Cycling is like life. Cycling with no goal is meaningless. What meaning is there cycling in circles? Or living aimlessly? Meaning comes from direction and destination. Join me in my life's journey on a mountain bike :)

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Friday, December 30, 2005

Malaysia: long ride straight up the middle

Fri 23 - Fri 30 Dec
To Malaysia and South Thailand, 1,028 km.

In 2003, I cycle to Thailand via the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia, and violence rocks my destination days after my ride. In 2004, I cycle up the west coast, and a tsunami misses me during the ride. What do I do after cycling on the right and the left of the peninsula? In 2005, to complete the trilogy, I cycle up the middle of the peninsula, along the Titiwangsa mountain range. Floods wreak havoc days before my ride begins, causing deaths of some and evacuation of thousands.

I start planning for the ride in Apr, planning the route based on distance, scenic value, potential accommodation and night stops. I send out invitations and form a team: VC, DH and RA. Days before the ride, things are in a state of flux. Who's going? When does the ride really start? Answers vary from day to day ... And unlike my past two expeditions, I don't pray in church for blessing. Worried, I SMS a friend on the eve of the ride to pray for me ...

Ride overview
Day Date Destination / Hotel Km

 1 23 Dec Singapore - Kluang / Anika 144

 2 24 Dec Kluang - Segamat / Mandarin 150

 3 25 Dec Segamat - Temerluh / Sakura 173

 4 26 Dec Temerluh - Kuala Lipis / Jelai 127

 5 27 Dec Kuala Lipis - Gua Musang / Fully Inn 124

 6 28 Dec Gua Musang - Kota Bahru / Temenggong 192

 7 29 Dec Kota Bahru - Thailand (day trip) 118

 8 30 Dec Kota Bahru - Singapore  -

Ride highlights
0 punctures
1 scratch only (I still don't know how I got it!)
2 personal records broken: fastest speed (66.4 km/h) and longest distance fully loaded in one day (192 km). And just 2 wet, drizzly days during the north-east monsoon
3 riders on this trip: DH, VC and me
4 wheels (a Lexus) as transport back to Singapore, courtesy of generous golfers P (driver) and W ("inflight entertainment")

No good
Constant shifting problem with rear derailleur
Running nose and occasional cough
Rashes on both thighs (chafing from bike shorts - a first)
Blister on ball of foot (a first), which makes pedalling painful

Total cost: RM392, excluding meals paid by friends. As in the past two epic rides, this ride is self-supported. We carry all our gear - yes, besides the chainrings and sprockets already on the bikes, we carry our own tools, spares, clothes, soap and hope.

Sudden dropout
Day 1: Fri 23 Dec, Singapore - Kluang (Johore), 144 km. 6.45 am. VC and I cycle across the causeway. RA pulled out minutes ago, grounded by mechanical failure while on the road. DH is to join us tomorrow. It's a hilly ride to Kluang via Jalan Skudai and Kulai, with headwinds all the way. It's a barren route with few rest stops, and I ride 2.5 hours before the first break (at McDonalds), followed by another break 2 hours later. Because I expect barren roads all the way, I cycle with a Camelbak equipped with a Platypus (a first, and I've never used a Camelbak bladder). We reach Kluang at about 1 pm. The hotel declines to allow our bicycles into the room but relents after my pidgin Malay persuasion works.

Running nose, swirling water
Day 2: Sat 24 Dec, Kluang - Segamat (Johore), 150 km. Morning glory lines the rain-swept, winding J15 road to Paloh. Swift birds circle overhead. The occasional truck thunders past but the route is otherwise quiet. This is the longer but more scenic route. We cycle for two hours on the hills without break. VC is upfront as usual on his road bike, sweeping back now and then to see how I'm doing on my mountain bike. My nose is running. That makes swirling water (a form of entertainment) in my mouth hard. An excavator thunders past. I slip into its slipstream, get too close for comfort and brake, and the excavator zooms ahead. Also thrilling is the slipstream when a stream of vehicles pass by, dragging me along.

