I’ve just returned home from 10 days exploring a 1000 kilometre gravel road tour through a rural Thailand that is worlds away from the nation’s popular image of party and beach life. But the topic of what Thailand is really like away from the very small part of the country most visitors see is for later. For now, as I am unpacking my bike, I thought it may be of interest to anyone planning a tour through South East Asia to see just what is necessary to take along.
It should be said that it is hot and dry at the moment, meaning warm clothes are totally unnecessary, and a waterproof jacket could happily be left behind. If I were riding in the north of Thailand in wintertime I would add a layer of merino wool, a wind stopper gilet, and a light down gilet.
If heading beyond Thailand, to Lao, Burma, or Cambodia for example, I would probably include a small bottle of brake fluid and a bleed hose, not that I have ever needed it, but for peace of mind. Oh, and tucked inside my handlebars is always a gear cable. But otherwise, the info detailed here should cover you for touring Southeast Asia by bicycle.
Back home from one thousand kilometres of gravel road bike-packing. Just before unloading the machine the Kinesis ATR fully loaded tipped the scales at 15KG all in with empty water bottles.
The top-tube (gas tank) bag is for fast access high-calorie food on the go - M&Ms, Haribo gummy bears, jelly-babies, that sort of thing.
This old Alpkit seat pack has served me well for many years and contains the bulk of my gear when on the road.
Seat pack size comparison with tatty old Chrome SPD shoe. At times a stiffer sole would be nice on long climbs, but overall this is an ideal bike packing shoe as walking is comfortable meaning no other footwear is needed.
Seat pack contents:
- First aid kit
- toiletries - suncream, toothpaste, toothbrush, razor, soap, tiger balm
- Soap powder for clothes
- charging cables and iPad charger
- Clothes - long sleeve shirt, tee-shirt, shorts, socks, underwear
- Bike lock
- Waterproof jacket
- Instant coffee
- Titanium mug and immersion water boiler. Handy tip: Keep your mug in your bag. No idea why carrying the mug on the outside of the bag seems to be in vogue, seems rather impractical if going somewhere dusty muddy or wet I.E. on an adventure).
I carry my own soap as I very much dislike using throwaway plastic bottles of soap in guesthouses. The soap serves as shaving cream. Tiger balms can be used as insect repellent.
I see no need for more clothes in this hot climate, in fact carrying 2 shirts was a bit of an indulgence, after all, one can only wear one at a time. Give your daytime riding kit a quick wash in the sink each night and all is well.
This Revelate Designs frame bag is new (thanks Wally) and I am very pleased with it. I find the squarer shape far more useful than my old Alpkit frame bag.
Haribos and M&Ms live in the top tube bag. Spare spokes, chain lube, tyre sealant, and a small piece of rag live in the frame bag.
Also in the frame bag is this small toolkit:
- The Blackburn Wayside multitool covers most eventualities, click here for a good review.
- The Leatherman Skeletool features pliers, knife, screwdrivers, and bottle opener.
- The little silver capsule is a tubeless puncture repair kit by Dynaplug, expensive but a well thought through piece of kit. A good review can be seen here.
- A spare derailleur hanger
- A small tool for removing the cassette called the NBT-2
- And a little red box of spares
In the little red box lives:
- A few puncture patches and vulcanising solution
- A tubeless valve
- A valve core
- A quick link
- A piece of emery paper
- A Schrader to presto valve adaptor
And finally a small backpack. I use an Evoc CC10 which I find remarkably comfortable, well made, and well organised. It holds my iPad (PaintedRoads mobile office), passport etc, charger, iPhone and USB cables, small power bank, pressure gauge, and spectacles. On the left shoulder strap is an iPhone pouch which allows quick access for navigation purposes. Depending on the journey I sometimes use a 2-litre water bladder, particularly useful on gravel road journeys when water supplies may be further apart, and water bottle quickly becomes coated in dust.
The only other items carried are a spare inner tube in the V just above the bottom bracket, two water bottles, a GPS unit, and a pump - a SILLCA Tattico as you ask, which to date I feel is the finest pump I have ever tried.
