Today we are traveling with Mike from Three Rule Ride
I’m Mike, from the USA. I’ve been traveling Asia by bicycle for the last three years and 30,000 kilometers, and recording my adventures and encounters at www.threeruleride.com.
What type of traveler would you say are you?
I’m a cycle-tourist, meaning I get around primarily by bicycle. This includes crossing borders between one country and another! It also means that I carry pretty much my whole life on my bike.
I’m also a volun-tourist, meaning that I stop and volunteer as often as possible. Tree-planting projects, organic farms, English schools, sustainable living institutes, orphanages, animal rescue centers…wherever I can lend a hand.
I haven’t always traveled this way. I backpacked in Europe during college and in southeast Asia during my first big vacation after working for two years, but before long I grew weary of hopping between guidebook-recommended sights, dealing with touts and taxis and hotel reservations, and just not enjoying what I was seeing. I felt like I often had an antagonistic relationship with locals, always wary that they might rip me off, never quite believing what they told me.
I wanted to find a way to travel that minimized financial exchanges and maximized human ones. Eventually, I found out about volunteering and cycling, which are great ways to get to know locals and participate in local life. Isn’t that what traveling is about? I think I could go back and be a better backpacker now, but by this point “”addiction”” doesn’t even begin to describe my relationship with bicycles.
What’s inside your panniers? What is that one thing that you ALWAYS have to carry
My panniers contain everything I own, aside from a few shelves of books back at my parents’ home in the US. There’s an office pannier with my computer, kindle, and chargers; a snack pannier with some tupperware and my camping pot; a camping pannier with tent, sleeping bag, mat, and other goodies, and an “”everything else”” pannier with my clothes, repair kit, winter gear, and so forth.
I keep my wallet, phone, and camera in my handlebar bag and stuff coconuts into the 45 liter backpack that rests across my back panniers.
The great thing about traveling by bike is that you can always carry everything! You can cover 100km on a bike with 30kg of gear about as easily as you could hike 10km with 10kg on your back. I love having tupperware on me at all times so that I can load up on street snacks without using any packaging.
I love having my hammock with me so that I can pull over and take a nap between any two trees of my choosing. I love having a frisbee with me so that I can go romp around with children on playgrounds. And of course a camera to capture all those great moments.
Which country was the hardest for traveling by bicycle?
China’s fairly tough to get around if you can’t speak or read at least a little Chinese, so it’s easy to miss out on lots of good stuff. Southeast Asia can be killer if you’re there during monsoons or the hot season. Myanmar is frustrating because the police won’t let you camp and hotels are overpriced. I’d say India is the roughest, though – I’d only recommend it to seasoned cyclists.
People are generally kind and friendly (just like everywhere else), but it’s an intense place with terrible traffic, rough roads, tons of honking, sometimes questionable hygiene, frustrating hotel regulations, and a lack of camping spots because of high population of both people and monkeys.
I wouldn’t recommend that people avoid it – I mean, I’ve been hearing for nearly a year and a half now! – but it will require some patience and stoicism. I know lots of cyclists who have decided to skip it, or who have come and subsequently given up and started using other forms of transportation.
Which country was the easiest for traveling by bicycle?
Every country’s got something to recommend it. Korea’s got plenty of cheap campgrounds and awesome public saunas. China has great roads and so many wide open spaces. India and Nepal are exotic and yet strangely accessible because so many people speak English. Southeast Asia has great weather, beaches, and very interesting hill tribes.
I’d have to say, though, that of the places I’ve been through, Thailand takes the cake. Great variety between the mountainous north and totally flat south, smooth tarmac roads all over the country, friendly and helpful people, kind police, low prices, very little litter around, and Buddhist temples in every village to camp at. Bangkok would be a great place to start a cycle tour.
As for food, even speaking as a vegetarian (which sometimes makes things harder) the food everywhere is awesome. Too hard to compare.
