Home In-depth answers to cyclists' frequently asked questions.
Mr Pumpy's Frequently
Are you nuts? |Women cyclists
| The bike | Taking
your own bike | Buying/renting in Asia |
Updated Dec 2002
Are you nuts? Not really, but I do think cycling in Asia is such a pleasurable, intense and practical experience you're mad to travel any other way.
Why do it? It turns an interesting holiday into an adventure.
You never have to take another rikshaw, cyclo, tuk-tuk or taxi again - so there's 85% of your Asian troubles gone in one stroke! You work to your own timetable, get fit and spend more time with ordinary Asian folk. Above all, it's a lot of fun.
Isn't the traffic dangerous? Traffic always looks worse from inside a speeding bus than it does from a bike, so it's really safer than you may have imagined.
Asia is a bicycle culture, so it's just a case of getting in the groove with everybody else. The traffic is set up to accommodate bikes, unlike the West, where, sure, the traffic stays inside the designated lanes, but God help you if you veer out.
In Asia the cars and buses will weave around you and often give you a wave and a smile, which is a novel experience.
But it does depend on where you go. Java's about the worst I've encountered and Laos is about the best. To avoid the heavy traffic, the trick is to get off the amin arteries and ride the "B" roads as much as possible.
The weather? Isn't it too hot? Yep, Asia's hot alright, but riding along on the bike sure beats sitting in a crowded bus feeling sticky.
Riding creates it's own wind, and it's often not until you stop that you realise how hot it actually is.
It's a case of getting active in the heat, and for some strange reason, it ceases to be a problem. After a week you start to enjoy the healthy sweat and exertion of it all, and wouldn't do it any other way.
How fit do you have to be? Only moderate.
As long as you are not doing too many hills, it's easy riding. Take your time, who needs to rush?
Biking isn't only for the disgustingly fit. It's also for regular people like me who like a bit of adventure but aren't overly sporty.
Do you train much beforehand? I don't train in any formal sense, but a few weeks before departure I get out on the bike pretty regularly.
I ride to work, down to the shops/cafe and do a few day rides around or out of the city. Nothing too strenuous, but just enough to lift my condition a bit and test out the bike; better for something to break now than on the road in Asia.
If it's a new bike it also lets me get the feel of it, how it handles, how it accelerates and stops.
If you haven't trained or prepared much before you go, just give it a week on the road, and lo! you'll wake up on the morning of day seven feeling obscenely taught and full of energy! It's quite an experience. Basically you tend to ride yourself into condition over a week or two.
Will I lose weight/get fit/get laid? Yep, yep and probably! Nothing like a bike ride through Asia to knock off a few unwanted pounds and score big.
If you've been a couch potato before you go, it'll take a week or two on the road to get into condition, and from then on you'll notice yourself beginning to tone up quite nicely.
You might even begin to develop those weird muscles that stick out the side of your upper legs, much admired by the opposite sex (I think...).
Above: Mr Felix scores big again.
far do you ride in a day?
I ride about 100 km a day, averaging about 15 km/hr.
I'm slow - I like to stop a lot and chat to people. Some high achievers do 160 km in a day. On a typical day I ride for about 6 hours and rest for 2. (100 km = 60 miles, 160 km=100 miles)
The wind? Some days are windy, most are not. It all depends on the monsoon.
There is some concern amongst biker folk about prevailing winds at certain times of the year impeding one's progress, but I've never found it a big enough problem to worry about it. Trying to plan your bike ride around these ever changing wind patterns seems a bit complicated to me.
If you're really concerned, check out the Lonely Planet Guide which has information on wind directions.
My advice is: go where you want, when you want. (Mr Pumpy says: 'Be free, man!')
Where do you stay? In Hotels and Guest Houses usually. If I get caught out between towns, I either hop a bus (bike on the roof, me inside) to the next hotel or stay with friendly locals.
Should I take a tent? I've never taken a tent, and have never needed one in South and Southeast Asia.
There's a plethora of Guest Houses and Hotels, and when I'm seriously stuck for night digs I either stay with locals, in a Buddhist monastery or believe it or not, at the local police station.
Staying with locals/monasteries/Police Stations Staying anywhere but a Hotel or Guest House means you will sacrifice your privacy, and this needs to be weighed up in your own mind.
After a hard days' ride in full public view, it's nice to be able to kick back in the Hotel room by yourself, take a shower, lie naked on the bed and admire your newly forming deltoid muscles. And perhaps most of all, not talk to anyone for an hour ot two.
