Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Biking SE Asia - one, two, tea, phở

Ainaz's notes from here and there!

This post is for anyone who is thinking of cycling any of the countries I visited during this trip.. and for the random curious bunch.

I visited Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, and Burma by bicycle during this trip.


In 4.5 months I biked 6,500kms with 103days on the saddle.

It took 2,000km to break in my new Brooks saddle and now I rock a matching-colour scar tissue on my bottom!! I am not one to swear by the Brooks unfortunately, though they are beautiful.. so I don't really regret my decision ;)

I spent just shy of $3,000 in 4.5 months on the road. My planned budget was $20/day. I met it, just about. I could have done it at $15/day easily if I had camped more often (or shopped less often ;)).



Food ($1,000)
I ate whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted.. including a daily ice-cream or coke whenever available ;) I quite liked the local brand ice-creams ($0.5 local brand vs. $1.25 fancy brand in Thailand).. so yes, I tried to save money wherever I could.. but the local cola brands were undrinkable in my opinion!
Food is generally cheap in SE Asia. A serving is normally $1 at the street food stands. Though sometimes it took 2-3 servings to calm the hunger of this belly ;) I also ate alllot of fruits (because they are sooo delicious grown in this weather), and nuts (which can be expensive) to supplement protein in my veggie diet.

Accommodation ($650)
I stayed at guesthouses 75% of the time, and camped or stayed at temples or with locals the rest of the time.

Visa and Entry ($550)
Travelling with a Canadian passport, I needed a visa for all the countries I visited. The cost added up. Here is the Visa info on each country:
You can apply for any of these countries' visa at any city that has a consulate of the country. For example, I didn't need to apply for all my Thailand entry visas before arriving in SE Asia. I applied for my Vietnam visa in Phnom Penh and for my Burma visa in Bangkok. Laos and Cambodia gave visas on entry at land borders.
Burma - $28 for 30day visa in advance only + $250 for flying in and out with bicycle and bags (currently flying in and out is the only way to visit Burma for more than 1 day!)
Cambodia - $20 for 30day visa at international land borders (they will try to charge $25)
Laos - $42 for 30day visa at border (price varies by citizenship)
Thailand - free 14day exemption by land, free 30day exemption by air, advance 2month visa for $40.
Vietnam - $65 for 30day visa in advance only, not possible to get visa at border. Note that you need to provide the exact date you want your visa activated and they start counting on that date whether you enter or not.

Misc. (i.e. shopping: $260)
I did shop at the beautifully colourful night markets and day bazaars of every major city, though while on the rode I only bought things I reeeeally liked or absolutely needed.
This category also includes random occasional expenditures like multivitamins, or tipping drivers or servers, etc.

Transportation ($200)
I took a few buses, trains and boats. Typically it was no problem to transport the bike (except VIP buses in Thailand). Always there was a small fee for the bike.. in Vietnam they charged double the ticket price for the bike and I'm pretty sure they damaged my bike in the transport (I say pretty sure because 10 minutes after getting off the bus I got hit by a car, so I'm not sure if it was the bus ride or the accident that warped my bike!).

Bike Maintenance ($120)
I had a couple of major bike maintenance episodes, in Laos and in Vietnam. Two derailleur hangers, one new derailleur, chain links, one new tire (it was a shock to discover despite being in the land of rubber tree plantations, quality tires and inner tubes are all imports in this part of the world and so cost the same as in North America if not more), new inner tubes, spokes, and the time of a Vietnamese mechanic to jump on my frame to bend it back into shape.

Tourism ($100)
I did more touristic things this trip than I typically do when I travel. I wanted to try it out.. unfortunately usually I regretted it. It was hard to really connect with the beautiful waterfalls when there is a line up of tourists taking pictures with it, and I guess ruins are just not for me (except Angkor Wats .. to my surprise I really enjoyed my day lost in these ruins).