The bike all loaded up and exploring Thailand endless network of gravel roads
Like riding through the set of a wild west movie a herd of stallions thunders alongside us as our tyres drum the hollow sounding hard packed single track leading us on a rollercoaster ride across the Kanghi Mountains. For riding through Mongolia is an experience unlike any other PaintedRoads Tour to date. Far more than a simple cycling tour, a fortnight on the Steppe is all-encompassing, a veritable collage of sensations both physical and emotional, with sights, sounds, smells, and riding experiences morphing as we go.
Although predominantly dry the weather is not shy to change, with brief rain showers, more often than not soon giving way to warming sunshine as the clouds break and the sun bathes the land in a soft glow.
The route begins with some short sharp climbs and gravel trails through an almost treeless landscape. Once across the watershed, the trails give way to more flowing hard packed double track and the hillsides become thicker with vegetation and evergreen forests.
Mongolia’s sparse population is predominantly nomadic and, as is so often the case with people who are not strangers to a harsh existence, these yurt dwelling herders are friendly and generous, often visiting our camp to exchange wares with our crew, and offering as much hospitality as they are able when we visit their homes.
I have heard it sung that a picture paints a thousand words, so, rather than prattle on further, I shall leave it to my Olympus to lend a sense of this year’s pair of tours in the beautiful land of Mongolia.
Next year’s Mongolia Tour will run from June 29 until July 11 and bookings are already coming in. For more details please click here.
Mongolia, what a beautiful country but I think the whole tour group would agree with me in saying that the jovial and convivial presence David exuded over the tour was what made this tour really special. I would thoroughly recommend this tour on David's tour leader skills alone but the support crew and food also proved to be fabulous
Jonny Harding UK.
An amazing place to ride a bicycle. Lots of ‘WOW’ factor – especially on day 3. The only downside to all of the great scenery is that you keep stopping to take more photos! David and the local Mongolian crew have done an excellent job of putting together an off-road adventure designed for those of us cyclists who are primarily road bikers – enough challenge to push us, but not so technical that we were scared.
Pete Fotheringham the USA
Once again Sprog and I have had another wonderful trip with Painted Roads. This was my third trip with you and it was as well organized and enjoyable as the rest. Having the back-up of the truck when the going got tough was a comfort. How your helpful crew managed to produce such a variety of good food every day was a mystery. We were very appreciative of the way you personally scrutinized our bikes before every departure from camp. I would have no hesitation in recommending Painted Roads to any would-be adventurous cyclist. We had a lot of fun.
Ollie Hughes NZ
Our Mongolia cycling experience was mountain biking through an immense wilderness, wide open valleys, steep climbs, river crossings, yaks, horses, sheep, goats, and scattered nomad gers (yurts). It’s another world. Think “Wild West” on steroids, missing only the trees and snow-capped peaks. Painted Roads’ drivers, guides and cooks were exceptional.
Carol York USA
Yunnan Province, China - if pushed for my favourite tour I would have to say that this is it. A gem of a ride that takes us from the Tibetan town of Shangri-La, via passes high and gorges deep, to the town of Dali, home the Bai minority people. Between these two contrasting towns we have a stunning ride on almost deserted roads, as for nigh on two weeks we explore magnificent scenery of snow-capped peaks, pine forests, cobbled climbs, and an ancient tea trading town, We dine on what many who have tried it consider to be perhaps the finest cuisine in Asia - the kitchen of Yunnan really bears very little resemblance to the rather dull Cantonese fayre of your local Chinese restaurant.
This year’s tour was a small but splendid affair as Echo, Li, and I travelled with PaintedRoads regular David and newcomer Paul enjoying the finest weather we have experienced to date in this fine fine province.
PaintedRoads’ LabRat runs are fast becoming a popular tradition amongst our more adventurous guests. A new tour in an interesting and off the beaten path location, these inaugural runs contain, to one degree or another, an element of uncertainty somewhere along the way. Whereas usually, I go over a route one final time alone before running an inaugural tour, a LabRat Run involves taking a small group of laidback adventurous PR regulars along to join in the fun of the final pre-production ride.
