Cycling in Asia Is Great, but Be Prepared
The cycling scene is Singapore is great. There are a large number of cyclists in different groups at varying skill levels. The roads are some of the best in the world and finding a pothole here can be like finding a needle in a haystack. Despite all the wonders of cycling in Singapore, it becomes an inevitable desire to see other great cycling destinations around Asia. There are so many good choices that you could keep yourself busy for years choosing new destinations. Thailand, Indonesia, Malaysia, Australia, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Vietnam all have exciting cycling opportunities for the Singapore based cyclist. Like most things, these opportunities come along with risks. While it is important to plan and prepare for overseas cycling adventures, it is advisable to plan for the risks along with all the fun parts of your cycling travels.
I have lived in Singapore for 16 years and started road cycling around eight years ago. Like most cyclists I was keen to try new terrains after cycling mind-numbing round-the-islands (RTIs) for years and having done far too many loops of trusty Mount Faber. Tapping into a regional network of cycling friends, I have managed to take some amazing cycling trips to Vietnam, Australia, Malaysia, Thailand, Indonesia and Taiwan. Usually these trips fall on one of the many public holidays in Singapore in order to give you enough time to travel and get some quality kilometers on the foreign roads. My wife and I have developed a well-honed system for these travels: I dismantle and pack the bikes and she does everything else. This includes arranging air tickets, hotel, ground transport to the airport and any other things that need to be done. Pretty fair trade I would say. One of the other things she did organize was our travel insurance. It was something I gave very little thought too but something she had the intelligence to arrange given the multitude of issues that could arise as you embark on an overseas cycling journey. In December 2013, I had a first hand experience that would highlight how important travel insurance was for such an overseas cycling trip. After a ride on December 30th, 2013 I will never travel or ride again without travel insurance. Here is the story.
Phuket Thailand is a great place for cycling. I have been actively cycling there for a number of years and know enough different routes to keep an active cyclist busy for a month. For the past five years we have traveled to Phuket with a group of friends for a holiday that would provide an excellent mix of riding, eating, drinking and lounging around on the beautiful beaches of Thailand. December 2013 was no different and once again we were back in Phuket for some serious cycling fun. We had done a few shorter rides and on Monday December 30th we had decided to go for the big one: Phuket- Krabi – Phuket – or “PKP” as we call it, 335km of riding that would connect us to another major tourist spot and back to Phuket…all within one day. We set off early in the morning in order to return for a celebratory dinner on Surin Beach later that evening. The ride was going very well and for the most part we enjoyed it so much we stopped to take some pictures along the way at some beautiful places in Phang Nga and Krabi. We arrived in Krabi for a relaxing lunch around noon before starting the 165km ride back to Phuket. At 2pm we set off with our tired legs and full stomachs on the return leg back to Phuket. A few untimely punctures put us a bit behind schedule. Given that the daylight disappears by 7pm our goal was to finish most of the ride before 7pm and coast home in familiar territory around Surin Beach. We stopped for a short break in the city of Phang Nga, a nice little town around 80km away from Surin Beach. One final push to get the ride done and it was almost 6pm. The pace was nice and steady as the aim was now to get back in time for some serious food and wine with our families and friends. We passed the giant monk that is always a great thing to see when coming or going to Phang Nga. My riding partner had to get back for a business call and finished the ride in Phang Nga. Therefore the last 80km would be on my own. After giving me all his lights, tubes and luck, I took off with hopes of being home by 9pm for dinner. Flying by the Big Monk (pictured) meant only 60km to go and only 23km to the bridge that connected Phang Nga to Phuket. I was feeling good…could taste the pasta and wine going down nicely after I upload this big ride to Strava. (You do need to keep your mind active on the road during these long ones!). 50km to go and I was in the section I would describe as ‘dark and gravelly’ – dark because the highway lights on the Highway 402 do not cover the area and gravelly because there was always gravel kicking around and I never understood where it came from. I was almost through the section…it was 6:45pm and the last fragments of light were quickly disappearing.
If you have been to Thailand you know that motorcycles represent a key form of transport for locals and foreigners alike. Actually, one of the things I tell first time cyclists in Phuket is how safe it is given that cars are so accustomed to riding around the motorcycles that they would rarely knock you over if you ride like a motorcycle. Motorcycles also operate differently in Thailand than in most other countries. On motor highways for instance, it is very common to see motorcycles riding the wrong way against traffic in the shoulder lane. As a long time cyclist in Phuket you know this and you just avoid them by pulling out a bit further…after my ride on December 30th I will need to adjust how I describe cycling in Phuket slightly.
I could sense the Sarasin Bridge in the near distance…only 10km to go and it was almost as good as being home for me. I saw a motorcycle approaching in the distance in the dark and gravelly section. He had a light shining brightly and I had my flickering little bike lights on the front and back to ensure that the world could see me. As usual I checked to ensure no cars were approaching from the back and then eased out to give the motorbike enough space to pass me.
