For several years now I’ve had a dream to go traveling in southeast Asia and, being a fan of independent travel, I wanted to do it the way the locals travel, that is by motorbike. After many years of dreaming about it I finally decided it’s time I actually do it, so I took three months leave from my job and bought some flight tickets. I will try to post at least something every day of the journey, but first, some things about planning and preparation.
I don’t have any exact plan, all I know for certain is that I will start my trip in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) in southern Vietnam and end it in Chiang Mai in northwestern Thailand. Between there I plan to go pass through Laos and Cambodia. Riding a motorbike means i will have a lot of freedom to go where I want but I will roughly be following this route:
Both Vietnam and especially Thailand are rather touristic, with lots visitors form Europe and North America coming there every year, both backpackers and families spending a week or two at some beach resort. Other countries in the region are less popular but the major destinations like Angkor Wat still have plenty of backpackers passing through. Despite that, a trip like this requires a bit of preparation.
When it comes to visas, I always recommend looking up the information directly on a government or embassy website. That is the only way to be absolutely sure you get the correct information. Also remember that visa regulations often differ depending on your citizenship. With that in mind, here is what i have found regarding visas to southeast Asia.
Except for citizens of a few countries, pretty much everyone will need to get a visa to enter Vietnam, the easiest way to get one is to apply for a visa pre-approval letter at https://vietnamvisa.govt.vn/ . Once you’ve applied, print out the letter and bring it with you, you then show it, together with your passport, at the immigration checkpoint and you should get the visa directly. Check the website I mentioned for more details.
Both Laos and Cambodia have visa on arrival, at least for Europeans. You can also get visas within a few days from most major cities in neighboring countries. As far as I remember from a previous trip is that many hotels catering to backpackers can fix a visa for you for a small fee.
Thailand, just like Laos and Cambodia, has visa on arrival. If you fly to Thailand the visa should last 30 days but crossing via a land border from Laos or Cambodia only grants you a 15 day visa. I’m not sure why the Thai authorities make this distinction between over land travelers and those who fly in, but it is what it is. If you, like me, are traveling by land and wish to stay longer you should apply for a visa from an embassy. Note that you must enter the country within 90 days of getting the visa , so don’t apply too early.
For visa application purposes, I’ve also got myself a bunch of passport size photos. That way I can avoid the hassle of finding a photo booth at the border crossing.
Medicine and Vaccination:
When travelling abroad you should always check up if you need any vaccinations. There’s plenty information on the internet but if you want to be 100% sure, ask your doctor. As far as I understand (but I’m not a medical professional) there are no required vaccinations for entering the countries I’m planning to go to, except for yellow fever if you are coming from a yellow fever zone. Except for the standard vaccinations that many westerners have like Polio and Tetanus, it is recommended to get Typhoid and Hepatitis A & B.
Medical care in some southeast Asian countries is quite limited, so except for vaccinations, it is also recommend that you prepare various medications. Lonely Planet has a rather comprehensive list of both prescription, and over the counter medications to bring with you. I have prepared Ibuprofen for fevers and headaches, paracetamol as it is the recommended treatment for Dengue fever, some Loperamide diarrhea stoppers and a first aid kit. I also got some DEET based insect repellent and SPF50 sunscreen to prevent insect bites and sunburn. These are all things I read in the guide book, but will make a visit to my doctor just to be on the safe side.
I grew up in Sweden where the welfare system is very powerful, other countries might not have it so good. It’s always advisable to have a good insurance when traveling abroad. I got some from World Nomads which is a bit expensive but has some really good coverage, including medical expenses, travel related costs like lost baggage or canceled flight, and even legal fees. It even covers some dangerous activities like bungee jumping or kayaking which other insurance companies may not cover.
Buying a motorbike:
After some research I have found out that there are fairly many backpackers who buy motorbikes in Vietnam and ride them between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, surprisingly, very few people try to take them into neighboring countries. It seems though, that it is easier to bring a Vietnamese registered motorbike across the border than bringing bikes registered in other countries. Rumor has it that that it is only possible to bring bikes across at certain border crossings but information is scarce, I will have to come back to this point once I actually make the crossing, the point is, if you want to travel by motorbike, buying one in Vietnam seems to be a good option.
One thing which other people mention is that you have to make sure the bike comes with the blue registration card, without it you can get in trouble with the Vietnamese authorities. You should also remember to get your international driving permit before leaving home. It is little bit unsure if the authorities in Vietnam accept the IDP or not but in Laos, Cambodia and Thailand it should be valid. If you bring it you have at least made the effort to drive legally.
As for buying a bike there should be plenty of backpackers in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City who have just made the trip between the two cities and want to sell theirs. I have found the website http://www.travelswop.com/ which is a type of trading site for travelers in the region. There are plenty of motorbike on sale there, and the type I’ve seen most recommendations for is the Honda Win. Personally I would recommend something with at least a 100 CC engine, in my experience anything smaller is underpowered. You should always test drive second hand bikes, with several years experience riding motorbikes in Taiwan I know what to look for but make sure to check the basics:
- Lights & indicators
- Brake lights
- Gear changes
- Throttle response
I’ve learned a few things during previous travels that I think can come in handy.
- Even in warm countries it can become cold especially on high altitudes, I’ve packed some warm clothes and even gloves just to make sure.
- There is always a risk for pickpockets, I got one of those travelers wallets for added security.
- If you are alone and want to go swimming, it’s a good idea to bring your valuables with you. I got a small waterproof pouch to hold my most important stuff.
- The countries I plan to visit apparently use both European and American style sockets, so I will bring some converters so I can charge my electronics.
- A mobile power source is always useful in case there is no place to charge your phone.
- The google maps app for you phone lets you download offline maps. I will prepare for each part of the journey by downloading the maps when I have WiFi access in the hotel. That way i can find my way and still avoid the cost of buying a dedicated GPS.
- You need to pace yourself when riding, I plan to keep it under 200 km/day and take a rest every few days to avoid a literal pain in the butt.
- Cheap hostels usually don’t provide sheets and towels, I will bring my own to avoid the cost of renting.
- Public bathrooms in Asia generally hold lower standards than the ones in Europe, I always carry some spare tissues and hand disinfectant when i’m traveling.
- Different countries have different regulations regarding social media, for example a British man got arrested in Dubai over a Facebook post. Remember to always be mindful of what you post.
I hope the information here can be useful to other people thinking about similar trips. If I find out any other useful information, I will post it in later blog posts. I’m leaving in a few days, my next post will be from Ho Chi Minh City.