Around the world by bike
Malaysia & Singapore
(2 494km - 51days - 26 December 2009-14 February 2010)
26 December - Hat Yai – Malaysia border – Kuala Perlis – 110 km
Immediately after crossing the Thailand/Malaysian border, the difference in countries was clearly visible and Buddhist monasteries were replaced by mosques. Although Malaysia was a multicultural and a multi-confessional country, the official religion was Islam, and most women were conservatively dressed or wore headscarves.
Ernest and I headed straight for the coast to the small village of Kuala Perlis in the far north-western corner of Malaysia. The Kuala Perlis jetty was the main connecting point for Langkawi Island, and it was a beautiful ride with majestic limestone hills in the background.
An interesting thing in Kuala Perlis was what was known as the “Floating Mosque”. The mosque was built next to the Kuala Perlis jetty and extended over the water with the result at high tide it looked as if floating. It was also unique in that the walls were adorned with corals and pebbles, all making for a peaceful place to view the sunset over the Strait of Malacca.
From Kuala Perlis, a regular ferry ran to Kuah Jetty on Langkawi Island, situated 30 kilometres off the coast. I was looking forward to taking a break after racing for the border to get out of Thailand before our visas expired, a distance of 893 kilometres in seven days! It was no fun and not what I considered cycle touring.
The scenery in Malaysia was, however, straight out of a tourist brochure and once on Langkawi island, it was a short 22-kilometre cycle to Pantai Cenang. Once again, it was pricey, touristy and no beach hut, as imagined. The most inexpensive accommodation was at a backpacker hostel across the way from the beach. At least the island was duty-free, making for a good party vibe which Ernest took full advantage of.
29 December - Langkawi Island – 90 km
In the morning, I packed up and moved on. It was an enjoyable day exploring the island, but there wasn’t much in the line of budget accommodation, and it was best to return to Pantai Tengah, a short distance from our previous accommodation.
The local ATM was out of cash, and it first took cycling to the airport (20 kilometres away) to draw money before settling into Zackary’s. Accommodation was hard to come by, as it was school holidays and most places were packed with Malay families from the big cities. The beach was also packed with burka-clad ladies swimming entirely clothed; quite something to see if you weren’t used to it.
30 December - Pantai Tengah Beach
Zackary’s was a relaxing place to hang out. With its little pool and communal areas, guest kitchen and free coffee, most guests sat around and hardly went anywhere.
There was quite a sizeable duty-free shop down the road, selling cheap beer (not something you find in other parts of Malaysia) and most bought beers there and then sat around the pool shooting the breeze. The day was spent relaxing on the beach, after which I sat talking to the other guests at the guesthouse. Later that evening, supper was at the Indian restaurant, then it was back to Zackary’s for some more idle chatter.
31 December - Pantai Tengah Beach
Staying on at Zackary’s was easy as it was an easy-going place, and so were the guests. After borrowing Neil and Emma’s notebook charger, it was good to discover it was only my charger, and not the laptop itself, which was faulty.
As it was New Year’s Eve, a few beers were consumed as the evening wore on. Most sat around until midnight, wished each other happy New Year, and went on to wait for the partial eclipse of the moon which occurred at about 3h00, with the result it was 5h00 before going to bed.
1 January - Pantai Tengah Beach
Waking up not feeling too bright-eyed and bushy-tailed didn’t come as a surprise, and we set off to the Indian restaurant thinking spicy food may help. The roti canai was delicious but did little for my headache. Back at Zachary’s, the rest of the group also looked a bit worse for wear, and most were lying around the pool nursing headaches.
2 January - Pantai Tengah Beach, Langkawi – Alor Star (Alor Setar) – 72 km
With great reluctance, I packed the bike, had a cup of coffee, ate the leftover bread, and waved the other guests goodbye. Fortunately, it was only 22 kilometres back to the ferry port. Once on the mainland, a coastal path ran to Alor Setar which was much closer than expected. The route was scenic and flat with the beach on the one side and backwaters on the other.
