A Traveller’s Guide to Motorcycle Touring – On the Road

By Owen Sleigh

So you’re interested in motorbike touring? Great. Riding a bike is one of life’s big thrills – even more so when it’s in a new country with amazing scenery, food and people. I’ve written up two guides that might help you if you’re after advice. Click here if you’re still at the Preparation stage, or continue reading if you’re ready to hit the road. Happy Riding!

1. Be safe on the roads

If you’re a competent rider, ride sensibly and know the rules of the road, you should be fine. As a general rule, don’t ride beyond your ability or go faster than you’re comfortable with; most biker deaths are caused by excess speed. Keep your eyes open, be aware of other vehicles, and don’t overtake when you can’t see a long way ahead. It’s also always a good idea to keep to the side of your lane due to overtaking cars coming the other way – especially on blind corners. This is probably the number one safety tip of riding a motorcycle in places like Southeast Asia. Might is right. Cars and trucks will expect you to move for them!

Continuously scanning the road for potholes, stones, animals and slippery diesel spillages is another good idea, taking care to not lean too far over should you encounter the latter on a bend. I saw two guys slide off their bike for this reason, although they were thankfully unharmed. Also use your horn when overtaking, and any other time you want to alert someone to your presence. 

2. Set reasonable expectations

As a general rule, 200km a day is good going. Average speeds can be surprisingly low, especially on twisty or busy roads where 20kmh is not unheard of. Not that it’s a bad thing – there’s no point rushing, and the journey itself is probably why you’re reading this. Plus, a low speed allows you more time to observe the scenery.

You’ll want a short break every 90 minutes or so without doubt, to stop and stretch your legs. And after about 5-6 hours of riding, most people will have had enough for the day. It’s also almost always a good idea to ride in the day rather than at night, as you will see more – and it’s a hell of a lot safer. You will inevitably end up riding at night sometimes though, so do be sure to have your lights checked and properly working!

3. Find somewhere to rest

When you’re tired of riding for the day, look out for a hotel. If you want a quiet night, try and avoid rooms next to a busy road, the hotel reception or a mosque! Ask for a discount, you will often get one. Most hotel staff are honest but beware of a trick – they charge you for the standard or luxury room but put you in a dingy economy room and hope you won’t notice. For this reason you should see the room first to decide if it’s worth the price.

Lock your bike up at night, preferably out of sight and to a solid object like a railing, using your combination lock. Alternatively many hotels will park your bike in to the lobby or gated area and keep it secure overnight.

4. Prepare for the police

It’s quite rare to be pulled over; I didn’t even see any road police in Vietnam and Laos, and only encountered one road check the whole length of Indonesia. Nevertheless, ride long enough and far enough and you will be stopped eventually. So when you do get pulled over, if you’re fully legal then you have nothing to worry about, but if you’re found to not have a license or something about your bike is breaking the law, then don’t panic… and be prepared to smile. It’s time for a bit of sweet talking and bribery – and as low as USD5-10 usually does the trick. If caught in this situation, always start by saying you don’t have much cash on you, and never show a wallet full of money or you will find the fine to be greatly inflated.

5. Sell your bike

Finish your journey with ample time to sell your bike, and I would recommend at least a week. Write an ad and post it on the local Facebook sellers groups, expat websites and the local buy & sell sites, or post paper adverts on doors and walls, in hotel receptions, and on street walls and lampposts, etc.

Word of mouth is also a great way to sell things quickly, and it’s often overlooked, so mention your bike to people in bars, your hotel, and in the street too. Alternatively, you can sell the bike back to the shop you bought it from, as I did in Mumbai, but you’ll probably need to agree this with the owner beforehand. This is a good option as long as you are happy to return to the same place you started from. One word about selling though – never let potential buyers know you are desperate, and never tell them when you need to leave by. If it’s known that you are desperate to sell, then it’s known also that you will accept a very low price!

If time is running out and you still haven’t sold up, then get your bike and documents ready for sale and ride around looking for used bike dealers. Drop in and tell them you can sell your bike there and then for a good price and you should hopefully get lucky. This is how I sold my Honda Verza in Bali with only two days left on my Indonesian visa. That way you’ll have most of your money back, epic photos, awesome memories, and hopefully no injuries.

6. Prepare for the cost

Is it expensive? Motorcycle touring in third world countries is much more affordable than you might think. Your main expense is buying a bike. A decent bike of 100-150 cc can be found anywhere from USD400–1000,  and you should get most of that back when you sell it (as long as you don’t crash it along the way!). Fuel is usually inexpensive in many backpacker places, and you should get at least 100 miles per gallon (my Honda Verza 150 averaged 133!). Your main expenses after that are food and board, but budget hotels and motels are often inexpensive and street food can be extremely cheap – sometimes just pennies for a meal. Overall, two months of riding the length of Indonesia cost me just over GBP1,000, and I’m sure you can do it for at least that too. Happy riding!