Motorbiking Southeast Asia – Planning the Trip
One of the first things you will notice when you go to Asia is that there are literally millions of motorbikes and scooters. In fact in Vietnam alone there are over 45 million registered motorbikes with over 5 million just in the city of Hanoi. Riding a motorbike is, in our opinion, one of the best ways to see Southeast Asia. Travelling on your own bike and on your own timetable beats wasting hours on buses, trains and airports any day of the week! With your own bike you are able to visit places that are off the tourist trail and have a more authentic and cultural experience. The sights, smells and sounds are all there in your face. Riding a bike in any country allows you to completely immerse yourself in the best that it has to offer.
When we began planning our trip through Asia we knew two things.
- We wanted to be travelling for at least one year.
- We wanted to do it ourselves by motorbike.
What we ended up doing was riding 14,000km through Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and Thailand. It was one of the best experiences of our lives. Riding through Southeast Asia doesn’t need to be difficult, but it was only through careful planning that we were able to travel as far and as long as we did.
In this post I’ll share all the planning and considerations you will need to make if you want to take a trip like this.
First the Boring stuff.
ExperienceThe number one thing you need to consider before embarking on a trip like this is: do you have experience? If you want to motorbike in Southeast Asia then at a bare minimum you should have a decent amount of motorcycling experience back home. Click To Tweet
The number one thing you need to consider before embarking on a trip like this is: do you have experience? If you want to ride a motorbike in Southeast Asia then at a bare minimum you should have a decent amount of motorcycling experience back home. Every year dozens of tourists are injured or killed on Asian roads and the number one contributing factor is inexperience. Southeast Asia is NOT the place to learn how to ride. If you don’t ride at home it’s never too late to get experience. Get your licence or even go to some rider training courses. But you don’t want to be getting on a bike for the first time in Asia. Personally I have ridden all my life and have done many long motorcycling trips back home.
The laws for riding a motorcycle are different in each country and even when the laws are black and white local police will often make up their own rules either because they don’t understand the laws themselves or because they want some ‘coffee money’. Do your own thorough research here but at a minimum you should have a current motorcycling license in your home country as well as an international permit. Be aware though that not all international permits are equal. There are two different types depending on your home country and many countries will only accept one or the other. That being said the likelihood of you being pulled over if you ride smart and carefully is next to nothing. I don’t recommend this, but I travelled through Asia on just my Australian licence and never had an issue.
Definitely check with your travel insurance whether you are covered. Some will charge a higher premium for motorcycle cover and most won’t cover you at all unless you have a license both at home and one that is legal in the country you are riding in. Riding without cover can be astronomically expensive if you have an accident and most hospitals in Southeast Asia will happily let you lie in a hallway in a coma without treatment until someone shows up with cash to cover your expenses. I’ve heard of tourists dying because they weren’t conscious and they had no money or no one to get money after a crash.
Bring proper safety equipment with you from home. Asian helmets are crap and may as well be made of paper mache. A good quality helmet at international standards is the bare minimum. You should plan to bring with you a helmet, gloves, long pants, leg and arm guards and make sure you wear some eye protection like sunglasses if your helmet has no visor.
When planning our route we tried to keep our plans relatively fluid. We didn’t want to book accomodation 6 weeks ahead and then find we stopped somewhere we really loved but had to move on quickly due to time constraints.
Our route was actually largely dictated by the length of time we could get a visa in each country. We knew we were starting with 3 months in Vietnam. We also knew we could get one month visas on arrivals in both Laos and Cambodia. So we set out a rough plan that we would start in Hoi An in Central Vietnam and then spend the next three months exploring the north of the country.
After 3 months we’d head into Laos somewhere in the north of the country and spend a month travelling down to the south. This would pop us back out into Central Vietnam and we would spend another month exploring Central Vietnam before heading into Cambodia. Cambodia’s main route is essentially a big loop so we would spend about a month doing that loop before heading back into Vietnam to spend the remaining 3 months in the south. That was the rough plan before we landed.
Be aware when planning your route that you will not be doing speeds you would typically do at home. At best on open highway without traffic you will do a MAXIMUM of 70-80km/hr but realistically you will probably average 50-60km/hr and some days it may be as low as 10km/hr depending on road conditions and weather. The furthest we ever rode in one day was 310km and we left not long after sunrise and arrived after dark. It was not fun. Plan to do no more than 150-200km per day.
Also plan to avoid highways as much as possible. You might be able to crank out a few extra kms if you ride the highways but you will be exposing yourself to the risk of heavy traffic and truck/bus drivers that are doing long hours, on drugs, on unregulated roads. Plenty die on highways because truck drivers run them over and just keep going.
Once you have the basics planned out the most exciting thing you get to plan is the bike. The biggest consideration you should have is whether to rent or whether to buy.
If you are in a country short term or you are staying in one area then renting might be a better option. Short term rentals are cheap at around $5-10 per day and you don’t need to worry about maintenance. They are often easy to ride automatics though you should check the brakes and lights before hiring as they don’t take great care of rental bikes. Renting is also a great idea if you are short on time because at the end of your lease you just hand it back and don’t have to worry about trying to sell it at the other end. There are plenty of reputable companies that offer one way rentals from Ho Chi Minh city to Hanoi or vice versa.
Alternatively buying a bike is a great option for long term travellers. Bikes are relatively cheap in Vietnam. A decent second hand bike should cost you about $250-500 USD and if you take care of it you should get most of that back at the other end. Another advantage of owning your own bike is that, providing it is a Vietnamese plated bike, you can cross into both Cambodia and Laos with it without any dramas. This opens up free reign of travel in three countries.
You can easily find bikes for sale either through Facebook groups for backpackers, local mechanics or your hotel/hostel – not forgetting Travltalk! As with everything in Asia prices aren’t fixed so bargain hard. If you aren’t mechanically minded it may also be worth bringing someone with you to look at the bike. Things like worn brakes are easy and cheap to fix but more serious problems like a blown transmission could put a serious dent in both your travel time and funds.
We opted to buy our own bike and we had no trouble selling it on facebook groups for backpackers when we were done with our trip.
Types of Bikes
There are 3 types of bikes you will see in Asia. These are Automatic, Semi-automatic and Manual bikes. Which you get is up to you. There are pros and cons for each. Automatics are the easiest to ride and often have lots of space for luggage, but they need to be serviced more often and if things go wrong they can be expensive. Manuals, however, are more difficult to ride if you aren’t experienced, but much better in hilly areas with steep inclines and much cheaper to run.
The perfect bike, in my opinion, is the semi automatic bikes such as the Honda Wave. These are literally everywhere through all of Asia. They are completely bulletproof and if anything goes wrong they are cheap as chips to fix.
That being said we bought a manual bike. When we arrived in Hoi An there weren’t heaps available but there was a manual Yamaha Nouvo 3 in good condition that we bought. It served us very well.
The final thing you might want to consider in your planning is the costs of owning a bike. Mechanical problems will happen while you are travelling and while I can’t list everything here is a few costs we encountered.
Petrol – $1 per litre
Puncture repair – $1 to patch, $5 for tube replacement
Oil Change – $5
New brake pads – $5-10
New Tyre – $20
Carburator – $30-50
Battery – $20-30
As you can see mechanical costs are actually quite cheap and there are mechanics almost every few hundred metres. In fact with the 8 punctures we sustained over 12 months we never had to ride more than about 200 metres to find a mechanic.
With this information you should be able to get set up and on a bike to safely start your trip. In my next post I’ll go into our experiences while riding through Asia and share some helpful tips and tricks that we learnt along the way that we wish we had have known before we set off!