Ok, so you’ve bought a bike. You’ve navigated the perils of purchasing, you’ve avoided the scammers and rip-off merchants, and you’re the proud owner of a humming and spluttering hunk of shiny pig iron.
And now you’re sitting at the side of the road in Delhi, or Hanoi, or Kathmandu, you’re gazing in bewildered awe at the seething mass of crashes, chaos and blaring horns that often passes for traffic in Southeast Asia, and you’re thinking “Fuck that. I’ll take the bus.”
Fear not. Mr Bob shall be your guide.
The first thing to know is, it’s not as bad as it looks. If you’ve grown up on the roads of Western Europe or North America, you’re accustomed to traffic being rigidly controlled and to traffic laws being closely observed. That’s why, when those rules are absent it’s easy to despair. What you’ll find is that in fact, there are rules to it, they’re just not the kind that you’ll read about in a highway code manual.
The closest analogy I can think of is a crowded shopping centre. When walking around a shopping mall three days before Christmas, it’s chaos. There are people everywhere, they are all moving in different directions and at different speeds, they will often suddenly stop or change direction with no care or warning, they will cut in front of you, and they will occasionally just block an entire path while a group engages in conversation. In this place there are no laws stating that everyone must walk on the left, or that you must give way to those emerging from shops, or wave your arms to signal a turn, and yet, strangely, it’s very rare that you actually collide with anyone.
The reason for this is, you’re looking. Rather than devote your concentration to adhering to laws, you are instead, usually without realising it, paying attention to movement. You’re observing all of the people, you’re calculating the speeds and tangents of their movement and, although you might not be aware of it, you’re adjusting your own speed and direction minutely and constantly to take theirs in to account.
Motorcycle travel advice – The rules:
This is the frame of mind you need to survive as a motorcyclist out here. You’re not on the road, you’re in the local mega-mall 27 minutes before closing for the Christmas holiday, the crèche has just turned out, and everyone’s had one too many Starbucks. Things like ‘right of way’ are meaningless here, and traffic lights are mere suggestions. If you want rules to follow, here are the big ones:
Biggest vehicle has right of way. Buses and trucks will frequently use your side of the road, thus forcing you to pull off of the road entirely to avoid a collision. Do it. This isn’t a game of chicken, and even if it were, it’s one you’ll lose. It’s no good thinking “well it’s my side of the road and my right of way, so he should pull back in to his own lane”. You might be technically correct, but there’s no trophy for being the most technically correct corpse in the city morgue. Nor one for the flattest.
The horn is your friend. In my time on the roads of Europe, I doubt that I reached for the loud button more than two or three times a year, here it’s two or three times a minute. Locals use the horn as a substitute for indicators, brakes, headlights, and mirrors, and they’ll expect you to do the same. Overtaking someone? Press the horn! Changing lane? Press the horn! Making a U-turn? Press the horn! Approaching a blind corner? Press the horn long and hard until you’re all the way around it! It’s not antisocial, it’s essential. Love your horn. Caress it. Give it a girls name and buy it a big pink bouquet of flowers on it’s birthday. Now repeat after me:THIS IS MY HORN. THERE ARE MANY LIKE IT, BUT THIS ONE IS MINE. WITHOUT ME, MY HORN IS USELESS. WITHOUT MY HORN, I AM USELESS.
Remember you’re invisible. This is actually a piece of advice given to me by my former-biker father on the day I got my first motorcycle, and I like to think that it’s kept me shiny-side-up through all the long years thereafter. Imagine that you have an invisibility cloak around you at all times and behave accordingly. That truck will change lane as you overtake him, because he doesn’t know you’re there. That tractor will pull out of the junction 15 metres ahead of you, because he thinks the road is clear, he can’t see you.
Though, do also keep in mind that your invisibility cloak isn’t perfect. You might find it’s effectiveness compromised should you attempt to ride through any police or army checkpoints blind drunk and bareass naked. Maybe try telling them you’re Swedish.
Keep it slow. You’re supposed to be enjoying your tour and the surroundings anyway, there’s no benefit in blasting through and missing everything, but more importantly, unexpected perils abound on the roads of Asia. It might be that the road surface will suddenly change from tarmac to gravel or sand for no readily apparent reason. It might be that what appears to be a small surface puddle actually hides a pothole large enough to swallow a herd of buffalo. It might actually be a herd of buffalo. It might even be a gaggle of excited schoolchildren who frequently run out in to the road as they see you approach, in hopes of getting a hand shake or high-five from the first foreigner they’ve seen in years. Always be covering the brakes and learn exactly how quickly you can slow if you need to. Emergency stops with an overloaded motorcycle on gravel roads can be a real trouser-worrying experience.
Helmet and gloves at the bare minimum. Some choose to ride in full protective gear, and that’s fine, though I won’t envy you when you’re sitting in a traffic jam in South India in 50 degrees Celsius wearing a black leather onesie. But still, I’d rather be that guy than the muppet who falls off while wearing flip-flops and swimshorts. Armoured jackets and trousers are optional in my book, but a helmet is not. Ditto gloves, because when you fall, your first instinct is to put out your hands, and gravel or tarmac abrasion at 50mph will leave you somewhere between Jamie Lannister and Captain Hook on the table-tennis scoreboard. Fall without a lid and you’ll be losing 21-3 to Stephen Hawking.
