A special anniversary
This week, my wife Thanh and I celebrated a very special anniversary. Indeed, one year ago, on October 24th 2017, we boarded a plane to Vietnam, leaving Paris behind for a long time. Our plans were to cycle through South-East Asia for an undefined length of time; we had both resigned from our jobs, let our suburban flat North of Paris, and said goodbye to our friends and families.
With the FIRE (Financial Independence, Retire Early) movement getting a lot of traction these days, I thought this anniversary would be the perfect occasion to blog a bit about our new lifestyle ! If this topic generates enough interest, I have a few posts ideas in order to dig further on this topic.
Why South-East Asia ?
While the financial aspect was a key reason for choosing South-East Asia as our destination, many other factors make it an excellent cyclo-touring destination.
Low cost of living
With a daily budget of around €25 (less than $30) for two people, South-East Asia is a very affordable destination. It’s possible to spend even less by camping, but after a long day on the road, we appreciate the comfort of a refreshing shower and a real bed !
Food is one of the main appeals of South-East Asia. Although our limited budget means we eat street-food most of the time, most of our meals are great. In addition to the food, the large availability of ice-cold drinks (tea, coffee, coconut juice, sugarcane juice…) make the heat much more bearable.
While nature in South-East Asia has suffered a lot from human activities (including mass tourism), cyclo-touring allows us to reach beautiful places seldom visited by tourists.
Interesting culture and architecture
If I have to admit that I’m not too crazy about temples, I just can’t seem to get enough colonial architecture. More surprisingly, art deco architecture can be found in many cities, such as Savannakhet (Laos), Phnom Penh (Cambodia) or Bandung (Java, Indonesia)
Why cyclo-touring ?
Traveling by bicycle may look like a surprising choice. However, cyclo-touring is an excellent way to travel around South-East Asia, and offers many advantages.
It's a cheap way to move around
Although a great touring bicycle can be expensive, in the long-term it allows to save a lot compared to taking buses or renting a motorcycle. Many travelers in South-East Asia spend around 20% of their budget on transportation; cyclo-touring thus allows to save a lot.
It allows to discover local lifestyle and customs
Cycling through small villages and remote areas mean we get in touch with the way people live. In addition, cyclo-tourists are rather uncommon in most areas, so locals are usually curious about us; it’s rather easy to strike up a conversation.
You can take the time to enjoy the scenery
When we find a scenic area to ride in, going around by bicycle allows us to totally enjoy the beauty of the place. Riding along the Mekong in Thailand’s Isaan or cyclo-touring along the Tha Khek loop in Laos were incredible experiences.
It gives a lot of autonomy
We hate relying on public transportation. Using it usually means a great deal of stress and inconvenience, especially if you’re traveling off the beaten tracks. While cyclo-touring requires some planning, it allows us to go nearly anywhere without much hassle.
It allows you to stay fit
One additional benefit of being on the saddle daily is that we can eat as much as we want !
A minimalist lifestyle
While this may be seen as a disadvantage, I totally appreciate the minimalist lifestyle implied by cyclo-touring. All our belongings for one year or more must hold in four bicycle panniers, including tools, first aid kit and warm clothes ! This forced us to make some draconian choices… and also helped us realize how much useless stuff we had previously accumulated.
Our itinerary so far
In one year, we’ve cycled through seven countries, for a total of more than 7 500 kilometers. In addition, we took two flights, had two train rides, and boarded countless ferries in the Mekong delta. (Click on the “Afficher la carte” buttons in order to display the map)
Thanh was born in Vietnam; we first spent nearly one month with her family, in the center of the country, before heading South towards the Mekong delta. Unfortunately I must admit that I really didn’t enjoy this country, as people’s behavior was just a turnoff to me. It’s a pity, as there are some interesting places like the old town of Hoi An or the incredibly picturesque citadel in Hue.
I have really mixed feelings about Cambodia. There are places we loved, such as the capital Phnom Penh (mostly for its cheap and excellent international food), or the quiet riverside city of Kampot. On the other hand, we absolutely disliked our stays in Sihanoukville or in seaside Kep. In addition, getting food on the road was though, and accommodations were so-so and expensive (traveling during Chinese new year didn’t help !).