This year's tour was through a region of China through which I have long planned to run a tour. Indeed as far back as the dawn of this century, when I travelled overland from Kathmandu to Hong Kong via Lhasa, I have been of the opinion that the Kham region of Sichuan Province was perhaps an altogether better place to experience Tibet than the Tibetan Autonomous Region. This feeling was reinforced when, in 2007 and 2008 (as far as my tatty olf memory recalls) I explored the area on a somewhat overloaded bicycle, camping and exploring and pondering running my own tours.
And so it came to be that at the tail end of May this year seven PaintedRoads regulars join me to ride the inaugural Sichuan Tour. We were supported by Echo, and our regular driver, mechanic, tour explorer, and trusted friend Lee. Additional support was provided by cycling guide Monk, and second driver Maveric.
The ride is surely beautiful and challenging. And this year the challenge was even tougher than expected with a startlingly early onset of the rain season and a two day section where the untimely demise of the main road building contractor had left the road in a state far worse than it was a year ago, quite the opposite to the situation we had been led to expect when exploring the way last June. It transpired that not only had the chap in charge of road repair operations made his way prematurely to the Happy Hunting Ground, he had also managed, rather cunningly, to spirit all of the contract’s money with him, leaving a swath of disgruntled peasants along the way eager for payment and and making sure that work didn’t continue until they received satisfaction.
The route was nothing if not eclectic. Road surfaces ranged from pristine tarmac, to wet and muddy, to gravel, to rural concrete byways. Climbing was an ongoing theme of the tour, with some of the longest ascents and consequent descents imaginable. Climbs of over 40 kilometres were all but a daily occurrence, and the downhills that followed, with the often shallow gradients that such a long climb often ensures, were laid back relaxing affairs through exquisite mountain scenery. Not all hills are surfaced equally in Sichuan though, and those seeking a more exciting pass to cross were not left wanting, as on occasion we ascend and descend on loose and exciting byways - shredding dude!
The highest pass of the tour was 4700 metres, with roads above 4000 metres cropping up on a leg shatteringly regular basis. However with sleeping elevations considerably lower than our highest point each day altitude-related health issues never cropped up, save of course for the inevitable breathlessness while crossing an oxygen-depleted pass. What was interesting to all was the difference a few hundred extra meters in altitude could have on a fellow or lass. When 4000 metres seemed OK, an extra 500 metres could take the wind from even the largest lungs. The passes were not only metaphorically breathtaking but also quite literally.
I feel that I have rambled on quite long enough, now I should leave the pictures to tell the story.
Before signing off though, I would like to thank David, Kreg, Marko, Dianne, JP, and Allison very much for not only their participation and good humour but also their enthusiasm for an adventure through a beautiful and challenging wilderness.
Ladies of the Yi minority group
The first major climb, 45 KMS of ascent from Daju village
Mani stones - the mantras of Tibetan Buddism carved in stone are a regular feature
One of many pristine road surfaces...
and one of many gravel roads
Local ladies at Bao Shan village
Leaving Bao Shan by boat
The beginning of two days of less than pristine byway
Two day's of unexpected road works left us all a tad tired
Lunch at 4500 metres
Descending from 4500 metres we loose 2000 metres on one wonderful descent
A Buddhist monastery
Another 40-kilometre descent
Many thanks to Echo, seen here at 4400 metres, for her endless hard work running the tour, always with a cheery smile
Later in the tour, the Tibetan homes are treated to a coat of white paint.
This chap offered us yak butter tea as we crossed the tour's highest pass
Cooking up lunch
Visiting a monastery
We were not always the only two-wheeled adventurers
The final high pass
Descending towards the fabled Shangri-La on the final day
Cycling guide Monk
The group - JP, Dianne, Allison, Kreg, David, Keith, Marko, and at the back Monk
This year's Ho Chi Minh Trail tour through the mountains of Central Vietnam was, to say the least, great fun. Including Phong and I in the count, there were six of us riding this somewhat undulating route from the nations hectic capital Hanoi to the beautiful riverside town of Hoi An, some thousand kilometres to the south.