The Comfort Motel in Alor Setar, across the way from the beautiful Masjid Zahir, provided a room with bed and shower and a place to wash cycling clothes. My search for a Malaysian map was on in all earnest, but still to no avail. While trying to find a charger for my laptop, I snapped a few pics of the beautiful mosque, and although unsuccessful in finding a charger, the food was intriguing as it was wrapped in newspaper - some in a pyramid shape and others in a flat parcel. Having no idea what was inside, it was a relief to find the one containing fried noodles and the other one some very spicy rice. Both were delicious.
3 January - Alor Star (Alor Setar)– Georgetown, Penang Island – 130 km
The cup water heater which lived in my panniers came in handy for making coffee after which the leftover noodles from the previous night made for a good breakfast.
Feeling remarkably energetic, and without a map, I followed my nose along a small coastal road, only going wrong a few times but nothing too serious. A torrential downpour completely soaked me and then abruptly ended 10 kilometres down the road. It felt stupid cycling down the road, with water dripping off me on a path that hadn’t seen a drop of rain in days.
The way was flat and ran through densely forested areas and past Buddhist, Chinese and Hindu temples (it was good to see old Ganesh again) and of course, the ever-present mosques. What a multicultural society Malaysia was.
In Butterworth, it was easy to locate the ferry terminal from where boats departed for the nearby island of Penang. A short ferry ride on a very packed and crowded ferry took passengers to historic Georgetown. From the ferry, Georgetown appeared everything but historical as highrise condominiums punctured the skyline as far as the eye could see. The short cycle from the jetty to Love Lane Inn Hostel revealed just why the Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With Penang’s central location in the Strait of Malacca, it was an essential stopover on the ancient trade route between Europe, the Middle East, India and China. As the Strait of Melis located on the crossing point of two monsoon seasons, ships couldn’t set sail until the winds were favourable. With the result, Penang became a diverse melting pot of cultures; a diversity which remains until today. The streets were lined with stalls, and one could feast on Malay, Indian and Chinese food. One dish more delicious than the other.
Lo and behold, would Neil and Emma (met at Zackary’s) not walk into the same hostel and it was good to see them again.
4 January - Georgetown
What a fabulous place Georgetown turned out to be. There were architectural styles from every corner of the earth: Indian, Chinese, Arab, Malay, Burmese and even Victorian. The most amazing was the railway station, a beautiful neo-classical style building but without a railway line. What were they thinking? The day was spent exploring the narrow alleys and interesting Indian and Chinese quarters, complete with the best Indian and Chinese food. Coming upon Chinese steamed rice buns, a charger for my notebook, as well as a new SIM card for the phone, made it a good day.
5 January - Georgetown
It was no wonder Georgetown was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, as the old quarters with all its old Chinese shophouses, ornate temples and narrow alleys was a potpourri of nationalities, building styles and food. Another day was spent wandering and eating from roadside stalls in Little India and Little China. A walk took me past Fort Cornwallis, built by the British East Indian Company in the late 18th century, past the Sri Mariamman Temple, an ornate Hindu temple built in 1883, and past the Clan Jetties dating back to 1882. Still, I walked, past Masjid Kapitan Keling, constructed by the first Indian-Muslim settlers, and eventually landing up back at the food stalls close to the Love Lane Inn Hostel.
6 January - Georgetown – Taiping – 115 km
Leaving Georgetown, I didn’t take the ferry back to the mainland but instead continued over the Penang Bridge, a rather impressive 13.5-kilometre-long bridge linking the island with Butterworth. It was easily the longest bridge I’ve ever cycled across. Once on the mainland, the path headed south past mangrove swamps and bird sanctuaries. It was beautifully lush and densely forested, a reminder that Malaysia was indeed in the tropics.
A most severe monsoon storm rolled in, complete with lightning and roaring thunder. While taking shelter at a roadside food stall with just a rickety umbrella for cover, the lady from the stall proceeded to feed me endlessly. Huddled together, we waited for the worst to blow over.
Once the rain subsided, it was on to Taiping with a full belly. The Malay people are very hospitable, and on asking a man on a motorbike where to find accommodation, he escorted me to a local joint with reasonably-priced rooms. At the hotel, the staff were very accommodating and allowed the use of their washing machine. It was surprising they even let me in as I was dripping pools of water all over their squeaky clean tiles.
Taiping is known for its well-preserved colonial architecture, and there were indeed a few. The local zoo was my attraction of choice as one could visit the zoo at night, and it was fun walking along, listening to the chewing and snorting of animals in the pitch dark.
