From mid-November 2015 to early April 2016 we cycled a loop around South East Asia, starting in Bangkok and heading north, and ending by travelling west through Cambodia and back into Thailand.
Our route looks a bit like a turtle sticking its tongue out (this was only slightly on purpose).
Time spent in Thailand: 51 days
Miles cycled: 1211
Average distance per travel day: 41 miles (over 29 travel days)
Average spend per day: £30.05
Thailand is an easy place to cycle in many ways. The cost of living is cheap, there is tonnes of convenience and the roads are in good condition. I’ve never been anywhere where so much delicious food is available so cheaply and frequently.
A lot of Thai people do drive fast, and statistically speaking the roads in Thailand are quite dangerous, but we generally felt safe on the road. Almost all drivers overtook us safely, and drivers always slowed down when we had to pull out to make a turn. There is a hard shoulder along big roads which cyclists can use, and it is acceptable to go against the traffic in this lane (useful when the alternative is crossing a huge, busy expressway).
The landscape in the middle of Thailand is not that interesting, though there are plenty of temples to visit. In the north the mountains are beautiful and worth seeing – though they are eclipsed by next-door Laos’ scenery.
Thai people are very genuine, welcoming and happy. They are a great mix of hardworking and laid back. The phrase “mai pben rai” means “never mind” or “don’t worry about it”, and is a Thai cultural value, meaning: don’t take life too seriously. We liked Thai people a lot.
Time spent in Laos: 25 days
Miles cycled: 534
Average distance per travel day: 53 miles (over 10 travel days)
Average spend per day: £28.54
In the areas of Laos we cycled through there was pretty much one road and that was all. Everybody travelled along this road. Having said that, some areas were so remote that it felt like we were on a cycle path! There are much fewer vehicles in Laos, so the roads are quiet. But because of this I think Laos people are not used to sharing the road, and a lot of the driving we saw was dangerous. I was more worried on Laos roads than Thai roads. You have to be aware because you can’t count on other drivers to notice you!
Laos is a lot poorer than Thailand, and there is less convenience. We still almost never had to go hungry, but we did have to search a bit harder for restaurants and shops. And in Laos they have almost no good snacks for hungry cyclists! They mainly had wafer biscuits, Euro Cake that practically melts on your tongue, or rice cakes. Where’s the calories?! The roadside snacks we lived on – when we could find them – were bananas and Creme-O biscuits.
In the more remote areas accommodation was quite basic – bucket flush toilets and cold water, though we did stumble across really nice hotels surprisingly often too.
The mountains in the north were stunning, and quite frankly blow the socks off of northern Thailand (sorry Thailand). Once you’re away from the far north, the landscape in the middle is not as interesting. The cities were not bad. Luang Prabang is pleasant but seems to exist for tourists, and it felt a bit soulless as a result. Vientiane is not as “nice” but feels much more authentic.
Laos people are really nice. So many people said “Sabaidee!” to us, and people offered to share their food with us more than once. However, they don’t seem as happy as Thai people. I think that life is harder here. We also sensed a bit of an “Italian” attitude to customer service sometimes, ie. “Customers?? Does this mean I have to do something? FFS.” Laos people are on the whole less enthusiastic about work than their neighbours.
Laos is frequently hailed as a cycle touring paradise, as it’s beautiful, quiet and more remote than its neighbours. The scenery was mind-blowing, but to be honest I felt more connection with the other three countries we visited.
Time spent in Vietnam: 44 days
Miles cycled: 1297
Average distance per travel day: 48 miles (over 27 travel days)
Average spend per day: £27.91
The traffic. Oh my god. We spent quite a lot of time (too long) on highway one, a road which spans almost the entire country… and we saw things, man, we saw things. Most people drive scooters, which are excellent for weaving through the traffic… but as a result, people who drive vehicles inherit the scooter-driving culture, and act like they’re on scooters. It’s a bit scary. And although all vehicles are tolerated, there’s a definite hierarchy going on: the bigger you are, the more priority you have. And vehicles will let you know this with their enormously loud horn!