I started the tour with my friend Dariya in Chiang Mai, Thailand. Chiang Mai is a small feel big city, with an international airport and without the crazy traffic of Asian Capital cities.
We changed our mind about where to start.. and before that, which continent to even tour.. probably at least 20 times! :)
From Chiang Mai, we rode S and W and S and E along the coast to Cambodia. At the end of the coast in Cambodia we stopped compromising our priorities and naturally one day we stopped travelling together, just like that! Don't worry, we remain really good friends and we got to have another week of travel together in Vietnam ;):)
I traveled with several other cyclists for few days or few weeks at a time. It was really nice to have time on my own and with other cyclists along the way when I was lonely on my own.

I think Chiang Mai was a good place to start the trip.. though if I were to do it over again, I would go North first into Laos (be ready for difficult but amazing mountains though), then South through Laos into Cambodia and back into Thailand, fly in and out of Burma from Bangkok, then continue south in Thailand and into Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia. Or do the whole thing in reverse.. start in Indonesia.
I say this because I felt trapped in the circuit of the countries I visited. And yes, I intentionally skipped Vietnam in this revised list :P

Finding decent food and being a vegetarian in all of these countries was totally ok. I just had to learn how to make myself understood. Learning how to say I am vegetarian in each language was the first step. Sometimes I would go into the kitchen or behind the wok to work with the cook to create a meal! In Cambodia, typically I ate plain rice with eggs. A good alternative Dariya and I discovered was to buy our own veggies at the market and either have plain rice with a salad or have the restaurant cook it up for us.
Vegetarian:
Thailand and Laos - Jay (though pronounced more like Jchay)
Burma - Tatalut
Cambodia - Buo
Vietnamese - Chay (pronounced Chai)


My most favourite country was Laos.
The most unique country I visited this trip was Burma.

As for Bike Maintenance...
Thailand is the best place. There is a cycling culture in Thailand and most major cities will have a good bike shop. And you can definitely find anything you need for cycle touring at Bok Bok Bikeshop in Bangkok.
Laos has a good relationship with Thailand and lots of borders with Thailand so you can generally find parts or get them to ship you what you need into Laos from Thailand. You will pay more though than you would in Thailand.
In Cambodia and Burma, pretty much forget about it. You can deal with your problems local style, which is refreshingly impressive actually. In Cambodia you can at least find local cheap parts to get you to the next country.
Vietnam should have good bike shops, but like everything else about this country, it didn't come easy to me.  I know at least there is one good mechanic in Vietnam, in Dalat. He works on the side of the street behind Cafe de la Poste. His name is Gouaw.

Finally, here are a few tips I wrote down to share with you... I will add to these notes if I remember more things in the future:


-Bring a tent or hammock with mosquito net... there are plenty of ways to camp in Asia.

-You don't really need a stove, as there is cheap food everywhere, but a seal-able to go container was really handy for doing a little part for the environment

-Bring a tote bag it makes it easier to say no to all the plastic bags

-700c wheels are tricky to find inner tubes for, standard mountain bike size wheels are the best, for the roads and for finding spare parts for

-Bring spare derailleur hangers! If you need them they are hard to find in Asia.
But don't overload with spare parts as in Asia there are plenty of brilliant resourceful mechanics who will do magic on your bike.

-You don't need a big Ulock... I felt safe leaving my bike, even in big cities. Just a simple cable lock is enough for your peace of mind.

-I brought 10 power bars and two tubes of rehydration tablets... and they came in really handy.

-Don't freak out about Malaria... or Rabies.... just be cautious and you'll be ok. I didn't have prevention against neither and it's all good.
I always put mosquito repellent on at night and in the morning, specially if I was camping. And I barked back at and chased off any animal that got vicious (including the two legged kind ;)).

-Bring the maps you need... it's hard to find good maps here

-It's easy to have a shower anywhere in Asia.... if you are camping and there are no rivers, you can always ask to have a shower at any restaurant.

-Make sure to go for a Thai Massage in Thailand.. it is amazing!


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