Some Info on Motorbike Touring Through SE Asia
Take it slow. Enjoy the ride. Don’t fucking crash. One so far, not mine. “you motherfucker” and then sparks. Sean saying “you OK, everybody OK” and trying to get the hell out of there. All was OK, life moves on...Evil trucks speed around mountainous corners with blood in their high beams…Remember, it’s easy enough to go slow, even easier to go fast. Deliberate actions are deliberate. Don’t fucking crash.Travel Journal - Day 2
8 weeks, 4500 miles, two countries, and one trusty steed.
A motorcycle tour of SE Asia is not a trip that I’d be quick to recommend. Long distance motorcycle travel is unsuited for most, but doing it through a region where the languages are foreign and the laws often unenforced is another thing all together. Rather, I’d advise each potential rider to make their own decision once the facts were known, the dangers outlined, and the insurance bought. However having noted this, I’d be hard pressed to name a better way to travel Vietnam and Laos than on the back of a motorbike. Taking on the city streets of Hanoi, the dust storms of the Ho Chi Minh Highway and the dirt roads of the NW provinces on the back of a motorbike is an experience you won’t soon forget. I write this to hopefully share some first hand knowledge on what a moto tour through SE Asia looks like: the dangers, the lessons, the landscapes and the people.
I’d be amiss if I didn’t start this recap by addressing the elephant in the room, the dangers. I’m willing to bet that every rider who tackles SE Asia, given ample saddle time, will encounter at least one white knuckle moment that makes them question why the hell they’re doing what they’re doing, I know I did. Maybe it comes from a vehicle that is bigger, faster, and with more wheels drifting unnervingly close, or a blind curve covered in gravel, or inclement weather on a mountain pass with under-performing gloves and a malfunctioning motorcycle… or maybe all three put together. Whatever it is, in the end it just becomes a lesson learned, a lesson that will hopefully not need to be relearned down the road.
The most striking of these lessons for me was the new perspective on what it means to be the smaller object on a roadway. In the US it is generally understood that motorcycles are vulnerable and therefore should be given space, while in SE Asia this logic is reversed. Boiled down, motorcycles are smaller so they better get out of the way. So while reduced engine sizes make the riding slower, your rider awareness needs to be much higher. Driving tendencies inevitably change when you start to understand that red, yellow, and green can all mean “Go” and a semi truck occupying your lane around a blind corner is an expected and accepted occurrence…they have to. Navigating these differences leaves two options. Either take it slow, which I’d recommend, or if you have the skill, play it fast like the locals do; don’t get caught in the middle. Don’t be patient, don’t be aggressive, be predictable; erratic will get you hurt or worse. I’m not trying to scare off someone from this trip, for there is hyperbole in what I write, but that’s what happens when you sum up two months of riding into a short summary.
In truth, most of the time the riding is smooth, the scenery gorgeous, and the experiences eye opening, but if you don’t make it through those few moments that aren’t, if you lose concentration for a single second, that’s all it takes. For most this means a new scar, a few days off the bike, and a renewed love for traffic laws back home, but for some it’s certainly worse. If what you have read so far makes you say “this isn’t for me”, trust that logic. If however, you can balance your expectations with the risks, can plan well and improvise better, and fully understand that there is no guarantee of only positive outcomes for a trip such as this, you’ll be in for a hell of a time.
So, what was gained, and what was lost? What was the point? It’s hard to return from a journey like this and not ask questions like those, it is for me at least. Returning to “normal life” brings a quick perspective shift and experiences start to gain a little contrast. Friends and family have questions like “how sketchy was it?” or “what’s the best story you have?”, and they become hard to answer. In attempting to relay my experience so far, I’ve found that trying to answer questions with words like best, worst, or scariest is difficult; the scale of the trip extends too far past a typical vacation for them to be of any real use. So for that reason, I’ll try to avoid using them now. The way I look at it, and the view I hope to present here, will from 10,000ft after the dust has settled, and much of what follows will apply to other forms of travel, not just moto touring. Basically, it’s what stuck. The moments, insights, and ideas that still bounce around my head a couple months after everything was said and done.
Long term travel has a way of quickly changing from a vacation to a new lifestyle pretty quick, but it’s a life that’s not entirely unfamiliar. Routines, habits, and frustrations all return, and they don’t look all that different from the ones you left behind back home. The majority of my time on this trip was spent riding, eating, reading, and sleeping, and if I looked at my life in Bend I would replace riding with working and the main four would look about the same. The real adventure lies in what you manage to fit into the cracks between these routines and is found in those moments that yank you outside of your comfort zone; it lies in meeting new people; in seeing new sights, traditions, and cultures; in being uncomfortable; In feeling guilt, hopelessness, uncertainty or doubt, and being present enough with those emotions to follow the new paths that they lead to.
