What was the hardest part of the trip?
Making the decision to do it. (Seriously!)
How did you determine your route?
I worked out the overall route before leaving Australia, using Google Maps and printed maps (a GeoCenter World Map covering Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, and Periplus TravelMaps for Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam). For the route out of Bangkok, Google Maps helped again as did an exploratory ride to the city outskirts the day before I departed for Bang Saen.
Road signposting varied from country to country, so my smartphone GPS came in handy for confirming where I was and where I was heading and, in particular, for finding my way around and through some of the bigger towns and cities en route.
What were the road conditions like? And were there many hills?
The route I took was essentially flat, on made roads in mostly good condition and often with good sealed shoulders. The only notable exception was the 40-50 km leading into Phnom Penh – see Skun-Phnom Penh.
Elevation profiles for the daily legs are included in the maps accessible through the links in the posts or on the Maps page.
What was the traffic like?
In a nutshell, light in the rural areas, busier in the towns along the way and moderate to heavy in the big cities: Bangkok, Phnom Penh and Ho Chi Minh City. Much as you’d expect I suppose.
A myriad of small-capacity motorcycles, bicycles, cyclos, carts, local buses, taxis and small delivery vehicles, as well as street vendors and pedestrians – not to mention domestic fowl and sundry other animals – have long laid claim to significant amounts of space on the road sides through the towns and cities. You’ll be riding in that mix. To some extent it’s a safe haven in there, but you have to stay alert and expect the unexpected, such as motorcycles and local cyclists going against the traffic flow, other road users entering from side roads without giving way, oncoming overtaking trucks, buses and cars, and so on. Riding safely then – everything is relative – is about integrating with the generally slow-moving traffic masses, maintaining heightened peripheral awareness, avoiding sudden stops and changes of direction and – antithetical perhaps to road users in some western nations – giving way regardless of whether you consider you have right of way. (For an insight into HCMC traffic early in weekday rush hour, see this video – I shot it at an intersection near the main District 1 backpacker/flashpacker accommodation area.)
Traffic through the Bangkok conurbation and onto Sukhumvit Road (national highway 3) was light the day I left Bangkok as it was a public holiday (see Bangkok-Bang Saen), but even on the previous day (a normal working day) when I did the exploratory ride to the city outskirts traffic levels were only moderate and certainly not alarming. Sukhumvit Road is busy dual carriageway much of the way down through Pattaya and beyond, but the lanes are wide and there’s good separation of traffic from the shoulders. The most unpleasant aspect of riding down through there is the constant traffic noise. The riding on Sukhumvit Road is much more enjoyable south of Jomtien and east of Ban Phe to Chanthaburi – the road by then is more single than dual carriageway. From Chanthaburi up to Pong Nam Ron and on to the Cambodian border you only have to contend with light local traffic.
Through rural Cambodia traffic volumes are generally low, but it understandably gets busier either side of Phnom Penh. The busiest section of road in Cambodia was the leg between Skun and Phnom Penh (made worse by the road works for much of the way into the capital). The roads from Phnom Penh through Takeo to Kampot and Kep were quiet, and much the same between Kep and the Prek Chak (Cambodia) – Xaxia (Vietnam) border crossing (the Ha Tien crossing).
From Ha Tien to Rach Gia in Vietnam, things started getting busier, but not unpleasantly so. Traffic was mostly constant from Rach Gia up through the rest of the Mekong to HCMC.
There are on-the-road photos in many of the posts that will give you a good idea of what to expect.
Did you have any trouble finding accommodation?
I had no problem finding a guesthouse each night, despite it being the peak holiday season. Guesthouse details are included in the posts. On average, I spent around USD 21 a night on guesthouse accommodation, ranging from USD 5 (Kampong Kdei) to USD 40-50 (in Bangkok and HCMC). I could have done it much cheaper if I’d been prepared to share rooms (e.g. in backpacker dormitories) or take rooms without bathroom facilities or air conditioning.
Did you pre-book accommodation?
