On the road: The best two-wheel adventures in Asia
FOR a chance to really get off the beaten track, feel the wind in your hair and explore some of Asia’s most beautiful regions, a motorbike is really the vehicle of choice. With options to buy or rent in many countries, it’s also often a cost effective means of getting around and leaves you plenty of flexibility in your schedule. While some motorbike skills are advised, it’s not all hardcore mountain routes and off road tracks as much of Asia has plenty of good quality asphalt. Choose your journey wisely, learn some mechanical skills and you’re in for the adventure of a lifetime.
Thailand is one of the best places to improve up your riding skills for handling yourself in other parts of Asia. The traffic is generally a little less crazy and the roads a lot better than in other countries, allowing you time to hone your skills and adjust. There are also plenty of services available from hotels to restaurants and motorbike maintenance shops. Some of the best routes are in the far north around Chiang Rai. The Mae Hong Son loop is also a popular one with beautiful scenery. All Thai beach resort areas generally have motorbikes available for rent or you could undertake a beach touring route such as Bangkok to Ranong and Phuket.
The route between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City was made famous by Top Gear’s attempt to do this in just seven days. However a month is recommended for this journey. And in 2010 Travel Wire Asia also posted a series of blogs on the route. Vietnam remains a popular place to rent or buy a motorbike as there are plenty on offer, lots of repair shops if something goes wrong and plenty of great scenery and variable terrain to keep you interested. The hairiest thing is the traffic but once you escape the big cities it’s not so bad. It’s also possible to put motorbikes on the trains so if you find you’ve had enough you can simply train it to your destination.
The most scenic route is probably Hanoi-Dien Bien Phu-Sapa up in the country’s far north east with plenty of twisting mountain roads, to die for views, cool hill climates and interesting ethnic groups. When it rains here it pours, so be prepared for plenty of water and mud. It is good if you’re short on time and you can train the section to/from Dien Bien Phu. Coastal Highway 1 is the most direct route between the two big cities but it is notoriously busy and passes through a lot of settlements and tourist areas–however Nha Trang and Hoi An may well be on your to-see list anyway. A highlight on this route is without doubt the Hai Van Pass. The rural route through Dalat and the Central Highlands is a good alternative to the coastal highway, or you can combine both heading up to the hills or down to the coast when something takes your fancy.
Many bikers continue their tour of Vietnam by bike by popping across the border on the Ho Chi Minh Trail via the old battlefields of the American War. If you do this make sure you have all your visa documentation, bike papers and Laos currency before you head over. This route into Laos’ southern region takes you into beautiful karst limestone valleys. The roads can get more challenging the more remote you get but the scenery makes it worthwhile. This region can be reached from Vientiane as well (allow a two week return trip). In fact Vientiane is a good place to start and finish any tour as it also provides access to regions north such as Luang Prabang and Vang Vieng or out to the dramatic Plain of Jars. Routes north in the country up near Muang Sing and Luang Namtha are also incredibly scenic and it’s possible to cross into Thailand up here as well.
Indian roads can be a little crazy so it’s probably not the best place to start your motorbike touring career but there are some superb places to motorbike, usually where there are fewer motorists such as the beach state of Goa or hill country in states like Uttarkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Ladakh. The route from Delhi to Ladakh is a particularly popular long haul one over two weeks, taking in winding mountain roads with huge scenic rewards. Some of the passes do go high and can be closed at times so it’s best to factor in extra days for delays and to know the condition of your bike. Altitude sickness can also be an issue on this route. The Enfield is without doubt the motorcycling tourist’s bike of choice in India, but scooters and other bikes can be bought or rented as well. Beach side areas in Goa and Kerala will rent these out by the day/week.
Cambodia is more the domain of dirt bike riders due to its array of bone rattling roads in various states of decay. While some have been upgraded in more recent years, there are still plenty to be found. Some of the more popular routes to bike include variations of National Highway 5 and 6 that reach from the Thai border via Siem Reap and down to Phnom Penh, the main feature being the stone ruins and dramatic Angkor kingdom around Siem Reap. Others choose the meandering route north of Phnom Penh along the Mekong to traditional villages such as Kompong Cham and Kratie. From here there are more off road options that lead off into Ratanakiri national park. Another popular route is the stretch south from Phnom Penh to Sihanoukville, a nice week-long return trip with a few days at the beach to chill out in the middle and plenty of services along the way.