Bicycle Travel in Southeast Asia: Is it for you?

Bicycle touring in Southeast Asia is becoming increasingly popular, for many good reasons. Low costs, lovely tropical scenery, and a just-right balance of the comfortable versus exotic will make a bicycle trip in Southeast Asia memorable no matter what. But of all the places in the world you could travel by bicycle, should Southeast Asia be at the top of your list?

On a recent three month solo tour in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand, I learned that some aspects of bicycle touring in Southeast Asia were perfect for me and others left me hungry for something different on my next trip.

To help you decide for yourself, I’ve put together this list. Below are seven reasons you might love cycle touring in Southeast Asia, as well as the flip side of the coin, five reasons you might want to consider somewhere else.

If you’re looking to dive straight into the details, check out these more specific posts about bike touring in SE Asia:

And if you love to learn by reading bike travel blogs, you’ll find many Asia bike touring blogs at BikeSleepBike.

Seven reasons you’ll love cycle touring in Southeast Asia

You enjoy a bed and a shower every night without breaking the bank. 

If you love bicycle touring but aren’t into camping, Southeast Asia is perfect for you. In many places, you can almost always find an affordable ($6 – $12 USD) guesthouse at the end of the day. I brought a tent for emergencies and managed to use it a few times, but it definitely wasn’t necessary.

If you’re willing to be a bit conservative with your route planning (in other words, be willing to stop before sunset if you reach a guesthouse and don’t know whether there’s another one ahead), you can easily leave the tent and sleeping bag at home in favor of showers (possibly cold) and real beds with real mattresses (possibly hard).

Clean nice guesthouse room in Vietnam
Spotless $7 guesthouse room in Vietnam

You appreciate the convenience of buying food and cold drinks when you need/want them.

Cycling in Southeast Asia isn’t a wilderness expedition. In most places you will come across restaurants and shops every few hours at the longest. On all but the most remote routes they all have electricity, which means refrigeration and cold drinks, yay! There’s no need to carry more with you than a few small snacks and half a day’s worth of water unless you’re venturing somewhere really off the beaten track.

As a bonus, these frequent stops are one of the easiest ways to interact with locals along your route. Shopkeepers, though they may not speak any English, will often be friendly and interested in the crazy cyclist who just popped in begging for a cold bottle of Coke.

Thailand 7 Elevens were the epitome of convenient food and drink, but even in rural Cambodia you can usually find a roadside stall with snacks and cold drinks.

Your idea of lovely scenery involves lazy rivers, sparkling beaches, green mountains, or all three.

Southeast Asia has some lovely vistas. It’s not exactly the Himalayas, but the jungle-covered karsts of northern Vietnam and Laos are just as otherworldly in their own way. In the valleys there is no shortage of sparkling rivers. Along the coasts the hammock-lined, swimming-friendly beaches are legendary.

Beautiful mountain road in northern Vietnam
Mountains in northern Vietnam

Beautiful river in southern Cambodia
Gorgeous river near Tatai, Cambodia

You like to be independent and not rely on the hospitality of locals to make or break your trip.

I met many curious and friendly people during my Southeast Asia cycle tour. People were helpful when asked and sometimes showed support with small gifts of snacks or water. In much of the region folks were quick to smile and say hello. But they also kept their personal lives personal. I was not, as I have read happens to traveling cyclists in other parts of the world, constantly invited into peoples’ homes for meals and a bed.

It’s true that I’m an introvert who generally likes to keep pedaling, and there was a massive language barrier for much of my trip, so your results may vary. But I was a solo woman on a bicycle, about as nonthreatening as can be, and this was my experience. Unless perhaps you are an extrovert with magical language or people skills, or venturing way out into the countryside, Southeast Asia is not the kind of place where it makes sense to count on the hospitality of locals for your meals and shelter.

Kind family in rural northern Laos
Mother and daughter from the kind family in northern Laos who offered me shelter one night when I couldn’t make it to a guesthouse. I was turned away by many people before meeting them, making for a stressful experience and one I tried hard not to repeat during the rest of my trip.

You value staying connected to home and/or the world while traveling.

