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SE Asia Cycle Tour – Wrap-up

I wrote the posts for the first two countries I visited on my trip, covering the Mekong region of Vietnam and Cambodia, on a point-to-point basis. Although I feel the information in them is pretty useful for those cycling the region they took a long time to put together, and most of the information can be gained by looking at my Strava profile (go on become my friend, I won’t bite, much; lots of pics on there too). Also I got behind with posting and didn’t fancy sitting down for a week writing blog posts that few people read. So with that in mind, now that I’ve finished this trip (initial overview of my aims here) I’d like to put down a few thoughts on certain legs and on my feelings whilst cycling, which are probably hard to explain to non-cyclists. And what the hell, I’ll chuck in a bit of data and a few pics too.

Indeed, I’ll start with the key facts for the peeps that like that kind of thing

My general route is shown in this picture I generated in Strava. It is not 100% accurate as I got the ferry from Rach Gia to Phu Quoc, rode around there a bit, then got the ferry to Ha Tien. Also I sometimes took slightly quieter roads than the ones on the general route mapped out, and I also did a fair few km looking at sights and nipping out for dinner when staying at guesthouses at the edge of town.

My SE Cycle Tour Route 2016/16

I started from Mui Ne on the 1st of November 2015 and got back there on the 15th of March, so pretty much 4 ½ months of cycle travel. The key facts are

Number of point-to-point legs: 54

Legs per month: 12

Total Overall Distance: 4,610 km – 2,865 miles

Total Distance point-to-point (measured by cateye, so less than Strava GPS, which always seems to overestimate as it can shift satellite positions when you stop for lunch): 4,217 km – 2620 miles

Average distance of point-to-point leg: 78.09 km – 48.52 miles

Shortest leg: Pakse to Champasak: 37.04 km – 23.01 miles

Longest leg: 179.5 km – 111.5 miles (I’ve always wanted to ride a century (miles) so the last leg from Cam Ranh to Mui Ne seemed like a now or never opportunity, super proud of myself after this leg).

Total distance including training (a month riding around Mui Ne getting into shape beforehand): 5,015 km – 3,116 miles.

Weight Loss: 12 kg; 26.5 lb; 1 stone 12.

My First Climb (Ban Thap Lan, Thailand)

Other than a hundred or so metres of gradual climb over a leg in Cambodia, most of my route had been pretty flat or undulating.

Now was the time for my first climb, which would have me reach the Isaan Plateau. The mountain/hill that I needed to get up was 400 meters in height and classified by Strava as a category 2 climb; the climb itself was 6.3 km long at an average gradient of just over 6%.

I was looking towards the climb with a mix of anticipation and fear. Would I make it up the hill? Could I make it up in one go? Would I have to push my bike all the way to the top in shame?

When I was younger I used to do some mountain biking close to where I live in Derbyshire’s Peak District, I remember these climbs as being very stop-start affairs, cycling for 300 metres and then stopping by a gate for 10 minutes to get my breath; of course these were off-road and though not as high as this mountain the average gradients were steeper; that said I didn’t carry an extra 15 kg of luggage on the back of my mountain bike. So what I guess I’m trying to say is I know how knackering it can be to be up a hill, and getting up my first cat 2 climb was a concern.

I had about 40 km before the start of the climb to get warmed up, the head-wind I faced certainly made me warm. I stopped at a 7-11 about 5 km from the start of the climb, and got a cheese and ham toasty (390 calories of pure joy) and a 100 plus electrolyte drink down me.

