To Malaysia and South Thailand, 1,043 km.
I've waited a long time (all my life) for such a long ride. The journey is one of long roads, stretching as far as the eye can see, past oil palms, lush forests, vast plains and the occasional flooded residences. A journey of over 1,000 km, with zero scratches, one puncture, and many fond memories.
We seriously start planning for the ride in early Oct. It takes me about two months, using available pockets of time on weekdays and on weekends, to get myself, my bicycle and my things ready for the longest ride of my life. The longest ride that I've ever done before this is a 278 km overnight trip to Kluang.
I contact some cyclists who're more experienced than me: Andy Dinesh, Joe Adnan and Wendy Chan for information on safe riding in a monsoon, and possible psychological and physiological damage on the road.
I research into accommodation available in Malaysia (that's the task Bikerboey assigned me: to figure out where to stay while she figures out where to ride). I also read up on the hamstring injury that has been plaguing me so badly that I stop riding for a couple of weeks just in case.
There's stuff to buy (like upgrade my drive train and wheelset), test and pack eg spare saddle, bikeshorts, cleats - anything that may be hard to come by on the road.
I wonder if there's anything I've missed out. On the last Sunday before the ride, I make my occasional visit to church and ask a pastor to pray for me. My greatest fears: foul weather, accident, mechanical failure and illness. We have no support vehicle except for the last 221 km from Jeli onwards.
Having covered the natural and supernatural bases, it's time to go. Did the appeal to the supernatural work? Go figure: if we'd started one week earlier, we'd have met with floods. If we'd started one week later, we might have been caught in the aftermath of some unrest and bloodshed in South Thailand.
The actual route we take deviates somewhat from Bikerboey's original plan.
I spend another four non-cycling days in Thailand, and take an overnight bus (two days) from Hatyai back to Singapore, then cycle the 20 km from the border back home.
Total cost = S$717, including meals, accommodation, shopping and insurance.
The Malaysian segment cost about $250 for 10 days, with almost equal amounts spent on food and lodging. The Malaysian segment costs about half the Thai segment.
I spend an additional S$560 to upgrade the drive train of my bicycle.
People (and their magnificent machines)
Bikerboey and I are the only ones who go the full 1,000 km. LYC cycles part of the route and goes by public transport for the rest. The others join us later at Jeli; they take a van from Singapore with a little cycling detour at Fraser's Hill in Malaysia.
Bikerboey. Organiser and inspirer. She buys a Marin Pine Mountain for this ride, and is equipped with pannier and handlebar bags. She even packs books and a single-lens reflex camera for the trip.
Me. Self-professed bike mechanic and toolman. I also break wind (with my 9-year old bike, not my butt) for much of the ride. I've the oldest bicycle and am about the oldest chap on this ride.
LYC. Plucky newbie who's done only a few 100 km rides. He rides a new Scott Montana. He packs really light, with a haversack and a saddlebag, yet manages to pack a single-lens reflex camera too.
W and C. This couple share the same names as two cartoon characters. They are friendly and ride a fast pace: she on a Trek 800 while he's on a venerable Giant.
K. He rides a GT Lighting.
GKT. He rides a Corratec.
Pleasure (and pain)
I love Malaysian roads on the east coast, which stretch into the horizon with just the occasional traffic light or vehicle in sight.
I marvel at the Malaysian warmth. Passers-by and drivers wave their greetings, give us the thumbs-up and say "hello". Some kids run along the roadside with us. Adults and kids alike stop to chat as we rest. Motorists make way for us or give us a wide berth as they overtake us; one even pulls aside to let us pass. These things happen in every state we pass through; if only they happen routinely in Singapore.
While Malaysian are gentle, the roads are rough, wearing out my tyres at a noticeable rate and reducing speed by 1-2 km/h. Following Bikerboey's tactic, I start cycling on the single white line by the roadside.