Having said this, highway one has a hard shoulder, and you can cycle on it. We were fine. You get used to the nuts traffic, and it does make sense in its own way.
Vietnam is a developed country with a large population, so finding places to stay is not a problem if you are in the busier parts (which we were). Sometimes we found it quite hard to find a restaurant in smaller towns.
There were quite a few interesting cities in Vietnam. I liked Hué and Hôi An especially. The food in Vietnam was amazing, and often each region had its own special dish.
The coastline from Quy Nhon to Mūi Né is spectacular, and it was probably my favourite part of our trip. We got to travel beautiful coastal roads in the morning and then stop at gorgeous, and frequently empty, beaches in the afternoon. Surely that is cycle touring paradise!
I loved meeting Vietnamese people. They are a lot of fun! Vietnam is a very energetic place, and unlike Laos, people really, really want your business! We also probably got ripped off here more than anywhere else, but on the whole people were friendly and honest.
Time spent in Cambodia: 17 days
Miles cycled: 447
Average distance per travel day: 56 miles (over 8 travel days)
Average spend per day: £45.13 (we were living it up in Cambodia!)
Cambodia is a lot less developed than Vietnam, but more developed than Laos. After hectic Vietnam it feels nice and quiet, and the drivers are calm and patient. We stuck to main roads (like Laos, you haven’t got much choice) and found the road quality to be fine, though it can be dusty. We also took some dirt roads during day trips, and they were not bad at all.
Cambodia is small, and so most cycle tourists take a similar route. This means you can use blogs to find out information on hotels and restaurants along the way. We tended to book ahead using the Booking.com app, as I’d heard that some guesthouses in rural areas are dives.
Cambodia has beautiful coastal areas with some gorgeous, barely visited islands. It also has some very remote mountains in the west. This aside, the landscape is flat and dull. Very boring… and very hot!
However, there is a lot of interesting history in Cambodia, both ancient and modern. And the people are so lovely! Very warm, genuine and interested to interact with you. For these reasons I felt very engaged with this country, and despite the views on the road being dull, I loved visiting here.
The rest of the stats
Duration of trip: 138 days
Days we travelled: 54%
Total miles: 3873 miles (includes 367 miles of using our bike during sight-seeing days).
Time by percentage in each country:
Biggest day: 102 miles in Cambodia
Smallest day: 15 miles in Vietnam
Average miles per day: 47 miles (in Europe it was 46, obviously we’ve improved 😉 )
Days cycling on flat terrain: 60%
Days cycling on hilly terrain: 40%
Number of trains taken: 1
Days it was sunny or a bit overcast: 89%
Days it rained: 11%
Number of other problems with the bike, ranging from small niggles to new parts needed: 10
Most we paid for one night at a hotel: £18 in Vietnam
Least we paid for one night at a hotel: £4 in Laos (the one for £18 was nicer!)
Most we paid for a restaurant meal: £15 in Laos (beware those menus which don’t list prices)
Least we paid for a restaurant meal: £1.20 for two bowls of noodles and two drinks in Thailand
Number of traffic accidents witnessed: 2, one in Vietnam, one in Cambodia, both were mild and nobody was hurt
Days I was ill: 2
Days Eric was ill: 7
I am counting “days we were ill” as days where illness stopped us from doing an activity we wanted to do. To be honest there were quite a few more days where we didn’t feel 100%.
Why was Eric ill a lot more than me? Eric is just a delicate flower, and I cared more about eating “safe” things than he did. I’m sure there’s also a bit of luck involved.
Number of times we were stopped by the police: 0! This was a pleasant surprise. In Thailand a policeman did stop us to take a photo with us. Then a couple of days later a policeman called us over to give us a free map. We also smiled and waved at a lot of police as we passed through checkpoints. We have only had good experiences with the police in these countries. We had a lot more problems in Europe!
Statistics I would be interested to know, but don’t…
Number of times we didn’t get what we thought we ordered at a restaurant
Number of times we exchanged hellos and waves with people (surely in the thousands!)
Number of 7 eleven jumbo banana muffins we ate (a lot. It was a lot)