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 31, 2004

Malaysia: longer ride, longer story

Dec distance travelled: 1,635 km

Sun 19 Dec - Fri 31 Dec

To Malaysia and South Thailand, 1,502 km. This is the sequel to my 1,000 km ride in 2003, where I ride to Thailand via the east coast of Peninsula Malaysia. In 2004, I ride to Thailand again via the west coast, and riding in the three major western islands of Pangkor, Penang and Langkawi. With a big wave (tsunami) missing me along the way and no big bomb going off in South Thailand while I'm there. And no punctures either.

This story is written with thanks to the following who helped with my journey:
  • My "board of advisors" from Kuala Lumpur Mountain Bike Hash, especially Joe Adnan who sends me on his own volition and free of charge a full set of detailed Malaysian road maps (without them, I would've thought twice about going for the expedition). Thanks also to those who gave their perspective and tips on cycling up the west coast like Cyclosaurus
  • The countless motorists in Malaysia who are cyclist-friendly (and who put almost all Singapore drivers to shame), and the many stall holders, hotel keepers and officials for their friendliness
  • TCW, my cycling buddy who signed up after reading my posting online though his only Malaysian ride then was to Pengarang. Thanks for helping look after our stuff and for sharing the hotel room costs too!
  • Bikerboey, who got me started on my first 100 km ride in 2002, and on my first 1,000 km bike expedition in 2003.
The ride
Bad start

Day 1: Sun 19 Dec, Singapore - Batu Pahat (Johore), 159 km
It's a bad start. My brakes squeak (I stop to fix them). We start late (one of us has a late night). There's a headwind and hills (bow down and take it like a man). TCW breezes through despite three hours of sleep. Ah, the vigour of youth, a carbon bike and high-end components. The road is interminable. With just my thoughts in my head and no music, I wonder how prisoners in solitary confinement survive with their sanity. Perhaps I've already gone nuts, to want to do this ride in the first place.
Night stop: Fairyland Hotel

The road less travelled
Day 2: Mon 20 Dec, Batu Pahat - Melaka, 105 km
There's a long, wide and picturesque road starting from Parit Jawa which one of my KLMTB advisors had pointed out. It's idyllic, rustic and I feel happy. It's worth taking the road less travelled. We stop to photograph the tomb of a Malay princess. It's a nice cloudy day to ride.

Apart from the photo break, we've been cycling for three hours before a real break. Already, my butt and left hamstring hurt. A short stop to check my map helped to relieve the pain. It's worth taking a short break, even if at first sight it won't't seem to make a difference. Some dogs chase TCW. Schadenfreud; usually, they chase me. I crank up more revs, ride alongside and shout at them. In Melaka, we saunter the historic streets.
Night stop: Regal Hotel


Day 3: Tue 21 Dec, Melaka - Port Dickson (Negeri Sembilan), 97 km
I'm looking for more kampung (village) roads to cycle in. But the terrain doesn't match map, compass or distance travelled. A safer route would've been to stick to the well-travelled road #5. A passerby says I'm on the wrong road. A passing taxi driver says I'm on the right road. The road to sheer pleasure.
We stop at two roadside food stalls, with the usual friendly folk. One of them has the radio on, with UB40 playing "Kingston Town". This is sheer magic, eating roti canai and drinking Milo panas amidst the rural setting. This journey is more fun than the destination.

My left hamstring still hurts and so does my butt, but it is better with the gel seat cover I bring along. My eyes are red after wearing my contact lenses yesterday, so I'm using my usual glasses. TCW is as frisky as a foal, while I'm an old horse plodding along.

The hotels are spread out in Port Dickson. I find a room for RM30, which is bigger than one which cost RM50. My room has rather artistic (but lewd) graffiti. How much difference 100km makes. In Melaka, RM45 gets us a room with aircon, TV and ceramic floor. In Port Dickson, we have no TV, no aircon, and paint peeling off walls. Still, the hotel provides a shower and space to hang our laundry and park our bikes.

TCW degreases and lubes his bike. No wonder he flies on the road. After the cleaning ritual, we wander about to feed our bodies with grocery shopping.
Nightstop: Hotel Meng Yan

F1 Circuit

Day 4: Wed 22 Dec, Port Dickson - Klang (Selangor), 113 km
I look again for serendipity, but that's an oxymoron. Route N159 starts picturesque enough - a dawn ride through a village. But it's a Chinese village. With hordes of dogs scattered throughout the road. The road leads to a big stream. On the map, there's a road on the other side. But there's no bridge. The only way back is through the dogs again. We ride through packs of between two to eight dogs. No eye contact with them, and hiss like a snake ... the dogs part like the Red Sea, with pursuers behind us.