I love drafting behind motorbikes; when I do so, I break into a smile. Having been chased by dogs, I start behaving like one; when a motorbike passes close enough, I chase after it. It's fun to draft and go uphill at close to 40 km/h. Sometimes, two types of smoke trail a motorbike: the toxic exhaust and the intoxicating smell of the biker smoking a clove cigarette. There are risks, of course, and I don't mean passive smoking. Before darting behind passing motorbike, look behind it; there might be a 10-wheeled truck bearing down on you!
Above the clouds
Day 1: Wed 17 Dec, Singapore - Kota Tinggi (Johore), 64 km
In Singapore, the sky is grey, cold and gloomy. It rains, as befits the first day of my ride during monsoon season. We delay the start of the ride by an hour. Above the clouds, the sun shines brightly enough to give you sunburn. Sure enough, the rain stops and the road dries. I ride my way to Woodlands where I meet Bikerboey and LYC. In Johore, I rein myself back, pacing myself. No punctures, no pain no pressure! Bikerboey, who finishes packing at 3 am, is irrepressible and barely able to contain her excitement.
Nightstop: Hotel Sri Kota
The roller coaster
Day 2: Thu 18 Dec, Kota Tinggi - Mersing (Johore), 96 km
The road to Mersing, like life, is full of ups and downs. So what do you do? Believe in the journey. Be on the right road. Set your milestones. And so we go on, cycling about 75 minutes before resting. Sometimes, we stop earlier, when the road ahead looks barren and an enticing roadside stall appears. The weather is obliging; other than a passing shower, there is a refreshing drizzle. I reward myself every 15 minutes with a sip of water. That simple, repetitive act of reaching down to grab a waterbottle (I have two on the bike frame), bring it to my mouth and squeeze, is to give me a painful wrist in the days to come.
Nightstop: Mersing Inn
It's the journey, not the destination
Day 3: Fri 19 Dec, Mersing - Pekan (Pahang), 161 km
Why do we spend more time awake on the road than at our destination at the end of each day? We ride, pelted by the rain, burnt by the sun and the wind. Headwind cuts our speed down to 22 km/h instead of the usual 28 km/h. The bag on LYC's back and his bike setup starts to take its toll. The worse is yet to come. We reach Nenasi, our intended destination, at 4 pm. We see a hotel tantalisingly close by. Should we stop or go on to Pekan? LYC and Bikerboey decide to go on and I defer instead of differ. After all, Pekan is but a mere 40+ km away, a mere two-hour ride. But appearances are deceiving.
What we didn't know was, there is a monster headwind that cuts our speed down to 17 km/h as we go uphill. I take the lead and try to shelter Bikerboey, while LYC pedals valiantly on further behind. Bikerboey has a headache. We stop by the roadside and I massage her neck. "Kill me", she says. Is the headache - or my massage - that bad? :-) The worst is yet to be.
8 pm: we reach Pekan. After dinner, we look for a place to rest. A passing car slows down and a passenger winds down her window. She helpfully tells us the way to the nearest hotel. But there is no room at the inn - a dingy, dimly lit place. The inn has communal toilets and soiled mattresses hanging on the peeling bannisters. I've seen more hospitable-looking drains. Two other possibilities turn out naught.
We cycle a few more km, thanks to advice given by kind strangers in the night. We reach Indopura Resort. But we get an unwelcome reception; there simply is no one at the reception to check us in. We wait, as does a local man in a car who say that perhaps the staff have left their post to get dinner. I check my bicycle and lower my saddle so that my hamstring doesn't hurt anymore. I also find that my chain is bone dry after a mere three days of cycling. We shower in the toilet and finally decide to sleep at the reception area, turning the sofas into beds. LYC ducks behind the reception counter. Somone had found an air-conditioned area upstairs but I think it's best to sleep at the reception area, which is "public". Anywhere else could amount to criminal trespass and I sure don't want to spend the night in jail. It is raining and cold, and mosquitoes are feasting. The worst is yet to be.
2 am: someone shakes me awake, and I don't mean the mosquitoes. A man peers over me. With the fog of sleep still over me, I stagger to me feet and stammer: "Ada rumah tiga orang" (is there room for three persons?). As it turns out, the stranger wants to check in too.
