Despite never being seen dead in Lycra, Ahimsa Kerp finds that cycle-power is the best way to explore the streets of Asia
“Get a bicycle. You will not regret it, if you live.” ― Mark Twain
Look, I’ve never owned those special bike shorts that real bikers always wear. I don't know if they’re made out of Lycra or spandex or if those are even different things. I’ve never watched the Tour De France and I would be hard-pressed to fix a broken spoke or even a simple flat tyre.
And yet, even as a non-bike rider, there are few activities more joyful than biking through a new city.
There are certainly challenges beyond rusty brakes and lack of spandex. The traffic in Asian cities can be demanding. Forget driving a moto or car; even pedestrians are taxed on their first day in Hanoi or Jaipur. And simply climbing onto a bike commits one to knowing the rules of merging, of roundabouts and right turns and one-ways and left turns; an entire world of potential ignorance and missteps.You quickly realize that your bike bell has become as important as your brakes.
All that being true, urban bike rides can be nearly transcendental experiences, providing a mix of beautiful scenery, non-touristy interactions, and the hard to-pin-down "unexpected." Here are five Asian cities with cheap bike rentals and a unique sense of exploration.
Chiang Mai is entirely flat, and the old city is great for biking in. There are more wats than you could ever see in a day; more than 300 in the greater Chiang Mai area. (If you do visit the wats, remember to cover up appropriately, wear shoes that you can remove, and ask before taking pictures of monks.)
If you're in good shape and have a bike with gears, a tedious climb up to Wat Phrathat Doi Suthep can be really rewarding. For those less inclined to inclines, the Chiang Mai Zoo, on the way to Doi Suthep, is a sprawling enclosure easily reached by bike, and has a good reputation as zoos go.. Before either of those lies the enormous Chiang Mai University, which has a picturesque lake and plenty of empty roads for biking. There are several museums, parks and gardens within biking distance, allowing for a fully customizable couple of days.
Unlike most cities in Asia, this moat-enclosed city isn't built along the river. The Ping River is almost an afterthought, but you can bike across it easily enough and explore the burgeoning suburbs, including a Rimping Grocery Store with western comforts such as bread, cheese, and microbrews. If you run short of energy, there are enough coffee shops in the old city and along Nimmanhaemin to caffeinate a small army.
Bike rentals for a day can start as low as 50 baht (1.5 USD) and climb to 250 baht (7.50 USD), depending on bicycle quality and your negotiation skills.
Hoi An is a ridiculously beautiful place with a photogenic city centre that wouldn't look out of place in Disneyland. It just so happens to have a beautiful beach four kilometres away, with roads of farms, villages, and small houses along the way. A 12-kilometre ride could include beaches, farms, streams, and beautiful buildings, all in a city that is entirely flat. Additionally, the traffic is more chiledl than in most of Vietnam.
You can rent bikes from numerous places, all for something like 30,000 dong (1.50 USD) per day. Some hotels and guesthouses lend the bikes for free as well.
This dusty town on the edge of Inle Lake is another ideal place for bike rides. Sunset is a great time to hop on and start pedalling. Small villages, fields with water buffalo, lakes, and even a winery are all within an easy ride of Nyaungshwe. It's easy to ride halfway around the lake and arrange for transport across the lake on a longboat. It does get really dark here, so bring a headlamp if riding around dusk.
As with the other cities, there are several places with bicycles available for 1,000-,2000 kyat (1-2 USD) per day, though the bikes are janky even by South East Asia standards.
While the winters are cold like Siberia, and the summers are hot like Bangkok, Seoul’s two weeks of spring and two months of autumn are brilliant for bike riding.
Because of the constant current of outgoing teachers, finding a used bike is not difficult. Shops sell reasonable priced bikes as well, and if you're not picky there are shops that rent or even lend free bikes for a full day.
It's acceptable to bike on the footpath in Seoul, which is nice for those uncomfortable on crowded roads. You could zip from neighborhood to neighborhood, or visit a place like Olympic Park or Seoul Forest Park, both of which feature beautiful trees in the autumn. But the real joy of biking in Seoul are the open miles along the Han River. On a sunny day, it is a real joy to bike along the meandering river, popping with fish, and dotted with Family Marts for those who grow hungry or thirsty.
You can rent or borrow bikes for zero dollars through to a couple thousand won (3-4 USD). Unlike most of Asia, bike rentals are usually per hour rather than per day, but the free bike places are until 7 pm, so get there early if you want a decent bike.
Properly speaking, Vang Vieng is not a city. It is, however, a gorgeous town full of potential bike rides. Due to the government burning down the infamous riverside bars, Vang Vieng is a bit of a ghost town now, but it's well worth visiting.
A ride to the Blue Lagoon could be one of the most beautiful bike rides you've ever been on, although here it's worth paying for a mountain bike as the roads are quite bumpy. The Lagoon has rope swings and branches to jump into the deep, deep water and is one of the best places for swimming in this part of the world. Elsewhere, there are numerous waterfalls and for would-be spelunkers many caves to explore (though they flood in the wet season, so be careful and check with a local first.)
The usual hotels and shops offer fleets of bicycles. Road bikes are about 10,000 kip (1.20 USD) and mountain bikes are four or five times that.
Riding a bike is one of the cheapest, most exciting, and, assuming you stay alive, healthiest ways to explore an area. With everything from lakes to caves to wineries to wats as potential destinations, it's time to climb up on the saddle. Just make sure to get a bike with a warning bell, and use it liberally.
Ahimsa Kerp has been living in Asia since 2008, travelling and teaching English.
She blogs at http://arewethereyeti.wordpress.com/