During my year-long journey all across Southeast Asia, I became a big advocate and fan of traveling by motorbike. I probably rode a bike at least once in every country I visited and every single time it made for a unique and unforgettable experience. I did several multi-day tours as well as numerous one day excursions. It is about the feeling of total freedom, of really immersing yourself in the scenery around you, about the sun warming your face, a cool breeze blowing through your hair and all those kind people you meet on the road. Personally I think it is one of the best ways to really explore a place and I can recommend everyone to at least give it a try. Here is why I think so:
1| You are in the scene
Some time ago a reader of my blog left this quote about motorbike travel which sums it all up very well: “The difference with motorbike travel and all other forms is that you are in the scene, rather than being a passive watcher through a frame (window).” When you ride a bus, a jeepney or a van, you are confined to this little space, almost like in a cage looking outside from the inside. When you are riding a motorbike, you are right there, in the middle of it all. You become part of the whole picture; you are not only passing by.
2| Freedom and Flexibility
The freedom of traveling by motorbike is unmatched. You can do whatever you want and you are not confined to anyone’s schedule but your own. You can just take that interesting side road you just passed, you can have a snack at that unique road stop which you’d otherwise whip right past or stop to say hello to that group of smiling children who have been happily waving at you. You can eat where and when you want, you can stop as often as you want and you can pee when you want to pee. Once you have arrived at your destination or overnight stop, you can easily check and compare different guesthouses before choosing one. Once checked in, you can go and explore that new town and its surroundings on your own. Who knows what you might find?
3| The views
The vantage point from a motorbike gives an unobstructed 180 degree view wherever you go. You can see the road in front of you and the beautiful scenery to your left and right. The view through the window of a bus or train just doesn’t compare to this.
4| Take better photos
Everyone probably knows this situation. You are riding on a bus and you pass this amazing photo opportunity – a crystal clear lake, a gushing river or an incredible viewpoint on top of high road pass. You are trying to snap some shots out of the window, feeling already lucky if you can open the window. I have been there myself… several times. If you are on a bike, you can just stop, get off, take out your gear and take your sweet time to get that amazing photograph your friends will later talk about.
5| Getting off the beaten track
As you might know by now, I love venturing off the beaten track. Traveling by motorbike makes this very easy. You will pass side roads which you can go down, you will spot signs pointing to an interesting site not mentioned in your guide book or you will pass interesting little villages where you can just hang out a bit. Some of my best off the beaten track experiences were only made possible because I was traveling by motorbike.
6| Meet the locals
Traveling by motorbike enables you to interact with locals. You can ask for directions, chat with people at a local road stop or you might even get stranded at a local repair shop because of a flat tire. That actually happened to me countless times. You will also be able to observe how people go about their daily lives. I have seen peasants farming their fields, roamed around busy markets or coffee farmers drying their produce on the side of the road. Traveling by motorbike will give you the chance to really immerse yourself into the local cultures.
7| It’s cheap
Renting a motorbike (I am talking about the typical 125cc bikes, found everywhere around Asia) is usually around five to ten dollars per day plus gasoline. I think that’s a good deal for all the benefits that come with it. If you own a bike, even better.
8| Explore and discover
Traveling by motorbike enables you to discover places which you most probably would have missed otherwise. Tour buses mostly visit the well established sites and also stick to the main paths. With a bike you are free to roam around and you can visit those lesser known places that no tour company will head for. Who knows, you might even discover a hidden gem that no one else has ever been to.
9| Say hello to Adventure
The final argument and probably one of the most important ones. Traveling by motorbike is all about the adventure. You will have to sort out a lot more things on your own. You have to find your way, you might get lost or you might end up with a flat tire in the middle of nowhere. All of that happened to me. But it never posed a real problem that I couldn’t fix. And in the end, it will make you end up with many colorful tales to tell when you’re done. As I always say, adventure might be just around the corner. And by motorbike, it is a lot easier to discover.
A word about risks
Motor biking can be dangerous, especially if you are very unexperienced. But if you act smart, don’t push too hard and use common sense, then you can minimize the risk. I have covered several thousand kilometers during my trip and never had more than a busted tire. I have worked my way up and by now it has become like second nature. To me the reward/risk ratio is clearly in favor of using a motorbike. But that is a calculation that each one of you guys has to do on their own.
Tips and advice
To help minimize those risks and maybe help to take that ambiguity away, I’d like to give you some tips and advice which I came to learn during my travels.
If you don’t know the area, get a map. Especially important for multi-day tours. Book stores usually have a number of maps and for Southeast Asia the best maps I came by are published by GT Rider. You can find their link in my links section. Before taking off, have your smartphone cache a map of the area. You can then access it on the road without needing internet access and you can even use it with your GPS. I found that very handy.
2| Get confident
If you are not familiar with riding a motorbike. Get some practice before heading out on that big tour. Have someone teach you, most of the rental places even offer that service. Don’t start out in a super busy city but rather a sleepy rural village in the countryside. Learning to drive in Saigon or Phnom Penh will for sure end up in disaster.
3| Check your rental bike
Take your sweet time to thoroughly check your rental bike. Walk around it and try to look skeptical. Even if you are not an expert (like myself). Then take pictures of the bike with your camera and make sure the sales person sees you doing it. You want to avoid them charging you damage that has been there before. Make sure lights are working, brakes and most important in Asia…the horn.
4| Wear proper clothes
This is an important one. Even if it is super-hot out, wear long pants, a long sleeve and proper shoes. It will save you from severe road rash if you fall. Road rash is not serious but a nasty injury which will take a long time to heal and which will keep you from swimming in the sea for a while. Long pants will also keep you from getting burned on your own or other bikers’ exhausts.
Don’t wear flip flops but sturdy shoes. For the same reasons as above but also because you never know what you might encounter. You might pass a hidden cave or an intriguing hiking trail. Good shoes will help you exploring these.
5| Check your helmet
A good helmet can save your life. Make sure to get one which is high quality and fits you well. If this is not the case, ask for another one or even ask the guys at the rental place to fetch one from another rental place.
6| Know your skills
Always ride according to your skills. Don’t speed or engage in risky passing maneuvers. You can end up in sketchy, potentially dangerous situations quicker than you might think.
Motorbike travel is awesome, especially in Southeast Asia. I really got addicted to this type of travel and I will do it again whenever there is a chance for it. I hope I was able to get you guys interested in it. And if you try and still feel unsafe and unsure, don’t force it. Maybe it is just not for you, and that is totally ok. Try finding a partner who lets you ride as passenger or join one of these easy rider tours, most popular in Vietnam, where an experienced rider takes you along with him.
Are you also into motorbike travel or are you considering it? Let me know what you think of it and feel free to share your own experiences. Philipp (Pipoy Palaboy)