2.30 am, the stranger returns with his pals, and wakes up my pals. Stranger & Co search the entire area, looking for the resort staff, then hang around with their vehicles and chatter at full blast.
5.30 am: I hear the call to prayer from a mosque, followed by what seems to be morning exercises conducted via loudhailer.
8 am: a rainstorm blows off part of the roof of the building opposite ours. It's an impressive sight, complete with sound effects of corrugated iron flapping in the wind and a shower of sparks that steals the thunder from the shower of rain when the iron hits the power lines.
At least, we got a place to stay the night, and got there before the torrential rain. There's a toilet to shower in, the lights work, and we got a free night's stay, with complimentary bloodsuckers. Too bad that all my insect repellent does is smell good; LYC has an especially bad time behind the reception. Bikerboey and I are exposed to the wind and biting cold; I guess the wind makes landing a bit tricky for the mosquitoes. Which is not to say I got off scott-free; I count 13 bites on my right hand and eight on my left. So choose your poison: give up body heat or blood.
My right hand hurts; it's either the repetitive act of drinking on the move from my waterbottle, or I'd tucked my hand too tightly into my armpit during the night.
What a night. LYC volunteers to buy breakfast from the nearby petrol kiosk. We pack up and go, after saying goodbye to the local man in the car who'd come by again to see if the hotel staff had come back.
Nightstop: Indopura Resort
Pain in the ass
Day 4: Sat 20 Dec, Pekan - Cherating (Pahang), 80 km
The gentle, cool drizzle alternates with passing showers. The passing roadside scenery changes from oil palms in Johore to the occasional padi field in Pahang to flooded attap huts further north. As it turns out, we start our journey at the right time; one week earlier and we'd have cycled smack into foul weather in both Malaysia (floods) and Thailand ("so heavy, you can't get out of your house").
The occasional headwind buffets us and the occasional hill sprawls before us. I charge uphill, drafting vehicles at 41 km/h. Much of the time, the others draft me. I think nothing of the lactic acid that burns in my legs. My butt hurts the moment I put on my bikeshorts, but I think nothing of it then. At Cherating, I find out the cause of the pain: saddle sores. What caused it: the seams in my bikeshorts? Or the seams on my costly saddle? To play safe, I change both.
Nightstop: Lis Na Ree Beach Resort
Hard road, soft butt
Day 5: Sun 21 Dec, Cherating - Dungun (Trengganu), 108 km
It's a long, hard road. The rough asphalt is wearing out my tyres at a noticeable rate. LYC wears out too; he drops off at Cukai and heads for Kuala Trengganu via public transport. He has a four-day break ahead of him.
Ahead of us, Bikerboey and I see an icon of US capitalism: McDonalds. The thought of ice cream spurs makes me go faster and takes my mind off my sore butt. At the restaurant, I commit a faux pax: I ask for hamburger in this Muslim state, where almost every female wears the tudung, including restaurant staff. There's no hamburger, just chicken or beef.
At Dungun, shops close at 8 pm, the only ones open are those run by Chinese. I buy a bottle of vitamins to hasten whatever healing my body needs - especially my butt. The sores have grown in geometric progression: 1, 2, 4. I soothe the sores with antiseptic cream. I then try gel for mouth ulcers - and never do that again. What's meant for mucous membrane somehow doesn't feel right for skin.
Nightstop: Hotel Kasanya
Day 6: Mon 22 Dec, Dungun - Kuala Trengganu (Trengganu), 79 km
The road takes its toll on us. There's a headwind and I'm the windbreaker. I look down to reduce drag, breathe, pedal, look up and repeat (this has the added benefit of preventing neck ache). The usually buoyant Bikerboey goes flat. She hasn't slept well. At one rest stop, she snatches some sleep. This is the girl who hasn't let her cold stop her from charging uphill in the past few days. Looking at her, I usually won't know she is tired unless she says so. As for me, when I'm tired, you can see it written on my face.