Before leaving Australia, I booked a few nights accommodation in Bangkok (using Agoda). Once on the road, I pre-booked for Ban Phe in Thailand, for Siem Reap, Phnom Penh, Kampot and Kep in Cambodia, and Can Tho and HCMC in Vietnam – given it was peak holiday season I wanted to make sure I had somewhere to stay when I arrived in those places (especially for Christmas and New Year). I made the bookings, again via Agoda, mostly the previous day. At all other places I just turned up, having browsed the web the night before to get an idea where the guesthouses were and what they were like (often via www.travelfish.org). I never had any trouble finding a room, despite the season.
Is it possible to camp along the way?
I didn’t come across any organised camping sites and didn’t meet any travellers who had been camping, so I can’t offer much guidance on this. You could wild camp if needed (I’d have no hesitation doing so if there was no better option, but I’d make sure I had a mosquito net and a groundsheet). There’s a discussion on this website that offers a few more insights into camping through Southeast Asia.
What did you do with your bike each night?
All the guesthouses I stayed at let me keep my bike somewhere secure, usually inside and always out of sight of the street e.g. in the foyer, in storage rooms and laundries, parked with the family motorcycles, in enclosed courtyards, under the stairs, etc. In some cases I stayed in chalet-style accommodation with a verandah outside my room so kept the bike outside, but locked to the railings (with a cable lock I brought with me). One place let me keep the bike in my room.
What did you do about visas and did you have any problems at border crossings?
My tourist visa for Thailand was issued on arrival in Bangkok (no charge) and the visa for Cambodia at the Phsar Prom border crossing (USD 25 – I had some spare passport photos with me so didn’t have to pay extra for a photo at the border post). I organised a single-entry visa for Vietnam before leaving Australia because visas aren’t available at many of Vietnam’s overland borders and I wasn’t sure I would be able to get one where I planned to cross from Cambodia (the Prek Chak-Xaxia crossing, also known as the Ha Tien crossing).
I had no problems getting through any of the crossings. I quickly learned that patience with the local bureaucracy helps. The border crossing into Cambodia from Thailand, which cost USD 25, would have cost the equivalent of USD 30 if paid in Thai baht. And I was mildly rebuked by a Vietnamese soldier on the Ha Tien side of the Prek Chak-Xaxia border for riding across the no-man’s land between the Xaxia border post and the checkpoint – apparently you have to walk your bike, like the locals.
Any language difficulties?
Not really, despite my not speaking Vietnamese, Thai or Khmer. I picked up the absolute basics – hello, goodbye, thanks – and otherwise got by with menus helpfully printed in English as well as the local languages, with guesthouse staff who had smatterings of passable English, and by pointing, nodding and smiling a lot.
What about internet access?
WiFi is ubiquitous and the networks are generally open. The greatest impediment to access? Western travellers using Facebook and hogging bandwidth!
What about the weather?
I travelled in the dry season (it didn’t rain at all while I was in Thailand and Cambodia, and there were only a few afternoon showers once I got into the Mekong). The wet season – between, say, May and October – is well-named, but isn’t a reason to hold off travelling to the region. You can get dry days through the wet, and often when it does rain it only does so in the afternoon for a few hours. If you get going early in the day you can be off the road by the time the rain comes. Heavy rains do play havoc with the dirt roads in the region and can cause flooding so you need to plan your route accordingly.
Thoughts on the ideal bike for the trip?
Something durable that can withstand the inevitable potholes and uneven and broken surfaces, carry a load and be reasonably comfortable to ride as well. In my view, that means an MTB, tourer or hybrid rather than a racer. My MTB fitted the bill, but its 1.35″ high-pressure Schwalbe Kojak slicks (on 26″ rims) were in hindsight not the best tyres for the job – an unforgiving hard ride on coarse road surfaces and squirrelly handlers on loose surfaces. If I did the trip again, I’d do it with wider, treaded tyres e.g. 1.5″ or 1.75″ Schwalbe Marathons.
Did you carry much cash?
