The New Route 66
15 years ago I was backpacking through Southeast Asia. I’d had enough of bumping around in the back of crowded buses, staying in international hostels surrounded by other foreigners, and relying on tours, touts, and guides to see some predetermined list of sights.
On my way back from a typical low-budget backpacker tour to Ha Long Bay, I met two Dutch guys who told me I could buy a brand new motorcycle in Vietnam for only $600. They said I could sell it at the end of the trip for nearly the same amount. Really?? Here was an opportunity to break away from established routes and explore the country on my own.
By the time I got back to my hostel that night, I'd sourced a Russian-made 125cc two stroke. I rode that little bike for thousands of miles, and my only repair was a single spark plug. It was way more fun than I'd ever had backpacking. Net cost for the bike after a month of travel: $150. My backpacking days were over, I never looked back.
Vietnam, 125cc Minsk, 2002
I truly believe that if more people understood how inexpensive, easy, and awesome this kind of minimalist overseas moto travel is, way more people would be doing it. Consider this: you can ride a motorcycle all the way around the world without quitting your job, without selling your house, and without dropping out of society.
How cool is that?
The trick is to do your round-the-world trip in 2-4 week chunks, flying into a country that interests you, acquiring a bike, and wandering. You don’t need to pay through the teeth to ship your personal bike from home, and you don’t need to spend $150-200/day on bike rental either.
Here’s a couple past trips to illustrate the point:
- In 2008, I borrowed a 350cc Royal Enfield from a friend in Delhi, and spent a month riding two-up through Northern India. I was lucky that my buddy had a bike, I didn’t know that when I arrived. The exact same Enfield model is readily available for rent in Delhi for $20/day.
- In 2010, my buddy and I contacted the Uganda Bikers Association in Kampala. Two members agreed to rent us their personal bikes for $800 apiece for the month, and despite many mechanical issues, we completed an awesome loop through Uganda, Rwanda, and Burundi.
- In 2014, a friend and I flew to Vietnam and bought two Russian Minsks (the same bike from my original trip in 2002) for $500 apiece, rode them over a thousand miles through Vietnam and Laos, and sold them at the end for $175 each.
- In 2016, a buddy and I flew to Accra, Ghana and bought two 250cc Chinese-made dualsports for $1,100 apiece brand new, with registration and insurance. We rode 3,000 miles through Ghana, Togo, and Ivory Coast, and sold the bikes for $500 each at the end.
- In 2017, Ashley and I found two Honda 250s for rent in Sri Lanka. We rode thousands of miles around, across, and through the island on a mix of small curvy backroads and dirt. Total bike cost for a month of travel: $475 apiece.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my big KTM 950 here at home, but in the developing world a bike that big is overkill. 150-250ccs is more than adequate, and parts for the smaller bikes are cheap and readily available. If you breakdown, you’ll be back on the road in no time. Every little village has a mechanic, and the repair costs are negligible. In Vietnam in 2014, we did three top end rebuilds over the course of a month. Each was completed overnight, and each for less than $25.
Bike Repair, Vietnam
Bike Repair, India
It’s nice to be on the same bike as the locals. It makes you more approachable and less of a target. For small bike trips I leave my adventure gear at home, and opt for Carhartt’s and sneakers instead. That way I can walk around without looking like an astronaut. I ride more cautiously, which is never a bad idea anyway.
My small bike riding kit: work pants & hiking shoes
Traveling on small bikes opens up entire regions of the world which, from a practical standpoint, wouldn’t be seeable any other way. At least not on a fly-in trip. With small-bikes you can pick any country you want, regardless of whether rental bikes are available or not.
I look for countries with minimal infrastructure and few visitors. In places like that, it’s so much easier to have open, authentic connections with the people we meet along the way. Last winter, Ashley and I got a 150cc bike in Bangladesh and went exploring two-up. The locals took more pictures of us then we did of them. It’s fun to be every as interesting to the locals as they are to us, and that only happens in places that don’t see much tourism.
The modern Route 66 is out there in the developing word. Go get your kicks!