7 January - Taiping to Ipoh – 88 km
Another excellent day was spent on the road, without any of the thunderstorms of the previous day. The route was scenic, making for an enjoyable ride. Although Malaysia was expensive (compared to the rest of Southeast Asia), one could still find inexpensive meals. All one had to do was look out for the places where truck drivers took their meals. On spotting a few trucks parked in front of a “Dhaba” I was served a delicious curried pineapple and rice meal.
Meeting a fellow cycle tourer made for a welcome break. He was on a somewhat loaded bike and seemed to have carried everything, as well as the proverbial kitchen sink, with him.
The big meal made for lazy cycling, and Ipoh lured me in where a guesthouse in the old town, amidst colonial architecture and a short walk from the magnificent old train station, was perfect for the night.
The notebook finally packed up, and mad at the darn thing, I went to the shop and bought a new one. I’m quite sure one could have had it fixed but I lacked the patience for such things and couldn’t even come up with anything to justify such an irresponsible spending spree. But that’s the way I roll.
8 January - Ipoh – Tapah – 58 km
It was an unbelievably spectacular day with some very ornate cave temples. Tapah was the turnoff for the Cameron Highlands, and although it was only about 60 kilometres to the Highlands, everyone had warned it was a steep uphill. I, therefore, decided to stay in Tapah for the night and start the climb in the morning.
9 January - Tapah – Tanah Rata (Cameron Highlands) – 60 km
The ride to the Cameron Highlands was a super, super, stunning day. Although it was uphill all the way, nothing came of the severe climb warned about. It was said to be a 1000-metre climb, but I wasn’t convinced of that. The route twisted and turned through dense forests, past waterfalls and past vast tea plantations clinging to the mountainside. After reading what others had to say, I expected quite a steep climb but, in the end, it was nothing like the hills in China. Saying that doesn’t mean it wasn’t uphill.
From Ringlet to Tanah Rata took about an hour and a half and I made it just before a storm came in. A good day all in all. In general, I seldom read or listen to what others say about a route and much prefer to find out for myself. Mostly, my hard-headedness comes back to bite me in the ass but, in a way, it adds to the little adventure left in life.
10 January - Tanah Rata
Nothing came of my intended forest walk; instead, I somehow managed to do nothing all day. Kang Lodge was comfortable and reasonably priced, and a convenient place to hang around. The people from tiny Tanah Rata were relaxed and pleasant and, coupled with a beautiful setting, it was the perfect place for relaxing and doing as little as possible. The residence also informed me there was indeed a motorway via Gua Musang to Taman Negara National Park. My map didn’t show any routes and I didn’t know what to expect. Other cyclists who had cycled the route before reported a lack of facilities and said they had to wild camp. With no stove in my possession, I loaded up with a loaf of bread, cheese slices and a jar of peanut butter.
11 January - Tanah Rata – Gua Musang – 130 km
Loaded with a loaf of bread, peanut butter and biscuits, I left Tanah Rata and soon found myself on a lovely smooth, wide road with a roomy shoulder. It was hard to believe such a substantial route wasn’t indicated on the map. After a short climb came a downhill of about 10 kilometres and, feeling reckless, I flew down the hill at high speed, panniers flapping in the breeze. The rest of the day was spent crawling up hills at 6km/h and flying down at 50km/h.
Again, it was a day of magnificent scenery with dense forests lining both sides of the road. Logging was alive and well in Malaysia at the time, and there were many large trucks loaded with huge logs. It’s entirely possible the forest won’t be there much longer. Logging could also be the reason why the route wasn’t indicated on the map. It might even have been a new road, or it could have been the authorities didn’t want people to see the chopping down of the rainforest.
The area wasn’t as wild as expected, and although there were a few potential wild campsites, it was still too early for camping and I continued until reaching the small railway town of Gua Musang. It was a fair-sized town with hotels, shops, markets and alike. Somewhat disappointed at the lack of wilderness (as I had my loaf of bread and jar of peanut butter, hahaha), I located accommodation and enjoyed a lovely hot shower. Although the room was pricey, it came with a TV and even Wi-Fi - hardly the wilderness envisaged. This was, after all, well-organised Malaysia.