We spent two months in Thailand so far. Our first stay in the center of the country was nice but not memorable. However, during out second stay, we traveled in Isaan and basically loved every moment of this trip. Following the Mekong between Mukdahan and Nong Khai, we could enjoy beautiful scenery, terrific riverside accommodations and great food – although to be frank the latter lacked some variety -. I’m really looking forward to returning to this country, which is ideal for cyclo-touring !
I really didn’t expect much from Laos. After our so-so experience in Cambodia, I expected our stay in Laos to be somehow likewise. Well, the least I can say is that I was proven totally wrong; South Laos actually turned out to be my favorite destination. Beautiful landscapes, great architecture, quiet places, nice people and excellent cafe : South Laos checks nearly all the boxes ! I definitively recommend cyclo-touring there.
I especially felt in love with the quiet city of Savannakhet, with its dilapidated colonial houses, small food stalls along the Mekong, and great night market.
To be honest, as cyclists, Java was a nightmare. The traffic is just insane, and the interesting sites are very far from each other. We ended up taking the bus in order to reach Bali !
We were afraid that Bali would be too crowded to our taste. Fortunately, apart from Ubud, most places we stayed at were rather low-key. The quality/price ratio of most Balinese accommodations is incredible : for €15 to €20, you can get a perfect double room with a beautiful view. In addition, great food is usually rather easy to find, for very reasonable prices. Overall, Bali is a great destination for cyclo-touring !
Our stay in Singapore was very short, as the cost of living there is very high – especially accommodation -. It was a very enjoyable stay, with a variety of great food to taste and beautiful architecture to look at. The contrast between the old and the new was striking, as illustrated on the above picture !
We’ve spent around two weeks in Malaysia for now, and plan to stay there until the very beginning of 2019, thanks to their generous visa policy. While Malaysia isn’t exactly a famous touristic destination, so far we enjoy our stay here. Accommodations are comfortable, food is good and diverse, and the architecture is interesting.
Think travel is expensive ? It doesn’t have to be. Our daily budget for two people is €25 (less than $30). This includes accommodation, food and drinks, and our local shopping and expenses. It excludes visa costs, insurance, and the initial flight to Vietnam.
Accommodations are usually very cheap in Asia, meaning we don’t have to resort to pitching a tent. Prices for a double room range from less than €10 ($12) for a basic guesthouse in Vietnam, to €20 ($25) for a terrific room in Bali. In average, we spend around half of our budget on our room.
Food & drinks
Our limited budget means that we eat on the street most of the time. Our three meals a day usually cost us around €10 ($12) in total, including the ice-cold drinks breaks on the road.
We don’t bother doing laundry ourselves; it usually costs us around €1 per kilo to get our clothes washed. We also have to pay for bicycles cleaning or maintenance, or to buy spare parts. Another expenses source is the sun screen, which is rather expensive – not to mention hard to find in some countries –
Many travelers travel without proper insurance. It looks like a huge risk to us, in spite of the low cost of medical treatments. Our insurance costs us around €100 per month (around $120).
Several countries offer a free visa (or visa exemption) for one month or more; these include Thailand, Singapore, and Malaysia. For most other countries, we pay $30 per person for one month-visa on arrival.
Overall we try not to plan too much ! We basically don’t know what we’ll be doing six months from now. Surprisingly, this brings me a great peace of mind !
Short-term : head North
In the coming months, we’ll follow the Malaysian West coast (the East coast is apparently more scenic, but the wet season is coming there). Then, we will enjoy South Thailand before probably heading to North Laos. Cycling there should be physically though but very rewarding thanks to great landscapes ! We would also like to go to China at some point.
Medium-term : cycling in Europe ?
We visited Barcelona and Lisbon during long week-ends, and really enjoyed these cities. Cycling in Southern Europe is definitively tempting, thanks to the great food, landscapes and historical sites. Unfortunately, the cost of living means that we’d have to go in low season and probably sleep under a tent !
Another enticing destination is Eastern Europe; it’s usually cheaper than Southern Europe, but the climate may make low season travel difficult.
Long-term : the unknown
Needless to say I have no idea where we will be for the fourth or fifth anniversary of our departure !