Which country did you find the most eco friendly during your bicycle trip?
That’s a very tough question. Does eco-friendly mean that people in big cities are buying organic, recycling, and driving hybrids to work? Then probably Taiwan. Does it mean that people are still living rural, subsistence-level lifestyles and don’t have access to fossil-fuel powered transportation or many consumer goods?
Then Laos or Myanmar. Does it mean that many people are so poor that they can’t afford to consume much other than a basic diet of rice and beans? Then maybe India. It’s very hard to say.
I think the biggest differences are really between rural and urban environments. In the cities, people tend to be cut off from nature, living in concrete buildings, walking on concrete sidewalks, probably not touching a tree or noticing the soil more than a couple times a week.
Even with the best intentions, I’m not sure anyone in such a situation can really live an eco-friendly lifestyle; just to be able to afford the rent, you’ve got to work a job, meaning you’ve got to burn fuel to get there. In the countryside, people in general consume much less and produce much more of what they do consume.
As their parents and grandparents did before them. Their methods might not be entirely sustainable, but they’re probably closer.
Which country did you find the least eco friendly during your bicycle trip?
Again, tough. It depends on your definitions. India stands out as the country with the most plastic strewn about everywhere and with the lowest toilet standards, but these are really just a superficial problems. The Chinese consume more resources per person, and Europeans even more.
Let’s not even talk about the average American. In every country there are some people (and large companies) that couldn’t care less about the environment, and there are others who are fighting for a just and sustainable world. I try to connect with the latter as much as possible.
Which one was your best memory during your bicycle trip?
Thousands to choose from, but if I had to pick one, it would be the time that I met a local boy while cycling up a mountain in Laos. He had biked downhill about 10km earlier that morning to attend English lessons in town and was on his way back up – on a bike of rather low quality, and with shabby flip-flops – to his village.
It was a hot day and a tough climb, some 700m of altitude gain, and yet he found the energy to chat with in beginner English on the way up. I shared my water and a few bananas with him, not having much else to give. He invited me back to his village to rest during the hottest part of the day (this sort of thing happens all the time when you’re cycling).
All the adults were out in fields, so I spent the afternoon wandering around the village, scoping out all the cool bamboo and rattan architecture, and playing silly games with the village children. At one point about ten of them started marching towards the back of the village, past which there was a little river. The oldest of them was about twelve, the youngest maybe two and totally naked.
They went and played in the river without any supervision at all, with even the toddler climbing around on the slippery rocks. I sat there in disbelief. Before long, one of the girls brought me a flower. When I cooed in delight, another one brought me another flower, begging me to do it again.
Pretty soon all of them were gathering flowers, making wreaths, and delivering them into my hands, beaming these big bright smiles back at me when I provided the desired coos. Such sweetness!
Are you usually traveling alone? Why?
Whichever way the wind blows! I started out with a Korean friend, Mingyu, to whom I’m very grateful. I’m not sure I would’ve had the courage to start cycling China without him (even though my Chinese was better!). We had received different visas, though, and wound up having to separate after only three months.
I was alone after that for the better part of the next year, except for when I joined up for a week with a gang of six young Chinese guys on their way to Tibet. Eventually I met an old American friend in Thailand, with whom I cycled together on and off for the next year.
At some points as many as six other cyclists joined us, which was quite a sight to behold. About a year ago he and I went our separate ways (different life plans), and I’ve been on my own since then. Though, in India, you’re very rarely actually alone!
I enjoy both solo and group travel. When I’m alone, I notice that the locals are much less intimidated about approaching me for conversations and much more likely to feed me or offer me a place to sleep, so I feel much closer to the country, and much more gratitude, both to them and to the universe.
When I’m with friends, I have someone to commiserate with, I sleep better while camping, we split the hotel bill, and I can steal some food off of their plates come dinnertime. As with any other sort of trip, you forge deep and long-lasting bonds with people when you go through long and bizarre ordeals with them. Being able to wax nostalgic with old touring partners is like having a couple of extra siblings, except the stories are much weirder.