That's the beginning of our troubled way. What do I do when my compass says I'm directionally right but the terrain says I'm not? do I have enough faith to keep going? The map says I'm supposed to be on a little road, but I'm on a major road leading past Sepang F1 Circuit and Kuala Lumpur International Airport. I triangulate my bearings by flagging down a motorcyclist and asking people at a bus stop. They say I'm on the right track.

The road is so broad, cars and trucks speed. So do I, at speeds of between 36-55 km/h.
I have no map of Klang. It starts to rain. Where are the hotels? Friendly locals tell us the way. We pass by one; it's called a "villa" rather than "hotel" or "inn". It is clean, with an in-house spa.
We have tandoori chicken for dinner. I feel triumphant, having escaped the dogs, finding the way to Klang and a decent hotel.
Nightstop: Panmour Villa

Another American century

Day 5: Thu 23 Dec, Klang - Telok Intan (Perak), 169 km
There's the usual hassle of getting out of bigger towns. Compared to smaller towns, which are built alongside the major road through it. I ask a helpful couple taking a morning walk and soon we're off. The road between Kapar and Jeram is potholed and rippled. I bounce along on my poor butt.
We stop at Jeram for breakfast. The friendly shopkeeper speaks English and has posters of "Free Anwar" and Osama bin Laden. TCW is fascinated with them.

The road is clogged with heavy vehicles. I turn into B110 past Sekinchan, which is a parallel universe. For three whole hours, we cycle on never-ending roads that run straight as arrows. Padi fields stretch as far as the eye can see. Picturesque as it is, the road has me jaded. There are only so many songs I can sing to myself, as riding with an earpiece is not for me.

We break at a roadside stall; TCW tucks into two packets of nasi lemak while I eat my raisins in the fly-infested shack. Today's ride is another American century: 169 km. Thank God it's flat. Thank God also for the little kedai that dot the landscape. Telok Intan is an unusual, splendid little town. The streets are well-paved.There's KFC and Pizza Hut, and a Chinese pagoda.
Nightstop: Anson Hotel

Drawing the line

Day 6: Fri 24 Dec, Telok Intan - Lumut (Perak), 106 km
Today, I meet one of the manic depressive truck drivers which KLMTB had warned me about. I'm cycling on the white line of the motorcycle lane when a driver blasts his horn at me from behind, to claim the white line for his left wheels. I wonder why he wants all that space on road for his right wheels, when the lane is broad enough for us all.

I get lost on the way to Lumut; route 100 isn't even on the map. A kind motorcyclist puts me on the right track.

Our hotel charges 33% more today, as it's the start of the weekend. We cough up the dough and head off to ride round-island at Pangkor. The ferry there ironically screens the Titanic movie.
A friendly shopkeeper warns us about the motorcyclists that whizz about the island. He fails to warn us about the 14-degree slopes. This is where I bust my knee. A guidebook says it takes half-day to get around the island by bicycle and 2-3 hours by motorbike. We must've been travelling at motorbike speed then.

We stop by a fort. I'm impressed how the Malays at Pangkor repeatedly turf out the Dutch, which presumably have the advantage in a fight with their fortifications and firepower. The ride around Pangkor inspires me with a secondary mission in addition to my primary mission of cycling to Padang Besar: ride round island around the three major islands off the west coast, including Penang and Langkawi.
Nightstop: Galaxy Inn

Wet Christmas
Day 7: Sat 25 Dec, Lumut - Taiping, 98 km
What a strange Christmas. Away from home, with my knee and butt hurting. In my plan, today is supposed to be a rest day, but TCW agrees to ride on. So it's an "active rest" day for me. I plod along at 20 km/h.

The map and terrain again don't match, but I'm on the right track somehow. While the map may be outdated, at least the road signs and milestones are up to date. Milestones are so important, they tell you how you are doing. I also figure out how to gauge where I am on a long and winding road by using my compass to match actual direction travelled with the map.

Our hotel, Panorama, is the best so far. It has its own soap and shampoo, not the ubiquitous "May" soap. There's even a long bath and drinking glasses wrapped in plastic. All for RM69. The receptionist says all Taiping hotels are full today, but a group had cancelled. Good thing there's room for us at the inn today on Christmas. We drop by other hotels to see what could've been. One of them is bright yellow on the outside but dingy and seedy within.