Time to go, I reached the bottom of the mountain which immediately went to about 7% and round a corner about 200 meters away, by the time I got around the corner my legs were screaming and I was already feeling fucked, oh well get into 2nd gear and see how far I can get. At 500 m I was breathing heavily, change to 1st gear, determined to make it to the 1 km point at least, fix on points ahead, no view to see: trees to the left, road to my right. Made the 1km point, yeah bitch, looks like it flattens out a bit, ah that’s because its going to become an hairpin and I’m going round the outside, put the bike in 2nd gear, fuck me that was a mistake, back to 1st. That’s doable. Wow 2km done, a third of the way there, I’ll never make the thing but already gained 100 metres +, keep going – another hairpin. But now I need to follow the inside of the hairpin, I have a 1 m side-strip to ride in, and lorries struggling up beside me, its steep 20% easily, probably much more. The lorries are passing me in slow motion, I think that if I had no panniers I’d be the same speed as them, on a road bike I’d pass them; in a way I find this quite motivating. I start to waddle side by side in my 1 metre strip, get round the hairpin, flattens out, now done 3 km, half way up! Fuck me I wanna stop – if I stop it’ll be hard to ever get going again ­– carry on. Stand up, press press press, fuck that sit down again. 4 km, mmh mountains get steeper as you go up them, more hairpins, pain heavy gasping, what’s that a break in the trees and a view! Wish I could stop and take a photograph; wish I could stop! Carry on mainly cycling sat down, with a few seconds stood up every now and again – not changing down gears for speed, more of a shifting of pain for a few metres. 5 km, wtf only a km to go how did that happen, he gasps! Is that the peak I see in the distance, fuck yeah, is the gradient getting less or is it just a mental thing, who’s your bitch mountain, it ain’t fucking me, reach the top coast a few hundred metres, restaurant at the top, give me a coconut, and a coke, and damn it I’ll have a grilled chicken too.

Later check the climb on Strava, someone set the climb to finish on the downslope just past the restaurant, fair enough as the hill undulated for the next 1 km( at an average of about 0.1%) until it reached its true peak. Someone else had the segment missing the top 50 m and bottom 30 m to just cover the steepest parts of the climb: I did that 359 m gain in 46 min 19 s.

I rode another 5 km or so and stayed at a resort on the next top. I can’t really describe the feeling; it was like being on a runner’s high with a bit of yabba thrown in. I was ecstatic; I got up my first category 2, 405 metre gain without the need to stop.

Cycling down the Thai Hill

My next major climb, though the Hai Van pass in Vietnam was higher ~496 m, and a similar gradient of 5% over 7.4 km as I had many more miles and climbs in my system by now it was relatively easy (as in still a lot of effort and pain), I had a gear to spare for most of the way, just using it for the hairpins. Also the road was much less trafficked allowing me to zig-zag the road at the steep bits, and to go around the outside of hairpins. I got over this in 1 h 01 m 14 s.

Hairpin bend - Hai Van pass

Cycling down the Hai Van Pass, Vietnam

 

The hardest climb I did was a cat 4 climb, just out of Quy Nhon, was only about 1.5 km or so but with an average gradient of 9%, as the climb included a stretch of downhill the average gradient up was more like 11%, ramping up to well over 40% in many places, I reached the top gasping for breath, I then stopped and wanted to be sick for about 5 min, that climb was a bitch!

Quy Nhon

On Keeping Going on a Long Distance Cycle Trip

Cycling involves a lot of boredom and a lot of pain. I found my first 1500km, in Vietnam and Cambodia, to be the most painful. When riding, after around 50 km my arms would usually be aching like mad, and my legs would tire rapidly after about 80 km. I remember reaching Rach Gia after 100 km of riding (50 km of it on road being reconstructed) arriving with everything aching. The road was flat, nicely tarmacked, and no wind for the last 6 km, I was in the granny gear and could hardly peddle at 7 kph; I had to stop every 500 m or so at one point. I think it was passing a KFC that got me to the end, at that time the thought of greasy fast food was like the thought of eating ambrosia; plus I knew the next leg was a ferry trip to the beautiful island of Phu Quoc.