Wifi and mobile data are everywhere in Southeast Asia. This is great for planning on the fly, checking in with loved ones, keeping up with world news, relaxing with cat videos, or whatever it is that you do. It’s not ideal if you’re looking to truly “get away from it all” and disconnect in exchange for total immersion in your surroundings. Many locals have smartphones and use them regularly, so even if you manage to keep yours turned off at the bottom of your pannier, you probably won’t find that old-fashioned “time before tech” feeling in Southeast Asia.

You like to take breaks to see the sights: temples, waterfalls, caves, villages, beaches… 

Southeast Asia is a major global tourist destination, and most of them don’t arrive by bicycle. So what exactly are they all doing with their time? They’re seeing the sights. Most countries in the region have a fairly dense network of both natural and man-made sights with the tourist infrastructure to make them accessible. From the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia to the mountain caves of central Laos, you’ll never run out of potential side trips and things to see and do along your route.

Spectacular temple near Angkor Wat in Cambodia

You don’t mind riding in all different kinds of traffic and road conditions.

To cycle in Southeast Asia is to explore a patchwork of villages, towns, cities, and open spaces. Within a day you can find yourself going from smooth multi-lane highway to narrow dirt and gravel. Traffic can range from frantic city chaos to a couple vehicles per hour. Mostly you’ll be somewhere in between, but the changes come quickly and conditions usually won’t stay the same for long. This lack of consistency can keep you from getting bored but also keeps you on your toes (check out these tips for cycling in Southeast Asia’s traffic to help you prepare).

From this…

Dirt road in rural southern Laos
…to this. And everything in between.

Five reasons you should go somewhere else for your bike trip

You love talking with locals, and you don’t speak Vietnamese / Lao / Khmer / Thai / etc.

People who visit Southeast Asia as “normal” (non-bicycle) tourists might report that English is widely spoken, but this is really only true in cities and within the tourist industry. For most cyclists, the vast majority of people we encounter on the road will not speak more than a few words of English. I found this to be true throughout most of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand. To make matters trickier, the local languages are mostly tonal and difficult for westerners to learn.

I had little trouble communicating basic needs without spoken words, but anything more substantial was tough. Once every few days I would meet someone who spoke enough English to trade a few sentences with. The occasional “Where you from? Where you go?” exchange would be a linguistic highlight of my day.

Most of the time, as a solo cyclist it was just me, my own thoughts, and a lot of hand gestures. I often wished for a common language so I could ask questions and learn about where I was instead of simply passing through as an observer. I don’t mind descending into solitude for a few days or even weeks, but when you’re surrounded by people instead of a remote landscape it can feel a little weird being so linguistically isolated.

Chatting with Vietnamese man at border
A rare English conversation with man from Hanoi while waiting to cross the Vietnam-Laos border

You prefer to be the only tourist in town.

Tourism changes a place. Ironically and somewhat unfairly, some of us tourists would prefer that all the other tourists went elsewhere. When traveling in West Africa I learned how nice it is to be seen as fascinating simply because I was so rare. It brought me conversation and interest and admiration. Even as introverted as I am, I managed to have many conversations with locals in West Africa simply because I was such a novelty.

In Southeast Asia I was usually just one of many foreign faces in the area. Sure, you can spend more time outside the main towns and off the tourist trail, but sooner or later you will pass through a town where you are – sorry to burst your bubble – not special. Even with your bicycle. Then you will have to really work for those human connections with locals and travelers alike.

If, as happened to me, you end up feeling like you’ve seen enough waterfalls/caves/temples to last a lifetime, beware that you may end up feeling a bit isolated amidst all the traditional travelers who’ve been cooped up on the bus while you were out riding your bike. They seem to have infinite energy for seeing the traditional sights, while as a cyclist I often felt I had seen so much already that my must-see list of tourist destinations was a lot shorter.

Crowds of tourists crossing bridge to Angkor Wat
Throngs of tourists at Angkor Wat. Can everyone except me please go home?

You love to wild camp and cook your own food.

If your idea of cycle touring bliss is firing up the camp stove under the stars beside your tent, you may feel claustrophobic biking in Southeast Asia. The ease of finding low cost accommodation and food, coupled with the risk of unexploded ordinance and a relatively high population density, mean wild camping is not easy or common. I met some cyclists who did it occasionally, but usually only because they were on longer trips and had their camping gear with them anyway.

