• The Lens Blog

Exploring Asia like a local ... on two wheels

Đầm Cầu Hai, Vietnam

So as I have been travelling around Asia, I have been lucky enough to see, taste, hear, smell and touch; some of the most incredible things to date during my short existence on this big rock we call Earth. Being forever in a reflective state of mind, I found myself asking why that was? Initially, I thought maybe it was just me being abroad and naturally inquisitive to voyage further to find these naturally stunning locations and experiences. Then I quickly realised that most backpackers who are stricken to a budget would be doing the same thing! However, since I have settled here in China it hit me one day, as I rode around the cobbled pathways along the alluring rivers of Yangshuo. It was actually the two wheels I was utilising to explore that had rewarding me with everything so far.

In a way it is fitting that I realised this when returning to the place riding a scooter had all started for me, here in Yangshuo. Before arriving here in January I had never even hitched a ride on the back of a scooter, let alone driven one. But a common phrase that has become quite a regularity on this trip so far has been “fuck it - how hard can it be?”. I think most competitive people across the globe will even be able to relate to that typical response, in what can only be described as a potentially life threatening situation. It turns out everyone, I was right (cough cough - again!) and it is super easy. It’s just like driving a car really, in the sense that you have just as much chance of dying if the person driving is an idiot. If you proceed with caution, presume everyone is an imbecile and anything could happen at any time - you’ll be totally fine! By the end of my time in Thailand and after three months of driving one virtually everyday, we were researching bikes we can hire with bigger budgets to get the most fun from it. Ahhhh yes, the Honda PCX 150cc - those were the days …

Anyway, the point being if I never took that attitude in the first place, I would never of been able to unlock so many of the great memories and stories I have created in this last seven months. I wanted to share a few of them with you to give some context, of what discovering Asia on two wheels leads to.

Chiang Mai, Thailand

Yangshuo, China

Tram Ton Pass - SaPa, Vietnam

Early in to my experience with travelling the roads of Vietnam, I will admit it was an overwhelming experience at first. Not only due to my lack of experience on a motorbike, let alone a manual one. But travelling out of Hanoi’s busy highways towards the north to SaPa was probably the best thing that could happen, in order to prepare you for the months of life on the road ahead. Once 100km outside of the city centre, lorries and minibuses overtaking each other at 80kmph on single lane carriageways became few and far between. The likelihood of you being run over became less and less, and the open road that allow you to travel feeling like a you are a part of the Hells Angels, became more apparent with every ongoing kilometer you travelled there after.

It’s not like jumping in a car with the comfort of a full seat, air conditioning and selecting shuffle on your carefully crafted Spotify playlist. It was a grueling four day slog to reach the rice terraces and mountainscape village of SaPa near the southern border of China. With overnight stops in rural towns and villages for rest, and many Vietnamese coffee’s later we arrived to the famous Tram Ton Pass as we approached our last assent into SaPa. The hot screaming weather bouncing down off the tarmac, the manifested air-conditioning you create by speeding up or slowing down, and travelling the roads with your best friends are enough reasons alone to put on your must-do list in Vietnam. The exhausting three day build up to this road was soon forgotten about when we hit the bottom of the pass; the breathtaking cliff-hanging views at every corner you turn, a waterfall along route to cool down from the weather, and that feeling of completing the final descent into what can only be described as a magical village at 1500m above sea level.

Tram Ton Pass, Vietnam

Mộc Châu, Vietnam

By the time we reached Thailand, over 1,400km had already been covered on two wheels. So at this point our approach when hiring was on point; whether walking straight off a ferry with your backpacks to find the nearest shop, or to bartering with an owner to hire bigger engines for less money. My friend and I were lucky in a sense that we travelling through Thailand in the low-season, and their stock in absolute just sitting there worthless till November came back around. It allowed us to bounce from place to place till we got the price we wanted, and nine times out of ten, we found the owners chasing us down the street to avoid you spending that inevitable amount of money with another shop anyway!

Bottle Beach - Koh Phangan, Thailand

It was a stormy skies evening as our ferry from Koh Samui pulled into the port at Koh Phangan. The sun due to the clouds was dropping rapidly, and the resort we had booked by chance just so happened to be the complete opposite side of the island we arrived at. By this point, we were experts in hiring and with light dropping quickly we wanted to get on the road as quickly as possible. As quick as a ten minutes turn around we had left the hiring shop, filled scooters with petrol and even stopped for a quick snack to prepare for the forty minute ride ahead. Doesn’t seem far right? That’s what we thought!

