Bike in Sukhothai, Thailand. Image courtesy of Nancy Nguyen
If seeing the best parts of Southeast Asia from behind glass is your thing, then by all means, go on that tour bus. But if you prefer coming down from the antiseptic atmosphere of the bus, instead meeting face-to-face with the region's temples, villages and people – with the added satisfaction of visiting each under your own power – then we heartily recommend taking a bike tour.
In most places, going by bike is simply doing what the locals do: villagers in Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia use cheap Chinese-made bicycles to travel and bring their goods to market. Pedal far beyond the village settlements, and you'll discover dirt trails to remote temple ruins and waterfalls inaccessible to any tour bus.
Bike tours can be found at any good temple complex – Angkor Wat in Cambodia, for instance, and Sukhothai (more on that below) in Thailand. But you can also hire bikes to explore villages in Bali, jungles in Laos, and rice fields in Vietnam, as you'll find out from the travel stories below.
Bike on Laos road. Image courtesy of Mikel Lizarralde/Creative Commons
Laos' Chomphet Loop Bike Trail
Some visitors to Laos may be content with exploring Luang Prabang's streets and photographing the daily tak bat ritual, but if you chafe at taking it easy, you might instead attempt a popular 23-kilometre dirt-road loop just across the Mekong River.
“The Chomphet loop bike trail is definitely something you must try,” explains Jorge Bastos of CoupleRTW (Facebook|Twitter|Instagram), who found himself exploring the circuit in his last visit to Laos. “The bike trail is hilly and bumpy…. You will pass through some villages, stunning views, rice fields and plenty of kids greeting you 'sabaidee' (hello).”
The trail isn't directly accessible from Luang Prabang itself; instead, Jorge says, you'll need to take a taxi boat across the Mekong to the Chomphet district. “Chomphet is very different from Luang Prabang,” Jorge tells us, “it’s poorer and completely rural. It’s completely another dimension of Laos.”
The dirt trail can be challenging for first-time bikers – Jorge feels they underestimated the effort required to close the loop. “It was hard with plenty of hills and the day was very hot,” he recalls. “It took us nearly six hours to do the loop, but it was well worth it.”
Jorge has a few words of advice to bikers who wish to check out Chomphet for themselves: “Be sure to take to take snacks and water, you won’t find many shops selling food,” he says. “Keep in mind that the trail is on a dirt road so if you go in the wet season it will be muddy though the scenery will be green, because of the rice fields.”
Image courtesy of ruycervantesfregoso/Creative Commons
Hoi An, Vietnam's Streets by Bike
Motorized vehicles are prohibited on the narrow streets of the historic town of Hoi An in Vietnam; that leaves travelers with just their two feet, or two wheels. Claudia Tavani of My Adventures Across The World (Facebook|Instagram|Twitter) decided to try the latter, and loved the experience.
“The historical centre [of Hoi An] is closed to traffic, which makes it significantly more pleasant to walk around compared to the other cities such as Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh,” Claudia tells us. “It is when riding a bike, however, that it is possible to fully plunge in the local culture, as it is easier to cover longer distances, yet not on a pace that is so fast that one misses the surroundings.”
Beyond Hoi An's boundaries, though, the bike allowed Claudia to explore further. “Biking in Hoi An means being able to to go the nearby beaches; exploring the rice fields; and going to the nearby island of Cam Kim,” she explains.
Cam Kim, in particular, transports bicyclists to a countryside environment that feels even more authentically Vietnamese than Hoi An. “Think rural houses; men fishing; women pushing buffaloes in the water; and everyone just smiling at the occasional passersby,” Claudia marvels.
Biking along a Bali Road in Indonesia. Image courtesy of Sally-Ann Brown.
Bali, Indonesia Culture Trip by Bike
Bali has long been an international tourist destination – having been so long in the spotlight, the major towns have been taken over by foreign visitors.
“The beach towns of Kuta, Seminyak, Nusa Dua and Sanur are now purely for the holidaymakers – there is no Balinese culture to found [there],” observes Tips 4 Trips' Sally-Ann Brown (Facebook|Twitter|Instagram). “It is in the countryside that the Balinese live.”
For Sally-Ann, taking a Bali bike tour represents one of the best ways to get in touch with this culture, now so far off the beaten path. The tour collected Sally-Ann and her compatriots from their hotel, then drove them up to Ubud and the jump-off point.
“During the drive up to Ubud we stop at a Kopi Luwak Plantation, see native spice gardens and have brunch overlooking Batur Volcano,” Sally-Ann recalls. “Our Bali bike tour offered a choice of bikes including single (with optional child seat), tandem and children’s bikes.”
From the Ubud starting point, the ride goes downhill for the most part – ideal for senior travelers and first-time riders, who don't need to put in too much effort to rack up the miles while “passing through local villages where we stop to learn about the structure of the home and how to make an offering,” Sally-Ann says.
The bike tour dives deep into Bali's traditional culture in the process. “We pass temples before reaching the rice paddy fields where we learn about the traditional Subak irrigation system,” Sally-Ann tells us. “Our educational bike tour is rounded off with a traditional Bali meal of satay chicken and fried rice.”
Bike in Sukhothai, Thailand. Image courtesy of Nancy Nguyen
First-Hand Historical Bike Tour in Sukhothai, Thailand
“Because Sukhothai is far from Thailand's popular cities, this UNESCO park sees very few visitors,” Nancy recalls. “There were moments when I felt as if I had the whole park to myself – I often found myself sitting underneath a tree, with no one in sight… able to relax and imagine what life was like in this former kingdom.”
Amidst Sukhothai's ancient street grid, Nancy found that biking was the ideal way to explore. “[Riding a bicycle] allowed me to explore the temples at my leisure,” Nancy tells us. “If I felt drawn to certain temples, I would stay in that place until I felt ready to leave.
“My most memorable moment in Sukhothai was when I visited Wat Si Chum. I've seen photos of the temple, but visiting the place in person was a breathtaking experience. As you walk towards the temple, you'll see a glimpse of the massive Buddha statue. Being alone in the chamber was very memorable for me. I felt entirely present and overwhelmed with gratitude for this experience.”
Mountain biker in Chestnut Nature Park. Image courtesy of Singapore Tourism Board.
Singapore: Bike Trails for Novices & Experts Alike
“You can choose from six mountain biking trails,” Mike explains. “Newbie bikers will like Mandai Track 15's easy 12 kilometer route winding through lush jungle near a reservoir; bikers looking for a challenge will like Coney Island's gravelly trail; stunt bikers will go for Chestnut Nature Park's four zones of activity.
“Technical riders will love Kent Ridge Mountain Bike Trail's no-nonsense route that tests riders' grip, balance and control. And the latest addition to Singapore's mountain biking trails – Ketam Mountain Bike Park – is free of charge to riders who make the crossing to Pulau Ubin.”