I don’t generally seek out cycling partners on web forums or anything like that, but if I happen to run across some other cyclists going the same way, we generally pair up for as long as our paths line up.
Which country did you find the most hospitable people?
I’ve had good experiences everywhere. It’s really amazing to see how open people are to vagabonds popping into their life! There isn’t a country I’ve been to – including my own – where I haven’t been able to count on incredible hospitality from the locals. Restaurant owners feed me for free and let me sleep in a back room.
People randomly give me bunches of bananas and bags of fish curry while I’m sitting on the side of the road resting. Local cyclists spot me and offer to put me up for the night. Couchsurfing hosts cook meals for me or treat me when we go out. Monks insist on feeding me the food they gathered on their morning alms walk for breakfast and packing me a lunch to go.
Friends call their uncle’s cousin in the next village over and arrange for someone to deliver a meal to my hotel room that night. The list goes on. Once in Vietnam, when I was in a group of seven, we asked a local family if we could all camp in their yard. They insisted rather that we sleep in their living room! And they cooked for us!
How is a day in your life when you aren’t traveling?
If I’m just taking some time off somewhere where there are sights to see, usually I spend the whole first day or two lazing about. I can zone out and cycle 150km a day for weeks on end, but when I take a day off I can’t muster the energy to do anything except eat, catch up on emails, organize my photos, and maybe bingewatch something on my computer.
After I’ve recovered a bit, I go out and explore, usually on my bicycle, and usually with a vegetarian restaurant or a local market as one of my main targets. I do like visiting the big tourist attractions like temples, palaces, museums, national parks, and so on when I finally reach them. They’re more interesting to me when I feel like I’ve earned the right to look around.
If I’m taking a longer break to volunteer, then the schedule just depends on that particular project. I could be teaching an English class, planting trees, picking fruit, watering gardens, making mud bricks, doing some web design…whatever is needed.
What’s the big reason why you are traveling by bicycle?
There are a couple of reasons.
The first is that I found backpacking profoundly unsatisfying. I know that lots of people love it, but I guess it just doesn’t suit my personality. I felt a little absurd arbitrarily picking destinations out of guidebooks, spending hours getting bounced around in a bus, and then discovering upon arrival that to be honest I wasn’t particularly interested in this temple or that party scene.
What I really wanted to see is how people on the other side of the world live. Bicycles give you great access to this because they force you to pass through places where there’s absolutely no tourist infrastructure, meaning that nothing is prefabricated to suit your particular needs or preferences. Just real life, whatever that means.
The other reason – and it’s equally important – is that bicycles pollute the environment far less than other forms of transportation.
I once took an 8-hour boat ride in Cambodia from one city to another; over the course of the day our boat bumped into and damaged numerous small fishing structures erected by locals living a total subsistence lifestyle, and I felt that it was a just a more blatant example of the damage that all large, fossil-fuel powered vehicles do to the environment, locally and globally.
I felt like there was something wrong with using such destructive and dirty means to travel around a country. I’d prefer to leave a smaller environmental footprint.
Can you tell us about your longest bicycle trip? How many kilometers per day? How many hours? Your budget?
This has all been one gigantic bicycle trip – 3 years, 14 countries, 32,000km, and counting. It averages out to about 80km per riding day, but the shortest has been about 25km (for a full day of riding on excruciating back roads in Nepal) and the longest has been 192km (to get back to my friend’s place and a comfy bed in Taipei).
My most insane stint was in India, where I covered something like 3000km over about 22 riding days – it was all flat and I was trying to get to a reforestation project way down south as quickly as possible so that I’d have time to volunteer.
On the longest days, when I’m alone and just want to get somewhere, I’ll wake up at the crack of dawn, pack up my tent, eat something quick, and hit the road by seven. Stop for breakfast at nine, a snack at eleven, lunch at about half past one, rest until three, and ride again till just before dark, or even later if I have trouble finding a decent place to stay.