At the hotel, it's the same story - no entry to bicycles. I'm told to leave the bikes outside the hotel! I speak to the boss. The alternative is a storeroom crammed with junk. Well, my best alternative to negotiated agreement is to walk away and look for another place to stay; if there's no bike, there's no me. The hotel staff runs out and relents. I SMS directions to DH, who arrives an hour later after a 211 km ride from Singapore. DH speaks fluent Malay, VC speaks Punjabi and I speak Mandarin and a smattering of a few dialects. Together, we can traverse the length and breadth of the land.

Fast friends
Day 3: Sun 25 Dec, Segamat - Temerloh (Pahang), 173 km. Up at 6 am. On the road at 7, for the usual roti canai (prata) breakfast (and sometimes for lunch too). It's a nice quiet N119 route via Gemas, then on Federal Trunk Road #10. VC and DH have become fast friends after meeting only yesterday. The two roadies ride together while I amble along behind. A frenzied squirrel tries and aborts its attempt at road crossing. A fat white cat sits by the roadside in the shade while I bake in the sun. Two dogs chase a pickup truck along a side road. Two friendly Chinese workers chat with us and wish us well on our journey. We stop to check out a war memorial at Sungei Lui.

There are fresh offerings, in memory of an old problem of being caught between a rock and a hard place: as villagers, to please the communists is to anger the Japanese, and vice versa. So, choose your poison: who do you want to be killed by? My stomach hurts. I crap in a road side shack (a first). Talk about a shitty ride. But at least the shack has a cement floor, it doesn't stink and I have toilet paper :-). We overtake a group of kids who do wheelies to impress us. Fast friends stop 10 km from our night stop to wait for me. They're glad to stop. It's been rough for me too, riding at breakneck speed above 40 km/h on rough roads.

Tall tales and highest speed

Day 4: Mon 26 Dec, Temerloh - Kuala Lipis (Pahang), 127 km. Last night, DH talks me out of a 165 km ride to Kuala Lipis via Bentung and Raub. On the other side of this route is Genting Highlands and Fraser's Hill, so it must be highly hilly. So, today, we cycle down the undulating valley of the Pahang River, though we don't see the water. I pass a flattened civet cat, regal in life, ignonimously contorted in death. Also dead is an iridescent bird, its wings folded for the last time. And groves of coconut trees, leaves brown and clasped around the tree trunks, look like dead spiders with their hairy legs folded round their dessicated bodies. At the outskirts of Jerantut, a coffeeshop owner tells us of a short cut . The route he recommends is supposedly half the distance and doesn't have many hills. That's a tall tale. The gradient is Penang Hill standard, the toughest on our entire ride. VC has to get off and push as his front wheel keeps lifting up.

Going downhill, I break my high speed record; today, I reach 66.4 km/h along road C164 at Kuala Tembeling, breaking my 2003 record of 61.0. A duck and ducklings paddle in the water. My pedalling is problematic. As the sun beats down, my drivetrain is beating me. I press and hold the thumb shifter, hoping to hear not just the click of the shifter but also of the chain shifting. I twist the barrel adjuster while on the move. Now, the chain shifts up but is reluctant to shift down. What a prima donna drivetrain; a bit of grit and it acts up. Fast friends streak ahead while my drivetrain clatters like a clockwork toy. Once in a while, they stop to wait, breaking their momentum. Kuala Lipis, our stop for the night, is the place for my retirement. If it's good enough for pretty Siti Nurhaliza, it's good enough for me. It is a small picturesque town with a river winding through it and a nice clean hotel with HBO cable channel. I wash my drivetrain, fuss over it. And, like every night, I dig grit out of my tyres.

Scariest ride of my life

Day 5: Tue 27 Dec, Kuala Lipis - Gua Musang (Kelantan), 124 km. Like in previous nights, I don't sleep well, waking up 2-3 times. Fast friends are ahead as usual. I lead only when a dog trots behind us at over 20 km/h for what seems like a long time. VC says: "It's a good dog." In my book, any dog that's after cyclists is not good. Seeing the dog, the driver behind us goes "parp parp parp". I crank up till 35 km/h to drop the canine. Today is the scariest ride of my life, but not because of the furry monster. While I've gone downhill before at higher speeds, today's speeds of over 50 km/h is scary as the roads are rough, jarring my hands as I hang on for dear life along the more-winding-than-usual roads. Mountains lie in the hazy blue distance; just behind me is a car. Instead of trying to break my speed record, I'm trying to avoid breaking my bones and dying in a mangled heap of red flesh scattered around my red bike. 