Koh Phangan is one of the most populated tourist islands in the Gulf of Thailand, which means that the road conditions are considerably better than any of the others you would visit. With the light against us but road conditions in our favour, we saw this as an opportunity to race against mother nature (one that we would soon find out would throw a number of curveballs our way). Thirty minutes into a podcast, I heard my Google Maps take over with directions saying turn left down a small dirt track. With the sky at this point changing from that final lingering moments of orange and purple to sudden darkness, I checked a signpost with the flash torch on my phone to make sure we wasn’t making decisions unknowingly. The sign read ‘Bottle Beach this way’, so we proceeded with caution into the rainforest to find our resort. I remember thinking in that moment that if we had already travelled thirty minutes, then it could only be another five minutes away given the time we had made up on the racetrack roads from the ferry port. Later reflecting on that thought, I should of known better than to trust Google Maps indicative times of arrival in Asia.

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Samui, Thailand

It had been twenty minutes since we saw that last sign and we started to question how a resort could even be down this track. With an average speed of 5kmph travelling between potholes bigger than the Vredefort Dome crater, sightings of grass snakes slithering across the track into bushes, and no sense of direction from where we had come from if we needed to get out the place; we stumbled on the next sign (great timing as my phone battery had ran out by this point!). Taking its directional advice we slogged it through the rainforest for a further ten minutes, to be finally welcomed in the near distance by the smallest amount of light the eye can humanly picture. At this point we didn’t know if we were hallucinating, or just so thankful to of found human life in the most remote location on Thailand’s most populated island.

For enduring the torment with the approach to this resort, we checked into our bungalow and ran straight to the bar for a well deserved beer. Bubbles, the owner of the resort came over to join us with a rather confused and puzzled look on his face. Before we even got into the small talk of how are you, and where are you from he couldn’t hold back from asking how we had got here. To what must have sounded a rather confident, maybe arrogant response we said “scooters, of course”. In sheer disbelief he responded “but how? I’ve lived here for ten years and I only access this place by boat”. My friend and I looked at each other and burst out laughing! We couldn’t believe it, it all started to make so much sense now. Even more so over the next few days following as we still had to exit and enter the resort along the same road (luckily those times were in daylight). Now that we knowingly knew how difficult this must be to the majority of people, we immediately took out our phones to see if there are any videos of the journey - of which we found plenty! We were in complete disarray of what we had achieved given the time of day, weather, road conditions and delicacy of doing it all on the smallest size scooter available at the shop.

It’s important to recall how tremendously dark it was as we arrived into the resort, and not for the reason to emphasise how we had overcome the challenge. More so, to draw attention to the following morning when the sun rose. It reviled one of the most remarkably unblemished locations for a resort that we had found on the whole of the trip (where there were already some strong competition to beat having seen three countries at this point!). A secluded bay with only two other resorts that were virtually empty due to low-season. It’s genuine, pristine and deserted white sanded beach that you may of seen similar to on Instagram’s travel pages posts. Yet, this time photoshop is not required to edit out the crowds of people and empty beer cans lying around from the full moon party). Waking up to these surroundings and taking your coffee and breakfast on the beach each morning, is just what any doctor longs and craves for to prescribe their patients.

Koh Phangan, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Some of the other profound highlights of Thailand by wheels came whilst we were on the island of Koh Tao. The picture taken above came from one of the many mornings we found ourselves awake at 4am from the night before. Making the decision that rather going to bed, we would stay awake and go scout out a location to shoot the sunrise. That morning was nothing short of the definition for soul-stirring, and all the right reasons. As we approached this resort in the remote northern side of the island, we were welcomed by a pack of six wild beach dogs barking mad. Now if anyone has done their research online about these ‘wild’ animals, you will be pleasantly surprised at their temperament. Although they are raised without any real appointed owners, just like most mammals their behavioural characteristics are just the same to those with owners. If you show no fear, playfulness and affection; they instantly become your best friend. Whilst we roamed their territory for a spot to shoot the sunrise, we found ourselves throwing sticks in the sea for them and giving them a fuss just like we were their owners. As we sipped on our mango shakes and shared this surreal experience with them, it made you realise how humane and compassionate these animals can add to the empiricism of a sunrise.

Other accentuate stories, just on this island alone. Were eating freshly picked Papaya from the tree of a gentleman's garden in the rainforest. He shared his stories and a cold beer with us whilst we were waiting for some friends to catch up along the route. By the time they arrived, we had drank nearly all his stock of Chang, to which we offered to pay but as had already found that within Asian communities. Offering to pay can be almost an insult, as they just want to share these special moments with foreign people who come to their homeland. Later that day we found out those that we were waiting for had crashed their bike. We managed to find a cafe come repair garage (which was basically a wooden framed entrance with corrugated sheeting for a roof), in the middle of nowhere in the rainforest where we could relax whilst the bike was repaired. Relaxing with us was the most atypical range of animals I had ever seen outside of a zoo. We had what would seem to most people a house cat perching with us on our laps as we drank our coffee, yet she had the most beautifully piercing blue eyes that you felt an instant emotional connection. A wild (and tamed by the owner) macaque monkey swinging from beam to beam around the roof of the cafe. Whilst his dog perched in the middle of a dirt track road to protect the territory, which visually can only be presumed had mated with a direwolf from Game of Thrones. These surreal and incredible moments don’t just manifest themselves when you take a package tour from the tourist street of any location you arrive in!