However, once in a while you will get caught without lodgings, and there are survivable alternatives.
1. Staying with locals This is pretty easy to organise, and the further you get out into the boonies the easier it gets.
Just walk up and ask! Either they'll say "Sure, pardner! Pull up a piece of floor!" or if they're full up, they'll direct you to another friendly household.
You may be sleeping on the verandah or the lounge room floor, but the family will do their best to make you comfortable.
There's no need to establish a price before hand, as this would be impolite, but you must ALWAYS pay something when you are about to leave.
I usually pay the lady of the house (not the man - who'll sure as not go out and drink it away) about as much as I'd pay in a local Guest House, including food. For the locals this is good money.
No need to count the money out and make a big deal of it. Just slip it to the lady quietly on your way out, with a smile and a thankyou.
You will need to spend a bit time entertaining the family with wildly exciting tales of the road and do a few magic tricks/funny faces for the kids before shut eye. This can be fun, or a pain, depending on how tired you are, but as the Buddhists say: it's just the way it is.
If you're female, remember that Asia is pretty much across the board deeply conservative, so take care not to show too much bare skin. Shorts and low cut tops are not good form in a family situation. Best to just wear a loose T-shirt and a sarong, and keep yourself as demure as possible. The women of the household especially will apreciate it.
Although I take care of my belongings when I stay with a local family, I've never had a problem with theft. Life here inside the family hearth is a different thing to life on the streets.
2. Staying at a Buddhist monastery Most Buddhist monasteries (Wats) will allow you stay the night.
Just ride on in and ask. There's usually plenty of room and the monks will make an effort to make you comfortable.
Buddhist monks themselves don't eat after midday, but they'll usually give you something to eat and drink.
The downside is that you'll need to spend a few hours talking English to the monks, who are usually keen to try out out a few sentences, and while away a few hours being entertained.
This can be fun or a drag depending on how tired you are or how often you've done it.
Women can stay in monasteries also, but generally need to be accompanied by a man, unless there is an attached nunnery, in which case no sweat.
But, remember! Western women make Buddhist monks nervous, so be super conscious of the skin issue. No low cut tops or shorts! Walk around acting happy but demure and everybody will noticeable relax in your presence.
If possible, on your way out, pay your respects to the head monk, and leave a donation. This will be most appreciated, as it shows you are polite and well bred. Wrap the money in an envelope or piece of paper, and hand it to the assistant monk (not the head monk) with both hands, head bowed.
If you're a woman, the monks will usually motion you to drop the money into their hands, or place it on the table. Touching a monk, if you're female, is a no-no.
I generally leave about as much as I would have paid in a Guest House.
3. Staying at the local Police Station This gets easier the further out into the country you go but is somewhat of a last resort.
As above, just walk up and ask. The times I have done it I have generally asked if there is somewhere to stay in the area, and wait for the police to say "No, but you can stay here."
You will probably be shown a bench in the office, or a bed in a cell. The cells can be rather airless and mosquito enhanced, so I actually don't recommend the experience.
Also, the police may insist on you joining them in a late night drinking session, so the whole thing can get a bit too "good ol' boy" for my likings. But, as a last resort, it's survivable.
|| Are you nuts? | Women cyclists | Type of bike | The aeroplane | What to take ||
Is it safe for a woman to cycle alone?
Depending on where you go, and how you do it, cycling is very safe for women in Asia.
I've never heard of a woman on a bike being attacked in Asia. Having said that, naturally, as a woman it pays to stay attentive and not take unwarranted risks.
The biggest worry for women cyclists, as it is with women backpacking through Asia, are the social hassles; unwanted, annoying local males, and the basic drill for keeping such things to a minimum is the same for both modes of travel.
Wear modest clothes as much as possible. Make sure your tee-shirt or shirt is loose fitting and doesn't show too much flesh. Think about having a pair of loose, cotton Indian pants to cycle in/change into when you think it's appropriate.
It pays to act conservatively in public so as not encourage the misguided local view of Western women as 'brazen sex maniacs'. What's perfectly normal at home may startle the locals.
How do the locals view Western women? Now, before I get a flurry of flame males from my outraged Western cycling sisters, give me a little space here to lay down the facts as I see them, and it may be of some help.
Speaking very broadly, Western women don't have a good reputation in Asia. The basic negative, uneducated, view of Western women is one of young bodies cavorting around Asia, sleeping with anything in pants, showing off a lot of skin, drinking, taking drugs, talking loudly, swearing, making jerky movements and generally inflaming the passions of the local males.
