Motorcycle touring in Southeast Asia is a deeply exotic adventure. It has become a rite of passage for intrepid motorcyclists and delivers a fascinating spectrum of landscapes, ethnic groups, flavours, histories, climates and religions.
Perhaps the most appealing feature of Southeast Asia is that many adventures are so accessible. If you’re short on time there are numerous well-ridden but rewarding routes within reach of the bustling tourist hubs. For those with time to roam, there’s endless winding hill country, jungles and sun drenched coastlines, punctuated with lesser known historical sites, rural villages and handily, an abundance of mechanics because everyone rides a bike in Southeast Asia!
Top Routes/Destinations for Motorcycle Touring in Southeast Asia
The infamous Mae Hong Song loop presents quintessential northern thailand in a manageable 670 km circuit that starts and ends in Chiang Mai. You will climb Thailand’s highest peak Doi Inthanon, encounter rural hill tribes and pass through hippy hideouts. It’s a popular backpacker route but one of the most scenic in all of Thailand and can be adapted according to your time frame and/or experience.
The Golden Triangle was once a dangerous land of opium, drug lords and rebel militia. Today the draw card is some of the finest motorcycle riding in the world. The road network built during the region’s dark past is combined with scenic climbs to Buddhist temples atop distant peaks, a maze of abandoned logging trails, cattle tracks through hilltribe villages and the ever-challenging terrain of the Himalayan foothills.
The northern provinces are the Promised Land for motorcyclists travelling in Vietnam. The Chinese influence drifts through misty border towns and mingles with indigenous Vietnamese tribes who inhabit a landscape of towering limestone peaks, lush valleys and vertigo-inducing mountain passes. Hairpins and crude tracks abound but the modest pace gives you a chance to absorb every detail.
Another of Southeast Asia’s well-ridden routes and with good reason. The start and finish town of Thakhek provides all your pre-departure amenities and services, plus the chance to meet other travellers. Tham Konglor limestone caves are a landmark of mythical proportions and the highlight of the loop. You needn’t stick to the guidebook either as there are numerous rough dirt roads and small tracks.
Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) to Hanoi, Vietnam
This iconic south-to-north Vietnam odyssey can be tailored to your timeframe, riding style, type of bike and cultural compass. Avoid the sprawling highways and chaotic cities in favour of nail-biting mountain passes, giant limestone karsts, cruisy coastal roads, beach towns, sparsely populated valleys and fascinating heritage sites. Plan to be on the road anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 years!
From fast jungle flat-tracks to technical mountain passes, Cambodia is the beating heart of off-road in Southeast Asia. The best of the country’s serene and beguiling temple ruins are by no means the most well known, due largely to the mission to find them. In other words, think Indiana Jones on a dirt-bike! The south and western flank of Cambodia require mental and physical endurance and are not for the weekenders. Until the late 1990s this wild region was off-limits, so expect to be a novelty in jungle villages. Test yourself and your bike against rock fall, rutted tracks, waterfalls, sketchy bridges, sand and river crossings.
Passports and Visas
Note: immigration policies are like a game of tetris, with ever-changing rules that keep travellers in perpetual confusion. Before embarking on any tours, double check with the official immigration website of your destination/s. For all of Southeast Asia you will need a passport with minimum 6 months validity and proof of onward travel is highly recommended.
Upon arrival at an international airport you will receive a free visa-exempt stamp for a 30-day stay, which can be extended for another 30 days at an immigration office. Alternatively, get a single-entry 60-day Tourist Visa from your home country or from a Thai Embassy or Consulate in another country. Popular options are Penang in Malaysia, Vientiane in Laos and Bali in Indonesia. These can also be extended for another 30 days.
At an international airport or land crossing you can get a visa on arrival for US$35 (price subject to change).
Alternatively, before leaving home you can get a visa by contacting your nearest Lao Embassy.
You can extend your 30-day tourist visa up to an additional 60 days for a fee of US$2 per day at the Department of Immigration in Vientiane.
The Vietnam visa-on-arrival should be called ‘kind-of-visa-on-arrival’ because you have to do most of the work pre-arrival.
At present, UK citizens with a passport receive a free 15-day visa-exempt stamp.
For stays longer than 15 days, and for US and Australian passports, you must use a legitimate visa service online to apply for visa on arrival.
Similar to vietnam, use e-Visa service to apply for a single-entry tourist visa online.
Cost at time of writing is US$30.
Again, e-visa is the go. The cost at the time of writing iis US$50.
Visa approval letter is valid for 90 days from the day it is issued and grants 28 days in the country.
Bike Permits & Carnets
Part of the experience of motorcycle touring Southeast Asia is buying or renting what the locals ride instead of bringing your own bike. Across the length and breadth of Southeast Asia you will see scooters and motorcycles everywhere, with many carting unbelievable loads that defy the law of physics let alone road sense. The humble Honda Dream and Honda Wave scooters along with the Honda Win, Honda Benly and in Vietnam the Minsk, are synonymous with this part of the world. They are available secondhand everywhere from guesthouses to garages and there are as many spare parts as people riding them. Not having an international licence will land you in hot water with your insurance company should need to make an insurance claim, so definitely get one.
For big or foreign bikes you can find parts in major cities like Chiang Mai but on the road the chances of coming across a Harley mechanic are slim to none! This is another reason to go local when motorcycle touring in Southeast Asia. For example, a Minsk in Vietnam might be a challenge if you’re used to something smoother or bigger, however, not only are parts readily available on every street corner but the tight roads and varied conditions that you are likely to encounter call for a lighter bike. Besides, touring is all about adaptation!
The road conditions range from treacherous mountain tracks that will have you cursing and praying, to hectic city centres and sandy coastal tracks to rugged temple ruins. There’s always a challenge and where there’s crowds of people or wild nature there’s a simmering danger. The driving style ranges from lackadaisical in the countryside to an utter free-for-all in the cities.
You will by now have an idea of the variety of routes across Southeast Asia, from temple ruins to highways and mountain passes. The road conditions are equally as varied, ranging from treacherous mountain tracks that will have you simultaneously cursing and praying, to fully modernised city centres. There’s always a challenge: where there’s crowds of people there’s a simmering chaos, where there’s wild nature there’s lack of maintenance or no real roads at all.
You can buy fuel from just about every roadside fruit and veg shack but most of the time it’s dirty. In all major towns and cities you will find westernised gas stations, so always carry a couple of jerrycans for the rural stretches.
Best time of year for motorcycle touring in Southeast Asia
High season is Nov- Feb. The weather is generally good across the country. Avoid June – Oct as it’s monsoon time. Yi Peng lantern festival around the full moon in November each year is a magical time to pass through Chiang Mai.
Landlocked Laos is warm and dry from October – April.
February- April delivers less rainfall and less stifling temperatures compared to the humid wet season.
As with Thailand, November – March is high season. It’s cheaper from May – September but be aware of the monsoons that can smash the western flanks, which are not to be missed if you’re into dirtbikes.
In general, same as Thailand and Cambodia. Can get very hot around May, not ideal for riding.