Motorbiking in Southeast Asia
Take to the deserted mountain roads to have your own two-wheeled Asian adventure. (Oliver Strewe/LPI)
Southeast Asia is home to some of the greatest adventures on earth. Throw a motorbike into the mix and you will have the time of your life. Here is our guide to a two-wheeled adventure in the Mekong region:
Vietnam and Laos: Sublime scenery from mountain to coast
To kick off, the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail has been upgraded into a major highway that runs along the spine of the country and offers some sublime scenery. The stretch from the old US airbase of Khe Sanh north to Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park is a beauty, including a wide section that was apparently a secret jungle landing strip for MIG fighters during the war.
Elsewhere in Vietnam, Ha Giang is the final frontier for motorbiking aficionados in Indochina. Like Halong Bay on high, karst peaks protrude from the top of rolling mountains and secluded villages are home to a colourful mosaic of ethnic minorities. The gorge road from Dong Van to Meo Vac is the stuff of biker yore, its towering cliffs looming high above and plummeting to the Nho Que River in the distance below. Just remember to keep an eye on the road, despite the breathtaking scenery.
A word of caution, however, Ha Giang still requires an official permit to visit more remote areas. Choose to travel without one and accidentally stumble upon military exercises in the mountains and you may find yourself a guest of the local Vietnamese police, as I did for one unforgettable night in Meo Vac.
If the coast is more your cup of tea, then try the Top Gear thing and ride notorious Highway 1 between Saigon and Hanoi. The traffic can be daunting around major cities, but there are some remote and desolate stretches with empty beaches. Aim high over the Hai Van Pass, ignoring the tedious tunnel that has been conveniently burrowed through the mountain.
Take the Top Gear theme further and team up with some friends to ride a Minsk, a Vespa and a Honda Cub. Buy each other ridiculous presents along the way, but try not to have a major accident on the road to Halong Bay like Jeremy Clarkson. Converting the bikes to amphibious vehicles to explore Halong Bay might be a step too far for a holiday.
Back to the Ho Chi Minh theme, for experienced dirt bikers, it is possible to explore remnants of the old Ho Chi Minh Trail across the border in Laos. Rusting tanks and forgotten field guns litter the jungle of Southern Laos. Combine a ride through the region's recent history with some of the most remote and wild regions of the country in Salavan and Attapeu.
Cambodia - the other Route 66 (and more)
Cambodia has long been the holy grail for dirt bike enthusiasts thanks to its network of crumbling roads. Many of these have been upgraded in the past decade, but there remain many parts of the country where potholes are the size of golf bunkers and tarmac is an endangered species.
Get your kicks on Route 66, an ancient Angkorian highway that runs due east from Angkor via Beng Mealea to the vast temple complex of Preah Khan. Ancient stone bridges from the time of Jayavarman VII acts as historical waymarkers along the route, including the dramatic Spean Ta Ong with more than 20 arches.
Or follow in the tyre treads of Charley Boorman who biked across Cambodia in 2008. Meander along the Mekong River through traditional villages in Kompong Cham and Kratie before making a diversion east to the elevated provinces of Mondulkiri and Ratanakiri. Still linked together by the infamous "Death Highway", many an experienced biker has come unstuck on the sandy, muddy trails "linking" Koh Nhek in Mondulkiri with Lumphat in Ratanakiri.
And let us not forget the Cardamom Mountains in southwest Cambodia for remote jungle; the dramatic northeast of Laos, home to the Plain of Jars and the Vieng Xai Caves, a sort of Cu Chi Tunnels cast in stone; and the rural Mekong Delta, a gentle two-wheeled adventure set against a patchwork of emerald green.
Lonely Planet author Nick Ray has authored multiple guidebooks, including the classic Southeast Asia on a Shoestring. He also worked as line producer on the Top Gear Vietnam special and fixer for Charley Boorman's trip across Cambodia for By Any Means.