Freedom Riders Asia: Charley Boorman’s Motorcycle Tour of the Far East
Image Credit: Simon Yin

Freedom Riders Asia: Charley Boorman’s Motorcycle Tour of the Far East


In Oliver Stone’s original Wall Street, Charlie Sheen makes an utterance that borders on the absurd. Playing the role of a rising stock market star, during a bout of musing he wistfully tells his girlfriend, “I think if I can make a bundle of cash before I’m thirty and get out of this racket, I’ll be able to ride my motorcycle across China.”

In response to this “throwaway” line, author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel and long-time globe-trotting journalist Rolf Potts wrote: “Charlie Sheen or anyone else could work for eight months as a toilet cleaner and have enough money to ride a motorcycle across China.”

He added, “Even if they didn’t yet have their own motorcycle, another couple months of scrubbing toilets would earn them enough to buy one when they got to China.”

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Indeed, in many parts of Asia the motorcycle is not so much a symbol of freedom or lifestyle choice, as a necessity of daily life. Zipping around on two (or sometimes three) wheels is integral to the livelihoods of millions across the region.

From Thailand’s tuk-tuks to the motorized maelstrom on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, motorbikes and their three-wheeled variants are perhaps more ubiquitous in Asia than anywhere else on the planet.

In the televised series Freedom Riders Asia, produced by FOX One Stop Media in cooperation with Shell Advance Motorcycle Oil, celebrity cyclist Charley Boorman takes this fact and runs – rather, rides – with it. The result: a televised portrait, which aired from May 19 to June 23, of the motorbike and just how much it means for millions across the continent.

“In Asia, seemingly, motorbikes are much more than just machines to be used for leisure pursuits,” Jim Ribbans, Executive Producer of Original Content for FOX International Channels, told The Diplomat. “In the West riding a bike may be seen as a lifestyle choice, in Asia it appears at times, to be far more of a lifestyle necessity.”

Simon Yin - 3Ribbans added, “That’s not to say that the passion, knowledge and aspiration about and towards bikes is absent here in Asia, more that bikes perhaps play a different and slightly ‘deeper’ role in Asian society than in the West.”

This passion and depth is on full display throughout the series, in which Boorman hits the pavement (and dirt) in six episodes, filmed in Malaysia, Philippines, Indonesia, India, Vietnam and Thailand. Boorman has produced adventure travel documentaries for the likes of BBC, SKY and National Geographic Channel; as well as his motorcycle journey through 18 countries with actor and pal Ewan McGregor, Long Way Down, which was documented in a television series, book and DVD.

In Freedom Riders Asia, the intrepid motorcycle correspondent picks tea leaves on an Indian hillside; surfs the waves of Bali; and most importantly, gets under the skin of the local culture of each country he rolls into.

While each destination’s motorbike culture has its own strengths and quirks, Ribbans said, “Vietnam probably had the most pervasive motorcycle culture, though obviously bikes were hugely important in all the communities we visited throughout the series.”

He added that other “stand-out moments include meeting (India’s) ‘Roti Men’ (who drive a modified motorcycle fitted with a container that holds various kinds of bread and sometimes a number of snacks for sale), heading up into the highlands outside Kochi to pick tea, and doing some very informal, but truly spectacular ‘stunt-riding’ on the black sand beaches in Bali.”

Simon YinWhile a second season has not been confirmed, Ribbans said that the response to the first season of the show has been “extremely positive” and added that “things are looking very promising.” Trailers and behind-the-scenes clips from the first season of the program can be seen here.

Boorman is not alone in his Far Eastern excursions. Increasingly, others are kickstarting their own motorcycle adventures in some of the same places explored in the series. It’s not as difficult as it might seem. A quick search online reveals no shortage of Asian motorcycle tour operators and rental agents, from the Himalayas and the beaches of southern India’s Malabar Coast to the steaming jungles and teeming streets of Thailand, Laos and Vietnam.

Some good starting points can be seen here and here. And for those who are intrigued but afraid to take the plunge, here is a brief intro to zooming across Southeast Asia on two wheels.

While the promise of adventure is enough to lure most, at the end of the road the people are always what make the trip worthwhile.

“I think what Charley most enjoyed about the trip was the chance to meet so many passionate and like-minded people,” Ribbans said. “We were made incredibly welcome wherever we went and, as with most successful journeys, it was really the people we met that made the trip so memorable.”

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