Leg 1 – South East Asia (+/- 5000km)
Countries: Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia
As I was living in Vietnam at the time, then this seemed like a very natural starting point for my cycle and since day one of planning my route this was my departure point. From Ho Chi Minh City, I headed south into the beautiful Mekong Delta and through Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore and into Indonesia.
The interactive map below outlines the route that I took as I set out cycling from Ho Chi Minh City on the 4th of July 2016.
The blue route line is often not the actual route that I cycled, more a representation. For the actual GPS tracks that I rode each day please scroll down and click on the Actual GPS links at the bottom of this page.
Please click on the map symbols for more detail about each leg, and zoom in for a closer view of the route that I cycled through South East Asia. (the initial map load time may be slow depending on your internet connection)
Zoom in on the map for a closer view of my route
As we all know, best laid plans have a habit of constantly changing along the way and so I had to alter my route slightly from my original plan as I had to return to Europe to attend a funeral. This mean’t that to keep to the time schedule I had to sacrifice cycling though Java and instead flew from Singapore direct to Bali. From Bali I continued my ride eastwards through Bali, Lombok, Sumbawa and onto Flores.
The start of my cycle from Ho Chi Minh City was actually a bit of a false start because on the 4th of July I only cycled 80km south into the Mekong Delta where I then stopped to see friends for a couple of days.
If you have had the good fortune of already visiting the Mekong Delta you will understand what a beautiful landscape and amazing way of life the people who live here have. I am not the biggest fan of Lonely Planet travel books but their description of the area does capture the unique lifestyle and culture that you find in this area:
The ‘rice bowl’ of Vietnam, the delta is carpeted in a dizzying variety of greens. It’s a water world that moves to the rhythms of the mighty Mekong, where boats, houses and markets float upon the innumerable rivers, canals and streams that criss-cross the landscape like arteries.
The bustling commerce of its towns contrasts sharply with the languid, almost soporific pace of life in the countryside. Here buffalos wallow in rice paddies, coconut- and fruit-laden boats float slowly along the mud-brown waters, and two-wheeled exploration of the narrow lanes is amply rewarded with a true taste of rural hospitality (and delicious river fish).
Elsewhere, mangrove forests teem with a wealth of bird life and bristle with the remains of Viet Cong bunkers, ornate Khmer pagodas and Buddhist temples reach for the sky, while off-coast islands offer white-sand beaches and tropical hideaways to some, and pirate havens to others.
I love a spot of promenading and the Mekong Delta was a great place for both this and exploration of the unlimited waterways by wooden dugout canoe. After a couple of days of visiting friends my cycle started in earnest and every night I really had no idea where I would sleep….
From Ben Tre, I cycled directly west and crossed the Cambodian border. As I have cycled this way before I did not spend that much time visiting places en route, and so covered the 200 km to the border in just a couple of days.
I crossed the border with Cambodia at Chau Doc. As soon as I crossed the border from Vietnam the differences were stark; missing are all the signs of prosperity you see everywhere in Vietnam – outside of the main cities people still live in wooden huts rather than concrete buildings, electricity becomes scarcer, and the majority of people are definitely much poorer than in neighbouring Thailand and Vietnam.
Having previously experienced cycling on the main highways in Cambodia then you are often taking your life in your hands. The car and bus drivers were not really worse than any other country in Asia but the road infrastructure is limited which funnels traffic onto the few roads which are sealed with tarmac.
The main roads tended to be much narrower and often did not have a sealed motorbike lane on the side. This meant that when vehicles were suicidally overtaking each other then they did so in the lane I was cycling and so headed directly towards me with little thought of swerving to avoid you; it really is a case of the biggest vehicle on the road has right of way.
THAT SAID CAMBODIA WAS STILL ONE OF MY FAVOURITE COUNTRIES TO CYCLE THROUGH. The people and scenery through the Cardomom Mountains were amazing
From Chau Doc I headed inland to avoid the main highways as much as possible and cycled off road towards Kampot. In Kampot I met up with a fellow British cyclist and his girlfriend – Fraser and Trinh – who left Ho Chi Minh City a week or so before me.
We then spent a week or so cycling together. To avoid the main highway out of Kampot we cycled towards Kirirom National Park. and into the Cardamom Mountain Range. This covers roughly 6% of Cambodia, and is home to most of the country’s large mammals and half of its birds,reptiles and amphibians, including globally endangered and threatened species like Asian Elephants, Indochinese tigers, Malayan sun bears, Pileated gibbons, Siamese crocodiles, and Irrawaddy and Humpback dolphins. The Cardamoms include a vast ecosystem from dense evergreen rain forest to lowland swamps to coastal mangroves.
Unfortunately, development of this region, like in most other parts of primary rainforest, is now in full flow and upwards of a dozen hydroelectric projects and other projects threaten to destroy one of Asia’s last eco-frontiers. Needless to say, I am glad that I went to see this part of Cambodia before the local communities and landscape are changed for ever.
After visiting the Cardamom Mountains it was time to get back on the highway and pick up the pace for a quick border dash to the land of smiles.
