Monsoon Dodging: A Tandem Tour of SE Asia

While most of us would agree that one of the best things about the bicycle is the places it can take you, the one niche of cycling that is all about two-wheeled escape seems to have a bit of an odd reputation. Say the words ‘cycle touring’ and you instantly start to imagine beards, hub gears and endless conversations about pannier racks rather than the freedom, adventure and fun of life on the road.

Andrew Boyd, currently sat on a tandem touring cycle with his other half somewhere in South East Asia, believes that everyone, from downhiller to trail centre weekender should try it sometime. This is the first in a series of articles following his thoughts on travel by bike:

Cycle touring – an activity for middle-aged Dutch couples, carbon-neutral hippies or super fit round-the-world record breakers? Undoubtedly, yes – but also, I’d venture, the perfect escape for anyone with who loves riding a bike, exploring the world (or at least a bit of it) and doesn’t mind – or perhaps enjoys – a bit of self-inflicted suffering. Surely that includes everyone reading this?

Gravel roads on an aluminium tandem? Bumpy but doable. North Vietnam..

This, the first in a short series of articles, offers my incomplete and subjective musings on why every cyclist, from weekend warrior through dyed-in-the-wool roadie to baggy-panted downhill racer, should give bike touring a go at least once in their cycling career. The next article will sketch out a few of the practicalities of getting started – kit requirements, useful resources and the like – and the final article will describe some of the many highs as well as the occasional lows, of our current cycle tour of South East Asia.

Yes that’s right, these articles are coming to you from various internet cafes in South East Asia, as my partner Emma and I tandem tour around the region. After a few one and two week tours closer to home, we took the plunge, quit our jobs, rented out the house, sold the car, plotted an approximate route around Cambodia, Laos,Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia, boxed up the tandem, and flew to Siem Reap, Cambodia. (It wasn’t quite as simple as that but it sounds good, right?)

Both of us cycle back in the UK – I get out on my mountain or road bike most days and race when I can (I have the dubious honour of having come second in the World, European, and UK Singlespeed Champs) and Emma, although not the racing type, is in a way the purer rider, as a non-car owning cycle commuter.

Why a tandem? We’ve been asked many times, so let’s get it out the way… We have one; it’s a conversation starter for sure (the number of times I’ve been told Emma isn’t pedalling must run into the thousands); there are fewer things to go wrong than with two solo bikes; no matter how frisky or lethargic one or both us is feeling we always finish every day 67cm apart. All of the above are true, but mainly we just wanted to. So there! Our daily blog – which we’ve miraculously kept up to date for the past three months details our route, displays our photos and keeps our mothers reassured that we’re alive and eating (a lot, since you ask) – is available at http://tandemasia.wordpress.com/ – check it out!

So, why should you, the British mountain biker, give cycle touring a go? Here are our top 10 reasons, in no particular order:

  1. Riding a bike is the best way to see the world. Period. Self-sufficient, but not isolated from the environment through which he or she passes, the cyclist can enjoy the world from a unique, intimate perspective. The cycle tourist has no tinted windows not climate control to shield him or herself from the elements, but this also means there are no barriers to human interaction either. And the pace is not dictated by an impatient tour bus driver but the whim and fitness of the rider. All the time in the world? Ride slow, stop frequently, talk to everyone, take many photos, and ride 30km a day. Got a plane to catch or a border to cross before your visa expires? Start at dawn and unless the road is terrible, 150km in a day is within the means of a fit cyclist.
  2. Smooth tarmac and no traffic – Thailand at its best

    The world is a friendlier place on a bike. In a world of mass tourism, and even with cycle touring as well established as it is, a tourist travelling by bike still counts as a novelty in many places. Why? Partly because you end up in places rarely frequented by ‘regular’ tourists (let alone ones who mime their need for water and biscuits with such urgency), partly because you travel slowly enough to engage with locals, and partly because the bicycle is the vehicle of the people – slow, steady, familiar and (relatively) cheap. In the past few months alone, we’ve been invited to join parties, weddings, drinking sessions, invitations that would have never been made were we not on a bicycle, I’m certain. And the (literally) thousands of ‘hello/what’s-your-name/where-you-go’ that followed us through villages in Cambodia particularly kept our flagging spirits up as the mercury hit 40 degrees.

  3. It’s green (except the flight there…
  4. The cycle tourist is self-reliant, and independent – mostly. No waiting for buses, haggling over taxi prices – you just pedal. And if things go wrong, positive body language and big smiles go a long way to getting things fixed. Someone will help – bikes seem to bring out the best in people, truly.
  5. ‘Are you sure it’s that way?’ Route advice is always on offer – North Vietnam

    You’re a cyclist already! And therefore at a massive advantage over the majority of the population at large. You have a pair of legs practiced than most at turning lots and lots of circles for the better part of a day, a butt that’s toughened to hours perched on a saddle, and a pair of hands that have replaced cables, straightened bent chainrings and ripped punctured tyres off obstinate rims in the dark, when your fingers have been so cold you can’t feel them, and when they’ve been slick with the sweat of a mid-summer enduro.