I think that the closest I came to calling it a day was in Thailand. I had five days of ~90 km days on a dual carriageway, with a wide cycle lane, with the same dull scenery all the way. Unfortunately it was still the dry season, everything was brown there was not a sign of life. Boring, boring, boring. The only thing keeping me going was the thought of meeting some good friends again in Ubon Ratchathani, who I hadn’t seen for a few years – and my friend David was also flying in from Bangkok to meet up for a few days. It was so good to meet up with John {great guy to talk to if you are looking to buy or rent a home in Issan} and drink beer Lao dark and talk shit after so many days of being by myself.

boring Isaan dry season scenery

I think in the rainy season the trip across Issan would be very pleasant with green rice fields and loads of wildlife; as it was it was dead and soul destroying.

Phi mai

Phimai

I went from the elation of riding my first mountain and re-visiting the beautiful ruins at Phimai – thinking that cycling is the best thing ever – to wondering what the hell I was doing, why I was doing it, and where is the next 7-11 as the only way of breaking the monotony was to stop for an energy drink and a toastie. It really was about reaching the destination, which is something that cycle touring should never be about, it should be about the moment, speaking of which…

What do you Think About When Cycle Touring?

You will be glad to know that cycling gives you plenty of time to think, so much time that I have solved most of the world’s problems – I just need to convince the world to live under the great dictator Deano and everything will be solved; if you think Game of Thrones is brutal in its treatment of people who get in the way of leaders doing things then you know nothing, John Snow.

So once you have finished with the world’s problems what do you think of? Well more personal issues take up a lot of thinking time. I spent a lot of time thinking about the future, I’ve never been that successful money-wise as a self-employed freelancer solopreneur thingy (shite way of describing myself but much better than lifestyle designer). I just sort of get by, so one of the things I thought about a lot was getting some kind of job full-time job back in the UK, and deep in my mind was that cycling through SE Asia was perhaps a way of saying goodbye to a part of the world that I love so much; this was given a lot of thought at the beginning of my trip. So was family, who are all going through tough times health wise. When I was cycling I often thought of how nice it was that everybody I love will be fast asleep and not feeling any pain for a few hours (of course I’m happier when they are awake and full of life, but just for a few hours sleeping well, in peace, and only dreaming).

But mainly, I was just in the moment. This could vary from being in pain, thinking about what was to come, to looking at what was going on all around me. A lot of the time I was just as one with the bike, spinning the pedals without thinking about it, and not really thinking anything; I guess it is a state that many spiritual people dream about. I’ve always had a wandering mind, I love walking and get into a similar state of mind strolling the beach, but if you have me sat down to concentrate on thinking about nothing, perhaps with my own personal chant, then free thinking just ain’t gonna happen brother.

Yeah, to sum it up I spent most of the time on the bike thinking ‘how much I ache’, ‘what the hell am I doing?’, about personal problems, and in a state of wandering/forgetful/nothingness thoughts.

Cycling, even if it is for a short distance of 20 miles or so is great for clarification of your mind.

Four thousand islands

 

On Costs and Accommodation

I was in SE Asia so everything is relatively cheap. In order of cheapness: Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand.

In Vietnam I was averaging $16 a day, Cambodia about $19, Laos $25, and Thailand $30. This is largely to do with accommodation prices; it is easy to get a guest house in smaller towns (typically small but clean fan room, flat screen TV, fridge, and hot water) in Vietnam for 150,000 to 200,000 VND ($7 to $9), and food is typically $1 to $3, and beer 50 cents a pop. This can easily double in tourist areas, but TBH after cycling alone for many many miles being in a tourist town seems weird, and I just couldn’t wait to get out of them. The cheapest I was paying for similar accommodation in Thailand was 400 to 600 baht ($11 to $16), the food was a similar price, and the beer three times the price. I had to pay 800 to 900 baht in a couple of places in Thailand, which was what I’d spend in two days in some places in Vietnam.