12 January - Gua Musang – Kuala Lipis – 121 km
The following day, the route led further south past Pulai, an old gold mining area, and although there was no wilderness left, a good few hills remained. It took pedalling like the clappers down the hills to try and make it up the other side without having to gear right down, but alas, it didn’t work. With a loaded bike, one lost momentum as soon as there was the slightest of incline. Anyone watching from afar must have thought, “What is that woman on about?” At least no one could accuse me of not trying. Up and down the road went until encountering the mother of all hills halfway to Kuala Lipis. In the space of five kilometres, there were seven broken-down trucks, a clear indication of the severity of the gradient.
The road followed the boundary of the National Park, and it was, therefore, very scenic, complete with monkeys and small alligators or were they monitor lizards? It was rainforest area and very humid; with the result, one sweated buckets slaving up the hills. Most of the forest had sadly been cut down to make way for rubber and palm oil plantations.
Kuala Lipis, tucked away in the corner of rainforest reserves and plantations, came just at the right time as my legs felt rather tired. A hotel in Kula Lipis provided air-con and the much longed-for shower. Then it was off to find roti canai (roti with dhal and potato curry) or nasi goring (fried noodles), my two favourite dishes.
13 January - Kuala Lipis – Jerantut – 61 km
My map was utterly useless, and one could just as well have dumped the silly thing. The distance between Kuala Lipis and Jerantut looked just a little shorter than the previous days, but (thankfully) it was only 61 kilometres. The hills were even steeper and more frequent than the earlier days, but at least it was a short day. A roadside stall provided my favourite snack of roti canai.
A roadside stop always came with the same comments: “You’re alone?” Normally asked in amazement. “How old are you?” Even more amazement if you tell them and, “Where are you from?” usually followed by “But you aren’t black”. Truck drivers often stopped to offer lifts and were just as astounded when their offer was declined. This day was no different, and the truck driver assured me he was going to Jerantut anyway and there were many hills still to come. He couldn’t understand why I didn’t want to make use of his offer.
On arrival in the small village of Jerantut, and after locating a plate of nasi goring, I went in search of info on Taman Negara National Park.
14 January - Jerantut – Kuala Tahan – 71 km
At first, the idea was to leave the bike and panniers in Jerantut and take the river ferry to Kuala Tahan. There, however, seemed a good enough way leading to Kuala Tahan and I did what I was used to doing. It was far more convenient that way, instead of only a small daypack with essential items.
Another reason was to get the opportunity to experience the forest first-hand, but the route was a bit disappointing as most of the way was past palm oil plantations. It was difficult to conjure up any sympathy for a loaded logging truck which had careered off the road. It was, nevertheless, a beautiful ride and closer to Kuala Tahan the real forest started.
The Taman Negara forest is said to be over 130 million years old, and I was eager to explore. Upon arrival, a night walk into the woods was available but, once again, it was a little disappointing as the trail was along a walkway and could hardly be called a jungle. Africans are spoiled as, in Africa, there are still many real wild places and wildlife. There was nothing I couldn’t have seen in my own garden at night back home. Still, it was lovely walking in the dark, listening to the night sounds and smelling the wet and damp forest.
15 January - Kuala Tahan (Taman Negara National Park)
It was very tempting to do the three-day trek into the inner jungle, but after the many disappointments, packed my little daypack with the peanut butter sandwiches (hee-hee-hee), water, a raincoat and set off - map in hand to explore the jungle on my own.
The touristy walkway led me away from Kuala Tahan, and I soon found myself alone heading up the mountain on a much less-travelled path. The forest was dead quiet with only the occasional chirp of a cricket or the call of the colourful pheasants to remind me I wasn’t all alone. Needless to say, it was sweltering and humid, but I continued up the mountain until the path reached the top from where there were lovely views over the surrounding forests.
Most of the day was spent wandering around the dense forest until it was time to head back, catch the ferry back across the river, and find food.
16 January - Kuala Tahan (Taman Negara National Park)
It was terrific to do absolutely nothing the entire day. The plan was to take the ferry back to Jerantut instead of cycling back the same way and, therefore, have the opportunity to experience the river trip. The boat departed at 9 a.m. the next morning and saved me having to backtrack the 70 kilometres to Jerantut, something that was always a drag.