I’ll try in broad strokes to hit some of the highlights of the trip. What I saw, what I felt, what I learned, and maybe what could be out there waiting for you; it’s incomplete, but it will have to do. So what was SE Asia by motorbike all about?
First and foremost, it was about the riding. It was the daily grind, and the new routine of life on the road. It was hour upon hour of sitting on my trusty steed, navigating unfamiliar roadways with unreadable signage. It was the music that made those long stretches of road fly by; this trips favorites being Dire Straights and Bob Dylan. It was an endlessly sore back as I rolled past unfamiliar sights looking for a place to sleep, and it was that newly recognizable phrase ‘Nha Nghi’ signaling rest; it was $5 rooms, inspections for bedbugs, lipstick on unwashed towels, rock hard mattresses, and hopefully a TV with the Fox Movie Channel. It was the daily search for food in small towns and big cities, trying to determine just what was being served. It was the great food we found: bowls of pho, heavenly bun cha, and endless banh mi’s; it was the terrible food: chicken knuckles and cabbage water once again. It was cold beers, $1.25 fifths of rum, plastic water bottles of rice wine, and the best way to kill time in a small town; it was the conversations they produced and the connections they allowed. It was trying to communicate but usually ending up with many more questions than answers, and it was the sign language and translation apps that struggled to keep up.
More importantly, it was about the people. My riding partner Sean and the benefits and security that come with a companion on the road. The experiences we shared, the laughs we had, and our discussions about what we saw and what it might mean. It was the new friends we made along the way with something to share, whether that be a story, a card game, or some Spanish ham. It was genuine interactions that were not planned, expected, or forced; humans sharing, creating, and learning from one another. It was conversations producing new facts worth considering; the man from China talking about his life, his government, and the anger of only being allowed to have a single child. It was his guilt, his resentment, his tears, and his views on a government and a life I couldn’t possibly know. It was perspective, good or bad. It was surprised faces as we rolled into remote villages and the dozens of selfies I was pulled into. It was the village women of the northwest with their giant buns, their simple huts, and their warm smiles; it was wanting to know more, but moving on anyway; it was self-inflicted timelines that pushed the trip forward at too fast a pace; needing to be nowhere, but wanting to see everything. It was meeting individuals who gave me hope, those who go out everyday and try to make a difference; it was Mr. Tu, Carlos, Laplong, and the farm; it was guitars by campfire, hidden waterfalls, slaughtered ducks, and sustainability; it was a man trying to teach a new generation to do things differently, trying to preach what he practiced. It was becoming closer to people from all corners of the globe and recognizing that many of our values align. It was dissatisfaction with governments, common causes, and shared visions. It was realizing how very lucky I am, realizing just how blessed my life has been.
Finally, it was the landscapes: the shark fin mountains, dense jungles, ancient temples, mystic lakes, giant waterfalls, and terraced rice fields. But it was also the trash: the mountains of it, the rivers of it, the casualness of it. It was not quite getting it, and then understanding it all too well. It was a plastic bottle rolling toward the Mekong, barely saved, but would it have mattered either way? It was seeing war sites and bomb craters, and the secondhand guilt that came with them. It was hot days with sunburns, rainy days with wet socks, and cold days wearing every layer in my arsenal. It was sunrises on early mornings, sunsets on late evenings, and the miles and miles of empty road in between. It was pavement giving way to gravel, gravel to dirt, to single track, to mud, and to canoes across rivers. It went slow, and it went way too damn fast. It was what it was.
Traveling via independent transportation, be it a motorcycle, car, or bicycle, is liberating. Having the freedom to choose where you want to go, and when you want to go there, reveals a host of opportunities that can’t be found in vacation resorts or on bus routes. And while those traditional methods of travel have their benefits (being situated around ‘must-see’ spots, having access to occasional western meals, and the ease of meeting other travelers), they provide an incomplete view of what a country can offer; it’s akin to going to NYC and only seeing Times Square. It’s worthwhile to head down roads less traveled to find those places where you can see the intricacies that define a country: the small towns, the varied people, and the unmanicured landscapes; places where people aren’t trying to sell you something on every corner and where there is nothing more to do than wander the streets, be vulnerable, and maybe try and find a hot meal. This approach often takes more work, but it usually comes with higher rewards.
