Blog 2 of 3 — Reflections on Bicycle Infrastructure
Between March and June, 2018, my wife and I bicycled nearly 5,000 kilometers riding through six countries in Southeast Asia, including Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. My first blog post focused on bicycle safety. In this post, I will describe the transportation infrastructure that we encountered on our journey with a particular focus on the bicycle related infrastructure (when present). Similar to my last post, I’m organizing the discussion by countries with similar infrastructure characteristics.
Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia
In our seven weeks of cycling in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, we did not see any dedicated cycling infrastructure as separating modes was simply not done in these countries. However, there was an extensive transportation network throughout Vietnam which cyclists could take advantage of. For example, Vietnam boasts an extensive network of bridges ranging from very simple seasonal bamboo bridges (see photo) to very complex, heavily engineered iconic bridges in some of the larger cities. While I was riding up one of these bridges crossing the mighty Mekong River in Can Tho, a scooter rider came up behind and started pushing me up the bridge — it was a nice gesture, but not something I was comfortable with considering his speed and the very long drop off the bridge if I would have crashed.
The road conditions varied remarkably throughout Vietnam from potholed and poorly maintained roads to newly constructed, smooth road surfaces with wide shoulders which were ideal for bicycling. The road signage in Vietnam was fairly easy to follow, although we did get lost a number of times when traveling secondary roads to escape the heavy bus and truck traffic on SH1. We absolutely loved taking the ubiquitous ferries throughout the Mekong Delta, which was perhaps the most impressive and unique transportation mode in all of Vietnam (see photo). In Laos and Cambodia, there was a less extensive road network than in Vietnam so we often ended up riding on busier highways since that was the only road available. This didn’t necessarily translate to less enjoyable riding though because both Laos and Cambodia were less populated so the roads tended to be calmer and more comfortable to bicycle unless we were on a road with heavy bus or truck traffic.
Thailand and Malaysia
Both Thailand and Malaysia have limited forms of cycling infrastructure. Thailand was definitely the easiest country to ride in due to its extensive network of well-maintained and lightly traveled secondary roads. Many of the secondary roads in Thailand have bike lanes (see photos below) although they are not regularly cleaned nor well maintained. We also rode on several dedicated bike paths in Thailand including a well designed and constructed bike path heading south from the resort community of Hua Hin, which is approximately two hundred kilometers south of Bangkok. Prachuap Khirikhan, located approximately three hundred kilometers south of Bangkok, also had an impressive cycling network which includes a blue cycleway which runs the length of the coastline. In these communities, there appeared to be increased local cycling numbers as compared to other parts of Thailand which did not have as much cycle infrastructure.
In Malaysia, the roads were the most auto oriented of all the countries we rode through. Consequently, they would benefit the most from developing an extensive cycling network to provide a safe and comfortable means for people on bikes to get around. While there are some isolated examples of bicycle infrastructure in Malaysia (see photos below), they are few and far between as the transportation network is largely built to accommodate the automobile. The most remarkable thing that I experienced in Malaysia were these massive U turn structures that all traffic (including bicyclists) must use to either go the other way or to get across the freeway to access properties on the other side of the freeway (see aerial photo below). While current road conditions are challenging for bicycling in Malaysia, some cities such as Kuala Lumpur, Malacca and George Town (Penang Island) are making a concerted effort to improve conditions for bicycling by installing cycle infrastructure.
All in all, the transportation infrastructure on our SE Asia bike trip was certainly adequate, and in some cases, really impressive. The extensive ferry network throughout the Mekong Delta was low cost, convenient, and high frequency. As noted above, we didn’t witness any dedicated bicycling infrastructure in Vietnam, Laos or Cambodia. Thailand and Malaysia have raised the bar in cycling infrastructure investment although they still have a way to go until they have a complete network of cycling facilities. Compared to other long-distance bike tours that I have done, the amount of maintenance and repairs for my bike was not out of the ordinary which is a good metric demonstrating that SE Asia roads are quite rideable and generally in decent condition.