17 January - Kuala Tahan (Taman Negara National Park) – Jerantut - By boat (+20km from the boat jetty to town)
After a breakfast of Nasi Lemak, and together with other travellers, the boat headed back to Jerantut. It was a most scenic ride through the dense forest back to the Tembeling boat jetty. Once there, every one helped to get the bike and panniers off the boat and up the stairs. People were incredibly kind, and then it was back on the hilly road to Jerantut.
Jerantut was an excellent place to stock up on essentials, i.e. coffee, noodles and soup. Stinginess made me buy the cheapest 3-in-1 coffee sachets available. Back in my room, and on closer inspection, it turned out not to be coffee but, wait for this……. tea. Have you ever heard of such a thing? Instant tea? How much more instant can one get than a tea bag? Well, there it was, powdered tea with pre-added milk and sugar. I thought it sacrilege to drink instant tea so close to the Cameron Highlands, well known for its excellent tea.
18 January - Jerantut – Maran – 90 km
After a cup of instant tea, the path headed due east, and what an awesome day of cycling it turned out. The route was scenic, with hardly any cars, and the weather perfect.
I must have looked or smelled really unpleasant, as even the village dogs took to their heels. They ran for their lives, never looking back until they were safely behind the gates at their homes.
It was a relatively short ride to Maran and the famous Sri Marathandavar Aalayam Hindu Temple. It is said the name of the temple literally means “crossing the tree”. The tree mentioned in the name refers to the sacred Rudraksha tree. The Rudraksha seed is traditionally used as prayer beads in Hinduism and is associated with the eye of Lord Shiva. The bead is also often used as a holy talisman, as it is believed it can transform negative energy into positive energy. Rudraksha beads are also seen being worn by the yogis in India.
I was told, about 120 years ago, a road was built from Kuala Lumpur to Kuantan, and in the process, many trees were felled. As this particular tree was being cut, the tree began to bleed, as if wounded. Legend has it, many workers saw the bleeding and one worker went into a trance. The workers asked the supervisor to spare the tree, but the British supervisor refused. A child suddenly appeared on the trunk of the tree and miraculously disappeared into the tree. The supervisor was dumbfounded (as can be imagined) and agreed the tree be spared.
Afterwards, the tree became sacred, and although the tree is now dead, the remains of the tree are preserved in the temple.
Threatening clouds made me opt for accommodation in Maran, with a lovely view of the golf course. Nothing came of the threatening clouds, but it was still a good excuse for spending so much money on accommodation. At least there was a cheap roti shop around the corner where one could gorge yourself.
19 January - Maran – Pekan - 110 km
The lush vegetation continued, and there was plenty of life along the road: monkeys, ducks and birds abounded, there were even a few resorts, all looking very nice with wooden chalets, and some also offered camping.
Malaysia is such a multicultural country - the day before was a distinctly Indian day with many Hindu temples and Indian food. This day, however, was more a Chinese day with Chinese temples and Chinese food. It was hard to cycle past the steamed buns without stopping and bagging some for the road.
On reaching the east coast at Pekan, it was time to find a hotel as the map didn't indicate any other facilities near Pekan. The map was rather useless, and it didn’t mean there wasn’t any in the area. Besides, Pekan was scenic, had a lovely central square, and was where the Sungai Pahang, the longest river in Peninsular Malaysia, flowed into the South China Sea.
20 January - Pekan – Rompin - 117 km
The road hugged the coastline and, from time to time, ran flush next to the ocean, and at other times it headed inland through the forest. Again, it was a day it felt it was only the many troops of monkeys and me in the wet and watery jungle. I loved Malaysia.
Turning off to explore the beaches revealed a fantastic Beach and Golf Resort but a bit too pricey for me.
Then it was back on the bike and on to Rompin, where one could find more affordable accommodation. A lack of food left me starving and sent me rushing off to the market, where I felt hungry enough to devourer the spices. With the result, I came away with more food than any human could possibly eat in a day, let alone for supper.
It was a slow and lazy start to the day for the short cycle to Mersing, stopping along the way for a bite to eat. Afterwards, I was convinced there was meat in the dish, but in Malaysia, you never knew for sure what ingredients were in the food.
