Indochina by Bike
Recent adventures have included kayaking in Cuba, Climbing Mont Blanc and skiing in India, but as a recent convert to cycling Mark Brigham decided to grab the opportunity to explore Indochina by bike.
If you enjoy your adventures served up on 2 wheels, packed with culture, discovery, experiencing new flavours and meeting the locals then a cycling trip through Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam will not disappoint.
My journey took me and 11 others (a fantastic and friendly bunch of New Zealanders, Canadians and Brits) from Khao Yai National Park in Thailand to the busy Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in Vietnam. Along the way we'd bike over 343 miles, drink hundreds of litres of water, eat a ton of rice, swallow a few dragon flies (by accident of course - always best to keep your mouth shut when cycling!), experience and try to dodge crazed dogs who would fearlessly run at our bikes, cook in a home stay and be charmed by Thai hospitality, intrigued and saddened by Cambodian history and amazed by the Vietnamese self sufficiency, pace of life and colour.
To do this trip you need to be prepared for the heat - a stifling 39 degrees with 85% humidity. The breeze whilst riding is a welcome relief but the scorching sun, despite going in the rainy season, is still a danger when spending up to 7 hours exposed in the saddle. We cycled 7 out of the 10 days and the rain only bothered us once but it was torrential and also a bit of a relief from the sun!
During the trip we ate locally at family houses and restaurants supporting local street children. In fact such is the fantastic policy at Exodus about supporting the local economy in the countries visited we ate at roadside family owned restaurants more often than not. No room for fussy eaters here and luckily the one vegetarian on our trip also faired reasonably well as vegetables are in plentiful supply across the region. It was also a chance to try new fruits such as the delicious Dragon Fruit or Pitaya (apparently anti ageing!) longan, and Lantundan Banana. We sampled Snake Wine and took a liking to sticky rice with banana wrapped in vine leaf – try it, it's delicious!
Here's a brief country by country breakdown:
We covered alot of cycling in the first 3 days in Thailand. Small villages whizzed by as we kept our heads down and pedalled hard up and down hills. We got to see ornate temples and experience Thai culture that few visitors to the country get to see - it was far removed from the bustle of Bangkok or the beaches of Phuket.
Crossing a border on foot is a rare thing these days, with the ease and affordability of flying, but this crossing was smooth enough thanks to the organisation of our able guide - Nee. Visas can be bought in advance or at the border. Between leaving Thailand and reaching the Cambodian border you enter 'no man's land'. A lawless society run by mafia and the only legal place to gamble in the region - at least 4 high rise hotels exist here. Decidedly dodgy characters hang around on the lookout for their next victim - a very intimidating experience! The Cambodian landscape is quite different from Thailand with miles of flat rice fields and sugar palm trees sticking up.
Whilst in Cambodia we visited Siem Reap. Here you take your life in your own hands whilst cycling the streets. Siem is perfect for exploring the magnificent temples or 'Wats' such as the famous Angkor Wat. We also visited the floating village - a large Vietnamese community who live on a lake and are wholly self-sufficient.
From Siem Reap we continued our journey south along the Mekong Delta and headed to the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh where we walked straight into a political riot almost outside our hotel. Whilst here you can visit the gruesome Killing Fields, S21 and the Palace - all are well worth a visit to understand much of the harrowing history of Cambodia.
One of my main reasons for choosing this trip over others was the opportunity to experience Vietnam, and the country lived up to expectation.
What I didn’t realise is that Vietnam is the second biggest Coffee exporter in the world and the second largest exporter of rice so it's no surprise that the smells that hit you as you cycle through the rural villages include strong blends of coffee, lemongrass, chilli and rice. Pedalling alongside bikes heavily laden with unrecognisable fruit, livestock precariously balance on the back seats of mopeds, still alive, pigs and ducks whizz by squealing and quacking!
For this final stage of our journey the traffic increases tenfold but so had the enjoyment as children would run into the street to enthusiastically shout 'hello' and offer high fives - you had to swerve to miss them but this was a welcome boost after a long day cycling.
Our destination in Vietnam was Ho Chi Minh City or Saigon, population: 11 million, moped ownership: 6 million - so we knew the roads were going to be busy! But little prepared us for what we saw and the challenge of crossing roads became like a game of the 80's arcade game frogger (there is a nack to it of making eye contact with the drivers, hold your nerve, then slowly walk out whilst the traffic swerved around you – it works in an chaotic kind of way!).
I was surprised by the prosperity and scale of Saigon – luxury shops line the pavements but there are enough markets to satisfy the bargain hunter. We were told the Vietnamase love to barter, its a way of life, and when bartering to use the phrase: Ôi Chúa ơi bao nhiêu (pronounced 'oi joy oi mugwhah) which translates as 'Oh my goodness, too expensive!' This works and is always guaranteed to put a smile on the seller's face.
Highlights & final Thoughts
Must see: Angkor Wat, must do: night in a home stay, a visit to the fascinating spider village where you can munch on tarantulas, frogs or cockroaches (Cambodia or Thailand). It was fascinating to experience the contrast in the flavours of the food across the 3 countries. Where Thai food was packed with chillies, Cambodian food was a perfect combination of spice and flavour and was certainly my favourite - try the beef Lok Lok,
Amok or Khmer curry at the Friends Cafe Siem Reap or Phnom Penh or Khmer Kitchen Phnom Penh.
Key to this trip's success was the organisation a perfect balance of timetabled cycling and additional optional tours with spare time to ensure you don't just feel like a herd of cattle on your holiday. Keeping your Facebook status updated along the way was incredibly easy as free Wi-Fi is available almost anywhere across the three countries we visited even at the home stay which is the definition of remote - UK hotels and cafes take note!
In the kit bag
If you’re considering this trip or others like it then here are a few key items to take consider taking with you:
Osprey Farpoint 70 Rucksack - a long standing travel companion due to its ability to carry gear comfortably. The 'zip and clip' removable pack is a great added extra.
Gore Plaster Shorts - light weight and quick drying with additional and removal padded seat, loads of pockets for travel with including useful zip pockets (an essential item when travelling around Saigon due to the high number of thefts. The length is long enough to be respectful during temple visits.
Gore Path Passion Jersey - Great fitting top, light weight and comfortable.
Osprey Viper 9 - so comfortable that you don't realise you're wearing it. Enough pockets to keep passports and essentials, nicely organised for easy finding, stealth helmet holder worked perfectly for easy stowing of helmet
Water Treatment - thankfully wasn't required but better to be safe than sorry!
mosquito net and bug Cover malaria tabs, bite and sting relief and mosquito repellent fabric impregnator (before you go).
Merrell Mix Master Shoes – good versatile shoes used as both a travel shoe and for cycling short distances in the dry.
Keen Newport H2 Sandal – a closed toe sandal, good for occasional bike use and walks around temples – light, airy and excellent at draining water in the rain quickly.
The North Face paramount convert pants - zip pockets essential, deep pockets to hinder pickpockets and the versatility to unzip legs when the heat became too much.
Recommended guide book: Lonely Planet Vietnam Cambodia, Laos & Northern Thailand