The mother of my good Thai friend, Suda (a woman), once said to her: "Oh, those Western women, they've just gotta have it all the time!"
Suda, who used to live in Australia, naturally replied: "Wh-at?!" Her mother went on to explain that really, she didn't have a problem with this, it was just the way Western women were. Hmm, very liberal of Suda's mother, however misguided.
Even swimming in a full, one piece bathing suit is considered bad taste for women in Cambodia. So short of taking a dip in full chador, you're scarlet in the eyes of the local population.
Remember that besides a very conservative culture, you are also dealing with people who have probably not travelled out side their own home country, and may not have read or seen anything that is not in their newspapers or on their TVs. This limits the breadth of understanding severely.
On the other hand, within the local cultural context, some of this negative view is warranted. In Thailand, for example, Westerners often go ape in some beach resort areas, walk into monasteries in low cut tops and sit around in public, in shorts, with their arms around their boyfriend. Trust me, the local women are watching and are taking note.
It's no use saying: "Oh, I've seen local women do much worse!" These local women, also, are borderlined by the mainstream.
One of the most interesting cases I've seen was on a train in Sri Lanka travelling up through the mountains. A young twenty something Belgian girl got on, wearing a T-shirt and loose conservative short pants. So far so good.
She was travelling with her boyfreind, both well scrubbed, fresh faced, well meaning looking tourists. Honest, conservative, caring looking young folk, probably planning on getting married and having 2.4 children, much to the delight of the grand parents back home. OK, we're looking good!
With her boyfriend, and sat down opposite. The carriage was crowded with families, going off to visit relatives and enjoying a religious holiday.
For most of the trip the belgian girl sat
cally, Asia is very conservative and "proper" Asain female behaviour means no extra skin on show: no shorts or low cut tops. The correct body language is demure: no crossed legs and no jerky movements (which enflame the male!)
Serious assaults. Assaults on women tourists in Asia have been known to happen, and you can simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The few serious assaults I've read about have either happened in the heavy tourist spots associated with drugs and alcohol, or way off in the 'jungle' regions where the women have gotten very isolated.
The lesson here is to not stray too far off the beaten track alone. Stick to the main routes where there's enough cars going past to every now and then to add a little security in numbers.
Camping out or a hotel? As a woman cycling alone I would take care to not sleep out in a tent at night, or doss-down in a disused building of any sort.
My rule would be to make it to the next hotel, or family house, without fail, each night. This is not at all difficult to do in Asia, and in all my own ten years of riding Southeast Asia I never been caught out.
The Canadian experience. Some years back I met a Canadian woman cycling alone in southern Thailand, after which we cycled together for a few days up to Bangkok. She said her experience alone had been on the whole 'very good'. At the same time, she was happy to have a guy to cycle with, if only to ward off the curious local male approaches she sometimes encountered.
The local women. As a woman, whatever hassles you do encounter, will be compensated to some degree by the attention the Asian women will give you - you'll be invited into their houses and made to feel extremely welcome, something that is not my experience as a male cyclist.
The local women will also immediately come to your aid should there be any trouble. Their views of Western women notwithstanding, they have no illusions about their own men folk.
Which country is safest? Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Singapore and Vietnam are very safe and relatively hassle free.
Parts of Indonesia can be a socially uncomfortable. The 'young, frustrated, Muslim man' factor can be a pain for Western women.
Laos is very safe and easy along the main routes, but may be dicey way out in the northern hill areas, where reports of bandits and thieves still come in.
Peep holes. Some places seem to be big on peep holes into hotel rooms. I hate to say it, but some Muslim countries seem to be the worst.
|| Are you nuts? | Women cyclists | The bike | The aeroplane | What to take ||
The bike? I ride a standard mountain bike with nobby tires.
Some folk ride touring bikes, hybrids or racers. It depends on what you prefer and where you're going. If the roads are sealed and in good condition, take a racer. If it's varied terrain, take a tourer or mountain bike.
Around town, you can't beat a mountain bike for my money and I'm willing to sacrifice a bit of road speed for compactness (good if you want to hop a bus) and versatility. There's pluses and minuses in each choice, it's up to you.
The bike @ 14 kg, 2 back panniers @ 6 kg each, 1 front bag @ 2 kg. A bell-compass (a handy little gizmo indeed), a front white light, a back blinking red light, a water bottle and plenty of reflectors and reflecting tape. My helmet (hanging off the seat) has a front and back cotton shade.