The venerable General Arthur, and Kiwi David, both PaintedRoads regulars, were joined by Nicholas and Mark, two chums from the far north of the United Kingdom who’s determination to train for the tour through a bleak Scottish winter can be seen as nothing other than highly commendable.
Personally, I enjoyed the tour tremendously. With an overcast sky for 99% of the trip, we were treated to temperatures mostly in the low 20ºs, with the mercury nudging the 30ºs just once so far as I was aware, and even then for less than an hour. To complement the excellent climatic conditions we had a group of people with a similar approach to their cycling, meaning a relaxed bunch with the occasional turn to a light-hearted touch of competitiveness. And when the day’s ride was over, and the chilled beer emerged from the guesthouse fridge, the aprés ride atmosphere was every bit as good as the riding.
A fine tour then? I will leave the final word to bicycle tour newcomers Mark and Nicholas.
Mark Adams - (47) A portly middle-aged gentleman and recreational cyclist with a penchant for long weekend rides, the occasional Audax, and the odd Sportive.
"I don’t do package holidays and hate guided tours. It’s been 25 years since I did either and the memory still grates. My conundrum is I have a window of opportunity for an adventure, no time to plan and a finite window in which to complete it. With a very clear idea of what I want to do and more importantly what I don’t want to do. I take to the internet and find Painted Roads.
Point to point cycling in remote terrain travelling through a fascinating country, delivered with a great personal touch from a small independent company - who could ask for more? David, the owner of Painted Roads, cycled every inch of the ride with the group and managed the group in a very non-intrusive way. His light touch allowed the group and individuals to ride their own ride. This allowed the group dynamic to comfortably evolve. This relaxed approach was possible due to David’s extensive efforts in planning the trip, his excellent choice in the local guide and the many years’ experience gained cycle touring and delivering trips in SE Asia.
I’m a cyclist and primary goal is to maximise my time in the saddle. I set out with this objective; with no great desire to be ushered from one tourist attraction to the next. Travelling through remote and challenging terrain to roll into a small village allows you to unwittingly immerse yourself in the culture. The flip side is that this requires a degree of patience and expectation management in respect of accommodation. However, this is a compromise that pays back in dividends through the experience gained. The juxtaposition between the time spent on the trip and the post-trip R&R at one of the more popular tourist resorts was stark. This really highlighted the quality of the experience gained by travelling by bike in a small group through towns and villages which have been little impacted by tourism.
One of the very many lasting memories of the trip will be rounding a bend on a, particularly long descent to happen upon a troop of baboons crossing the road. My immediate thought was I know the protocol for unwanted attention from dogs, but don’t remember anything in the briefing relating to baboons. I stop, watch then make their way back into the jungle and feel blessed to have encountered them.
Having returned home I now long to create the opportunity to join David and Painted Roads on another great adventure. My confidence boosted by the trip down the HCM Trail I’m looking for something bigger, more challenging, more remote … Whatever my next adventure may be, I sincerely hope it is with Painted Roads".
Nicholas Croll - Scots man, newcomer to cycle touring, and not afraid of the occasional artic run.
"I undertook my first ever cycle 'holiday' with David Walker/Painted Roads by riding the Ho Chi Minh Trail tour in March 2018. I didn't really have a holiday, instead what I did get was an adventure that far exceeded my expectations and included magnificent scenery, fantastic cycling, great food and top class hospitality.
The highest praise I can offer is that the next time I am seeking a cycling 'adventure' my first point of contact will be Painted Roads. Forget the large tour operators for your next cycle tour - choose Painted Roads and you won't have any regrets. Your biggest problem will be deciding which one of the fantastic sounding tours you will take.......good luck!"
At 75 you would think he would have slowed down by now - General Arthur could just be the real-life Benjamin Button.
