Cycling in South East Asia
Krama or khán rán? Banh Bao or Num Bao? Wat Arun or Angkor Wat? If you’re not sure what you’re being asked to choose here, you certainly will after a cycling vacation in Indochina. Traveling overland is a way to dive deeply into the distinct cultures, religions and landscapes of several countries in a short space of time, and even in just a few weeks you can see and do a huge amount. This kind of trip is definitely for the tortoises rather than the hares. You can expect to cover an average of around 50km a day, with three to four hours in the saddle, so any time you want to stop for a while and take in the views, all you need to do is pop your kickstand.
Overland cycling vacations in Indochina are usually small group trips, accompanied by experienced local tour leaders. They can prove indispensable for everything from crossing borders to deciphering the menus in out-of-the-way restaurants. You will also be followed by a support vehicle, there to assist with punctures and other repairs, or to provide transportation in parts where cycling becomes hazardous. Border crossing will run much more smoothly with the assistance of tour leaders, and in many cases, both the tour leader and the support team will change at borders, so that you benefit from first-hand local knowledge throughout.
Of course there is a wide range of routes available, all of them point-to-point so beginning in one city and finishing in another, usually in a different country. It’s worth considering flights a few days either side of your planned itinerary, so that you can spend a little more time in an exciting destination such as Bangkok or Hanoi, and also shed any lingering jetlag before you hit the road.
The itineraries take you far from built-up areas into predominantly rural landscapes, often using peaceful back roads that see little traffic. You will be riding through rice paddy fields, plantations of rubber and eucalyptus, and fruit orchards, pausing here and there to snack on coconut candy at roadside shacks, watch the monks as they collect alms, or perhaps take a trip up the Mekong River by sampan.
Arriving in the cities, where the roads are clogged with thousands of other bicycles and vehicles, can be overwhelming for the uninitiated, so you will board the support vehicle on the city outskirts to negotiate the traffic safely.
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Highlights of Thailand
Highlights of Thailand
Bangkok dazzles you with its neon lighting, street markets thronged with locals and visitors alike, and magnificent temples such as Wat Pho and Wat Phra Kaew, which are famed for their golden stupas and gigantic statues of Buddha. A highpoint of many itineraries is a longtail boat cruise along the Chao Phraya River to visit the floating markets. If your itinerary either starts or finishes in Bangkok, adding on a few extra days is highly recommended.
There are also many wats and sculptures at Ayutthaya, the 14th century former capital from where 35 kings ruled over the centuries. Ayutthaya was burned down by the Burmese army, and the excavated ruins are now a fascinating UNESCO World Heritage Site. The most well-known site is the Head of Buddha, sunk into tree roots at Wat Mahathat.
When Ayutthaya was the capital, Aranyik was where the weapons to defend the city were made. Some of the finest knives and swords in Thailand are still hand-crafted in this village, amazingly intricate in their design work. It’s a good place to stop and learn about a tradition that has been passed down from generation to generation.
Khao Yai National Park, on the way to the Cambodian border, is one of the largest in the country. As well as populations of elephants, gibbons and barking deer, the park is also home to a waterfall which was used in ‘The Beach’, a film that has resulted in decidedly mixed blessings for Thailand.
Highlights of Vietnam
Highlights of Vietnam
The Mekong Delta, sprawling over 12 provinces in southwestern Vietnam, is a labyrinth of swamps and rivers feeding into the sea, dotted with islands where many ethnic communities live surrounded by a staggering variety of wildlife. Many overland cycling tours will dip into this region, sampling the seafood in key cities such as Cán Thó and My Tho, and exploring the waterways by boat.
East of the delta lies Ho Chi Minh City, where the streets absolutely teem with bicycles. Just outside the city can be found the Cu Chi Tunnels, a key element of the Viet Cong’s resistance to American forces during the Vietnam War, and several sections can now be explored, watch your head though.
It still bears scars from the war, but Hanoi seems determined to make up for lost time, with a cosmopolitan flair that gels with the ancient pagodas, colonial-era buildings and traditions of the old quarter. The practically endless buzz of traffic can distract from the fact that this is one of the oldest capitals in the world.
More about Cambodia cycling
Cycling vacations in Cambodia operate all year-round. The country has a wet and a dry season, and each has advantages and disadvantages for the cyclist.
Take only photos, leave only tyre tracks is the over-arching ethos of our guide to Cambodia cycling vacations.
Outside the major cities such as Phnom Penh and Siem Reap, daily life in Cambodia goes on much as it has done for generations.
Our tips for cycling Angkor Wat will show you around the world’s largest temple complex, a vast archaeological park sprawling over some 1690sq km.
Cambodia is an exotic, illuminating and above all very welcoming destination for a cycling trip, and that goes double when the kids come along for the ride.
We’ve put together some solid-gold Cambodia cycling vacation advice from those that have already been, there, done that and bought the krama.