Introduction (and disclaimer).
This piece is intended as a light-hearted and mostly factual guide for the prospective motorcycle traveller, covering such issues as selecting & buying your bike, together with some guidelines and information for the road and traffic conditions that you’re likely to encounter. It’s built primarily upon my own experiences of bike travel throughout Asia, but doubtlessly the same advice and information could also serve well for those considering a two wheeled tour of Africa or South America.
Bear in mind that there are many ways to travel, and everyone’s needs and plans are different. The approach I describe here is the style of travel that I’ve spent the last few years of my life doing, that is; long time-scale, big ambition, small budget.
What it is not is a guide for a mile munching trip around the smooth roads and strictly observed traffic laws of Western Europe or North America. Although, I’d be happy to produce one of those too if there’s a demand.
Part one. ‘What to buy?’ (and ‘some’ beamer-bashing)
To many, motorcycle travel conjures up images of Ewan Macgreggor and and his buddy Charlie astride their towering BMW R1200GS machines in ‘The long way round‘ and it’s subsequent unnecessary sequels. Yet anyone who has watched these shows closely enough will have seen for themselves what an utterly atrocious choice of steed these lumbering giants proved to be. Though marketed as a ‘go-anywhere tourer’, in my opinion (and experience), the GS’s real clientèle are wealthier people who want the rugged appearance, but actually only use the bike for the occasional holiday through France & Spain. Nothing wrong with that, but if touring mainland Europe is your thing, a Honda ST1300 Pan-European would do the job cheaper and in greater comfort. It’s there in the name for god sake.
I digress. Vast expense aside, bikes like the 1200GS are simply too tall, heavy and cumbersome to be considered for long distance travel in less developed countries, where roads can often be in terrible shape if they’re existent at all. There’s also the aspect of repairs. To go back to ‘The long way round’, you may recall that when the brakes on the cameraman’s beemer broke down in Russia, they could not be repaired, the bike had to be abandoned and a local machine purchased as a replacement. Bear in mind that this was a high budget TV show, with a support crew of expert technicians and two trucks loaded with tools and spares on hand, even so, it could not be fixed. You won’t have this support crew. The best you’ll have is a small emergency toolkit, and the assistance of any willing locals. And asking the average scooter mechanic in the mountains of Vietnam to patch up your “Electronic Servo-Assisted ABS Brakes” would be akin to recruiting your local council plumber to service a nuclear submarine. If you’re really lucky, he’ll refuse. If you’re unlucky, he might just attempt to fix it. With his trusty claw hammer and chisel. Then you’ll really be screwed.
If I may just refer back to the show for a third and (I promise) final time, When the cameraman’s mighty BMW failed him, the replacement purchased was a small capacity, ultra cheap runabout. And even Ewan and Charlie were forced to admit how much more easy and composed it was than their own bikes when traversing the rough stuff. This brings me to the most important piece of advice I can give you on the subject of machinery; Discard all thoughts of glamorous, modern bikes and instead, keep it simple and keep it cheap!.
The road conditions (which I will detail later) rarely allow you to use the full power of your bike, regardless of size. Out here 250cc is considered a ‘big bike’, and a 125cc engine is more than adequate for a solo traveller. I’ve actually done a journey of many months in SE Asia aboard a Daelim 125 carrying two people and 50kg of luggage, so I can assure you that it’s possible. But to avoid a lot of dancing on the gears in mountainous regions, you might want to consider looking for something closer to 200cc if you’re travelling with a pillion. That said, it doesn’t mean you should turn your nose up if a tidy 600 Bandit crosses your path, just that you should be aware that such machines are much rarer out here, and as a consequence more expensive and more difficult to obtain parts for. And with the increase in cylinder numbers and complexity, comes an increase in the number of things to go wrong.
Next important thing, air-cooled is always better. In the west we generally ride bikes with liquid-cooled engines, liquid cooling allows for better tolerances and therefore, higher performance. Here, performance is not such an issue, but a piece of tyre-propelled gravel punching a hole in your radiator is. Likewise, the continuous shaking from the rough and potholed streets is easily enough to rattle a hose loose, dumping your entire supply of coolant all over the engine, road and rear tyre. Messy on a modern liquid-cooled machine. On an oil-cooled bike such as the aforementioned Bandit, that could well mean game over.
Try to get something with a kickstart. The pitiful starter motors fitted to small capacity bikes are notoriously unreliable, and batteries can go flat. Whereas, your right leg will in most cases remain operational for the duration of your travels, and will always pack more punch than a 12 volt motor. Plus, kicking your bike to life with a hefty welly from your right boot heel is infinitely more manly and satisfying than sitting at the side of the road churning and spluttering for two minutes until the starter motor finally gets it going. If you find a bike with both kickstart and electric start, great. But if you’re forced to choose between one or the other, take the manual kickstart every time.
Manual gears are also important. Even if you’re new to motorcycles I’d still recommend taking a day or two to get to grips with a clutch and manual gearbox rather than an automatic ‘twist & go’. Proper gears allow you to use engine braking to control your speed on descents, slip the clutch on steep inclines, and are massively more useable on rough off-road sections.
Basically, I’ll say again; KEEP IT SIMPLE!. Aim for mechanical rather than electronic equipment because it’s easier to repair. Choose carburettor over fuel injection, choose analogue gauges over digital ones, and avoid unnecessarily complex gizmos such as ABS brakes, fly-by-wire throttles, and wiring loom incorporated sandwich toasters. Oh, and don’t be afraid to sacrifice reliability for ease of maintenance, I’d much rather have a bike that breaks ten times during a tour if I can fix it at the side of the road, than a bike that only breaks twice but requires specialist tools and knowledge to coax it back to life. Especially when those tools and knowledge might be a thousand miles away.
Some bikes I can personally recommend:
- Suzuki GN125. Cheap, light, simple, fast enough for your needs and roomy enough to carry a passenger or a sizeable amount of luggage in comfort.
- Honda Master 125. The chosen steed for all of Vietnam’s ‘Easyriders’ (professional motorcycle guides) and with good reason, excellent comfort, power and reliability, it will happily carry two people and luggage. Hard to find a cheap one though, they hold their value well, and I never saw a used one for less than $1000.
- Kawasaki GTO 125. Very popular in SE Asia and at 20bhp, more powerful than most others of a similar size, but the two-stroke engine can mean reliability issues. Easy to fix though, and parts are available on every street corner.
- Honda Rebel/Phantom. Common in 125, 180 and 250cc variants, a solid and very comfortable choice for those who want to look and feel like they’re riding a Harley Davidson. A bit pricier; expect to pay at least $800 for a good, used example.
- Honda CBR125/150. Cheap, fast, and to be found everywhere. The sporty handling can cause problems when you’re off-road, but the fun you’ll have on the tarmac should make up for that.
As a general rule, anything 100 – 400cc from the ‘big four’ Japanese manufacturers will serve you well. Having said that, the Chinese and Korean copies of these bikes are usually significantly cheaper and nowadays the build quality isn’t that much worse. Whatever you’re considering, it’s worth making sure there are a few of them around. If you don’t see at least two examples on the road during a 30 minute walk around the city, it means spares might be equally hard to come by.
In spite of everything I’ve said however, the most important thing is that you love it. A bike could be technically perfect in every way, but if you don’t bond with it, your trip just won’t be the same. I’ve travelled on some hilariously inappropriate machinery (crossing the Himalayas on a 1947 Royal Enfield springs to mind) because I saw it, I thought it was utterly beautiful, and every time I came out of my hotel and swung a leg over it, it made me grin like a maniac.