It’s an odd fact of travel that the amount of luggage that one carries is usually inversely proportionate to the length of time that you have been travelling. It’s easy to spot the newcomers to the globetrotting scene, they’re the ones carting around a 30 kilogram Bergen containing enough gadgets, clothes, medical supplies and emergency survival gear to found a modestly sized colony. Whereas, the backpack of the man who’s been on the road for eight years will likely contain only a passport, a toothbrush, mosquito repellent, a toilet roll, and a packet of cheese and onion crisps.
It’s not that we lose things over time (though that does happen too), it’s mostly just that the more you travel, the fewer things that you find it necessary to carry on your back. Even the most remote places have shops from time to time.
The same principle also applies to the tools and equipment that you might carry when undertaking a long distance motorcycle journey. I remember my inaugural voyage. Back there in the murky mists of history, I set out on a motorcycle tour of India. I said I’d be home in about six months, if I recall correctly. That was seven years ago. Things don’t always go according to plan. But another thing that I recall distinctly, is the quantity of spares and tools that I felt would be essential for my adventure. I’d bought my bike, I had a large metal top box fitted to it, and I proceeded to fill it to bursting with over 20 kilos of unnecessary crap.
I had tools galore; hammers, screwdrivers, a full socket and spanner set, several pairs of pliers, torque wrench, pry-bar, tyre repair kit and foot-pump. I had glues, epoxy and a variety of tape. I even bought a voltmeter (a fucking voltmeter!). Then there were the spares; I had spare nuts and bolts, I had a full set of fuses and bulbs, two sets of replacement brake pads and inner tubes. I had a spare clutch cable, brake cables, an air filter, an oil filter, spark plugs, sprockets, fork seals, and what seemed like half a mile of wires and fuel hoses. Oh, and a 3 litre carton of engine oil.
Where the hell did I think I was going, Neptune?
Fast forward a couple of years, to Vietnam. By this time, my full toolkit was contained in a package no larger than the average wash-bag. Just half a dozen spanners, one spark plug, one spare bulb and a few miscellaneous implements. It probably weighed about 3 kilos.
A few short weeks ago, we were trundling happily along on the Tibetan Plateau when an unusual tapping sound from the engine forced me to stop the bike and consult my toolkit. Know what I travel with these days? One adjustable spanner, a Swiss army knife, and a roll of duct tape. That’s it.
Motorcycle mechanics are ten-a-penny in every place I’ve ever visited, and parts and labour are often absurdly cheap. And if the breakdown is so catastrophic that you can’t limp to the next settlement, you can always flag down a passing van/truck/pickup and offer him a couple of dollars to drop you and your crippled steed in the next town on his route.
Obviously, some won’t feel comfortable travelling without tools and spares, and that’s fine too. But just ensure that the spares you’re carrying don’t exceed your level of mechanical competence. If you’re not confident replacing fork springs yourself at the side of the road, don’t bother to carry spare ones. You’ll need to visit a mechanic for the work doing anyway and he’s bound to have them in stock, or he’ll know where to source them locally.
The law and the fuzz:
If you have an accident involving another person, always settle up with them in cash at the side of the road. Most of the time insurance is as good as worthless, and if the police become involved in disputes expect to pay five times as much to them as you would have to the other party.
Police are frequently on the take out here, and a police checkpoint or traffic stop is usually a thinly-veiled excuse for a shakedown. Especially when they see one of those ‘millionaire foreigners’ approaching. Over the years I’ve been busted for speeding, using roads that bikes aren’t permitted on, not wearing a helmet (in spite of my previous advice. Do as I say, not as I do. . . ), not having enough tred on the tyres, and failing to heed a stop sign in a language I can’t read, amongst other things.
Have your bribe ready at all times, because if you refuse to pay it, expect hours or even days of paperwork down at the station, then being landed with an even bigger ‘fine’ at the end of it anyway. Never call it a bribe, just wait while Officer McBent lists what you’ve done wrong and tells you that you need to surrender your licence and come with him to the station. Then, gripping a fistful of low value notes in your hand, say the trusted words: “I’m in a hurry, can I just pay the fine now in cash?”. Watch as his pupils morph in to dollar signs and as the paperwork disappears swiftly back in to his pocket, along with a few of your crisp banknotes. It’s never failed me yet.
Have fun. Take sensible precautions for your safety, but don’t let worrying about the dangers ruin your trip. Stop frequently, especially in small towns and villages and meet a few people, amazing adventures can spring from chance encounters in unusual places. Likewise, if you’re travelling alone, pick up passengers from time to time. In the early days, one such hitch-hiker became my full time travel buddy for the better part of a year. Another became my wife.
Motorcycle travel offers so much more than the usual backpacker merry-go-round. You’ll see a thousand places that those travelling by public transport will never get to, you’ll never need to endure the queues in train stations or the horrors of the sleeper buses, and you’re freed from any timetable but your own.
Plus, with your open faced helmet, darkened shades, and shiny iron horse, you’ll look cool as shit!
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