This is the most spacious, well-kept rest stop I've seen - almost the size of a three-room flat. It's built on stilts over the road embankment. The ground is below, one storey away. It starts to rain. The silver lining: the creaking in my bike goes away, lubricated by rain. My butt gets worse, probably at a slower rate though, since I've changed bikeshorts and saddle. By the time I reach town, I'm knackered, thanks to the headwind. Our hotel room costs the same as last night's but is half the size and is more run down. The flush doesn't work; we have to use a pail. And the hotel man won't let me have an extra pillow (for my knees).
By now, I've settled into a nightly ritual: check and oil drive train, shower, laundry, minister to my butt. My legs are OK now, no need for massage. But I sure need sleep. At night, people yell outside the room and outside the hotel.
Nightstop: Hotel Indah
Day 7: Tue 23 Dec, Kuala Trengganu - Jertih (Trengganu), 118 km
Bikerboey has bounced back. She's plugged into her MP3 player and her singing is so loud, it inspires me to speed away along the tree-lined roads. It's cloudy and cool. I cycle at 30 km/h. I'm in good form. Like an eagle cruising for a thermal, or a limpet hanging around for a passing shark, I listen for passing motorbikes to draft behind. This is my idea of "free riding". We pass picturesque little villages, often unmarked on my map.
Our rest stop is abuzz with houseflies. I give it a miss while Bikerboey tucks in. I eat bread and bananas instead. The bananas are a real treat; we have been looking for them since Day 1. I also order hot Milo instead of iced drinks, unlike Bikerboey, who loves iced tea. I'll take iced drinks only if the ice has circular holes in it; this suggests it came from an ice factory.
Fuelled by a nice lunch, Bikerboey pedals ahead, surrounded by sound. I pedal at 19 km/h and soon drop behind. It's a slow puncture. Funny how a tiny little thing can cause such a huge disruption. By the time Bikerboey notices I'm gone, she's five km away. She backtracks for one km, then frets and ask passers-by to look out for me. ( Read her account of this incident in her log, Day Seven.)
I fix my tyres near Kampong Tok Dor and become the centre of attraction. Kids, then adults, gather to watch. By examining the inner tube, I locate the cause of the problem: a tiny stone has worked its way through the tyre. The stone is so tiny, I have to work the tyre to find the stone and poke it out with an allen key. A motorist, then a couple of girls on a scooter, stop by to say that Bikerboey is ahead waiting for me. It's a nice road winding along quiet, peaceful villages, with nice people.
My tyre fixed, I say terima kasih (thanks) and selamat tinggal (goodbye). My speedometer jumps with joy. After catching up with Bikerboey, I stop by a petrol kiosk to load up on ice cream. We charge ahead to make up for lost time, going above 25 km/h. I sometimes go past 40 km/h when going downhill, but I always look back and wait for Bikerboey.
At Jertih, Bikerboey says we should pick the first hotel we see, as it's getting late. That's prudence, following our experience in Pekan. We aim to stop cycling each day around 4 pm, giving us another two hours of safety margin. The first hotel has a clinic downstairs, probably for people who need medical attention to spend the night. Our room is all decked out in pink and frilly. But I see hairs (not mine) on the bedsheets.
I continue to conduct medical experiements on my butt. I now have four sores. Some sores get the usual antiseptic cream treatment; for the others, I use Zambuk for the first time. Lets see which sores recover faster (the answer: Zambuk works better). They hurt so much, it hurts to wear shorts (but there is no bloodshed). I start wearing a towel as a sarong.
Nightstop: Medic Inn
Tech note: I clean my chain reasonably well without degreaser: first brush the chain (including the edge) with a toothbrush, clean the brush with tissue paper, repeat. Go through the chain links with a mascara brush, clean the brush with tissue paper, repeat. I adjust the front d for Bikerboey, then we relax by watching American comedies on TV.
The magnificent seven
Day 8: Wed 24 Dec, Jertih - Jeli (Kelantan), 96 km
Unlike the plains of the past few days, there are hills today. Going uphill hurts my butt as the centre of gravity shifts towards the rear and adds more pressure to my sores. I can barely pedal because of the pain, but I press on, shifting about in my seat to find the least tender spot to sit on. My triceps hurt too. I leverage the slipstream of passing vehicles and get up to speed only when drafting Honda Cubs. Bikerboey pedals on slow and steady. Besides, the hills, the geography has also changed in other ways. We're near the Thai border and the Thai influence can be seen in the food. Lush green padi fields sprawl by the roadside.