The next thing I remember is hearing a strong cracking noise, smelling smoke and rubber burning and seeing the bottom of my downtube as I flew through the air before I landed on my knees and collapsed to the road. It took me a few minutes to figure out what happened. I looked backwards to see a helmetless man lying on the main highway, his motorcycle stopped but the engine still running, my bike still back there with my flickering bike lights, pure darkness. My knees…open and exposed with blood running down my shins. The dark and gravelly section was empty…there was nobody around. He was passed out, I was dazed and confused and not sure what happened. Somehow I was able to grab my bike pump and Garmin, both of which had flown from my bike, and roll off the main highway and into the ditch. It was dark and quiet and nobody was around. After a few minutes, a lady on a scooter approached (again driving the wrong way on the shoulder the way everybody does). She was moving slowly and came to a stop when she had seen the fallen older man and me with my bloodied knees screaming in English ‘help me’. While she did not speak English she definitely was able to assess that the situation was bad and started to make phone calls. At this point I fell asleep or passed out and the next time I awoke policemen and ambulance drivers surrounded us.
They quickly loaded us in the primitive ambulances and took us to a small hospital in Klok Kloi near Phang Nga Thailand. After a rough ride we arrived in the hospital most likely at 7:30pm. I was terrified. Nobody spoke English, my knees looked disastrous, I had no idea where my phone, money and ID were and I was in shock from having a head-on collision with a motorcycle. My bike was also gone. After what seemed like an hour the medical staff realized that I needed to go to the Bangkok International Hospital in Phuket Town given the extent of my injuries. So after some basic cleanup they loaded me back in a more sophisticated ambulance to make the 60km ride into Phuket Town. I managed somehow to find my phone and was sending messages back to family and friends to meet me at the hospital in Phuket Town. After what felt like hours I arrived in the hospital into a waiting room. My friends and family were yet to arrive so I sat patiently talking to the nurses as they provided me with basic treatment. I had never been in a hospital in Thailand so this was a new experience for me. A hospital representative approached to check in on me and ask me a few basic questions: name, nationality, what happened…etc. He then asked me how I was going to pay for any treatment I would receive. That was a great question…I honestly had no idea as this was new too me.
Surely I was insured…I work at a major global MNC in Singapore and maybe even have other coverage. I did not know the answer to that question as that was part of my wife’s department. Without insurance I always had the luxury of using my credit card to ensure payment but one thing was clear for sure – without some form of payment or guarantee I would not be going anywhere out of my waiting room area. Luckily for me my friends and wife all arrived to intercept this hospital representative. Also a bonus was that my wife had arranged travel insurance that covered such instances when abroad. Working with the representative at the hospital, we called our insurance provider (DirectAsia.com) hotline who immediately worked with the hospital administration team to provide what is called a Letter of Guarantee- basically stating that they would cover up to a certain amount of costs for any medical treatment provided to me. Despite all the bad things that had happened over the past two hours, I saw a bit of hope after learning first that we had insurance and secondly that my wife knew who to call in a time of emergency. I was ignorant to both facts prior to this experience.
Having friends and family and being back at a modern hospital like Bangkok International in Phuket put my mind at ease. I was taken to an operating theater to repair damaged cartilage in my left knee- the knee that took the full impact of the sidecar on the motorcycle, and to get some stitches on my right knee, which served as a landing pad after during the accident. Subsequently it turned out that I had damaged cartilage on my knee, a torn quadriceps muscle which would require a major surgery and a follow up surgery in March 2014 to remove excessive scarring.
Medical costs can be high. We do not have kids and in general are young, healthy and fit people. Therefore our exposure to medical facilities has been minimal in our 16 years in Asia. The past few months have been an eye opener. My knee injury is now costing in excess of S$200,000 and the follow up physiotherapy costs and doctor visits are still ongoing as of late March 2014! I was surprised to learn that the coverage provided for me at work was not nearly as comprehensive as the coverage provided by the travel insurance we had at DirectAsia.com. (keeping in mind I work for a company listed on the Dow Jones Index- a major MNC)….I was surprised. DirectAsia.com has also been extremely helpful and customer friendly post accident. As you go through the rehabilitation process the last thing you want or need is complications on who is covering what and when will you get paid, etc. Luckily we have had excellent service from DirectAsia.com.
Even today I continue to deal with the aftermath of this accident. I am not yet able to ride again as I am still going through the healing process of three surgeries. I also need to get a new bike as my old one was completely destroyed by the accident. I was pleased to learn that the travel insurance also provided some coverage for the cost of the bike! I have taken the time to learn more about the insurance given how crucial it has been for our family over the past three months. When I consider the coverage and protection we have under our policy with DirectAsia, the premiums are extremely reasonable. As someone who travels with groups of cyclists many times of year, I now make a few suggestions that I offer to you here:
- Get good insurance from a provider such as DirectAsia.com
- Have the contact numbers handy- a plastic bag in your rear pockets or even taped to your bike – if you ever need them time is usually in short supply – share them with your cycling group in the unlucky chance your are unconscious
- Watch out for motorcycles and avoid riding after 5pm in Thailand (there is actually a law in Thailand that you cannot ride a bicycle after 6 pm)
In the end this has been a tremendous learning experience for me. I am still dealing with the aftermath of the accident as I have yet to fully physically recover. I was disheartened to learn that the driver of the motorcycle was heavily intoxicated when he ran into me. I am looking forward to getting back on the bike and getting back to Thailand and other great locations. One addition to my plastic bag in my jersey back pocket is my DirectAsia.com policy number along with the number to call in case of emergency- which my friends will also know. Get travel insurance….it is good for your family, your bike and your long term health!