By Corentin Jeanrot - 2023
Advice for Novices Based on a Single Journey through Southeast Asia from Hanoi to Singapore
If we had to remember one thing from our first three months of cycling through Southeast Asia, it would be that nothing is impossible if you put your mind to it. This article is proof of that. Both of us were complete novices in bicycle touring before our departure, but here we are in Koh Tao after covering 4,600 km and 25,000 meters of elevation gain. It wasn't without its challenges and setbacks, but the adventure is all the more memorable and the memories all the more enduring. In short, we decided to write this article, which could almost be called a guide, to make bicycle travel easier than ever and to encourage you to hit the road without questioning your abilities!
First and foremost, we want to emphasize that these are relatively novice tips based on a single experience in Southeast Asia. We have tried to be as objective and general as possible by sharing tips and tricks that work in all circumstances, but keep in mind that travel conditions can vary drastically from one region to another. Read carefully, but also gather information from other sources!
The choice of bicycle
Let's start with the basics of cycle touring and the star of the adventure: the bicycle! Whether you already have one or have never invested in one before, here's what we can tell you. First, you will likely hear different opinions recommending a specific bike, brand, or feature. Rest assured, we encountered a variety of bikes and types. Whether it was two Israelis or two French people who impulsively decided to continue their journey by pedalling and buying second-hand bikes in Bangkok for a handful of local currency, or a Brazilian-Dutch couple with state-of-the-art carbon Ridley bikes, the spectrum is wide. We had bikes from different price ranges.
Corentin is equipped with the Triban GRVL120, a budget-friendly option, while Alice rides the latest Gravel Anticosti from the Quebecois brand Panorama Cycles, which is suitable for light touring with its 11 gears and single chainring. This setup allowed us to confidently tackle the mountains of northern Laos and their steep slopes!
We can recommend that if you are planning your trip and cycling won't be just a passing fancy, it's always preferable to invest a bit more if your budget allows it. Keep in mind that the most important parts to invest in are the tires, the saddle (Brooks being the holy grail, but any sufficiently padded saddle with gel inside will do), and the derailleur system. It's not very pleasant to get a flat tire every 500 km, so good tires will save you a lot of time and frustration. Corentin learned this the hard way by getting a flat tire at the 50 km mark and having to find a bike shop in the middle of Vietnam to change his tires... The derailleur is also a relatively fragile part of the bike that can be damaged during transport, exposure to saltwater, or rough roads, so once again, don't hesitate to allocate part of your budget to it.
If you already have a road bike and want to adapt it for touring or bikepacking, that's also a possibility but it requires more time and effort. You'll need to start by changing the rear cassette to tackle climbs more comfortably. It's also worth considering that not all bikes are adaptable and sometimes the cost of cumulative changes may not make the initial savings as worthwhile. If you haven't done so already, we can only advise you to have all the necessary modifications evaluated at a bicycle shop by an expert in the field. They will be able to provide you with further guidance and direct you to one or two other resources that can offer better advice
The choice of bike setup will largely depend on the type of trip you're planning: bikepacking or touring. Bikepacking is a lighter style of cycling with a setup that doesn't require a rack or panniers, allowing for a more performance-oriented journey and access to gravel roads. Touring, on the other hand, corresponds to a more comfortable travel mode with rear panniers mounted on a rack and typically involves a touring bicycle
We have seen it all on the road, but we can only testify based on our personal experience. We opted for a touring setup with Arkel's ORCA panniers. Completely waterproof, tested and approved, these panniers are perfect for our type of journey. From a wet river crossing in Laos to sudden rain showers in Thailand, we have not been disappointed by their waterproofness! It's reassuring to know that we always have a safe space for our electronic devices in any situation. The panniers have an ideal capacity with the roll-top that allows us to expand or reduce the space, and they have a very practical attachment system. We also appreciate the reflective "A" logo at the back, which helps us be visible at night (although it doesn't replace a rear light, of course). The rest of the setup is up to personal preference. Corentin opted for a frame bag, a handlebar bag, and a handlebar bottle cage. Alice chose a cockpit bag, a handlebar bag, and two handlebar pouches. We also added a waterproof backpack each, placed on our rear racks. We found that this trio of storage options also helps create "home" storage spaces, facilitating daily organization. Taking off and putting back the panniers daily becomes less daunting with a bit of sorting!
Having two front panniers is a bonus. Alice decided last minute to add them to her bike after seeing many touring cyclists using them. After reflection and experimentation, this addition wasn't necessarily necessary considering the 45L of panniers and 32L backpack already accumulated at the back. However, a significant advantage is the weight balance that the front panniers provide.