I had a couple of pre-loaded travel cards with me (Mastercard, Visa) that I used to pay for online Agoda bookings and for ATM withdrawals in local currencies. (There are plenty of ATMs in the towns along the way.) I also took a few hundred USD cash, which I sometimes used if I’d run out of local currency, to exchange for local currency at currency exchanges e.g. Western Union (in the bigger towns) or to pay for accommodation. Many cafes and market vendors in Siem Reap accepted baht and riel as well as dollars, but through the rest of Cambodia I used riel. In Vietnam it was dong or dollars.
Local vs. tourist prices?
There were only a few times I considered I was being charged over and above what a local would have paid, but the amounts were so small it didn’t worry me. The on-the-road cost of living is so low that overcharges for food and accommodation are usually inconsequential from a western perspective. Which doesn’t mean I didn’t keep my wits about me. I soon got a feel for what things cost e.g. meals, accommodation, etc. and recognised when I was being asked to pay more than the going rate.
What about unexploded ordnance?
There are still parts of Cambodia, particularly in the west around Pailin (see Pailin-Battambang), where UXO is yet to be cleared. Sticking to well-worn paths and roads minimised risk.
And bothersome dogs?
The local hounds through all three countries were mostly indolent, minded their own business and were well-used to passers-by (including cyclists). I did get chased short distances by a couple of dogs as I rode past their territories early in the morning on the road out of Chanthaburi, but I outpaced them easily (albeit with an elevated heart rate).
As for rabies shots – a few years back I took the bike to Malaysia for a couple of weeks riding and had shots of the Merieux vaccine before I went, based on guidebook suggestions. Once there I decided the risk of being bitten wasn’t significant, so when I returned home I didn’t keep the antibodies up through biennial booster shots and was not inoculated for the Bangkok-to-Saigon trip. On reflection, it would have made sense to have kept the vaccination current from a risk management perspective and given the cost and effort required would have been minimal. Having said that, however, my experience on the Bangkok to Saigon ride didn’t change my view that the actual level of risk is low. If I had been bitten by a dog, I would have gone to a doctor for a prophylaxis.
How did you cope with the heat?
Average temperatures ranged from 27 deg C in the early mornings to over 40 deg C in the afternoons.
To avoid the afternoon heat, I started riding soon after dawn most days (around 6:30 a.m.). That meant I could cover a reasonable distance – allowing for generous rest and meal stops – before the heat of the day became too much of a challenge.
I kept well hydrated too, buying cheap bottled water from the ubiquitous roadside vendors and cafes.
I wore a lightweight long-sleeved shirt, sunglasses and a helmet (which offered some protection from the sun), smeared sunscreen liberally on my cheeks, nose and lips (although my nose still copped a beating from the sun, as did my bottom lip) and also applied it on the backs of my legs behind the knees – the sun shines from the south and gives the exposed leg a hammering if it’s not protected.
Anything you’d do differently in hindsight?
I’d have spent a few nights on Ko Samet, which is one of the islands accessible from Ban Phe in Thailand (around 20 minutes by boat). I was only a few days into my trip when I got to Ban Phe and at that stage wasn’t sure where I’d want to spend time elsewhere on the journey so kept moving. As it turned out, I had a few more days up my sleeve when I got to Saigon than I expected so I could have done the side trip to the island after all. That’s the way it is sometimes when travelling like that – there’ll always be some place where in retrospect you think you could have spent more time!
How did you go about getting your bike boxed for the flight home?
I initially emailed a few bike shops in Saigon, but didn’t get any replies so called one of them – Martin 107 Bicycle Ltd, 105 Vo Thi Sau, District 3, HCMC – and confirmed they would box the bike for me. I rode there a day or two before I flew home, waited while the very friendly bike mechanics packaged up the bike, then took it back to the hotel in a taxi. All very quick and easy … and cheap, too – see the post Saigon | Ho Chi Minh City.
Any particularly good sources of information you’d recommend?
Bicycling Southeast Asia with Mr Pumpy is useful and a good read (although some of the information is a little dated).
Bicycle Thailand is a good resource. It includes a forum with helpful touring discussions e.g. Bicycle Riding on the Chanthaburi Coast.