Cycling from Saigon to Bangkok

By Jay Jacobson
This item appears on page 30 of the October 2018 issue.

Jay and Joan at a shrine in Bangkok, Thailand.
I've been to Asia more than a dozen times, mostly for biking and always during the winter. My January-February 2018 tour was the first time I cycled in three countries during the same trip (Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand).

This epic trip, organized by SpiceRoads Cycling (45 [Sub Soi Pannee] Soi Pridi Banomyong 26, Sukhumvit Soi 71 Klongtan Nua, Wattana, Bangkok, Thailand; phone +66 2 381 7490, www.spiceroads.com), had three segments, and we had different guides/leaders, money, border-crossing formalities, bikes and even helmets in each of the three countries.

The trip started in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), Vietnam, on Jan. 14. The first four days, we cycled through Vietnam's flat and lush Mekong River Delta. The following week, we pedaled in Cambodia, including in its dynamic capital, Phnom Penh, and spent three days in Siem Reap, where we cycled to the Angkor Wat ruins. The final two days found us along Thailand's coastal beachfront areas, and our tour ended in Bangkok on Jan. 27.

In addition to 373 miles of cycling, there were planned stretches of bus/van transfers out of cycle-unfriendly areas (because of heavy traffic, poor road surfaces, etc.). There were also two longboat transfers, on a lake and a river.

Our group consisted of eight men and eight women ranging in age from their 30s to 70s (guess who?!), mostly married couples. Most were from the US, with a few from Brazil, Denmark and England.

Temperatures were in the 70s and 80s, with just an hour of rain during the 2-week period.

The terrain, itself, was not very challenging; the only real hills we encountered were during our last few days in Thailand. However, there were long days of cycling that started as early as 7:30 a.m. and ended just before dark. The longest cycling days were about 62 miles — not much by New York City standards, but, given the conditions, I felt we "earned our pay" those days.

Only about half of the roads we used were paved. Frequently, the pavement was potholed and rutted, and the nonpaved half was either hard-packed dirt or loose, powdery sand. I wasn't used to the latter, so I frequently found myself at the slower end of the pack on those stretches.

Jay at the Mekong River in Cambodia.

We crossed numerous small rivers as well as the big Mekong! A few crossings were done on ferries, while others were done on bridges over narrow streams, mostly in Vietnam. The pathways were sometimes only 5 or 6 feet wide, and small motor scooters shared them with us, frequently approaching us in the oncoming "lane."

The bike paths and trails, located along bodies of water, usually lacked guardrails. One of our female cocyclists, Tricia, ran off the road next to a Vietnam waterway. She and her bike fell into a shallow but filthy stream. Luckily, the only injury she sustained was to her pride.

The cost of the tour was $2,750. The single supplement was an additional $525, and bike rentals (Trek- and Giant-brand mountain bikes — very good for this terrain) totaled $200. These prices were much less than what a US company would have charged. Almost all of the meals, which were local-style and good, were included.

During my first Vietnam visit, in the early '90s, everyone was on bicycles. Now they're riding motorcycles and motor scooters. Judging by the traffic and construction projects everywhere, the economy there must be booming.

All of our hotels had air-conditioning and pools. I rated them three or four stars, by European standards. All but one of our hotels were "one-night stands," since we moved quickly along our route.

Mid-trip, we did stay three days at one hotel in Siem Reap, home to the Angkor Wat ruins. This afforded us an ideal "laundry opp." There was a (very!) low-priced laundry abutting our hotel that provided much-needed same-day service.

I felt the local guides/leaders were well qualified. Each had about 10 years of experience leading group bike rides. There also were assistants who drove a supply van that carried baggage, bikes, water, tools and snacks. A comfortable bus transported cyclists who were tired as well as all of us on the noncyclable stretches and to evening dining venues.

Jay Jacobson about to cross the Mekong River on a bridge in Cambodia.

We saw, smelled, heard, tasted and touched lush green scenery, including pineapple, rubber, banana and sugar plantations, rice paddies, lotus flower ponds and bamboo and coconut trees.

In addition to Angkor's historic sites, we visited other religious shrines and temples, including Cambodia's infamous Killing Fields and relics of their holocaust.

There were serious environmental concerns in the areas through which we rode. Air pollution was rampant, especially in cities, and much of the population wore breathing masks. Garbage and litter removal left much to be desired. Discarded paper and plastic items were everywhere along the roads and in the countryside. Giant tangles of utility wires in urban areas created visual pollution.

About six of the 16 members of our group suffered from "Delhi belly" at one time or another. I was gratified to hear from the Cambodian leader that, in his 10 years of leading these groups through his country, I was the oldest visiting cyclist to complete virtually the entire tour.

At the end of the SpiceRoads tour, my wife of 50 years, Joan, met me and we enjoyed two weeks at several exquisite resorts. Two of the hotels arranged bike tours of the lovely coastal Phuket area for me.

Joan had ridden a tandem bike with me on a number of bike tours until she had a knee replacement. After that, we were afraid that if we ever fell (which never happened), she could severely damage her knee. Now she frequently travels with me before or after my bike tours.

What I enjoyed most about my SpiceRoads cycling trip were the people. Everyone was friendly and polite. What most stands out in my mind are the multitudes of children who were screaming excitedly at us, welcoming us to their country: "Where are you going? Where are you from? Hello!"

Even on my first bike trip to Vietnam in the early 1990s, it was hard to believe we had once been their enemy.

Anyone with questions may write to me at jayjny@aol.com.

JAY JACOBSON
Piermont, NY


Jay Jacobson at a beautiful shrine in Cambodia.