When I first began planning eight months of travel through Southeast Asia I certainly didn’t have a week of cycling the mountains of Laos on my radar. You see, I’m not a “cyclist”. I haven’t owned a bike in a decade. I didn’t even know where to buy a pair of bike shorts. Nonetheless, thanks to some unique day trips around Cambodia the prior year, a cycling trip with Grasshopper Adventures piqued my interest. My experiences with them have left me with no choice but to honestly share with you why I find they stand out amongst tour providers.
Cycling Through Asia – For Real?
For the uninitiated, Grasshopper Adventures is a tour company that offers a range of half day to multi week cycling trips across Asia. Tours range from Angkor Sunrise Discovery through the temples of Siem Reap to the aforementioned five day Mountains of Laos adventure. There is even a two week journey exploring Vietnam from Saigon to Hanoi. While cycling is the core of their business, many tours integrate a wide range of other cultural activities along the way. Some include no bikes at all.
Once you get a taste of this unique, at times challenging and certainly picturesque way to travel, it’s easy to get hooked. In the past twelve months I’ve completed eight tours with Grasshopper Adventures, in four different countries over twelve days. And I’m proud to say I now own multiple pairs of bike shorts.
As a relatively well versed traveller in Southeast Asia, I see the Grasshopper team has somehow figured out the magic recipe that so many others have not. They genuinely host unique adventures, and do so in a responsible manner for the communities and countries in which they operate. By the way, they are now in 16 countries offering no less than 96 different tour options.
So if you’re thinking of adding a cycling tour to your travel plans, or even if you haven’t thought about it until now, let my experience serve as inspiration for what awaits other adventurous travellers.
What to Expect Cycling through Asia with Grasshopper Adventures
Details. Any traveller who considers themselves a planner, will appreciate the detailed itineraries and photos for each and every tour. The Grasshopper Adventures website contains a wealth of this information. Knowing how many kilometres you’ll be cycling per day, or what sights to expect along the way, also has the added bonus of helping you plan your time before and after the actual Grasshopper tour. You’re able to ensure that you don’t see attractions twice or plan activities on a day that you may be too tired from riding. The teams cover off all the details in advance of any trip, irrespective of the duration, from noting your measurements for bikes and jerseys, to issuing a suggested training schedule. There’s a strong commitment to ensuring the ride itself is as smooth as possible. Let’s just say I studied the website intently in the four months leading up to my Laos adventure, but somehow underestimated the importance of the recommended training.
Quality. From top of the line Merida and GT bikes to the accommodation provided on multi-day tours, Grasshopper doesn’t skimp. This is reflected in the price – their tours are among the more expensive ways to spend your travel budget, with day tours ranging from $30 to over $3,000 USD for ten day trips. Though most aspects of the trips are considered truly luxe for those used to backpacking or even flash-packing, don’t forget you will spend hours a day on a bike. This means awkward tans lines and dust or dirt stained clothing. Since you’re cycling developing Asian nations, it should also be noted that bathroom facilities on the road can be lacking – or rather nonexistent.
Small Groups. It varies by tour, but twelve is generally the maximum number of cyclists in a group. Tours are often capped at six or eight to ensure more personal service. More over, it only takes two participants for a tour to be confirmed for departure. Not to mention the fact that the Grasshopper team is often willing to create custom start dates for as few as two people. Despite travelling during “peak” season, in all of my tours with Grasshopper there have never been more than three other riders. In Laos we had one guide, one assistant guide/mechanic, and a driver for three actual cyclists – excessive perhaps, but I’ll happily take it. Most customers would never guess Grasshopper led over 21,000 cyclists last year.
No Crowds. If you despise huge tour buses as much as I do, touring by bicycle is just what you need. The opportunities that present themselves are incredible. You escape traffic and crowds with ease, taking back roads or literally cutting across farmer’s fields. On occasion, there are some monuments you’ll visit that are busy, but well worth it – Angkor Wat at sunrise for example. Around the Angkor temples your guide leads you straight past the row of parked buses and tuk-tuks as you cycle closer to the gates than any vehicle is ever allowed. You may very well find yourself riding through back entrances and along tree lined moats without anyone else in sight.