That’s extreme, though – on other days I’ll lounge around until ten, cycle until four with plenty of breaks, and call it a day as soon as I find a decent looking guesthouse.
I keep pretty detailed records of my spending, and it generally works out to about $11 per day. That covers food, rooms, visas, bike repairs, tickets for sights or shows, drinks, and everything else. I was earning a bit under $2,000 a month (or about $100 per day of working) when I worked as an English teacher in Korea.
So, if I could save about half of my monthly salary, I would be able to afford to cycle for about three months. Once you realize how high salaries are in developed countries and how low the costs of living are in developing ones, saving up for travel becomes pretty easy.
In all the trips you’ve done, what has been your favorite so far? and why?
I’ve enjoyed all the various segments of this trip, but I would have to say that crossing Myanmar with my gang of five friends (hey Chris, Minsung, Daniela, Katja, and Mirek!) was the most special. For one, we got in just at the right time, only a few months after the land borders with Thailand had opened.
As far as we know, only three or four other cyclists had crossed before us, meaning the whole thing really felt like uncharted territory. We had no idea what was coming up ahead. It also felt a bit adventurous because the police were keeping tabs on us, and every night we would try evade them and find a temple to camp at, and very intense because we had something like 2000km to cover on a 28 day visa on roads of uncertain quality (though most of them turned out to be pretty good).
People were extremely sweet, the food was great (all the better because we had no clue what to expect), and it was incredible to share the whole thing with a group of like-minded friends crazy enough to go for it.
What’s your favorite gastronomy/food cuisine that you had in your travels?
That’s very hard to say. I’ve eaten well everywhere and have rarely felt like there weren’t enough options. India is by far the easiest place to be a vegetarian, but I’ve managed it everywhere without too much effort and have always felt nourished.
If I had to pick one food to eat for the rest of my life, though, it’d be Korean. They have a really nice assortment of cooking methods (roasting, frying, blanching, pickling, raw), and a basic meal includes a bowl of rice and half a dozen or more side dishes, meaning you always get lots of variety. Delicious and healthy.
Thailand takes the cake for street food, though. Deep-fried bananas, all sorts of coconut pastries, fried noodles, and mangos all over the place….
Has there been any challenging and bad moments? Can you tell us about the experience?
I’ve been lucky so far. No issues with robbery, assault, rabid dogs, monkey gangs, or anything like that. Everything has gone smoothly for me. One challenging moment that comes to mind, though, happened the very first day after I had split up with my original riding partner.
I had taken a train about 700km south because my visa was running out. On my second day of riding, one of my spokes broke. Now that I’ve been on the road for a while and gone through this numerous times, I know how to take care of it and it’s hardly a thing for me at all. Then, though, I was hardly three months into my trip and didn’t know a thing about repairs or maintenance.
I was afraid that the damage was irreparable and that I’d need a new wheel or bike or something. I pushed my bike to the nearest village and found a mechanic, but he didn’t have anything to match my wheels, so I had to hire a van (in Chinese) to take me to the next big town and flag down a bus to take me another 50km or so to the next major city.
When the bus dumped me off, I used GoogleMaps to find a proper bike shop. The mechanic was super friendly, fixed me up in about ten minutes, told me it was on the house, and even gave me a few spares to carry with me.
I cycled off into the city, found a $5 room, and went out for an excellent Chinese dinner that cost even less. What I had thought might be a trip-ending moment was resolved by the end of the same day, cost me about $20 in extra transportation fees, and wound up teaching me a lesson about how my bike worked. Now it’s all just good memories.
What has been you favorite destination on all the trips you’ve done?