Finding accommodation is easy. Even in the most isolated of places in Laos and Cambodia it was never more than 30k or so between guesthouses, and usually the distances were much less. There seemed to be a lot of newer guesthouses on the outskirts of town, the closer you get to the centre of most small towns the older and more worn out the guest houses tend to be. As I was on a bike, staying 1 km or more from the town centre was not a problem as I could always hop on the bike to get some dinner, though I usually walked as it was good to stretch my legs after a long day on the saddle.

cycling in Thailand - Phi Mai

I also spent some money on a couple of bike services, a new chain, and other bike bits and bobs. I had a new sim card in every country, typically about $5 to 10 for a sim card and 1.5 gig of data. There was only one place I stayed in the entire trip that did not have free Wi-Fi, even in the middle of nowhere in Laos. Coffee shops were aplenty.

On Cycle Fuel

I don’t really like eating while cycling, sometimes in Asia a meal can go right through me, and this is the last thing that I want when cycling.

It is estimated that cycling burns about 25 calories a kilometre. I typically aimed to eat about 10 calories per km (900 calories on an average ride), which I thought would give me enough extra carbs when combined with burning fat. This was usually achieved by eating cereal bars (or biscuits when not available), and drinking Coca-Cola and sugar cane drinks when stopping for a rest.

I also drank a lot of electrolyte drinks, which are easy to get hold of, and seem as common as pepsi/coca-cola nowadays: (100 plus (and loads of others) in Thailand, Aquarius (Japanese brand I think) in Cambodia, and Revive (from 7-up) in Vietnam. Laos seemed to have a mix of the above. My favourite tasting one was Revive; this has less sugar than the others; taste the salty goodness.

I made up the calories in the evenings!

Cycling food Thailand

On Beautiful Places and Friendly People

I cycled through lots of beautiful places, I think that my favourites were the Pailin area of Cambodia and the Vietnamese coastline, the fact that there are lots of quiet roads in these areas also added to their beauty.

The whole of SE Asia has friendly people, when riding in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia you are never more than a few minutes from a friendly wave and a shout of Sabai dee or Hello. You’ll often have people cycle or ride alongside you and have a conversation, though in many cases this may be as in-depth as Hello, hello, smile, hello, goodbye. The little children waving and shouting as you approach, and jumping up and down in excitement as you answer back with an hello or wave are surely the highlight of cycling in the area.

Pig Sellers in Laos

One of my most memorable experiences was in Laos where I met a cyclocross guy from Huddersfield who had done a lot of touring, we got talking and drinking like you do. We were in a little Laos restaurant/bar and after a while they started playing Laos music, grabbed us, and taught us Laos dancing. A lot of fun.

Favourite and Worst Legs of my SE Asia Cycle Tour

I had a lot of legs that I enjoyed immensely in all countries visited, and some that were beyond dreadful.

The worst leg was riding the busy A1 from Tam Ky to Quang Ngai in the pouring rain, not being able to see anything through my glasses, and getting a puncture about 1 km from town, pumping it up repeatedly as it was raining hard and I was close to town, limping about town in the rain and spending about 20 min trying to find a guesthouse.

cycling in the rain - Vietnam

I tried to avoid the busy A1 as much as I could, and this was pretty easy as Vietnam has a lot of quieter roads running alongside the main highway; these provided some of the nicest cycling of the whole trip. That said I needed to take the A1 sometimes, this was usually a case of just grinning and bearing it and putting the foot down, so one of my biggest surprises was riding the A1 between Quy Nhon to Tuy Hoa which had some epic coastal scenery and the road was quiet away from the main cities.

Now the best leg, this is easy, and I recommend that anybody who is feeling down in the dumps carries out the first part of the ride in Laos as it will be sure to put the smile back on your face. I rode 130 km on this leg, the last 50 km was nice but nothing special, but the first 80k or so, oh boy!