  6. Other cycle tourists are pretty cool, for the most part. Easily identified by their ridiculous tan marks, unfeasibly large appetites, too short shorts (hey, you’ve got to save weight everywhere you can) or indeed their touring bikes, the bike touring community represents a sub-culture within the tourist community. We never passed a fellow bike tourist without exchanging route, eating and accommodation advice, mutual self-congratulation, and on occasion, bike maintenance and snacks. Our best evenings have been shared with other bike tourists – beerily commiserating with Serge at the woeful state of the Spanish economy, laughing in amazement at Pedro’s punning in English (his third language) or gratefully accepting offers of a spare room ‘next time’ (!) we’re in Colorado from Erin and Pete, the only other tandem tourists we bumped into en route. (Yes we had bike envy – who wouldn’t want a British Racing Green folding Bike Friday touring tandem as a wedding present?)
  7. You can (probably) afford it. We may be in an age of austerity right now, but if you can still afford to go on holiday for a week in the Alps, I’d venture that a couple of weeks’ bike touring wouldn’t be beyond you financially. Perhaps not in New Zealand, but nipping over the Channel sans car is pretty cheap, and if you want to go further afield (necessitating flying) your flight will represent the single biggest cost, with life when you arrive cheaper than living at home as long as you select your destination wisely. No transport costs when you arrive and accommodation and eating are cheaper than living back home in most of Europe, Asia and the Americas (particularly if you camp). We’ve spent about £15/day each (excluding flights and travel insurance) with little conscious budgeting – generally this has bought us reasonable hotel rooms, vast quantities of great food, and a beer or two most nights, as well as visas, entries fees to tourist attractions along the way, and running repairs for the bike.
  8. European Union (in Southern Laos)

    You can eat as much as you want. Our blog could just have easily been subtitled ‘A foodie tour of SE Asia’. Cycling six hours a day could be seen as a perfect weight loss opportunity, but we preferred to see it as an opportunity to maintain our weight by drastically increasing our calorie intake. South East Asia is a particularly good destination in this regard, where food is plentiful, cheap, and mostly delicious. Be it Cambodian Amok, Vietnamese Baan Cuon, Laotian Laap, or Yunnanese wild boar in the far North of Thailand we’ve wolfed it all down, enjoyed almost all of it, and only got sick once (and then only briefly). And did I mention the cheap ice-cold beer?

  9. You (probably) have a suitable bike already. Most cyclists I know have more than one bike in their shed/garage/living room. OK, they might not have a Rohloff geared, Schwalbe-shod Thorn in the collection but to be honest any reasonable hardtail/cross bike/commuter steed will do the trick with a few modifications. We picked up our second-hand aluminium Dawes Double Edge tandem second hand at SSUK a few years ago. Not an ‘ideal’ touring machine, but with a couple of hundred quid spent on it and infrequent fettling, it’s done us proud, covering 6,000km and counting, and that’s with the two of us and our kit on board. Of the fifty or so bike tourists we’ve met on this tour, about half have been on touring specific bikes, but the rest have been on barely modified hardtails, generally at the more modest end of the price spectrum – 2005-ish Specializeds and Treks seem particularly popular. Yes, we drooled over Caroline and Serge’s custom built Thorns (check out their website at cyclingarchitects.com) and Tony’s Titanium Airborne, complete with Tubus titanium rack, but a flash bike isn’t going to make or break most tours. I’ll come back to what I reckon a touring bike ‘needs’ in the next article.
  10. ‘More, more!’ The better half of tandemasia notes the table isn’t quite covered with dishes

    It’s definitely compatible with a family/job/other responsibility. OK, so doing it pre-children and between jobs as we have has afforded us greater flexibility and independence, but having a job doesn’t preclude a two week jaunt around Croatia any more than it does a singletrack holiday in the Alps. And although it sounded a little bit too much like hard work, stories of bike touring families chased us round SE Asia – though we never did meet up with any.

So there you have it – my brief introduction to bike touring. If this has whetted your appetite, look out for the next article in which I’ll offer my advice on kit requirements, what has and hasn’t worked for us, a check list of essential things to do before departure, and some other resources to point you in the right direction before the big (or not so big) tour.

Good times – frequent!

 

Bad times – few!

 

 

Copyright Andrew Boyd, June 2012

Categorised as:

Online Feature