By the way, don't hesitate to try your complete setup before departing (if you're not leaving directly from home). We made the mistake of not testing the fully equipped bike due to lack of time and had to send some things back home because they were too heavy from the start!
The rest of the equipment
Keep it to the bare minimum! Consider the versatility of each item. For example, a technical neck warmer can protect you from both cold and dust/pollution. There's no need for an extra scarf if you're traversing colder climates. We opted for urban clothing and technical cycling apparel. The latter is practical for its quick-drying ability and lightweight. However, we've encountered many cyclists who didn't wear them because performance is not as crucial as in road cycling, and a good saddle allows you to wear simple shorts.
Other storage options
We both had handlebar bags, which are handy for accessible storage. Alice carries her drone in hers, and Corentin keeps the camera and sleeping gear in his. Frame bags are also a must-have for bike touring as they can store a lot of weight without destabilizing the bike or compromising performance! We both had a few litres of frame bags, but opting for a larger frame bag can be a wise choice. To have our phones and 1L bottles easily accessible, we also used two handlebar pouches called "stem bags." Some cyclists don't fancy them as they can complicate the standing position during climbs, but we got used to them very well.
The camping gear
Once again, we stuck to the essentials. We had the Forclaz MT900 tent weighing 1.9kg and with a capacity of 5.3L, which worked well for the two of us. Some people opt for an even lighter and more compact tent, but it all depends on the budget available. We both also brought a sleeping bag liner and a sleeping bag, not knowing what temperatures to expect. The sleeping bag was more than essential in the mountains in northern Vietnam and northern Laos, but we got rid of them later on because they were bulky and unnecessary in the south, where we faced high temperatures. On the other hand, an inflatable pillow is not necessarily a luxury when camping regularly! Finally, upon our arrival in Vietnam, we decided to send back our cooking pot and stove, as we couldn't find a suitable gas canister, and we carried two Tupperware containers instead. Being in Southeast Asia where food is delicious, accessible, and cheap, it worked perfectly fine. So, we can only advise you to research well about your destination and the likelihood of finding gas that fits your stove! In more remote areas, such as Central Asia ('stan' countries), a multi-fuel stove (using gasoline, alcohol, petroleum, and kerosene) is highly recommended as it can be refilled anywhere. While they may be a bit costly (~€200 for a basic kit and a 0.4L fuel bottle), it quickly pays off with numerous hot meals prepared by your tent!
As for tools, having little pre-trip experience, we didn't know what to believe. So, we ended up taking too much gear and got rid of many items along the way, keeping only the essentials :
- 2 spare inner tubes each
- 2 tire levers (they are sometimes sold in sets of 3)
- A patch kit
- A mini pump with a pressure gauge
- A multi-tool (make sure to check the required size based on your bike)
As for multimedia equipment, it largely depends on your project and ambition. We packed quite a bit of gear because we were filming an amateur documentary and a video about the bike trip. You can follow us on Instagram to learn more: @bike4oceans. We already had a compact camera (Canon EOS M6 Mark II), and we brought along the DJI Mini 2 drone (the lightest one) and a GoPro for underwater footage. We also brought a MacBook Air to process the images during the journey. It adds some weight, but no regrets! In reality, a modern phone does the job perfectly fine for capturing some content and keeping good memories of your trip!
Hygiene & Health
For hygiene and health, we brought along numerous bags filled with medications due to concerned parents. Understandable. In Southeast Asia, there are generally accessible pharmacies with a decent supply. Feel free to bring the essentials before you leave, but don't panic if you run out, as you can buy them there.
The most difficult to find is the specific products, such as sunscreen, moisturizer, splints, etc. Make sure to bring enough sunscreen because even if you find it (of good quality, not the whitening creams that are unfortunately common in Asia), it will be expensive!
In the same vein, let's talk about insurance and security. The key is to have insurance that also covers the bike. They will often ask you to have a Category 10 anti-theft lock (we used the ABUS Folding lock BORDO™ 6000K ******** and a combination cable) otherwise the bike won't be covered. We chose the Cap Aventure insurance from Chapka Assurances by AXA, but we have also heard good things about Ulygo (specializing in cycling) and Go by AVA. As for security, everyone has their level of protecting their belongings. Asia is generally a very safe and respectful region where theft is relatively frowned upon and reported. There's no need to tempt fate, but it's also not necessary to be constantly close to your belongings.
Now that we're done with the equipment, let's talk about your smartphone and the apps that can be essential to you during the trip.