I crossed the border at Trat and the first item on the agenda was a dip in the ocean. This section of the coast is not as pristine as the pure white sand beaches that you find further south towards the Thai/Malay border but was still beautiful enough to hang out in a hammock for a couple of days.
From here I wound my way inland towards the crazy party city that is Bangkok. Bangkok is a city of many faces. No matter what you want you can find it in Bangkok – 5 star restaurants and hotels, shopping malls where you can literally shop until you drop and crazy night life which caters for all tastes.
On this trip I used the stop here to catch up with the Nevin’s whose son I used to teach in Vietnam. Even though when I arrived it was a religious holiday we still managed to find a bar serving beer and danced the night away. The way that they got around the ban on buying alcohol was that you paid your bar tab the following day.
Trat marked the point that Fraser, Trinh and I said our goodbyes as we were cycling to different time frames. I need ed to have finished cycling through Indonesia by the end of October in order to catch a flight to New Zealand, whereas Fraser and Trinh had until about the following March to complete this leg of their route. Having only 12 months to fit in everywhere I wanted to go meant that the luxury of time is something that I didn’t really have. As fate would have it though, this was not the last time that I saw Fraser and Trinh on my cycle through Asia.
I headed south out of Bangkok and cycled towards the Malaysian border which wass 1200 km away. My route through here really depended on which side of the country was most affected by the monsoon. With one eye on the tourist industry the Thai’s have in recent years renamed the rainy season as the ‘Green Season’ which lasts from roughly June to October.
The one advantage to the rainy season was that the droves of tourists and package holiday-makers that you associate with this area disappeared, leaving an altogether more relaxed atmosphere. Streets tended to be quieter, beaches and islands semi-deserted; cycling through the forests I could hear the sounds of nature (and the dogs chasing me), rather than the tour group up ahead.
My wife and I visited this area in October a couple of years ago and went to an island called Koh Jum – we virtually had the island to ourselves. On this trip I visited Koh Lipe and again had the island pretty much to myself.
In southern Thailand the wet and dry seasons do not run at the same time on both the east and west side of the peninsula. On the west coast the southwest monsoon brings rain and often heavy storms from April through to October, while on the east coast the most rain falls between September and December. Click this link to check out the map for an explanation of the normal months for the wet and dry seasons in different areas of SE Asia.
A typical pattern, if one exists, for the monsoon season is sun interspersed with brief, often very heavy and isolated showers which often occur in the late afternoon. However, I have been in Bangkok in the past and had a week of straight rain and grey skies. Unfortunately, there seems to be little consistency from year to year and so it was a case of wait and see.
In the end the east coast turned out to be much drier and my only cycle down the west coast was when I headed to Koh Lipe in the very south of the country before heading over the border into Malaysia.
If Bangkok is a city of many different faces then Malaysia is the example of this at the country level – the commercial and industrial west coast, the cooler central highland tea plantations and the quieter more traditional east coast.
On my cycle through Malaysia I sampled a bit of each of these areas. I crossed the border from Thailand on the west coast and then headed completed one of my cycling bucket list items – to cycle from the Andaman Sea on the west coast to the South China Sea on the east whilst climbing over the Cameron Highlands en route.
In the Cameron Highlands I visited the tea plantations before spending a few days off the bike trekking in Taman Negara National Park.
From there I crossed to the east coast and swam in the South China Sea in Kuantan which is the city where I met up with the coast road which took me south towards Singapore.
Singapore and beyond into Indonesia
Arrival in Singapore marked the point that I had to make my first real route choice as Indonesia consists of more than 17000 islands. I had originally planned to use Singapore as my springboard for finding a ship to take me further south into Indonesia. However, as I had to return home to Ireland to attend a funeral I instead flew from Singapore direct to Bali in order to continue cycling east through Lombok, Sumbawa and Flores.
My arrival in Flores marked the end of the Asian leg of my cycle ride and I got to tick off another item from my bucket list – to visit the Komodo Dragons.
The Komodo Dragon above was one that I saw while on a 4 hour trek on the Island of Rinca with a Kiwi cyclist that I met on the ferry to Flores.
On the 24th of October 2016 I took a flight from Bali to New Zealand. If I had more time I would have cycled through Australia as well but, having already lived and worked there, I decided to bypass it by and headed directly for South Island, New Zealand.
As I now look back on my time cycling through Asia I just wish that I had more time to spend experiencing the amazing cultures that I had the privilege of cycling through. The one thing that I can be certain of is that this will not be my last time that I have the pleasure of experience a cycle ride through Asia.
Thanks for taking the time to read about my route through South East Asia and the final mention must go to the innumerable people who helped me out along the way. I would just like to say a huge heartfelt thank you as without you my journey and memories would not have been the same.
Click on the links below to see my actual GPS route tracks through South East Asia:
To see all of my GPS tracks through Indonesia – CLICK HERE
To see all of my GPS tracks through Singapore – CLICK HERE
To see all of my GPS tracks through Malaysia – CLICK HERE
To see all of my GPS tracks through Thailand – CLICK HERE
To see all of my GPS tracks through Cambodia – CLICK HERE
To see all of my GPS tracks through Vietnam – CLICK HERE