tourist day though we were both very much looking forward to riding. We would follow the coast and highway one for a few days visiting Hue and Hoi An from where we hoped to cross back into Laos. It quickly became apparent that if we did this we would see nothing of Cambodia and so we changed plans again….
To make up time we would need to catch the train again and so after riding to Quang Ngai we caught the sleeper to Ho Chi Min City, still more commonly known as Saigon. Pedalling in from the station to find a hotel was such fun. There were so many scooters it seemed like chaos though actually traffic flowed very well. The only rule….”never don’t stop”. Here, like in India, the horn is a must, the only difference being the biggest vehicle is not automatically the one with right of way. The little guy wins as bikes and scooters weave their way forwards advancing much more quickly than their larger counterparts.
Arriving on a high it would not be long before we would ride again in the mayhem on our way to Phnom Penh in Cambodia. While our time in Saigon had been slightly marred by a passing scooter rider trying to grab John’s camera we’d enjoyed the change of itinerary and, after two days riding we would be in the capital of Cambodia. Described as pancake flat I was surprised to be finding it so hard and on that second day was struggling badly in the first 10km. My legs wouldn’t work, I averaged only around 17km pr hr and it was only the fact that we had a hotel booked that meant I was determined to continue eventually making 120km. The next day I was reminded of the fact that I’m a girl on a bicycle though at least that served as explanation for the achy legs the day before. I had been worried this was a more serious lurgy.
We’re in Siem Reap as I write this having followed route six north and with sightseeing here now over we will head out by the border west of Battambang back into Thailand. Our south east Asia trip is drawing to a close. We’ve taken the train much more than expected, changed routes and plans on numerous occasions, seen far less than we would have liked and despite being perhaps a little tired of rice and noodles would certainly love to return. Cycling in this part of the world is a real pleasure – you just need more than three months.