At our lunch point, I ask to use the tandas (toilet). Mak Cik's permission is sought. She points to the back; is she referring to the bushes or some wooden structure that dots the landscape behind?
On the road, I see roadkill. A monkey perhaps, birds and snakes. Other remains are too mangled to tell. Now and then, I come across a dessicated patch of fur on the road. I see a dead pangolin, its legs in the air.
LYC's cab passes us and he gets down to cycle the remaining 1 km to Jeli. The others (W and C, K and GKT) join us too via van. There are now seven of us. During dinner, the van driver tells us stories of ghosts on the road.
Nightstop: Resort MBJ
Day 9: Thu 25 Dec, Jeli - Tasik Temenggor (Kelantan), 88 km
We start the day with me leading the pack, but I end up almost last, peddling uphill at about 7 km/h. The East-West Highway (Jalan Raya Timur Barat?) is 1,050 m at its highest point. There is a 40 km uptrend, followed by 25 km downhill. I clock maximum speed here of 58.3 km/h.
Going uphill is tough. People say my cadence is too high, but I fear I'll go into oxygen deficit if I pedal at higher gears.
As I shift gears, the chain falls on my bottom bracket. I try to shift my chain up without dismounting but am unable to do so as I'm going uphill. Bikerboey almost runs over my outstretched leg as I somehow unclip in double quick time. I whip out some gear adjustment instructions and fiddle by trial and error.
The weather has changed near Thailand. The sky is blue, not grey, and the sun is searing.
Joining us this morning is Mr Huang, our safety vehicle driver from Kuala Lumpur. He sure is handy with a knife and bamboo. He jests at K, who brings up the rear, and at me for being the lead.
Nightstop: Banding Island Resort
Day 10: Fri 26 Dec, Tasik Temenggor - Betong (Thailand), 98 km
In the morning, it's uphill all the way. It's downhill after that, where I hit my max speed of 61.0 km/h. Going downhill at the East-West Highway is like Daytona, complete with S-curves and blind corners. But unlike the video game, this time I have only one life - mine. One crash, and it might well be game over. That dark spot on the road ahead: is it oil? a hole? or just different tar mix?
The road to Pengkalan Hulu is a series of interminable hills. Their steepness and the searing sun sap strength; people are stopping after just half an hour in the saddle. As it turns out, we are four hours late in reaching the Thai border. LYC, W and C turn back at the Malaysian side.
I feel like the king of the hill, because I've figured out the proper cadence for myself and can now charge uphill. My chain falls off again. I stop to fix it, then overtake everyone to take a photo. More importantly, my bold gamble on butt treatment has paid off. This morning, I decide to wear the first pair of bike shorts I'd started out with, ie the one I was wearing when the butt sores developed. As it turns out, the shorts are more comfortable when I'm in the saddle compared to the second pair. Mr Huang heads for home and in his place is Mr Wang, who drives us to 10th Chulabhorn Village where we spend the night.
Nightstop: 10th Chulabhorn Village
Day 11: Sat 27 Dec, Banglang Dam (Thailand), non-biking day (travel by car)
We forgo a 90 km ride today from 10th Chulabhorn Village to Banglang Dam and sit in the vehicle driven by Mr Wang. I feel sick on the long and winding road. I've finally caught a full blown cold courtesy of Bikerboey, who's been coughing since Day 1. We've literally travelled the same road together, sharing the same woes and joys. Now, we share the same germs.
Nightstop: Banglang Dam
End of the road
Day 12: Sun 28 Dec, 9th Chulabhorn Village (Thailand), 35 km
After breakfast, we sit in the garden outside the Banglang Dam restaurant. We watch the sun's rays caress the different shades of hills in the distance before we hit the road.