Campsite at Siem Reap Tourist Police station
Free camping at the Tourist Police station in Siem Reap – one of my rare camping opportunities in SE Asia, and not exactly unspoiled wilderness.

You’re motivated by ambitious, straight line routes that cross something big, a country or maybe a continent.

I spent a bit under three months cycling almost exactly 3000 miles through Southeast Asia. I covered a lot of ground, but when I trace my route on a map it looks like a lot of unsatisfying squiggles. With a number of small countries and relatively easy-to-get visas, plus well developed tourist infrastructure in towns throughout each, the region lends itself to a lot of loops and back-and-forths. You could certainly cross Southeast Asia in a straighter line than I did, but I think you’d feel like you missed a lot and didn’t get to spend much time in each country.

I know, it’s all about the journey, and my squiggly route shouldn’t really matter. But it did leave me yearning for a more direct, bold, and aesthetic route on my next trip.

Map pins showing cycling route through Southeast Asia
A pin for everywhere I spent a night. Lots of good exploration, but also pretty squiggly.

You come alive when the going gets tough, gritty, and remote.  

Much of Southeast Asia is relatively populated and developed. You’re not going to come across stretches of harsh desert that take days to cross while carrying all your water rations, or windblown plains that gradually kill your soul, or mountain ranges rising thousands of meters. Mostly, unless you work really hard to search out a few days of roughing it, you’re going to find people, food, water, accommodation and nice things to do and see. For some people this is great! For others, it leaves them wanting a bit more adventure and unpredictability (consider Patagonia!)

Sunset on Thai beach
View of the sunset from my hammock on a Thai beach. Life is hard!

My experience

Southeast Asia was my first long bike trip, and I was riding solo. I chose it specifically for its availability of infrastructure and essentials like food and water. Call me soft, but I didn’t want to end up with a series of inexperienced decisions leading to a truly risky situation. I love to push my limits and expand my comfort zone, but only in measured ways.

Now that I’ve logged some time in the saddle, I long for something more adventurous. Somewhere a little rougher, a little wilder and less predictable. Someplace where I can be more self-sufficient, and maybe more vulnerable. It’s a delicate balance.

Have you cycled in Southeast Asia? How did your impression compare to mine? Let me know in the comments below.

Southeast Asia Cycling Resources

If the list above convinced you to give it a go, here are some helpful resources to check out:

You might also like:

New! Browse bikepacking and touring blogs from all around the world at BikeSleepBike.

About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve biked over 10,000 miles (enough to stop counting) in nine countries and still haven’t kicked the bike travel bug. Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more or say hi.

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3 thoughts on “Bicycle Travel in Southeast Asia: Is it for you?”

  1. Hi! I’m dreaming about doing similar trip when the travel is safe again. I’m wondering what months you did this trip and how the weather was? Mostly curious about monsoon rains, heat/humidity.
    Thank you!

    Reply
    • Hi Grace, my trip was October – December which is the “dry” season (lasts through about May). There was some occasional brief but heavy rain, especially in Vietnam in October, but otherwise it was pretty darn hot. At least most of the roadside shops sell cold drinks. 🙂 I hope you’re able to go when it makes sense! It was a memorable trip.

      Reply
  2. Very nice write-up!

    I live in Thailand and have done 2 MUCH shorter solo tours here, one Chiang Mai to Nakon Sawan, and another Udon Thani to Sisaket. For me, this place is bicycle touring heaven. I used only a 6L frame pack, carried a half-liter of water and just an emergency snack. You literally need nothing else. I was off the beaten track as much as possible.

    I totally see what you’re saying about not easily ‘mixing in’ with the locals. Language barrier is massive for most people, and that really leaves you as an outsider in most places as you note. Since I can speak quite a bit of Thai, and Thais being amazingly curious people, once they found out I could converse with them, I usually had to politely excuse myself from the barrage of questions to get kilometers in. I rode gravel/dirt roads as much as possible, on the Isaan trip easily 30% of the time.

    As a side note, your route took you exactly through where I live in Rayong. Hope you enjoyed this area, it is a very nice place to live, and excellent for coastal riding on nice roads.

    Reply

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