The coastal town of Mersing was the jumping-off point for ferries to Tioman. It was too late for the last boat and better to take a room at the Hotel Embassy, a short walk from the ornate Hindu temple Sri Subramaniam. After a visit to the temple, it was back to the ferry office to purchase a ferry ticket (RM35 one way) for the next day.
22-24 January - Mersing – Tioman Island - By ferry
The ferry didn’t depart until 11h30 and, after paying a further RM10 for the bike, the boat sped across the ocean, and in less than two hours arrived at the idyllic tropical island of Tioman. The ferry stopped at various locations on the island, but I disembarked at Tekek, the main village. In no time at all, I had a bungalow on the beach and could sit and watch the waves roll in, right to my doorstep. It was out of season, and one could negotiate a reasonable rate. It was rather quiet with very few visitors and, therefore, just me, the beach and my hammock, which was absolutely glorious.
It was easy to stay the next day and to do as little as possible, except for sipping a tax-free beer and watching the ocean. By the 24th I got off my backside and walked (with Niklas and Benedikte whom I met on the ferry to Tioman) over the mountain to the other side of the island where we’d a light lunch. It was a lovely walk through dense forests and past high waterfalls - even spotting a few monkeys.
It was time to leave the island and get back to business. Once again, the ferry was to depart at 11h00, but it was much later by the time it finally left.
Arriving at Mersing, Ernest was at the boat terminal, claiming it was a pure coincidence he was there. He was looking a bit worse for wear after a month travelling around Malaysia with hardly any money. After taking pity on him he was invited to share my digs where he could have a shower, do laundry, and sleep on a bed. He scored heaps of food, a new saddle, as well as a rear tyre for his bike, as he had been cycling on a tyre sewn up with fishing line for the past four days.
26 January – Mersing
The previous day, I’d already noticed Ernest’s feet and ankles were unusually swollen, perhaps from malnutrition as he claimed he’d been living off rice for the past few weeks. On this particular morning, I thought it might be Elephantitus, and it got worse as the day progressed. He was fed multi-vitamins and all the takeaway food he could eat.
The following day was also spent in Mersing, allowing Ernest to pay some attention to his bike and health. In the meantime, I bought myself a new saddle, as the old one had seen better days - hoping this one wasn’t going to be a pain in the butt.
27 January - Mersing – Kota Tinggi – 95 km
Ernest’s legs seemed much better, the swelling had gone down, and he appeared nearly normal. It was back to playing the waiting game as Ernest was always notoriously slow in the mornings. From Mersing, an undulating route headed south towards Singapore past palm oil plantations, with a few interesting bits and pieces. The rain made for taking cover a few times, a perfect excuse for a sweet cup of tea from a roadside stall.
Although my new saddle was reasonably comfortable, my backside was still sore. In Kota Tinggi, a 32-ringette room provided air-con and hot water. Utterly ravenous, due to a lack off breakfast, it was a rush for the food stalls. It was a Chinese community, and there were plenty of Chinese rice buns and Chinese food, something that was always delicious and a very likely place to find vegetarian food.
28 January - Kota Tinggi – Kampong Rengit – 84 km
Once again, it was already 11h00 by the time Ernest was ready, and I wondered if cycling together was worth the effort. A few times the rain came down so hard it forced us to find shelter at the local bus and taxi stands - at least the road was in excellent condition. It was a leisurely cycle as there was no rush at all. In the process of looking for a camping spot, we found ourselves in the seaside village of Rengit, where I opted for a room. Rengit was located at the most south-eastern point of Malaysia, close to Singapore where the plan was to go the next morning. Everything in Malaysia seemed oversized, including the bananas (called pisang), ants and cockroaches.
29 January - Rengit – Singapore – 55 km
It was a short 17-kilometre scenic cycle along the South China Sea to the ferry port where the regular ferry didn’t take bicycles. The only other option was to wait for the “Bum-Boat”. The “Bum-Boat” only left when there were 12 passengers (or bums) aboard – but it was much cheaper than the regular ferry. The slow boat took nearly an hour to cross the straits of Johor, and we, therefore, technically arrived in Singapore before leaving Malaysia. All that was required for a 30-day stay in Singapore was a stamp in the passport.