Taking your bike to Asia. I take my own bike from home, and bring it back, as apposed to buying it in Asia (see below).
I know the bike, I'm used to it, I trust it and I put up with having to lug it through airports. Because of the weight restrictions on aeroplanes, it forces me to travel very light, which in the end is a plus.
Make sure your bike is 'ridden in', so the bugs are ironed out before you leave for Asia. Don't buy a bike on Tuesday and leave for Bangkok on Wednesday. Also, buy the best bike you can afford. There is nothing worse than a bad bike that keeps breaking down!
Buying the bike in Asia. You can buy first class bikes of all sorts in all of the major Asian cities, as well as all the support gear you'll ever need (pumps, lights, spare parts etc).
Is this a better option rather than bringing your own from home? On the plus side, it'll be cheaper and you don't have to carry it on the aeroplane (see above). On the negative you may get ripped off/sold a bad bike/bad parts, can't 'ride the bike in' before you start and will be shopping in a strange environment where the time spent and frustration may be a factor.
If you do buy a bike in Asia, again, make sure it's the best quality you can afford. Be warned that Asia is 'scam city', so even though the bike parts may say 'Shimano', they may not be. Take care.
As far as prices go, and depending on the import duty on bikes at home, you will probably get them cheaper in Asia. How much cheaper? Maybe a third.
Vis-à-vis selling the bike once you're finished with it in Asia, it's like anywhere; time will be against you to hold out for a good price and you'll probably get half your money back, if you're lucky.
Can you rent bikes in Asia? Yes, but they're usually old clunkers, not fit for long distance riding.
Does it cost extra to take your bike on the aeroplane? 99% of the time there is no extra charge, domestic or international.
I've flown on numerous flights into and around Asia (at least 30 international and ten domestic) and never paid an extra cent, or had a major hassle. Asian and Australian airlines are very cool when it comes to bikes.
I have had to pay extra when I've been in America. North and Central American airlines will sometimes charge about USD50 to take the bike. Those bastards!
However, make sure you don't exceed the normal weight allowance - usually 20 kg (see below). On the aeroplane, I take the heaviest pannier as hand luggage and load the bike and the other pannier into the hold.
To be super safe about extra charges, ring the airline and get them to fax you a written statement of their bike policy. If there is a problem at the check-in counter, the fax should sort it out.
However, it can also pay to just arrive at the airport and act dumb: "My travel agent said that I didn't have to pay!"
See 'The aeroplane' below....
The panniers? I carry two pannier bags on the back, and a handle-bar bag on the front. No front panniers.
I don't use front panniers because they make the steering too heavy. This is a personal choice.
The front handle-bar pouch is indispensable for wallet, sun-cream lotion and Lonely Planet Guide. My front bag has a clear plastic top for the map, which is infinitely handy.
What's it all weigh? My bike weighs 14 kg and I carry a further 14 kg of luggage in two back panniers and a front handle-bar bag. That's 28 kg all up.
On the plane I carry one pannier and the front bag (8 kg) as hand luggage, and load the rest (20 kg) into the hold.
Security in Asia? 'Always lock your bike' - this applies to Asia as well as at home; it's no better or worse. Play safe. Never take your eye off it, lock it in safe places and take it into your room at night if the hotel is a bit dodgey. In 10 years riding in Asia I've never had mine stolen (touch wood), but I've known people who have.
Taping up the bike? To prevent scratches on the bike in the plane, on buses and on the road, I cover the whole frame in electrical tape (this is not an airline requirement). It also makes the bike look a bit old and shabby, which is not a bad idea. My theory is it makes the bike less worth stealing.
Reflective tape. For safety I use a bit of reflective tape on the front and back forks. See the photo below left.
Above: The bike at night. Besides my front and back lights/reflectors, I use a bit of reflective tape to make the bike 'light up' under car lights at night. It looks a bit like Christmas time, but hey! it makes me feel safe.
|| Are you nuts? | Women cyclists | The bike | The aeroplane | What to take ||
Getting the bike onto the plane
There's a few options here, so pay attention kiddies.
If you ring the airlines they will tell you there is no extra charge, but you will need to deflate the tyres, turn the handle bars and remove the pedals.
If they tell you there is a charge, get another airline.
The Bike Box: Some airlines require you to put the bike in a 'bike box'. This is a disposable cardboard box that the bike fits into for transport on the plane.