The road is hilly like East-West Highway, but shorter. There is little traffic and like in Malaysia, drivers give cyclists a wide berth. Which is just as well, as there are S-curves and hairpin bends. Going downhill, speeds of 50 km/h and above is common. I'm charging uphill better than I've ever done before. The last 5 km is off-road. I bounce about and my headset shakes itself loose.
At 9th Chulabhorn Village, Bikerboey and I reach the end of the road. I've cycled a thousand km from my home. Anticlimax. I do my laundry and ponder the incongruity of it all, then thank God I made it without a scratch. I ask Bikerboey how she feels. She says she has no feeling about reaching the endpoint though this is the longest ride of her life too. Her joy was when she reached Thailand.
After dinner, I traipse along with the others to see a deer farm. I see the deer, but o dear me, I also see two leeches on my socks. I check my clothes later on and find another one on my clothes. First time I've seen leeches, and first time I've been attacked by them.
Nightstop: 9th Chulabhorn Village
Tech note: the front d, which has three chainrings, somehow seems more complicated to adjust than the rear d which has nine cogsets.
Four non-cycling days in Thailand
Day 13: Mon 29 Dec, 9th Chulabhorn Village (Thailand)
Boat ride on the man-made lake of Banglang Dam, which is fed by Halal River. Leafless trees stick their skeletal remains skywards, like bony fingers reaching out from watery graves. The water is so placid it is like a mirror, reflecting the thoughts of he who looks into it. It is 8 am, early enough for the mists to shroud the hills in mystery. The boatman (who has a foot blown off by a landmine) turns off the motor and we glide in the water. Birds chirp to each other in a Babel of song. In the distance, the motor of another boat disturbs the stillness. Water hyacinth chokes the waterways. We can go no further to see where the deer and wild boar play. Our guide, Mr Yao, shows us the waterway where he and his comrades used to take supplies into Malaya.
We go trekking after lunch. I'm reluctant. "It's only half an hour", say Bikerboey and K. I lose count of how many leeches I scrape off with my Made in China "Swiss" knife. One of them makes its way past my defences and nestles between my skin and sock. Bloodshed; I make a donation to the ecosystem.
I have diarrhoea after dinner: seven times to the loo in one night - enough for a week. I eat the same food as the others, who are well. But I've guzzled more tea than they have.
Day 14: Tue 30 Dec, 9th Chulabhorn Village (Thailand)
I wake up tired and dehydrated. I'm in no condition to go anywhere except dreamland. I eat and sleep. The others go up the mountains to feed the leeches. In the evening, an old lady drops by. She's 60 and happy. She went up the hills to fight the communists when she was 40.
Day 15: Wed 31 Dec, 9th Chulabhorn Village to Hatyai (Thailand)
After a tour of the village museum by Mr Yao and lunch, I tour the village by bike. In a few minutes, it's over; too many trails leading uphill to goodness knows where. After lunch, we take a boat ride to Banglang Dam, then transfer by car to Hatyai four hours away. (GKT left for home via Hatyai yesterday.) We dine at Lee Garden Hotel, where the Communist Party of Malaya signed a peace treaty with the Malaysian and Thai governments. I've never been to Hatyai before. It's New Year's Eve. Fireworks light up the night sky.
Walking the streets
Day 16: Thu 1 Jan, Hatyai (Thailand)
Bikerboey, K and I watch Adventure 1 channel on cable TV, and savour the adventures of mountain bikers and hot air balloonists who fly over Everest. Our adventure is sedate by comparison: looking for bikeshops open on New Year's Day. We fail miserably. During lunch, we meet Amos, who drove Khoo Swee Chiow's support vehicle on the latter's ride from Singapore to Beijing. Mr Khoo's routine: ride for an hour, then rest and stretch for 5-10 minutes. He covers over 100 km each day. Amos too is on adventure: riding his way from Singapore to Indochina.
Day 17-18: Fri-Sat, 1-2 Jan, Hatyai to Singapore
Finally, we find a bikeshop that's open which sells high-end stuff. I can't find anything my size and end up buying only tyre patches. K is empty handed, while Bikerboey has a shopping list from friends.