From the ferry port to the city centre a scenic cycle path ran through parklands and along the coast where there were great camping spots but, unfortunately, it wasn’t for foreigners. En route to the city centre, we took a wrong turn into the expressway tunnel somewhere under the city. The traffic police were quick to spot the mistake and loaded us up and dropped us a good distance away from the forbidden route. In Singapore, the many rules are strictly enforced, and we were lucky not to be fined.
With all the shunting back and forth we’d no idea how to find the suburb of Little India but managed in the end. Gosh, how expensive things were. The search for a budget room was on, but there was none to be had, and by 20h00, it was best to settle for the least expensive one. Starving, the Indian restaurant downstairs was the perfect place and suddenly the price didn’t matter.
30 January – Singapore
The day was spent exploring the city, but the Singapore dollar was too strong to buy anything. Even electronic goods weren’t as well priced as expected, and I suspected one could find the same items for less in Malaysia. The city was large and modern to such an extent it was rather soulless, just another big bustling city with a large harbour, busy airport, flashy shopping malls and busy boulevards. High-rise buildings dominated the skyline, and even Little India seemed far too organised.
The Singaporeans were busy people who all seemed to be in a hurry. Of course, with all the electronic devices one could imagine, stuck to their ears. There was no shortage of designer stores and fancy eateries of which we’d no use for. Around just about every corner, one could find McDonald's, KFC and 7-Eleven. The name “Little America” wouldn’t have been inappropriate for the city.
I felt Singapore was overrated and way too expensive, and it was time to get out in a hurry, i.e. the following day, making it the official shortest time I’ve spent in any country. On the other hand, Singapore wasn’t so much a country as a vast city and, in fact, it may be more correct to say it was the smallest country I’ve cycled through. Everyone must decide for themselves, and often my views of a place or state had much to do with my own moods, the weather or company. On a second visit, it could be precisely the opposite of what one had experienced the previous time.
31 January - Singapore – Pontian Kecil - 103 km
After a rather expensive two-day excursion to Singapore, we beat a hasty retreat to Malaysia, and it was easy cycling through the suburbs, and to the north of the island. It was Sunday morning, and loads of cyclists were out on the road, all wanting to have a chat on the move – one guy even thought one could cycle the 250 plus kilometres to Melaka that day. Perhaps he overestimated his pace, or, more likely, he’s never been to Melaka on a mountain bike carrying 45 kilograms and, at the same time, enjoying the countryside.
The border crossing between Singapore and Malaysia was the largest, most sophisticated, and busiest immigration checkpoint visited thus far.
After clearing out of Singapore, it was a quick stamp into Malaysia and then north through the ever-growing city of Johor Bahru. The route led along the Straits of Johor and continued along the west coast of Malaysia. The seaside town of Pontian Kecil made for an excellent place to bunk down for the night.
1 February - Pontian Kecil Batu Pahat – 81 km
The route between Pontian Kecil and Batu Pahat turned into another extraordinary day. Penny and Keng, two Malaysians we met in Iran nearly two years previously, drove south looking for us and then proceeded to pay for lunch.
On reaching Batu Pahat, we were escorted to Penny’s sister’s unoccupied but fully furnished apartment. It was a luxury condo with all the mod cons, a soft bed and hot shower making me feel like the queen of Malaysia. That evening, the family treated us to a “steamboat”, where one could sit around a steaming pot of soup and cook your own food, much like fondue, but instead of cheese or oil, it was soup and incredibly delicious.
2-3 February - Batu Pahat
There was no end to Penny and Keng’s generosity. They fed us and took us to the local bike shop and temple, and we literally had to refuse to eat anymore. In no time at all, however, it was dinner time, and we ate and drank again.
The following day was also spent in Batu Pahat, mostly lying on the sofa (with rather full bellies), while watching movies - something not done in the past three years.
4 February - Batu Pahat – Melaka - 108 km
The most fun part was Penny deciding to join in on the ride to Melaka and arrived early morning on her brother-in-law’s bike. Setting off at a leisurely pace, the route was flat but still an incredibly long way for a non-cyclist. Penny hung in and cycled all 108 kilometres to Melaka. She became officially known as the Iron Lady. Keng (who was at flying school in Melaka) cycled out to Muar to meet us on a strange-looking bike he borrowed from a friend.
On arriving in Melaka old town, Penny was tired and terribly sunburned, but still in high spirit. Keng, who knew the place like the back of his hand, took us to an Indian restaurant which served some of the most delicious Indian food outside India. Thanks, Keng.