Ask them if they supply one, and at what cost. Qantas, for example, sometimes demands a box, which they supply at check-in for $10.
The box is a good idea, as it protects the bike from scratches and damage. It's $10 well spent. Load the pedals and lightest pannier in also, to make it all up to 20 kg. Hand it over to the man and get on the plane.
Throw the box away at the other end, or give it another cyclist.
The homemade cardboard cover: Some airlines don't have boxes, but require you to cover the gears and chain with cardboard and tape. See the photo below.
It's best to do this at home before you get to the airport, but many airports, especially in Asia, will do it for you at check-in for a small cost.
The naked bike: Some airlines don't require you to do anything. Just wheel the bike on as is with the tyres deflated.
This is my most common experience.
The good point with this is that it's easy, the bad point is that the bike always gets either scratched or something small gets bent during the trip. The damage is never big, usually just a reflector or bell. It's annoying.
(Mr Pumpy's theory is that the hostesses crack open the champagne and ride the bikes up and down the cargo bay banging into things. He wants to stow away with the bike one day and check it out.)
The bike bag: The bike bag is a tough synthetic envelope that holds the bike frame and separated wheels. The whole thing doesn't look like a bike at all; just a big flat piece of luggage. Very handy also for putting the bike on a bus or into a car. It doesn't freak out the driver like a naked bike.
However, there's two problems. Firstly, you gotta carry the bag around with you on the ride, which can be a pain, especially going up hills.
The second problem is that the bag and bike can take a beating in the hold of the aeroplane. It gets thrown around and horses sit on it, which tends to bend the spokes.
The folding bike: You can buy full size folding bikes that 'fold up' into a case or bag. Some of the better bags then convert into a back pack.
Very handy for travelling, but it will add about 2 to 3 hundred dollars to your bike purchase price. Worth considering if you intend to ride in Asia and need to buy a new bike.
Ask at your local bike store or go to the Foldup Bikes in Mr Pumpy's Links.
Vote with your feet if you can: At the end of the day, the airlines want your business, and in the unlikelihood that there is any hassle with the bike, tell them politely you are very unhappy with your treatment and in future you will fly with a competitor. It's not much but what else you gonna do, bro?
Deflate the tyres? Huh? Before putting the bike on the plane, you need to deflate the tyres to half pressure.
The reason for this is disputed, but they tell me that, if you don't, with the drop in atmospheric air pressure in the non-pressurized cargo hold at 30,000 ft, the tyres will explode. Not that it would cause much damage to the aeroplane really, but the loud 'pop' distracts the pilot.
Deflate them to half pressure only, so you can wheel it off at the other end without getting a puncture. Half pressure is fine, and won't explode in the air.
Collecting the bike at your destination airport? Sometimes the bike will come out with all the other luggage on the conveyor belt, usually last. Other times it will be wheeled out by a cargo guy and parked up against a wall somewhere at the back of the arrival area. I usually ask an attendant.
Getting through customs? I find the customs guys are usually pretty good about the bike, and let me through quickly, often with a polite enquiry about the ride.
|| Are you nuts? | Women cyclists | The bike | The aeroplane | What to take ||
Do they sell toothpaste and underpants in Asia?
Yes. You can get all your clothing, food and most of your bathroom things in Asia, so don't 'over' buy at home. Things are cheaper in Asia.
Over the counter drugs
You can purchase most common drugs at any pharmacy without a prescription. They'll be cheaper than at home.
Sunblock cream, mosquito repellant, tampons and large condoms
These four are difficult to get in Asia, so take your own.
Sunblock cream and mosquito repellant are almost impossible to get. Mr Pumpy recommends taking a large tube of '30' strength sunblock cream and a large size bottle of 'Rid - Tropical Strength' roll-on mosquito repellant.
They've got tampons, but you can bet not your favourite brand.
The condoms in Asia are made smaller than in the West - a fact. If you are German, American, Canadian, Dutch or Australian take a supply from home if you think you'll need 'em. If you're English the local brand will probably fit fine.
One thing you'll notice about the condom packets in Asia is that they always have 'hot' looking Western women on the cover. Funny thing.
with front sun visor and back cotton 'neck shade'. The other option is
a baseball cap with sun visor and back cotton 'neck shade.' The shades
are most important!
with valid visas.
Optional bike stuff
Spare tire - I don't take one.
Remember: Most bike parts and bike problems can be fixed cheaply at bike shops all over Asia. The bike guys are usually 'terrific'; full of fun and good at their jobs.