I cycle solo for an interminable time, nursing my rear derailleur along. In the end, I leave the chain on the middle sprocket to rely less on the rear derailleur and work the front shifter more instead.The wind is blowing, the road is winding and the birds are chirping. I reach Bukit Tujuh. Seven hills, but who's counting? I take them as they come. This is a road of thanks, with "terimah kasih" signs dotting the roadside. Federal Trunk Road #8 is long and winding, with traffic like tour buses roaring past. But, unlike on Singapore roads, I don't feel threatened. Other than the occasional car hurtling towards me on the wrong side of the road while overtaking, drivers on Malaysian roads don't put me in fear of grevious hurt. But it is hot, so hot that the heat penetrates the raincover on my seatpost bag, through the bag, through the spectacle case and warms up my glasses when I put them on at the end of the day.

Thank God, I'm using contact lenses so I can wear shades to look cool and feel cool.
We push on towards Gua "Headwinds-all-the-Way" Musang after lunch, which we time to get out of the noonday sun. I ride solo ahead of the rest with a 15 minute headstart so they don't have to wait for me. I'm the first into town and treat myself to an expensive but nice, ice-cold Milo at KFC. Here, I'm sure the ice is safe. We also splurge on the best (and most expensive) hotel in town. All the switches work! But bicycles aren't allowed in the rooms, not even with DH's advanced Malay. We leave them in the hotel office corridor, unlocked. I'm unhappy with this arrangement. 3-star hotel, we pay so much, yet have to do more work to remove our belongings from our bikes and carry them into our rooms. And without the bike, I'm without a clothes rack.

Record breaking distance

Day 6: Wed 28 Dec, Gua Musang - Kota Bahru (Kelantan), 192 km. Once in a while, the sun peeks out to remind us how fortunate we are to have cloud cover. It's just VC and me as DH heads back today by train. We reach Kota Bahru at 6 pm, my longest ride fully loaded, breaking my previous record in Aug of 190 km. Along the way, I see plastic bags full of presumably used baby diapers. There's a skinned animal and a little snake that looks as if it has been etched into the road. A grasshopper perches on my bar end. It refuses to be shaken off even when I hit 54 km/h; it merely aligns its aerodynamic body to the wind. When it starts crawling towards me, I pound my handlebar and shake the green insect off. I almost fall when I zip up my camera bag while on the move.

At one point, my crank goes "clank". The chain has fallen off my chainring, says VC. Hearing this, I shift the chain back on while on the move. The last 15 km is hair raising, and not because of the wind. The potholed roads and cars filtering left and right leave my nerves jangled. VC is happy; this is his first self-supported, fully loaded ride. "The cake is baked, tomorrow (when we ride to the Thai border) is icing on the cake," he says. The water in our hotel is brown at first but later runs clear.

Blasted bunker

Day 7: Thu 29 Dec, Kota Bahru - Tak Bai, Thailand, 118 km. We hit the road at 7 am and at 10.30 I stop my fruitless search for a World War 2 bunker which a guidebook says exists. At least, I manage to find the beach where the Japanese had landed to start their terror in Malaya and Singapore. At least, the kampongs are scenic. And it was an off-road ride for VC. I'm glad I have a mountain bike; it's so versatile for touring. We head for the Thai border next. Never take directions from a guy who points right and says "turn left". Along the way, I take off my shoe and socks to dislodge a stone. It turns out to be a blister. And I have rashes on both thighs where the bike shorts grip. VC and I part at the border, where I chat with the Malaysian immigration officer about safety. "There's been no shooting over there for seven days," he says. I nip across on a ferry, have a look-see and rush back to Bank Kerapu, formerly used by the Japanese Kempeitai and now a war museum. Which explained what happened to the missing bunker: it was eroded by the sea. The replica is at the museum, not on the beach.

Spinning the wheel
Day 8: Fri 30 Dec, Kota Bahru - Singapore. Two bikes and four guys in a car hurtle south, driven by P, who takes the wheel for over 14 hours (including breaks). The route is largely the reverse of Epic #1. Going backwards in time and direction, the route is still as beautiful.

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