I walk to Taman Tasik Taiping, the oldest lake garden in Malaysia (it started as a tin mine in 1880). The lake seems to be inverted; it starts to pour. For RM2 at a kiosk, I get a bottle of water, shelter, entertainment by eavesdropping on a conversation between the storekeeper and a girl. As the shop closes for the day, I get a big piece of cardboard and plastic sheets for a drier walk back to the hotel.
Nightstop: Panorama Hotel

Cyclists in the mist
Day 8: Sun 26 Dec, Taiping - Butterworth (Penang), 186 km
It's so misty today, my glasses fog up and I use my fingers as wipers. Condensation drips off my helmet. Visibility is only for a few hundred metres. My knee is better today. But fortune isn't (or is, depending on your point of view) quite with us today:

  • A van of rowdy youths cuts into my path though I have the right of way. I emergency brake while the youths gesture ecstatically.
  • One of us kicks a traffic cone at a police roadblock. I serve as translator. The cop lets us go; after asking to see the culprit's passport, the cop cools down real fast.
  • My maps drop off my $5, approved-by-US-Navy ziploc bag. I cycle around looking for them; never before has litter in the streets looked so fascinating. I recover two of the three missing documents; the map that shows us the way for our next leg is lost. And along the way, I come across bigger inns which TCW prefers. One of them declines to let our bikes into the room; I'm happy to find a cheaper, cyclist-friendly one.
We head off to ride round-island in Penang, starting at 3 pm. That's sheer hubris on my part. I don't know the route, for a start. Or the terrain. The 10-degree slopes at Genting Hill are a grind. Soon, it's dusk. TCW is nowhere in sight, having streaked ahead. I decide to head back to the ferry via Georgetown.

What goes up must come down, and my gravity-assisted bike streaks effortlessly down at 57 km/h.
Georgetown is a maze. I ask an old man on a rickety bike for directions. After telling me a series of "turn left, turn right", he shows me the way. We amble along at 16 km/h. What a sight we must make, me togged out in my finery, while he squeaks along, with mudguard vibrating with every stroke. Ah, the milk of human kindness tastes good.

During dinner, some folks from home contact me. Only then do I realise what a tumultuous day today is. A tsunami had hit the region, including Batu Ferringhi beach, a few hours earlier. I did want to go there ... but failed to because I wanted to see the beach only during sunset. Had my legs been stronger, had the big wave hit hours later, ye olde Iron Horse could've become a sea horse. Strange how things were business as usual; the ferry to Penang was full, no one said anything about the big wave.
Nightstop: Hotel Ambassadress

Cycling privileges
Day 9: Mon 27 Dec, Butterworth - Alor Star (Kedah), 135 km

We stop by Mahatir Mohamad's childhood home, which is now a museum. It's closed on Mondays. I explain our situation in Malay, which I learn from a book. The officials let us through to walk the grounds, while denying the same privilege to a group in a car. Hey, we biked all the way from Singapore ...

Today has been a hard ride. Just as well the road to Alor Star is broad and straight; I have no map of the way out of Penang. There are strong headwinds, slowing me down to 19 km/h. Still, it's been a happy day. This morning, I breakfast on cream buns; for the past few days, it's been plain bread and water. And today, I break my personal distance record of 1,000 km. I also get a bus ticket to Singapore, no problem, though "how to get home" has been my biggest question.
Nightstop: Grand Jubilee Hotel

Across the border

Day 10: Tue 28 Dec, Alor Star - Kangar - Padang Besar - Kangar (Perlis), 142 km
When the road is flat, there's nothing to stop the winds except my poor head. I crawl at 19 km/h, until an excavator rumbles past. It takes up an entire lane. I easily reach 28 km/h behind it. I keep an eye on its huge rolling wheels of death, but I'm so happy following it, I turn off the main road to Kangar.
At Kangar, a motorcyclist stops to help as I check my map to find hotels. One of them costs RM140 per night. The one we choose is half the price.

We head for Thailand after dumping our bags. Enroute, a Malaysian official at a road block stops us. I ask him about safety. He says "no guarantee" across the border. We cross anyway. Some Thai cops beckon us over and offer us a cistern full of ice water. I drink and do a "wai". We also stop at a shop for drinks, where my sign language allows us to use RM instead of baht for payment. RM1 each for mineral water and a bottle of soya. A concessionary price?

