Posted by: ghostdawg2 | June 24, 2009

China To Thailand By BIKE by Scott Brown & City Weekend / 06-17-2009

Scott Browner, the author of this article, watches the sun set over Doc Let Beach, in Vietnam, 3181 kilometres into his journey of over 4000 kilometres. Scott Browning, the author of this article, watches the sun set over Doc Let Beach, in Vietnam, 3181 kilometres into his journey of over 4000 kilometres.

Sitting in gravel and dirt by the side of a lonely highway somewhere in rural Laos, trying unsuccessfully to fix a rusty, jammed brake cable, I began questioning the motivations which led me there.The midday sun blazed overhead, I had a tiny amount of water left and no idea where to spend the night. Over 300 kilometers separated me from my final destination.

Southeast Asia has always been a popular draw. It’s a high density mix of cultures and countries, diverse landscapes, culinary delights, exotic mystery, with price tags to suit all budgets, from the penny-pinching backpacker to the more-dollars-than-sense connoisseur. While in Sydney last year, killing time in an airport bookstore, I stumbled across the Lonely Planet Cycling Southeast Asia guidebook. Until then, I’d always considered cycle touring to be something undertaken by middle-aged Europeans named Hanza or Inga or overzealous adventurers trying to conquer the world.

Eight months later, with a three month holiday in hand and a frigid Yangshuo winter ahead, the idea of an extended bike trip sounded appealing. With years of bus-catching, city-hopping and tourist-tag backpacking under my belt, cycling seemed like the next evolution: a trip all about the journey, not the destination.

editedmap full China to Thailand by bike With a touring bike (¥1,400 off the internet), ¥700 worth of panniers (cycling bags) and a small Santa sack full bicycle-related odds and ends, I set off from Nanning in Guangxi headed for Bangkok. My route would take in five countries and cover over 4,000 km. I’d devised a piecemeal route, constructed from notes and tidbits I’d picked up from hours searching the internet. My route aimed to take in the best of everything, if somewhat briefly, joining the dots on the map of must-see sites.

As I rode with the traffic out of Nanning that morning, the hazy sun gradually revealing the pale city grays, my only company was optimism, enthusiasm and a bucketful or naivety. Attempts at finding a friend for the journey had failed, so the ride was not only an exercise in adventure, but in solitude.

pc080601 full 225x300 China to Thailand by bike To keep my mind active, I decided to document the ride, hoping that anything I learned would help fellow travelers considering a similar endeavor. The online journal became a means for me to vent emotions, and, at times, was the only thing that got me through. Like the time I found myself sitting by the side of the road in Laos, my enthusiasm as worn as my dilapidated brakes. All optimism was replaced by loneliness, exhaustion, fatigue and an honest feeling that I had embarked on a bizarre form of self-punishment. By turns angry, exhilarated and exhausted, I pushed on because I knew that giving up would be soul destroying.

From Nanning, my route took me from southern China through Vietnam, with brief stops in Hanoi and Halong Bay, west into Laos and the stunning UNESCO World Heritage site of Luang Prabang where I got my first glimpse of the 4,200 km Mekong River. Heading east from Laos, I crossed back into Vietnam along what used to be the de-militarized zone and followed the coast south along Vietnam’s main artery: Highway 1. More demolition derby than road, Highway 1 proved the biggest threat of the journey with busses, trucks, motorbikes and potholes leaving me a screaming mess of road rage and forcing me to clog my ears with toilet paper.

pc020549 full 300x225 China to Thailand by bike Along the way I battled food poisoning and fatigue, slept on the floor of a monastery and experienced the serene solitude of a morning sunrise on a long, straight, lonely highway. At one of my lowest points, I was even forced to hitch a lift with a passing truck. It was that or sleep by the side of a road potentially littered with landmines.

A highlight of the trip was the time I spent getting lost, re-lost, found and then lost again in the maze that is the Mekong delta south of Saigon. The area marks the end of the Mekong’s meandering traverse of Southeast Asia and the spot where it fans out into estuaries, channels, rivulets and a culture of the friendliest, generous, most likeable Vietnamese locals. Lush and green, the delta is characterized by paths, roads, tracks and trails that miraculously seemed to lead to a secluded spot where a ferry was waiting to shuttle me across the expanse of murky, brown water.

From Vietnam I headed to Nha Bang for a quick and surprisingly easy border crossing into Cambodia. This was the final leg of the journey and the biggest punishment my bike would see on the whole trip. Up until that stage, my bicycle held up surprisingly well. Aside from a few punctures and a sticky brake, I was well on the way to achieving my goal.

pb280331 full 300x225 China to Thailand by bike But it all came horribly unstuck on the road out of Siem Riep. After two wonderful days exploring the grandeur that is Angkor Wat, I encountered a road that resembled the surface of the moon. With only five days left, I faced the biggest obstacle of the trip: 300 km to go on threadbare, leaking, patch-ridden tubes. I’d assumed I’d packed enough tubes for the trip but my thin tires and heavily-loaded bike couldn’t handle the rough terrain. After fixing the puncture, I waved down a passing truck and cheated a lift for the second time to paved roads and the Thai border.

On the 64th day, with 1,423 km logged on the odometer, I pedaled my way into the sensory overload that is the heart of Bangkok. Ducking, weaving, bumping, squeezing and shuffling my way into the city, I flew on fueled by a reservoir of pent up emotion. Not until meeting a friend at the planned rendezvous did the embankments burst and I was filled with the satisfaction of completion. A wave of gratification washed over me.

It was the hardest, yet most rewarding physical endeavor of my life, but there is not a doubt in my mind it was all worth it.

For more, read the incredibly thorough journal Scott kept, and take a look at his photos, at

Make it happen:

GAP Adventures runs cycling tours in Vietnam (US$1,295, Sept. 7-21) and Cambodia (US$1,250, Aug. 25-Sept.6) and Laos (US$1,450, Sept. 15-28). Prices do not include international airfare. You could also go on your own time with Country Holidays. They have nine day cycling trips through north Vietnam starting at ¥12,735 (including Shanghai to Hanoi airfare).

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