For GPS, we kept it simple by using our phones. You have different options, although they are all complementary. Komoot, the German application, is the reference for cycling and hiking. Easy to use and well-referenced, you can even download routes offline and keep your phone on airplane mode all day to avoid unnecessary battery drain. However, we noticed that elevation estimates were often incorrect and some routes were poorly marked (e.g., a hiking trail in Laos that was supposed to be accessible by road bike). So, we supplemented it with maps.me initially and mapy.cz in Thailand, where we liked the visuals to understand which paved road to take to avoid major highways with trucks. These applications are indeed battery-intensive, but we had a portable battery that allowed up to 4 phone charges, which kept us worry-free in that regard. We used our lunch breaks to recharge our phones and AirPods. Indeed, the AirPods were greatly appreciated, allowing us to listen to podcasts and music while riding. However, we recommend using bone conduction headphones, which are external-ear and more suitable for outdoor sports, as they allow you to remain aware of the surrounding sounds.
Statistics. To keep track of the kilometres travelled daily, we use the Strava application. It is directly connected to Alice's Garmin watch, which she has to charge every two days.
Accommodation. We also used popular applications for cycle tourists: Warmshowers. It is a network of cyclist hosts or cycling enthusiasts who offer a space in their garden to pitch a tent or even a room with access to a bathroom. It's a great way to meet fellow enthusiasts who have often had their incredible adventures on two wheels! It costs $30 to create an account, but afterwards, you will have access to an amazing resource of contacts around the world. To supplement Warmshowers in areas with fewer hosts like Laos, Couchsurfing is also a great resource to find accommodation in most cities along your route. We realized that getting accepted wasn't necessarily easy until we had some positive first comments on our profile, so don't give up after a few initial rejections! There are different plans available, and we opted for the monthly plan at €2 for our 7-month trip.
Communication. We created a dedicated Instagram page for the journey to share the stages and occasional anecdotes. Since several of our loved ones don't have social media, we also wanted to maintain a daily blog. For that, we chose the Polarsteps application, which offers visual tracking of the kilometres travelled! We post photos and a small text describing our adventures there.
Miscellaneous. Other fairly simple applications have been of great help during our journey. One of them is Google Translate, which allowed us to have enriching evenings of exchanges with locals in Northern Vietnam and decipher menus written only in local languages, thanks to its "photo" option. We are also fans of the xCurrency application, which provides the current exchange rate for different currencies, which is useful when adapting to new currencies upon arrival in a country. You can compare up to 4 currencies at the same time. Finally, still in the money category, we use TravelSpend to track our expenses and not stray too far from our initial budget!
An important aspect to reassure those embarking on their first cycling adventure this summer is preparation!
Firstly, there is the technical preparation: learning how to handle basic bike issues without the fear of being stranded in the middle of nowhere. Both of us had essential knowledge: changing a tube, adjusting disc brakes, and realigning the derailleur after a shock, but we were still quite inexperienced in this area. So, don't panic, you will find many bike shops along the way (especially in Vietnam, Thailand, and Malaysia; for Laos and Cambodia, you'll have to wait until the big cities). You'll also notice that the learning curve is exponential, and bike mechanics are not as mysterious as they seem when you dive into them. The advantage of not knowing much is that there's always room to learn!
As for physical preparation, there's no need to worry either! Although both of us are regular athletes (triathlon for Alice and climbing for Corentin), we were not experienced cyclists or cycle tourists. The key to a bike trip lies mainly in time management and setting realistic expectations. A retired Englishwoman travelling with her husband on tricycles wisely told us, "I can climb any mountain as long as I know I have the time for it." Many people told us, "It's crazy, 5,000 km is huge! I don't know how you do it..." or "100 km in one day, never in my life!" And if we had known before we set off that we would have some days of 150 km, we probably wouldn't have gone. It's also important to keep in mind that many factors come into play, such as elevation, fatigue, weather, unexpected events, and so on. Some days we only covered about thirty kilometres and felt just as tired as on days of over 100 km. We had planned to travel from Hanoi to Singapore in 3 months, and here we are, 3 and a half months and 4,700 km later, with about 1,500 km still to go. But that's okay, it's not a race! We met all kinds of cyclists on the road, of all ages. Two retired couples over 70 years old whom we met in Laos proved wrong all the people who told us, "It's not suitable for our age!" The most important thing to remember is that distance is just a detail. The key is to enjoy every moment and admire the scenery, regardless of the mileage.
The conclusion comes naturally after this last paragraph. Let yourself be carried away and embrace chance, as it will surprise you in a thousand and one ways! If there's one thing that cycling and its gentle slowness allow, it's making connections. Cycling is a natural means of communication that creates bonds between individuals, whether they are cyclists or not. And what we realized by pedalling to the other side of the world is that it's not necessarily necessary to travel thousands of kilometres to enjoy it. After this trip, we are eager to explore our own country and the trails that we ultimately know so little about.