Koh Tao, Thailand

Koh Tao, Thailand

Vietnamese Fisherman - Quảng Ngãi, Vietnam

Last but by no means least, I wanted to share with you a more personally heart warming story that driving around on two wheels could only ever give you. Throughout Vietnam I found myself a regular visitor to the nearest place that sold coffee, whilst I waited for a mechanic to fix my bike (another story for another time). It was so bad one evening, that the mechanic had asked me to leave it overnight with him in order to even remotely begin fixing any of the catastrophic issues it had. By this point in our expedition of Vietnam, situations such as this had become far to familiar, so we were well practiced of what to do. Find the nearest Nha Nghi, drop off the bags and to use the motorbike that did work, to go and explore the surrounding area in the middle of nowhere. I remember the mechanic making the call for overnight works rather late into the evening, which was welcomed given the day of riding we had just completed. Once we had dropped the bags off, we decided we would go and grab some food so that we could take to the beach near. Anyone who has travelled Vietnam by motorbike with a time-limit will tell you, that a Bánh Mì becomes your best friend to keep energy levels up; that and a can of red bull for the cumulative total of about thirty pence. We had finished riding for the day so we soon welcomed the opportunity to swap the red bull for some beers this time, and we headed off to ‘the beach’.

With the backpacks stocked up with beer and food, we headed off into the night. We drove down what would be the equivalent of the M25 in London, however it was without any street lights and only a passing vehicle every thirty seconds. As we neared what we thought was the beach, we could hear rumbling and a small flashlight approaching us from the distance. We stopped to observe for a while first, as this light got brighter and brighter we realised it was another motorbike. It was a motorbike that was riding over a bridge. A bridge that we later found out was made of logs by the local village men to access the beach, as that same village had created a mass shrimp farm inland to utilise the local resource of sea water. Given we could barely see our hands in front of our face, we decided the park the bike up and walk across the bridge instead. Fifty yards into crossing the bridge, it was like walking across those rolling cylinders inside a fairground funhouse. We quickly decided to settle for the sand dune embankment next to the bridge, and chow down into our food.

Hue, Vietnam

Fansipan Mountain, Vietnam

Another few minutes go by and another flashlight started to approach us from the distance, but this time with no noise. A few moments later, we hear a voice out of the darkness. A Vietnamese man smiling intensely and using his hand as a gesture to say follow me. If someone had been filming this with a production company, you would think it was the opening scene of a horror movie. Even with that considered, me and my friend still proceeded to look at each other and shrugged our shoulders, as if to say “yeah, why not”. We followed the gent back to his house where he began to empty his fridge with cold beers and asking us to please sit. Now given our experience with the Vietnamese we knew this was actually quite normal, and again well practiced in knowing exactly what we needed to do. So we set up my phone with Google Translate app through a speaker, and almost as if there was no language barrier at all. We spent over three hours having an incredible conversation with the guy; sharing stories, photos, asking questions and sharing our beers with him!

Over those three hours, it gave me a true insight to a whole new life somewhere else in the world. His house was 15x15ft made of wooden beams taken from the nearest forestry; where a solid slab of wood was his table and working area by day, and the bed for him and his wife by evening. Some of his responses were more priceless than any Carlsberg advert you could imagine, for example. “Where is your bathroom?”, fully predicting his answer. He stood and waved his arms around as the speaker translated, “free toilet, everywhere!”. Or when asking him “what is the furthest you have ever travelled?”. His response “Ho Chi Minh City”, the same destination that we were heading towards. I couldn’t believe it! A man in this world who has only ever seen the city I am visiting for a few days, whilst driving his whole country by motorbike. Let alone all the other travelling I had already done to that date; the places, the food, the experiences, the people.

Son La, Vietnam

Hoi An, Vietnam

Yet this man was the by far the happiest I had ever come across in my whole life. It really hit home in proving how grateful you are to be born into the life of the western culture, after all it’s only by chance that you have the life you already have. You could of had his, and the most honest question I think you could ever ask yourself in those situation is; could you ever see yourself happy living in his life, even knowing all you know now from a western background? I think I could as simplicity is something we all look for in our lives, especially more so back home in the west where we are always too busy with a list of things to do. Take away your technology and learn how to fish, what else do you really need in your life to be happy? Maybe a few books to read, even just going for a walk in the outdoors somewhere new. These kind of simplicities in life are achievable, as this fishermen amongst a village of thirty people prove to us every day. It just depends on how much you want that lifestyle, to drop the harsh nature of reality of being born into a developed country in this world.

So for all you people out there that have already written off the idea of doing something like this, anyone can do it - as I have! I had never driven on two wheels before, let alone the manual motorbike in Vietnam. All the above would never have been possible, had I have not considered using two wheels to explore.

Koh Phangan, Thailand

Vietnam War Vetran, Quảng Ngãi