Finally, we head for Singapore. As we journey from afternoon into dusk, the incandescent glow of street lights mirror the orange glow of the setting sun. Pin pricks of light amidst dwelling places dot the blackness of the night on either side of the road, like stars in the night sky. Inside the bus are grumpy drivers and some passengers who can't care less about other people's belongings. Welcome back to civilisation. At Singapore customs, the bus gets a thorough once over by officers. A cleaner stops by to say the bus has been blacklisted for past shenanigans. The officers are nice to us; all we have to do is remove our bikes while they inspect the stuff in the luggage compartment. I assemble my bike and ride home from Woodlands. The ride, starting at 3.30 am, is uneventful. There are few cars, but a few cyclists on the road. Going to work or back to work?
PeevesWhen people knock over my bike. The fall at Kota Tinggi is the worst; one bike falls onto mine. My bike light flies off in pieces. My bar end is so badly scratched, I scrape pieces off with a pair of scissors so they don't snag my gloves. My rear d is hit and complains. It takes me a few tries to soothe it. The other crash is at East-West Highway, when someone is parking his bike.
When experienced riders don't ride safely. Instead of keeping behind me, one appears to my left, then to my right. As he revolves around me, it's hard to know where to swerve if I need to avoid danger ahead of me.
- Do radio stations change their frequencies at every state? I have to reset my radio each time as I try to relax to music each night.
- Why do most shops close at 8 pm at Dungun?
- On the road to Jertih, we pass some kids who shout the "f" word and show us their middle fingers. Some youths also shout aggressively, another shouts keluar (get out). This is odd, quite a contrast from the usual friendly behaviour.
- Is it possible to ride 1,000 km without listening to radio? I think it isn't which is why I pack my radio. But listening to radio on the road doesn't work for me. Reception is poor; moreover, the the sound of the rushing wind obliterates the sound. And turning up the sound means turning out the sound of the road. So I listen instead to the sound of the ride: the woosh of the rushing air, the hum of my drivetrain, the crunch of the gravel beneath my tyres, the sound of traffic, the "hellos" of the kids. I listen to my bike, my breathing, the music in my head, and my thoughts.
The night air at Betong is fresh and crisp. The stars hang in the night sky and look so close you can reach for the stars. The tap water is like a cold mountain spring. The place is so conducive to life, wire mesh covers all windows and doorways to keep out all manner of bugs. Even the moths look like a work of art hanging on the wall.
It is so remote, there is no mobile phone network. There is a public phone, supposedly a satellite phone. There is satellite TV, which is tuned to programmes from mainland China. Chinese influence is strong; residents speak Mandarin and cook Chinese style, washed down by ubiquitous Chinese tea.
The 10th Chulabhorn Village in Betong, named Peace Village, is a resort run by former guerrillas, now guides. They make a living partly through show and tell of their lives as members of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). This village of 200 people was built in 1990, after the CPM signed a peace treaty with the Thai and Malaysian governments. This village, like 10 others, is named after a Thai princess.
After the treaty, some 800 remain in Thailand in four villages, while the remaining 400 ex-guerrillas return to Malaysia. The guerrillas include Chinese, Malays; people from Malaysia, Singapore, China and even two soldiers from the Imperial Japanese Army who refused to surrender to the British after World War 2.
CPM was formed before World War 2, and the communists fought the Japanese during the war after the British surrendered to the Japanese. After the war in 1945, the CPM "came down from the mountains". They head up again in 1948, saying the British persecuted them. For the next 40 years, they fight the British, Gurkas and Malayans. The CPM moved up north, operating on Thai soil. The fight was not with the Thais; the CPM merely "borrowed" Thai soil.
For 40 years, they've made the jungle their home. They ate anything from the biggest animal (elephant) to the smallest (rat). They're able to preserve meat for up to eight years by treating it, then packing it in drums sealed with plastic and tree sap. The villages are built on the site of where the communists used to operate. Literally. Besides surgical operating theatres, there are theatrical performances, living quarters, kitchens, town halls and other amenities of life in the jungle.
