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SINGAPORE: Relaxing on cruise ships, partying at the best beaches, food-tripping and bungee-jumping the weekend away – you've probably been-there-done-that when it comes to vacations around the region.
Well, what about hopping on two wheels to explore another country?
These days, cycling tours are becoming a popular option for those who want to try a different kind of holiday. Think about it: You get to go around seeing some awe-inspiring sights and you get to burn some serious calories while you’re at it.
But it’s more than just getting a bit of a workout done while being a tourist.
“The biggest, most obvious benefit is you get to see things off the beaten track,” shared 45-year-old cyclist Alvin Low.
“Cycling also gives you a certain flexibility – it’s much faster than walking and you won’t feel trapped like when you’re in a vehicle. You’re free to stop as and when you see an interesting sight. There’s also sense of freedom when you’re riding a bicycle, with the feeling of the wind on your face.”
Low runs Singapore Cycling Tours, one of a handful such groups in the country, and has been organising overseas cycling holidays since 2007. These range from quick weekend trips to full-on, week-long adventures across all sorts of terrain, where a group cycles from between 25km to 100km a day, or even more, depending on their level of experience.
Which Asian countries are go-to destinations for such tours? Low points to Taiwan and Japan, thanks to a strong cycling culture in both countries, cooler climate and relatively easy traffic conditions to navigate.
That said, Southeast Asian countries aren’t too shabby as cycling holiday options, too, despite comparatively being a bit rougher around the edges. Plus, the region has more than its fair share of amazing natural landscapes and man-made wonders for those snapshots your friends back home will envy – just remember to stop before pulling out your phone.
Here are Low’s top recommendations of the best routes for a cycling holiday in Southeast Asia.
Dotted with countless temples, this ancient city in the Mandalay region is one of the most awe-inspiring places to visit in the region – and it’s best to go on two wheels.
Low, who has been there five times, said his group usually goes between November and February for a week. Their route also includes a trip to Inle Lake and the old capital of Mandalay itself.
Aside from the temples, you'll also cycle through villages. “You still see bullock carts on the road and we’d cycle alongside them!” he said.
LUANG PRABANG, LAOS
Here’s a slightly tougher route, but Low says it’s worth it. A six-day trip takes you from the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Luang Prabang to the capital of Vientiane. In-between you’ll pass by Vang Vieng, which is famous for its limestone caves.
“It can get a bit hilly but there’s a very laid-back atmosphere, with lots of countryside scenery. And because it used to be a French colony, you’ll get to see some of the influences – and even the food,” said Low.
SIEM REAP, CAMBODIA
Here’s another relatively easy route for overseas cycling newbies – and it’s got a magnificent pay-off. Low’s group flies in to the capital city of Siem Reap and do a four-day tour around the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Angkor Wat.
“Cycling is already developed there, so the infrastructure and the routes themselves are safe and used by a lot of tourists,” he said.
CHIANG RAI, THAILAND
There’s Chiang Mai, but if you want a bit of a challenge, another popular cycling route in northern Thailand is the province of Chiang Rai.
Low describes it as more of an off-road mountain trail, where you’re bound to come across a few temples, the most famous of which is Wat Rong Khun, aka the White Temple.
It’s also located in the so-called Golden Triangle, where the three countries of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar meet at the Mekong River.
DESARU OR MELAKA, MALAYSIA
Want to consider something short and sweet? Cycle to Desaru. The coastal resort area in southeastern Johor could be done over the weekend and is a good option if you’re road cycling overseas for the first time, said Low.
“We usually recommend this for newbies. There’s much less traffic, no tall buildings and it’s a more laid-back kind of environment. You go past Malaysian villages, too."
For a slightly longer trip, Low suggested going up to Melaka, which will take an extra day.
SENTOSA ISLAND, SINGAPORE
And in case actually travelling out of the country is too much of a hassle, you can always play tourist-on-a-bike here in Singapore, too – at the ultimate tourist spot of Sentosa.
It’s not like it’s a cop-out, said Low. “I find cycling there very pleasant. You get pretty decent terrain, a few up and down slopes, and the loop itself is about 10km.”
One goes through the Gateway to Palawan Beach, makes a loop around the beach, and comes back to the Rasa Sentosa side. Plus, there’s a dedicated bike lane.
CYCLING HOLIDAY 101
Before you hop on that bike and start exploring the region, here are some guidelines from Singapore Cycling Tours’ Alvin Low.
CYCLE IN A GROUP
It’s safer, you’ve got instant support, and if you’re travelling under a tour operator, everything’s pretty much taken care of, including food and lodging. If you’re not bringing your own bike, operators also know where you can rent one. Plus, you’re assured of a support vehicle and a lead cyclist to guide everyone, said Low. One thing you do need to bring, though, is your own helmet.
YOU HAVE TO BE A DECENT CYCLIST
“It’s not for totally new beginners – it’s overseas and there’s no such thing as park connectors,” said Low. Cyclists must have reasonably good fitness levels although most tours normally adjust to your limitations. Most of SCT’s clients are PMEBs, although there are quite a number of retirees as well, he said. To date, their youngest cyclist was around 15 and the oldest was 80.
KEEP YOUR PHONE AWAY
Do not take photos when you’re cycling. It sounds pretty obvious but you might get carried away if you’re passing by a majestic limestone cliff. “We always brief our participants not to do that. There might be potholes on the road and, if you aren’t holding the handlebars, you might get thrown off. It’s best to stop,” said Low.