More than Biking. This is hugely important, because remember, “I’m not a cyclist” (as may be the case for many other travellers reading this). The Grasshopper Adventures tours are part cycling, but also part cultural immersion, food tour and often times history lesson. For instance, more than half of my time touring the river banks and small villages on the islands of the Mekong River outside of Phnom Penh was spent off of my bike. Hours passed, getting to know local farmers and silk weaving families; not to mention the delicious traditional meal served at the end of the tour. Likewise in Mandalay, I met no less than five different tradespeople or local businesses including tamarind fruit processors, local cigar makers, and a lacquerware artist. No matter what the tour, there is always a healthy dose of non-cycling adventure, such as climbing atop monastery ruins or swinging into the aquamarine waters of a lagoon.
What You’d Never Expect Cycling Through Asia
Incredible Hospitality. The level of genuine hospitality exuded by the Grasshopper guides (of which there are 75) quickly makes you feel like an old friend versus another tourist or customer. Wet naps, cold water and healthy snacks are continually on offer. Seemingly trivial, all three of these things become worth their weight in gold after you’ve travelled Asia long enough. For solo travellers with a pension for photography, guides are more than willing to snap photos on your behalf. They are also happy to reveal the best vantage point for pictures over temple plains, river banks and mountain ranges. Hospitality extends to the local craftspeople and business owners who are often visited on tours.
Local Knowledge and Passion. More than just offering hospitality, it’s critical that the company you tour with really knows it’s stuff. Whether it was my incessant questions about temple construction, our cycling route, the education system or national political history, these guys always had an articulate answer. Meeting someone who loves to share their country and culture with you is an incredible gift for a traveller. I’ve been lucky enough to receive this gift time and again with Grasshopper. During our Laos adventure I actually visited the village of my guide Touy, meeting his family’s dogs as well as neighbours.
Personal Achievement. The deep sense of accomplishment that comes from finishing a challenging ride through stunning landscapes and insane heat is like nothing else. Whether a relatively ‘easy’ 20km of flat terrain or ‘challenging’ 85km mountainous trek, cycling requires you to be a fully engaged traveller. While in Laos I literally grunted my way to the top of various mountain peaks, drawing upon every ounce of energy my wobbly legs would provide. The pride I felt reaching the top was immense – not to mention the satisfaction of knowing I had burned more calories than any gym workout I had ever done before. With nearly 100 Grasshopper Adventure tours to choose from, you’ve got your pick on the level of physicality you sign up for.
A Transformative Escape. Noel Tanner, Director of Sales & Marketing for Grasshopper believes “each tour is a transformative and fascinating journey, whether for one day or two weeks”. After five tours, I completely agree. One can’t help but feel differently after experiencing breathtaking views, cross cultural connections, one of a kind adventure and physical challenges. I felt thankful to be able to soak in such a stunning and peaceful sunset overlooking U Bien Bridge in Mandalay. Humbled after spending time exploring the thousand year old ruins of Angkor. Alive after completing over 300km in Laos. And simply lucky after spending the day getting to know villagers on the islands of the Mekong in Phnom Penh. Ultimately, these now deep seated memories are what adventure travel is all about.
So there you have it, a taste of what to expect, and what you’d never think to expect, on a cycling trip. If you’re still unconvinced of your own ability to join a cycling tour, consider this: the youngest rider Grasshopper has ever had was a six month old infant who joined along on their parent’s bike during a Cruising the Coast tour in Thailand. And just last month, two gentlemen aged 73 and 75 completed the Mandalay Morning Ride. Proof you don’t need to be a cyclist to go cycling. Journeys can be tailored to suit families, any age group or the most adventurous. If you’re interested in connecting with the remarkable, real, and often unseen side of Asia, a Grasshopper Adventure cycling tour deserves to be on your travel agenda. Who knows, our bikes may cross paths.
While Madeline was a guest of Grasshopper Adventures during two day trips, she paid her own way on the vast majority of tours. The opinions expressed in this article are entirely her own.
Find out more about Grasshopper Adventures here.
Grasshopper Adventures photos courtesy of Madeline Burch.