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Cycling in Asia, what to do, what to expect


What should you expect when cycling in Asia? Is it different from other parts of the world? I can only tell the difference of cycling in Asia compared to Europe and there are certainly differences. What do you have to do to make your bicycle journey in Asia successful?

Camping in Myanmar Bring spare materials, here in Turkey
Left
: Camping in Myanmar, below the waterfall
Right: Bring spare materials, but even then.... who would expect this ... (Turkey)

Asia is a huge continent with many different countries. Some countries are so big, it could easily be a content itself (China, India). There's differences between north and south Asia. There's a lot of difference between cultures. Compared to Europe, which has many different cultures, Asia is even more different.

bowl of noodles like this can be as cheap as $1 in Malaysia

Getting a bowl of noodles like this can be as cheap as $1 in Malaysia

The first question should: where to go cycling in Asia? Will it be a specific period, say 1 month, or will it be an overland from Europe to China or even Australia?

The question is important because of what you have to bring with you. Let's see.

A short/relatively short bicycle ride in Asia

Some areas in Asia are popular for summer/winter holidays, others are not. For example, the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan is a great summer holiday, it's quite easy to cycle the Karakoram Highway in about 4 weeks.

Should you want such a journey, you will need to bring different (and less) luggage then when you decide to cycle Denpasar (Bali) to Jakarta (Java).

There are many factors in this. The first is weather. The nights in north Pakistan can be quite cold, so you will need some thicker clothes to bring compared to Bali and Java, where at night it never goes below about 24C.

The Andaman Island in the Bay of Bengal
Left: Bring spare materials, but even then.... who would expect this ... (Turkey)
Right: The Andaman Islands in the Bay of Bengal have more to offer by boat then by bicycle

For Java and Bali you will want to bring swim suit, while in Pakistan a good pair of walking boots might be preferred.

Some things might be similar. Both countries might have difficulties to find spare parts for your bicycle although there are more and easier to find bicycle shops in Indonesia then in Pakistan. Personally I would not bother to bring a tent and camping gear to both countries as accommodation is plentiful and cheap. That said, if you enjoy camping, the Karakoram Highway have some amazing camping areas with stunning views while in Indonesia that might be more difficult.

Bangkok, the river with a view to Wat Arun
Bangkok, the river with a view to Wat Arun

A long journey, 6 to 12 months

Regardless where you are going, when you start your cycling adventures, you will want to be prepared for all weather types and possible problems finding accommodation, so you will want to bring winter gear (unless you are absolutely sure you will not need it or can get it at the moment you need it (for example in Delhi, Bangkok, Hongkong etc).

The 18km dust road to Thakhek
The 18km dust road (yup, still highway 11) to Thakhek, Laos

Spare materials are essential for every cyclist. While cycling in Asia it is even more important to have the bare minimum of spare stuff with you. While cycling in Asia and traveling through China, it might be very difficult to find bicycle shops on the way when you need it for parts. So plan your journey to visit regularly big cities as Kunming, Chengdu, Xian, Shanghai or Beijing and get materials in Hong Kong.

In other countries it might be slightly easier. Malaysia and Thailand have in many larger cities and even smaller towns bicycle shops with excellent shops in Kuala Lumpur and Penang but for example in Kampong Koh and Seri Manjung (where I live) there are two shops with plenty of spare parts.

Pangkor Island beach
Teluk Ketapang beach at Pangkor Island, beautiful for camping!

For cycling in Asia you will need a bicycle which is as standard as possible. In other words, 26 inch wheels which Schrader valves (as presta valves are hard to get) and the possibility to place 2.1 inch tires (sometimes it's the only size available). Your bicycle should be as standard as possible to avoid eventual problems (see also my bicycle materials page).

Family guesthouse in Ubud Bali Indonesia
Family guesthouse in Ubud Bali Indonesia with a room for not even $8 including breakfast

While I was cycling in Asia (actually I am still cycling in Asia) I seldom used my tent. This is partly because it might be a little difficult to find a quiet spot, but it was mostly because I was almost always able to find cheap (talking about $5-10 or even less) accommodation.

Yangshuo, 7th Heaven Guesthouse
Yangshuo, 7th Heaven Guesthouse, my bicycle goes in the room

However, should you want to camp, bring a fuel stove. Camping Gaz might be cheaper and more lightweight but in Asia Camping Gaz is very limited available (see my camping stove section).

You can find good outdoor material in many big cities like Hong Kong, Bangkok, Delhi etc. Still, if you plan to camp out a lot, buy at home before cycling in Asia.

How about safety?

Cycling in Asia is in general safe. There are safer and less safe places to cycle. In general my experience is that outside the bigger cities, cycling is safe providing, of course you follow the local traffic rules. It does require good maps to sort out the right roads and especially where to find accommodation, water and food.

Cycling in Hong Kong - not a good idea
Cycling in Hong Kong - not a good idea

I use a safety lock on my bicycle which I hardly use when cycling in Asia. In Europe I lock everywhere. In general you can bring your bicycle in a hotel/guesthouse. Personally I do not like to use my bicycle in big cities for sightseeing. Leaving my bicycle outside the Forbidden City in Beijing or the Royal Palace in Bangkok is not a good idea even though it might be fine. I prefer not.

When I arrive somewhere, I usually check a hotel leaving everything except my papers and money on the bicycle and go inside. This has never lead to problems. I wouldn't do that in Europe.

In general I think cycling in Asia is very safe although cycling in metropolises as Bangkok, Hong Kong, Delhi, Jakarta or Kuala Lumpur are not fun and certainly not always very healthy due to heavy traffic.

Last April (2010) I cycled through Jakarta which was perfectly OK, not fun, do not get me wrong. The worst cities to cycle in my experience: Athens (Greece), Guangzhou and Shenzhen (China), Kolkata (India) and Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia). Not fun but OK to do: Jakarta (Indonesia), Bangkok (Thailand), Yangon (Myanmar) and Kunming and Chengdu (China). The difference is usually the amount of traffic and the chaos it creates. Mind you, it's seldom fun to cycle these cities but it's not suicidal as some suggest.

An old photo when I was cycling the first time in Yunnan, 1997
An old photo when I was cycling the first time in Yunnan, 1997

Costs

Cycling in Asia can be as cheap as you can get it. In many Asian countries you can get a basic meal for a dollar, sometimes two and accommodation for $5-10, sometimes less. That will be difficult to beat in Europe although you can keep your budget low by a lot of camping and cook yourself.

You can keep your budget very easy very low in Asia while that is more difficult in Europe (unless you visit friends all over Europe, use Warmshowers.com etc.) Free camping is mostly illegal in West Europe so you will have to use camp grounds which around main tourist areas can be as expensive as $20 for a night to pitch your tent. Still camping is much cheaper then youth hostels, B&B and hotels.

In Asia there are hardly any official campings available. Usually you need permission from the owners of the land to pitch your tent and don't be surprised when they can not understand why you are not using a hotel, see my story about camping in Iran.

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