As laundry is a tell-tale sign of human habitation, the communists smoke-dried their laundry. They also designed kitchens such that the smoke is used to boil water and then dissipate like a mist near ground level, instead of appearing as a column in the air to reveal their presence. At night, lookouts sound the alarm when aircraft approach, so that lights can be turned off. The jungle is their home, their training ground, their playground and theatre of operations. Here, they laid down mines and for some of them, their lives. What a life: no annual leave, no salary, just a monthly allowance of RM6. Why did they do this? Because they believed in a cause that was worth fighting for and worth leaving family and livelihood for.
When Malaysia gained its independence from the British, there was more reason to stop fighting - the government was now local, not colonial. When the peace treaty was signed, the CPM didn't surrender their weapons; surrender is for losers. Instead, the CPM destroyed their own weapons in the presence of Malaysian and Thai military officials.
And here I am, pottering about in bedroom slippers along jungle trails where soldiers once feared to tread. It's surreal. One of our guides is Mr Yao. He used to make landmines and lay them. It's hard to believe that these smiling, gentle people who speak melodious Mandarin are the ones who used to strike fear in locals and colonials.
I also drop by the village museum, where historical documents, training manuals, photos and equipment are on display. They are masters of improvisation: land mines using sardine cans, ammunition pouches from rubber hoses. Somehow, with homemade weapons and Phua Chu Kang type boots (albeit in muted colours), they manage to hold out for decades. Mr Yao says some of their improvised stuff works better than imported stuff. He and his pals don't seem bitter about turning from guerrillas to guides. Or perhaps the bitter ones stay away from us tourists.
NB: the above account was narrated by different guides in Mandarin. Somethings may have been lost in the translation.
The days in Malaysia pass by too quickly; they seem shorter than the days in Thailand. I'm glad I was there, sad that it's over. Cycling in Malaysia is like cycling in a magic kingdom.
My right leg is more tanned than the left. It's the result of riding in the morning sun as I head north via the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia. Life will not be the same again. What else has changed about me? It's been a big jump from riding 278 km (my distance record then) to 1,043 km. After cycling that long, something must have changed. I'm still finding out what the changes are.
Cycling: for almost two weeks on the road, it's been a ritual. Wake up and take turns to use the loo. Breakfast, pack and hit the road. Eat lunch, rest, ride. Break every hour or so for a few minutes. Pedal km after km, sip water every 15 minutes. In the late afternoon, look for a hotel, have dinner, check bike, sleep. When I stopped cycling in Thailand, it felt strange. Some of the Chulabhorn villagers were told I cycled from Singapore. They think I'm a member of the national cycling team in training. I tell them I do it for recreation. As I reflect further, cycling is more than recreation for me. It keeps me alive. Pedaling day after day without distraction, just looking at the road ahead, breathing and facing the sun, wind and rain, being one with my bike, slicing through the air, the scenery unrolling beside me like some endless, unscripted movie. Now what? Cycling in Singapore, with its "get out of my way" drivers, will never be the same again.
An old lady's perspective: how did the communists live on so little? They gave up so much: family, livelihood, city comforts like pillow and mattress. In exchange for living life on the run literally, doing backbreaking labour, for what turned out to be a lost cause. Some walked from China to fight. What did they fight for? I see a photo of some of them prostrating themselves before Thai royalty, which gave them land and livelihood after the peace treaty. For 40 years, they hadn't bowed before British, Japanese and Malayan authority. When Lenin came to power, that was the end of the tsar. When Mao Tse Tung took power, the emperor lost his heavenly mandate. An old lady tells me she has no regrets. She chose to join the communists. Now, she's tapping rubber for a couple of dollars a day. But somehow, she's still happy. She accepts her lot in life. And that counts for a lot.
This trip wouldn't have been possible but for Bikerboey. Her courage, steadiness and good nature naturally brings good cheer to all. My thanks also to Joe Adnan, Andy Dinesh and Wendy Chan for their advice. Thanks also to my family for letting me go on this ride (not that they could've stopped me anyway, heh heh).