I’m not good at picking favorites, so I think I’ll use this space to say more about…China. I highly recommend it. It’s a very different experience from India, Southeast Asia, Europe, and South America, where you can hardly avoid crossing paths with other travelers. Outside of the big cities, much of China is still really untouched by tourism, and even more so if you’re on a bicycle.
The country is so huge that you can really spend a long time exploring (assuming you can get a long visa – mine was 1 year), and if you’re good with languages, you’ve really got time to get into Chinese, and being able to speak to locals in their own language makes traveling so much more edifying. The food is wonderful, the roads are mostly in good shape, and there’s a great variety of landscapes to experience, plus crazy city life, too.
What most people don’t know is that there are also over fifty ethnic minorities living in the western and southwestern provinces, whose clothes and homes and traditions are also a sight to see. And hardly anything is written in English, anywhere!
If you really want to have that experience of totally losing yourself somewhere, both culturally and geographically, China is probably the place to do it. I spent ten months there and would go back in a minute if there weren’t 150 other countries on my list.
What’s the worst place that you have stayed in for sleeping? What’s the best?
Worst: My friend’s back wheel broke and we had to hitch a ride in a lorry up over about 250km of truly terrible roads in Arunachal Pradhesh, one of the most out-of-the-way states in India. The route included a 4,200-meter pass and a couple in the 2,000-3,000 meter range.
The lorry stopped at night about 2/3 of the way through and the two of us pitched our tents in the back of the truck. There wasn’t room for either tent to expand fully, so we were pretty much spooning, separated only by the mosquito mesh.
Best: Who knows. Beaches. Mountaintops. Forests. Riverbeds. Deserts. It’s always a kick to set up camp and be totally alone out under the stars. I suppose the coolest spot I’ve camped on was a rock outcropping on a tiny tropical island in Thailand.
Worst: Pilgrim’s hostel somewhere in north India. I had wound up in one the night before which was pretty nice, so I tried again the following night and wound up somewhere really grody, just a slab of concrete with some walls. No toilet aside from the rice paddy out back.
No running water except some stuff leaking off the roof. Tons of mosquitoes, so I had to pitch my tent anyway. Spent the whole night sweating and tossing.
Best: While volunteering at a temple in Thailand where one of my (American) friends was ordained as a Buddhist monnk, I wound up chatting with a lady who owned a hotel in downtown Bangkok. She said that she wanted to support me and would give me a free room whenever I wanted.
I wound up with a spic and span room, a high-pressure shower, a king-sized bed, and fresh towels for a week! If not for her I would’ve been at my friend’s Korean guesthouse in a $3 room only slightly bigger than the mattress on the floor.
Are you planning for a new trip or do you already have a new trip in mind?
Yes! I’m planning on cycling Manali – Leh – Srinagar in north India once the snow melts and the passes open. Some of the highest motorable roads in the world, getting close on 6,000m.
That’s higher than Everest Base Camp! I am planning on reuniting with a couple friends from the Myanmar trip and on bringing my girlfriend along for the ride. I have numerous friends who have done the route, everyone says it’s fantastic.
Its easy to find love while you are traveling?
Not at all. For one, there are linguistic and cultural barriers that make any international romance complicated. If you happen to meet another traveler from your same country, what are the chances that visas and plans line up long enough for anything to really develop?
Third, there’s also the fact that very few people are willing to give the cycle hobo lifestyle a chance, even after having heard how great it is. The flipside of that is that people who have traveled by bike for a while, myself include, generally don’t want to do anything else! That’s how awesome it is.
I’m happy to report, though, that I have recently found love. And she’s willing to cycle with me. Looking forward to it.
How do you finance your trips?
I have hardly earned a penny since I started cycling three years ago, but cycling is an extremely economical form of travel, so I’m still going strong. I do my best to keep costs down by eating local food, camping or Couchsurfing, enjoying the simple things, and trading my volunteer services for room and board.
