Spandex isn’t always a requisite for cycling enthusiasts! While discovering the fascinating world of Asia by bicycle is an epic adventure, some people prefer to move at a more laid back pace. My pedal power has never been the fastest, but to see Asia in a new light, locally, the best trick I found wasn’t my guide book, but on the back of a bike! Here’re my 4 reasons why exploring cities and sights while leisurely pedalling can’t be beat.
Cycling in Asia…If you’ve ever entered these words into a search engine, the results are usually intense to say the least. Cross country cycling is the most popular and looks like an epic ordeal! If you’re a cyclist who has several spandex numbers in the closet and loads of convenient gear, it’s the ultimate way to experience another country. However, there are some people out there (including myself) who have little interest in such intense exercise during a journey in the region. Some love the gentle breeze, laid back pace and simple exercise of leisurely pedalling around. Generally, this can be forgotten and overlooked but there’s a lot to be gained from exploring smaller places from a bicycle seat. Namely Asian cities and sights (I’m looking at you, temple complex!) which are not only easy to navigate, but give any traveller a unique sense of the magic and adventure that awaits around the next corner. Here are four reasons why cycling cities and sights of Asia is a must while exploring this fascinating continent!
1. Obstacles Can Be A Good Thing.
Cruising out into an area you’ve been visiting means a familiarity with how to get around, and with the speed of your pedal, it can be a great tool to dig a little deeper into a neighbourhood or swing through the entire city. The main worry can sometimes be getting lost or some kind of repair problems, but wherever you are in an Asian city or major sight, there’s a good chance someone around the corner can help.
I got lost meandering around Sukhothai’s incredible ruins. This majestic kingdom is memorialized in the remains scattered through the area, but is still much alive with Buddhist worshipers and appreciative travellers. Trying to re-enter the old city, I stumbled along a road, thinking it would lead me straight to the main complex. However, I did not expect to end up lost what seemed like the countryside! The road stretched endlessly and all I could see were a few mountains in the distance, random teak homes, the occasional fire and rice paddies dotted with farm animals. Weary for water and a sense of direction, I stopped at a home of a kind Thai woman with a drink stand and after lots of hydration and mining, managed to find my location on the map and end up back in town. The real irony was that I just had to keep following that very same road amongst this stunning and isolated scenery.
Any traveller knows that when the unexpected happens it can be one of the most memorable parts of your trip. Between getting lost or needing a repair, there’s a lot of opportunity to interact with locals and wind up somewhere you never expect.
2. See Local Living Firsthand.
Travelling Southeast Asia now sometimes comes with the additional challenge of how to find the authentic. Local culture is well known to be prompted up for revenue, the opportunity to bring in more money, make a larger profit. Thereby, many feel that ‘authenticity’ can be isolated, removed from the tourist trail. While I was occasionally a cynical realist, I’m also a real optimist on the road and instead of being bothered by my limitations; I sought to go past them.
I’d arrived in Hoi An to find the charming cobblestoned tailor town many had touted as their favourite place in Vietnam. I was less intrigued, finding it to be a bit too tailored to tourists. Despite its incredible architecture and tasty food, I wanted to see where people lived, traded, made their lives. So, I rented a bike and pedalled out towards the beach for a dip in the water, but found more then I could have bargained for.
Whizzing by vibrant rice paddy fields, grazing water buffalo and shacks en route to An Bang, gave me a better idea of how people humbly lived here without tailor work. It was the first time I felt exposed to people outside of the tourism industry in Hoi An and the quaint charm and general local ease was a welcomed change. I cruised past men fishing with giant hand-woven basket boats that look like something out of a story book, paddling out to catch some crabs and other fresh fare. At the beach, children jumped into the crashing waves that are shockingly strong during monsoon season.
When I was just south of there in Nha Trang, I stumbled upon a shack on a cliff side. The woman had a few items for sale, bia, bin bin (beer and chips) and her shack had small dirt trails around it. Each snaked down the cliff side to a different hiding spot where basket boats are stored. Fishermen hike along these pathways and pull them out to ply their wares in the surprisingly clear waters from the seemingly empty cliff side. My truest experience of Vietnam was almost always while pedalling around or out of town. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Overall, culture can be observed in many different ways, but riding a bicycle into these communities and just out of the city limits is a great way to get in touch with local life.
3. Be Mobile!
Sometimes when travelling, you have a half day to spare that seems to appear out of thin air! It can be tough to know what to do with yourself, yet while travelling there’s always something new around every corner, every block. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with options, looking up reviews, chatting with tour desks, asking every other person in the hotel common room. But, when I’m on the back of a bike, it’s much less daunting. Whether off to see something specific or just meandering out of town, cycling makes you mobile.
In Hanoi, it was fairly easy to get oriented, but traffic and long walks got daunting fast. Hoping on a bike was the quickest and easiest way to head off to see the famous Museum of Ethnology. Featuring incredibly detailed exhibitions, an outdoor park with traditional buildings and water puppet performances, the day there flew by! It’s exciting to get around a city on your own, not to mention easy to stumble upon delicious food. Often, driving tends to worry many, but generally, being a voyageur on a bicycle means that you can easily avoid rush hour while evading traffic. Being small, light and fast makes it easy to whizz along to your next stop, or to whatever looks intriguing. An alley just a 5 minute ride away from the Museum was my gateway to the tasty fried snacks of crab patties, tofu and vermicelli noodles, with enough herbs on the side to freshen up the heaviest of meals. Another 15 minutes up the road was West Lake, the biggest lake in Hanoi, with tons of small roads encircling its 12 kilometer radius, with charming stoop cafes and fishermen standing out in the water.
Getting around in Asian cities on the back of a bicycle means you can really follow your instinct and there a few things that beat getting around quickly, while just using your feet for power.
4. The Fittest and Greenest Form of Sightseeing.
Reality is, there’s a lot of pollution in Asia. It can be heartbreaking to see littering in such a spectacular place with incredible historical, natural and cultural wonders. Between that, and the seemingly endless idling of buses in temple complexes and cities, clogging traffic at every angle, I’ve found reprieve on the back of a bicycle.
There’s something about exploring the temple studded plains of Bagan while cycling that simply can’t be beat. The fact that you’re surrounded by all of these incredible historical buildings, scattered as far as the eye can see, without polluting them feels intensively rewarding. It gives you the opportunity to interact with the space, while exercising and keeping the air clean. All you tend to leave behind is maybe a light trail in the grass. There’s nothing better.
While you may not be cycling across Cambodia, there’s a huge reward to just cruising along the incredible culture and history of something like Angkor Wat. It can also be the most subtle form of exercise, as you meander through the flat plains of some destinations, like the fields of Bagan. Also, responsibility while travelling is important and riding a bike is a great way to keep the community clean and get in some much needed calorie burning after lunch!
Whatever you’re route; consider renting a bicycle the next time you explore an Asian sight or city. There’s really no better way to see small destinations, get a flare of local life and take care of the place.