Cycletouring 4,000km and 4 months across South East Asia from Vietnam to Singapore!
I won’t lie to you, with the exception of a couple of weeks down the Danube with friends, it’s been pretty tedious around here since May. Life doesn’t always work out how you want it to and we were hoping that the house would be sold and that we would be rolling on our big trip by now. But the housing market in the UK has slowed and is filled with uncertainty and that’s making pepole nervous to make major commitments.
Since we put our house on the market in late April, we have been in a sort of limbo and being unable to make real plans and crack on has been the cause of our thumb-twiddling tedium.
For various boring tax reasons, our full Round-the-World trip is predicated on the sale of our main house so, without that cash, we have to be a little mindful of our spend during this tax year and have been unable to step out fully until the house is sold. Cash flow will ease at the start of the next tax year, but as we enter a period when a housing market, impacted by Brexit, is likely to double-down on the doldrums and go into full-on hibernation until March, the most likely scenario for the coming months is a winter of disgruntlement waiting for the spring 😑
Bollocks to that!!
If you avoid the more extravagant end of the scale, then the cost of being in South East Asia roughly equates to the cost of staying in the UK; that includes a mixed bag of accommodation, travel (including a couple of internal Business Class flights) food and beer!
Chuck in a couple of other factors, like an Avios Upgrade voucher that runs out in May and an increasing desire to be back in South East Asia, then it wasn’t a huge leap for us to be booking the flights to Bangkok.
It was an easy decision
Our 1000km ride from Pattaya to Koh Samui last year was a ground-breaker for us and cemented our love for Thailand, and for the wider South East Asia. But, because we constantly yearn for the new experience, we don’t want to repeat it in it entirety; we want the same but more; much more!
There’s a saying in Thailand “Same Same, but Different” and that pretty much describes the intent of this trip.
Although we want a more freeflowing experience than last year, I’m a bugger for planning; I’ve spent most of my professional career planning and it’s now firmly engraved in my psyche. I have an approach that moves from the generic to the specific ignoring any problems or obstacles. I build a plan and then temper it with a healthy dose of realism.
But before I got into any of that, I had to answer two key questions:
The “When?” was quite easy. Start ASAP and get back for the prime house sale window of March to June. Having made that decision the fine detail of dates was in the hands of British Airways and Avios.
For anyone that has diligently collected their Avios points, the experience of trying to use them is soul-destroying as you enter endless iterations of possibilities trying to find flights that you can spend your points on and approximate to your dates. I often think that David Walliams’ character in Little Britain should have been called Avios and I imagine a digital version of her batting back my pleading and feeble attempts to book an Avios funded flight.
But perseverance is occasionally rewarded and this time it was with an exit on 9 October 2018 and the last 2 available return seats on 4 February 2019. Heeeeeehaw!
So now we have answered the when. It’s a 118 day period, just under 4 months, starting just as the weather starts to turn.
The “Where?” was a little more enjoyable to answer. South East Asia was the frame, but before we could drill down further into the “Where?” we sort of had to answer the “How Far?”.
Last year, we felt that our trip in the Thai boondocks benefitted greatly from having spent a couple of weeks of acclimatisation back in Bangkok and Pattaya before we started. This gave us opportunity to immerse ourselves in the Thai way of doing things, the heat and to polish up our Thai lingo. By the time we rode up Pattaya’s Second Road to the Dolphin roundabout and out of the city to the North, we weren’t in a foreign land, we were in a culture that we had now partially assimilated. We think that this was a key factor in the success of last year and we are very keen to repeat it on this trip.
So the “How Far?” question is now determined by the period from about 25 Oct to about 5 days before we have to fly home, subtract a 10 day period somewhen in the middle for a flit back to see the family, then we’re pretty close to 80 days available to travel. Not a bad number, you can really cover some ground in that period.
Again, bringing learning points forward from last year then we know that our comfort level is touring an average of approximately 75km a day. This may change as we progress but, for now, when we are fully laden with 60kg bikes, 75km is our “tired but not broken” number.