We head back to Malaysia after drinks. It's my shortest stay ever in a foreign country. There's no where to go anyway; Bangkok is 1,000 km away, and roads stretch emptily in either direction.
Cycling back to Kangar, revenge is sweet. A tailwind propels us effortlessly at over 35 km/h. The Malaysian official seems glad to see me back.

I pass a herd of cows, which starts a stampede. Fortunately, they run parallel to me, unlike dogs which tend to run straight at me. In Kangar, we come across the most happening bikeshop I've seen so far in Malaysia: Kedai Toh Lee. Amazing range of bikes and parts. Perlis, with a population of about 217,000, has two cycling associations.
Nightstop: Federal Hotel

Tour de Langkawi

Day 11: Wed 29 Dec, Kangar - Langkawi - Kangar, 119 km
TCW decides not to cycle today, so it's a six-hour solo tour of Langkawi for me. My bike rides on the top deck of the boat and so do I. First stop is Tanjong Rhu Beach. It's one of the prettiest places I've ever seen. I ride past the airport next. This is Langkawi's version of Changi coastal road, with the airport on one side and the sea on the other. Heading south, I fly effortlessly over the road at more than 30 km/h, then shudder to a speed of 18 km/h as I round the corner to head north. As it turns out, there's a tailwind going south, which becomes a headwind going north.

Langkawi has hills, contrary to what the boatman tells me. From a downhill speed of 50 km/h, I slow in moments to 8 km/h despite pedalling. I play leapfrog with three whites including a lady in a red dress. The two guys are topless and turning lobster red in the sun.

I stop now and then to shoot photos. Langkawi is a beautiful place to cycle, in both senses of the word. Some roads are shaded, the place is picturesque, there's little traffic except in the town of Kuah, and food and beverage outlets dot the landscape. Further south, I ride past a village that reeks. Mud, debris and soiled household items are scattered about. Another village that the tsunami has smashed.

I have a piddling problem on the way back: I've been sold a ticket to a passenger ferry, smaller than the one I boarded this morning. I have to pay RM6 more. And my bike is stowed at the back of the boat, where it gets soaked. So, pay more money for far less value.
Nightstop: Federal Hotel


Day 12: Thu 30 Dec, Kangar - Alor Star, 52 km
For the first time during the trip, I wake up when I like, instead of the usual 5.45 am. And instead of hitting the road at 7 am, I do nothing for a while, then traipse to the museum nearby, then around town. The tour is over a couple of hours later. As I cycle my last km on Malaysian soil on this trip, it's a bittersweet experience. I think about the promise of the ride, the research (on routes and stops, transport and accommodation), the frustration (why don't buses take bikes up north from Singapore?), anxiety and anticipation.

As I set out from the causeway about two weeks ago, I didn't know what to expect. Now it's almost over. It's a beautiful ride south. I don't even bother to have a map; my makeshift map holder has fallen apart anyway. An irrigation canal lies to my left, with trees giving shade. Across the canal, three kids on BMX bikes wave. They start a race, which is over in seconds, as they wave goodbye to the victor.

I get hassled at the bus terminus because of my bike; TCW has no problem as it's dismantled and bundled up (it looks like a big flat elephant). The driver wants me to pay RM40 to load the bike. We agree on RM20, then find out that this is not our bus. Who'd have thought two buses from the same company would head for Singapore half an hour of each other.

Day 13: Fri 31 Dec, Singapore, 21 km
It's a cold ride back on the bus, which has two aircon controls: off and arctic. Some passengers are equipped with blankets - their own. I tape up one of the vents desperately.

The bus driver offloads us before Singapore immigration. The officers say I've got to join the motorbike queue. TCW walks his elephant to get his passport stamped. It's started raining and the motorcycle queue is getting longer. I wait for both to cease. A cop questions me. As the rain eases up, I walk towards the queue. Another cop questions me. But bureaucracy has a heart; they open up the car lanes for bikers too. And at customs, an officer waves me on.

It starts to pour. What a soaking wet ending! Whereas up north, I get a cyclist's tan, complete with darkened lower thigh, fingers and stripes where the helmet straps run down my face. I also learn something from the ride, primarily, the importance of kindness. The old cyclist in Penang who showed me the way back to the ferry. The motorcyclist in Kangar who simply stopped to ask where I want to go. The hotel folks who give us bigger rooms and lower floors. The many stall holders who talk to us along the way. The countless motorists who respect our right to ride and live.

I've also got nice memories and photos. And a more seasoned butt.

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