5 February – Malacca
The following day was spent exploring picturesque Melaka and visiting a few of the historic sites. Melaka had a blend of Portuguese, Dutch and Chinese architecture. Melaka was even more colourful than usual as it was close to Chinese New Year, and everyone was frantically preparing for the festivities. Houses were being scrubbed and cleaned and new decorations put up. The streets and shops were adorned with red Chinese lanterns, dragons and lion heads. The shops were stocked with all kinds of exotic foodstuff, as food is very much at the centre of the Chinese New Year celebrations.
6 February - Melaka – Port Dickson - 84 km
It was time to load the bikes and leave our friends and our luxury life behind. Most of the day was spent cycling along the coast and, just before Port Dickson, a camping area made for a convenient overnight stay. It was on the beach with plenty of trees, a toilet and a shower, and it was free.
This euphoria didn’t last long and while pitching the tent, I must have stood on a fire-ant nest. On realising what was happening, it was already too late. With feet, hands and underarms feeling like it was on fire, I did the equivalent of a very poor breakdance while sweating profusely and at the same time having cold shivers. What a scary experience. Fortunately, Ernest still had some antihistamine tablets and after an hour or so the itching and burning subsided.
7 February - Port Dickson – Banting - 109 km
It was once again 11h00 before leaving and another short day with plenty of small fishing villages. Once or twice, it rained so hard it was safer to wait it out, making for a late arrival in Banting. Drenched, the first budget lodging became home for the night, only to find it infested with bedbugs!
8 February - Banting – Kuala Lumpur - 67 km
I expected to battle through heavy traffic into Kuala Lumper but it was a shorter ride than expected, and came with a dedicated bicycle/motorcycle path leading right into the city centre. The route followed the freeway and came complete with its own road signs. What a pleasure it was.
China Town was known for its budget accommodation, and it didn’t take long before finding budget accommodation without bedbugs or ants.
9-10 February - Kuala Lumpur
The reason for visiting Kuala Lumpur wasn’t only to see the capital but also to apply for an Indonesian visa. The following morning it was off to the embassy, using the KL Monorail for most of the way. Unfortunately, I was only given a one-month visa instead of the two expected, apparently one could extend it once there. It was costly at RM170, but at least it was quick, and one could pick it up the same day. Ernest couldn’t enter the embassy, as he was wearing shorts which was seen as disrespectful. Indonesia was a conservative Muslim country and he had to return to the embassy the following day in more appropriate attire.
11 February - Kuala Lumpur – Port Dickson – 95 km
With Indonesian visas stamped in our passports, it was time to head out of the big city and back to Melaka from where ferries ran to Indonesia. It was easy cycling and, on reaching our former campsite outside Port Dickson, set up camp under the trees next to the beach. This time taking more care where the tent was pitched, as my experience with the fire-ants from a few days before was still fresh in my memory.
I was content just sitting and watching the sun set over the Straits of Malacca. It was boiling hot even after sunset and my tent felt like a sauna. Shortly after laying down, a damp spray was felt and I thought it had started raining but, to my horror, discovered the camp’s tomcat had sprayed through the door netting onto my head. It wasn’t funny.
12-14 February - Port Dickson – Melaka – 82 km
It was another short days’ biking into Malacca, and it appeared to be getting hotter by the day. The dorm at the Sama-Sama annexe was, however, well ventilated and spacious and came complete with mosquito nets.
This was the day of the Chinese New Year, a very colourful time of year with thousands of red lanterns decorating the streets and houses. Firecrackers went off until late in the night but still didn’t come close to an Indian cricket match. The alleys were packed with people and stalls. By then, curry laksa (a curry noodle soup) was discovered - something that remained a favourite of mine.
15 February – Malacca, Malaysia – Dumai, Indonesia - By ferry (plus some cycling)
Melaka was rather slow to wake from the Chinese New Year celebrations, and no one was sure if the ferry to Indonesia was even running. Time to move on, however, and it was a short cycle to the ferry jetty. Local advice informed to take the second ferry as the first one was usually choc-and-block full, whilst the second one was often half empty. The ferry ride took about 2.5 hours and, voila, there I was in a new country – Sumatra Island, Indonesia.