We also like the occasional rest day, 300km is a good target before for the first rest day then another at 600km. At 1000km we need more than one rest day and by the time we’ve averaged it all out, it means that 50km, for each day that we’re travelling, is a good rule-of-thumb. For the 80 days of being on the move, that is a nice round number of 4000km. So now, it seems, we’ve decided to ride 4000km!
Again, this was a relatively simple process of listing out all the places we wanted to go in the region and then trying to string a 4000km path between them.
It was always going to be a compromise and we never thought we could do them all, but we were surprised at how many of them we hit. The few that didn’t make the shortlist are:
- Chiang Mai
- Chiang Rai
- Udon Thani
These were the obvious Northern outliers and were soon dropped. But the list of those that could be included is stellar and excites the hell out of us:
- Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City)
- Phnom Penh
- Siem Reap (incl Angkor Wat)
- Hua Hin
- Surat Thani
- Penang (George Town)
- Kuala Lumpur
…and a few more
Happy Birthday to Me!
I spent a chunk of my early childhood in Singapore and there is a blend of serendipity and a large chunk of romanticism in choosing Singapore as our target destination. This was compounded by the realisation that we would most likely arrive in Singapore around about the time of my birthday on 27 January. That means that I would have my 55th birthday in the same place, 50 years on, where I had my 5th birthday,
I kinda think that’s cool.
Not ‘Nuff ‘Nam!
The route out of Saigon towards Phnom Penh brings the Cambodian border up very quickly at about 60km, not even one day day’s ride. Starting in Saigon and then just spending one day riding in Vietnam would be to miss a great opportunity from a country that excites us greatly; we needed to modify our plan to explore more of this country that has defined so much of 20C world history. The rough draft of the route to Singapore that I had pencilled in was a mere 3200km so we had slack to plan in more.
As we were flying into Saigon, there was a logic to take an internal connecting flight to somewhere further up country and starting from there and our first thoughts were of Da Nang that would then bring us down through the enticing city of Hoi An.
But the Da Nang to Saigon prequel down the coast road added 1000km to the beginning of the trip and that gave us a bit of a problem with a mid-trip flit home.
Siubhan is keen to get back to see her elderly mother as close to Christmas as possible and mid-trip is early in December. The actual dates were determined by flight availability and prices that escalate quickly from the second week of December. The return flight has been booked for 3 Dec and that now gives us a deadline to be back in, or near, Bangkok.
For our desired route back to Bangkok it would now mean that we had to plan >90km for each day that we were riding. That’s too much for a trip where we deliberately want to spend more time smelling the roses and with the cameras. So we had to temper the start point and the existence of Cam Ranh airport, near Nha Trang, at about the halfway point to Da Nang gave us a much more palatable 500km before we get to Saigon.
The fuller route can be seen here, but now with a little time in front of the computer, the trip is now settling down into 5 distinct legs:
Leg 1: Cam Ranh to Saigon ~ 500km
When we arrive at Cam Ranh airport we will have been in South East Asia for over 2 weeks and, once again, our bikes will have been dismantled and repacked into boxes for the flights from Bangkok to Saigon and then for the short Saigon to Cam Ranh flight. Air Asia has a very good website where we can book both extra baggage and also 30kg of Sports Equipment to cover the bikes but they don’t fly the route to Cam Ranh, that has to be the Vietnamese flag carrier, Vietnam Airlines. For the kit we are carrying, this has necessitated Business Class tickets.
After the 2 flights from Bangkok to Saigon to Cam Ranh, it will be an evening arrival and I know that it won’t be sensible to start rebuilding the bikes, again, at this point. We have booked 2 nights in Cam Ranh and we will take most of the first day to rebuild and test ride the bikes in preparation for the 4000km immediately ahead of us. Rushing the rebuild at this point would be a folly.
The first leg is deliberately a leisurely start to the trip that will be just over 500km, over a 10 day period before a couple of days in Saigon. Each change of colour in the map above is a days ride, some longer than the other but nothing too stupid with the longest day being 96km; that’s enough when pushing 60kg rigs.
You may, or may not, wonder why I keep referring to Ho Chi Minh City as its old name of Saigon. The general feedback from friends there is that the names are still generally interchangeable but Saigon remains the preferred, and safest option, if you don’t wish to cause any offence; but it’s suggested that it’s now only really the older Southern Vietnamese that remain sensitive to the HCMC name. Also, I’m old enough to be able to better relate to the name of Saigon.