An old US airstrip north of the Seventeenth Parallel
Morning rush hour on the Ho Chi Minh Trail
Exploring the path less travelled
Visiting a brick factory
Final dash to the tea break
We pull off of the Pan Americana highway for the final time with a feeling a relief. Sometimes hectic, sometimes tranquil, we have been dodging on and off this road for the past 4000 kilometres. In Peru, the standard of driving has fallen to an all-time low (which is takes some achieving) and we are happy to leave the lorry drivers, coach chauffeurs, and various other homicidal lunatics behind us.
We pull up at the gatehouse of the private road, shake hands with the jovial guard who merrily waves us on towards the highest mountain range outside of the Himalayas, The Cordillera Blanca.
The road is a gravel track and will continue so for the lions share of the next month. We are in a desert now with not a sign of life. The desert is beautiful, the contours of the hills the rocks and the sand cast a multitude of hues.
This is the South America that we came here for, wilderness open space and beauty. Amidst this parched lowland desert, it is difficult to comprehend that just a hundred or so kilometres away stand giant snow-capped mountains. Come dusk we find a fine camp spot with a magnificent view, the only sound is silence. The sky is clear as we lay outside the tent after dinner watching the stars. We try to identify the Southern Cross. We think we find it, then we find another cross, then another, it is astonishing just how many celestial crosses there are in the night sky. We find Orion's Belt, we always find Orion's Belt, we are happy that Orion's Belt exists for there are few other constellations that we can identify here, then we spot the Plough, larger than in the northern hemisphere and upside down. We discuss the size of space and the fact that the universe is expanding at an incomprehensible speed, we wonder how, given that space is infinite, it can be expanding. We discuss black holes and white dwarfs and wormholes and light years. We discuss things that are really beyond us, we realise that we are becoming very confused and so we retire for the night. This always happens when we camp in a desert.
There is a momentary silence as the roar of the raging torrent bellow is replaced by the crunching of gravel beneath our tyres. It is now the second day of the long climb to Huaraz and we are entering one of the many narrow tunnels hewn into the side of the Canyon del Pato. The single lane track clings to the cliff face high above the Rio Santa, the river that relentlessly gouges out the canyon on its journey to the sea. The tunnels on this rock-strewn gravel road are narrow and we are pleased that the traffic is light, to meet a lorry in one of these dark passages would be far from good.
Finding camping in this narrow valley is a challenge. Tired after a long day in the saddle we fuel ourselves with a sugar hit from a battered bottle of warm cola before clambering to a ridge high above the road. We while away a pleasant evening there laying outside the tent drinking tea and arguing about which constellation is the Southern Cross, we have to date discovered 37 crosses.
The following morning the wind is kind on the climb to the Cordillera Blanc. When it builds to something closer to a gale in the late morning it is behind us. Still, our progress is always slow, we blame this on potholes rocks and piles of loose sand, not on our tired old legs. We stop for a drink break at a small settlement of just a few houses, what do people do out here? There is mining but the level of traffic is so low that despite the occasional appearance of men as black as soot we conclude that it cannot be coal; I see a small restaurant with the word opal in its name, and wonder if this is what they are clawing their way into the rock face for.
We sit down with a big bottle of something fizzy and full of sugar, the proprietor gives us an apple each and engages us in a short conversation, where are you from? Where are you going? By bicycle? Wow, very strong? We agree about our strength and point our handsomeness as well. He seems impressed. This open friendliness is repeated all along the way.
Exiting the final tunnel we leave the canyon and find ourselves in another world, metaphorically speaking of course. The valley is green, cultivated, and populated with a backdrop of giant snow peaks. The contrast to the past three days is startling.
It takes us a total of four days to complete the 330 kilometres to Huaraz. The final 70 kilometres are on paved roads peppered with potholes and populated by drivers who can most politely be described as incompetent, although we came up with a variety of more colourful adjectives with which to describe them.
Now at 3100 metres, we will spend a couple of days here acclimatising before heading higher into the thin air of the big hills.