If I had to give some advice on what to see if you make it over there, or anywhere new, I’d simply say to head where the road takes you. Linger somewhere if it speaks to you, leave if it doesn’t, and experience what you can. There was plenty I wasn’t ready for yet and maybe never will be, but I can’t say that I missed anything, that’s the wrong way of looking at it. Travel didn’t always go smoothly and my state of mind fluctuated between blissful contentment and feeling completely lost, but it did get easier. It takes time to build courage on a journey, whether a small one like this or in the big one, life. No one is born with it, but it’s worth pursuing to see just how far you can push out the walls of your worldview.
Realistically this journey was a break. It was a time to reset, reevaluate, and relax about the future, all while living a life different than the one I was accustomed to; a way to gain some perspective on what other paths might be out there. I spent a lot of time off the bike reading books, and a lot of time on the bike thinking. I revisited old habits with a little more space to see them for what they really were and to understand why they existed in the first place. Some were certainly worth keeping, others could be tossed away, but the tough ones exist in that middle ground between comfort and consequence. They come down to the question of how far as an individual I am willing to go for an ideal, or consequentially how far I am willing to extend the blinders I’ve created in order to keep living a life that is easier.
I found that many of these ideals for me are rooted in issues surrounding the environment and the way our global economy operates. I saw a little more clearly how the things I buy, the food I eat, or the ways I travel impact individuals and ecosystems the world over; every action being a part of a domino chain that directly or indirectly affects people who may not even be aware that they are a part of it. This knowledge can be overwhelming and difficult to act on, for we often fool ourselves by thinking “what can one person do?”. Put simply—something. Each individual chooses their own level of commitment and gets to decide how much they are willing to sacrifice, be it time, money, or comfort, into the issues that they believe matter. These are different for everyone and will change as new information is gathered, but it’s important to never stop trying to see what points of view you might be missing. From there, informed actions can be taken with an understanding of the impact they will have on current environments and future generations. I still find myself falling short of my goals in this respect, but I try to take steps in the right direction each day. Buy less shit, eat less meat, and bicycle more often, that’s an easy place to start.
This leads back to one my favorite quotes, albeit quite simple, “Lead an examined life”. Pay attention, there’s a lot happening out there, and its easy to get caught up in the bullshit. Make a change if it feels right, understanding that no one else is going to do it for you. And while this change might not be immediate and tends to happen much slower than we’d like it to, that’s alright. I’m constantly having to remind myself that there is no great rush. As long as you keep your feet pointed in the right direction and check your compass heading with intention, you’ll get where you’re meant to go. There is only now, and what is done day to day, hour to hour, and moment to moment, so try and have some fun! And while I can honestly say it’s good to be back, I also can’t wait to see where the next adventure might lead!
SE Asia Motorcycle Touring Travel Tips
- Barter. Nothing is a set price. It will take some time to figure out exactly what you should be paying, but it’s worth not being in a rush, you’ll save some money that way. Also don’t fret over paying 50c more for a bowl of pho than the locals do, that’s also part of the deal. Don’t be a sucker, but don’t go crazy.
- Bring good shoes, gloves, and a helmet. It’s hard to find high quality items there for things that play a big role in motorcycling. I brought my boots and helmet with me, but neglected gloves, and regretted it. For me, the best boots are a combination hiking/riding boot that are waterproof. I use Scarpas.
- Nha Nghi means Motel. Look out for these signs when heading through off the beaten path towns without hostels. I only stayed in Hostels in Hanoi, Da Nang, Hoi An, Sapa, and Ho Chi Minh. If you are a budget traveler, the rest of the country you’ll be staying in these cheap motels with suspect cleanliness, but that’s all part of the fun.
- Talk to the locals when possible. This might seem self explanatory, but don’t be shy. Most people are nice and many will give you tips that you would never be able to find otherwise, especially if they can speak good English. Translation apps are nice, but they will never get you to the point that a real conversation does.
- Take fun roads. Ride the DT roads as much as possible. CT roads are off limits to bikes so stay off them, and AH and QL will usually have more trucks. You’re not driving a car, take the detours that add some time and avoid the busy roads. Most of the fun is in the journey, not the destination.
- Wake up early. Though we didn’t do this as much as we wanted to I’ll admit, you’ll never regret seeing a sunrise. plus you’ll get an awesome jump on the day to add in time for detours
- End Early. It’s no fun riding a motorcycle after sunset. This happened to us a few times, and it’s never really a fun time, especially if you have a tinted facemask…