Coming down that east coast, our route has been greatly influenced by the excellent Vietnamese blog from Tom at Vietnam Coracle – most especially Tom describes the route Camping the Ocean Road: Saigon to Nha Trang and that has really piqued our interest to start our 4k expedition with a romantic notion of tents on the sand with a beer and a bowl of pho.
Let’s give it a go!
So that’s how our trip starts with the first leg being 10 days of beach, beer and bivvy.
The following legs deliberately haven’t been planned in as much detail and we will plan and flex these as necessary en-route.
Leg 2: 1000km back to Pattaya
Although we start in Vietnam and finish in Thailand, this leg is mainly about crossing Cambodia. We have allowed 19 elapsed days, 14 cycling days, from Saigon to Phnom Penh then onto Siem Reap before a long loop to Pattaya avoiding the worst of the mountains. We’re keen to get the cameras out in Phnom Penh and Ankor Wat but we’re a little apprehensive about Cambodia. We know it’s the poorest country in the region and we’re expecting a bit of a culture shock after the relatively comfortable Thailand and Vietnam.
Camping, especially wild camping, is pretty much universally discouraged by travellers through the region because of the legacy of widespread landmines in the region. We shall be mainly sticking to the arterial routes but very much looking forward to an adventure that will be taking us out of our comfort zones.
Leg 3: 850km – Pattaya to Surat Thani
After we arrive back in Pattaya at the end of November, Siubhan will be flying back to the UK before we resume our ride about 2 weeks later. The route will be an almost exact replica of last year’s trip with very few amendments. However, we plan to cut 300km off this ride if we can by taking the ferry from Pattaya to Hua Hin. This was a new service last year and unboxed bikes were prohibited but, as with many things in Thailand, rules flex after a while and there are reports this year of touring bikes being accommodated but there is no official statement on this. The reality is that it will all be down to luck on the day whether we get our bikes onto the ferry or whether we have to ride the 4 days and 300km to Hua Hin.
One of the reasons that we’d be keen to do this is not the ride through Bangkok, that was perversely exhilarating, but it is the Route 35 out of the city that is the main arterial route to all points South West and is like the M4 but without the charm. Riding touring bikes on a hard shoulder with HGV traffic for well over 100km was quite a chore last year.
Leg 4: 575km Surat Thani to Penang
The legs are now not much more than intended sketches rather than planned routes. This stretch from the backpacker hub of Surat Thani to the Malaysian colonial town of Georgetown is new territory for us and very deliberately takes a turn to the west coast tourist resort of Krabi to avoid the troubled border region of Pattani. Keeping it South is keeping it safe.
We’re quite looking forward to seeing Krabi, it’s a sort of curiosity to see this part of the coast that is so popular with the British holidaymakers. We’ve been to Koh Samui and that was quite ‘meh’, but we’re still glad we went. We think Krabi will be similar but with a more Marbella crowd than the Benidorm edge to the islands.
Some big bumps now stand in the way of our route on the Thai/Malay border to Satun and it’s quite likely that we will take the lazy option of a ferry to the island of Langkawi before another ferry to Georgetown on Penang for a taste of the Malaysian colonial style.
We are very much looking forward to new experiences in a relatively liberal, but still Muslim, country. Feedback from cycle tourers through Malaysia is overwhelmingly positive.
Leg 5: The Last Leg: 850km to Singapore
850km is the length of Malaysia down the West coast tracking the Straits of Malacca from Penang to Johor via Kuala Lumpur and Malacca itself. Wow! Just saying the names of those places excites us. Neither of us know Malaysia and it’s going to be another dimension on South East Asia. A real Muslim, colonial melting pot with a good mix of Chinese and Indian influences to boot.
By the time we get to Singapore, Christmas and New Year will have come and gone en-route and we’re now into January; it’s almost too far ahead in time, distance and experiences for us to really comprehend this leg in any meaningful way but the idea of rolling into Singapore in late January, a place so meaningful in my childhood, is a strong motivator.