The most I’ve ever spent on a hotel room is $15, and since I hardly ever fly I don’t have any major expenses. I think it’s probably the case that the less I spend, the happier I am. I mean that philosophically. Not just because I’m cheap. Riding for a few hours then, stopping to drink a fresh coconut, then lying down in the grass and watching the leaves above sway in the breeze – that’s heaven right there.
After reading up on a website called Mr. Money Mustache, I decided to invest most of my (very moderate) savings from Korea in some basic index funds, and when things are good I can even live off the interest. But even if I have to dip into my savings, I can keep up this lifestyle for quiet a while – and that’s after working an entry-level job in Korea for only two years.
Have you ever thought of quitting your trip?
I’ve had moments of boredom while on long, flat rides and of sheer exhaustion while crawling up mountains where I wonder, “Why the hell am I putting myself through this?” But then somebody gives me a snack or a nice smile, or I reach the top of the mountain and coast downhill for half an hour singing at the top of my lungs, and I forget all about it. Cycling is a marvelous thing. I think it’ll be part of my life forever.
While I’ve never thought of giving up on cycling, I have thought of giving up on traveling. In fact, I’m taking a long break this winter to volunteer at a permaculture/natural building/meditation retreat center in north India, where I’m studying up on organic farming, spending time with my new special someone, and figuring out what’s next.
Can you tell us about your three rules?
Yes, there are three rules I try pretty hard to stick to:
(Thus the name of my site, Three Rule Ride).
1) No Gas. Use the bicycle to get around distances both long and short.
2) No Meat. Get my sustenance from grains, pulses, fruits, and veggies.
3) No Trash. Buy only loose snacks without plastic wrapping (i.e street food yes, wholesale peanuts yes, Oreos no). This also rules out canned and bottled drinks. I also try to avoid buying anything new by shopping secondhand, repurposing things, and fixing everything until it’s totally beyond the point of repair.
The point of traveling, for me, is to experience the beauty of the world and its people. I feel that I’d be a hypocrite if I knowingly did things that made the world a less beautiful, less healthy place, particularly when I’m just on a trip for my own enjoyment! I know it’s impossible to be perfect but I think these rules help me to do a pretty good job of being a good guest wherever I go.
How do you manage during your trips being vegetarian?
There are some parts of the world where eating only veggies is tough but south, east, and southeast Asia are not among them, even if the locals tell you different. All you have to do is learn a couple simple phrases (e.g. “No meat please.” and “What is this?”) and you’re set.
Especially in Buddhist countries, vegetarianism is already a widespread concept and you may even find restaurants that serve 100% vegetarian fare if you know how to ask. I have an entire series of food posts on my site – at least one post per country – detailing and depicting many of the the splendid vegetarian meals I’ve had while on the road. Have a look.
Vegetarians will of course encounter the occasional setback – waiters that don’t understand your order, pushy hosts that insist on feeding you a goat brain (which happened to me in China), something you thought was noodles but was actually worms (happened to me in Vietnam). Shake it off this once and try again next time. What would travel be without unpredictability?
Do you have any recommendations which blogger/traveller should I interview next?
Yes! Interview Katja and Mirek from cyclonomads.com. They’ve been living the cycle hobo dream for nearly 15 years now! I cycled with them on and off for about six months through Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, and India. They are absolutely two of my favorite people and I wish millions more could have them in their lives.
Crazy bicycles stories, thanks for your time, Mike!
Check the Adventure Cycle-Touring Handbook, stuffed-full of stories, routes, gear info, repair guides, and everything else you need to know about before an extensive trip by cycling. This newly released edition includes a few short pieces by Mike.
Check this tree-planting and low-impact living project in south India that gave him a taste of how satisfying an eco-friendly life can be. Anyone traveling in India should make the time to go volunteer there.
I have personally experienced traveling by bike, and it’s definitely an experience that you should give a chance if you can ride bicycles.
Hope you enjoyed this interview. We have more to come for you!
Remember to stay free, keep inspired and travel the world dear you. x