The ride started in Xepon, Cambodia, then through 40 km of undulating roads populated with hill tribes, not only was the scenery nice but the cries of Sabai dee by both children and adults relentless, I rode this part of the leg with a great big smile on my face. Then after crossing into Vietnam there was a nice 200 metre climb to get the old euphoric hormones going before a descent of 40 km or so (from ~400 m to sea level) through beautiful mountain scenery, again in this seldom mass touristed area everybody was all smiles and waves; it was then on to Dong Ha. A truly great day on the cycle.

kids in Laos

On Cycle Touring and Weight Loss

Including the month beforehand, where I had a few training rides in Mui Ne, I lost ~12 kg of weight on my trip. I lost 9 kg in the first 2500 km, and 3 kg in the next ~2100 km. I would have lost a lot more if I drunk less and ate less of all the delicious food. I am happy to have lost what I have and ate what I did rather than stay in at night and avoid all the delicious goodness that Thailand and Vietnam could throw at me, just to lose another couple of kg.

I found that I ate way to much on rest days, I tried to stick to 2500 calories on these days but it was difficult as the increased levels of cycling has given me an amazing appetite. As I lost 12 kg, I’m guessing the cycle days more than made up for any over-indulgence on the rest days. I also expect that I have gained a bit of muscle on the old legs, so I have probably lost more than 12 kg of fat. As I rode 111 miles yesterday I am aching all over, so I’ll let you know if I feel any better for it another time.

My bike

I rode a Giant Escape 2 city hybrid. As the name suggests this is not a dedicated touring cycle. It coped reasonably well; an improvement that would have made a drastic difference would be a stronger back wheel. There are a lot of potholes and gaps between bridges on the roads out here – sometimes you can’t avoid them because of the traffic or just don’t see them until its too late. I popped six rear spokes in all, two on one day; I popped a spoke on the last day of my ride, I found it rather fitting as I had rode at least 1,000 km with a spoke missing on this trip at some stage or other.

bike by the beach in Thailand

I had three punctures in all; these were all caused by sharp wire discarded at the edge of the road hit at speed. The front derailleur often struggled to shift onto the bottom chain-ring, tightening the screw to the max and slightly bending it fixed that problem, it could probably do with a professional service but works fine (A better group set would have made a big difference here). I shifted the tyres round at 3,500 km, I think they’ll easily be good for another 1000km. I had a new chain at 3000 km, no problems there.

The ride was a bit harsh, I have no doubt that a designated steel frame cycle touring bike such as a Thorn or Oxford would have made for a much more pleasant trip, but overall I was pretty happy with the bike over the SE Asian roads.

What’s Next?

I think it’ll be a while before I do anything too strenuous. I’ll probably ride the bike the few hundred km to Saigon or even on to Phnom Penh at some stage. At the moment my body has a lot of aches and I am tired. I’ll do a few rides around Mui Ne in the next week, as I am interested in how my times compare now to when I first started training for the trip. Then I’ll go cold turkey from the bike for at least two weeks.

Long term – but no time soon – I’d like to cycle round Scandinavia with no electronics (well perhaps a kindle, a GPS, and a call/text only Nokia), wild camping in the wilderness. I’d also like to do a long distance walk at some stage, I had been thinking of walking the Pennine way close to home or maybe doing a part of the Appalachian trail (after reading a great Bill Bryson book on the subject), but I recently came across a Buddhist pilgrimage that involves walking 1400 km around the island of Shikoku in Japan, that looks a great thing to have in my future plans.

Some Pictures of my Time in Thailand, Laos, and Central Vietnam

As I skipped doing full point-to-point discussions in this post I thought I’d include some of the pictures during the second part of my trip, I’m sure you will agree that SE Asia is really beautiful, and definitely worthy of a cycle tour.

Thailand

Dean in Ubon

in Ubon

Thai beach

Laos

Pakse

Pakse

Champasak, Laos

Champasak

Cycling along the Mekong, Laos

Off the beaten track, Laos

Central Vietnam

Quy Nhon Beach

On Quy Nhon Beach

Mui Ne Desert Road

Desert Road approaching Mui Ne – Nearly at the finish!

Final Thoughts

Cycling, bitch!

Dean on the bike

Comments

Comment from Carole Leal
Time: March 19, 2016, 1:30 am

Very well done Deano, the write up as well as the weight loss