The siren song

Packing light and riding high on a hog can unveil unobstructed mountain views and indulge all five senses

Southeast Asia Globe
January 22, 2013

Packing light and riding high on a hog can unveil unobstructed mountain views and indulge all five senses

In a region known for island nations and dense capitals, the freedom afforded by abandoning the avowed on a breezy two-wheeler cannot be underestimated. Much of Southeast Asia is best seen from behind the bars of a motorbike, while tackling some routes can become an experience of epic proportions. Some of the world’s most thrilling drives await and coupled with thick jungle, ruthless bends and erratic weather conditions, extra kicks are often just around the corner.
Reaching the highest altitudes available in the Philippines, the Halsema highway traces a circuitous path up to 2.5 kilometres above sea level through the Cordillera mountain range of Luzon island. Cut into sharp cliff faces and uninhabited mountains dense with vegetation, the road is strewn with sheer drops. Intrepid buses thunder round acute bends, their tyres just centimetres from the precipices and also battling sections of road that crumble into the depths below. Having conquered the more precarious sections, some bikers open her up as soon as they hit tarmac, bursting through the gentler hillsides scattered with vegetable fields and betel nut-munching farmers like the proverbial bat out of hell.
Originally home to a military checkpoint and lookout, the Vietnamese Hai Van pass, meaning ocean cloud pass, stretches over 21 exhilarating kilometres, traversing a spur of the Annamite mountain range and wrapping itself around the coast between Hue and Hoi An. This ribbon of road offers a climb of delicious bends before reaching a crest. Below, lush greenery tumbles down the hills and into the hue of blue that licks the coast. Remaining true to its name, ocean mist and strong winds often descend suddenly on this sleepy road, impairing visibility yet enchanting courageous drivers, as flying through the clouds almost becomes reality. Crowned with the vestiges of a French-colonial gateway designed to mark the borders of Thuan Hoa and Quang Nam provinces, the road soon descends into a surfeit of valleys and lagoons.
Upon hitting the open road out of sleepy Bukittinggi in western Sumatra, a twisting tape of road peppered with potholes and fringed with banana trees meanders gently through the countryside, jutting up and over the rim of Maninjau crater lake. Panoramic views across the expanse of the lake and out to the vastness of the Indian Ocean provide motorists with the most pleasing of distractions, although 44 numbered hairpin bends, requiring plenty of downshifting, also vie for the rider’s attention as they drop into quaint Maninjau town. On each bend, the many roadside shops, known locally as warungs, lure parched pit-stoppers with cool refreshments and compete to offer the best platforms for snapping a shot of the spectacle below.
Jeep jaunts
For those who prefer four wheels, classic US military jeeps left over from the war can be rented to traverse the Hai Van pass. To soak up some history, stop off at the Da Nang war museum en route. For information visit
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