This post is dedicated to all the wonderful people who’ve befriended us in Malaysia. We can’t thank you enough!
Most people travelling to Malaysia from Satun take the ferry to either Langkawi or Kuala Perlis. However, the expense and hassle of negotiating the Pino and trailer’s safe passage on a small boat meant that the land crossing at nearby Wang Prachan was a far more attractive option despite the steep hill awaiting us on the other side. We had been misinformed about the provision of accommodation in Wang Prachan itself (which turned out to be little more than a string of market stalls either side of the road near the border) so we rolled back down the road for a couple of kilometres and stayed in the National Park accommodation (not cheap – 400 Baht entry fee on top of the 400 Baht for the room – but it was raining and in any case we’re getting very lazy about camping in the tropics; it’s still just too damn sticky).
The border crossing itself was a straightforward affair. It’s a quiet crossing so the border guards had time to chat and admire the Pino, and Keith found a bottle of his favourite whisky (cask strength Glenmorangie) in the duty free shop. From there on it was a simple case of being stamped into Malaysia, and here we are! Malaysia has provided us with plenty of memories so far: mostly wonderful, some slightly irritating, and some, frankly, a bit baffling.
Man on motorbike, rather peremptorily: “Where you from?”
Biker, pointing at the ground, announces: “Malaysia!”
Tamar, perplexed: “Er, yes, it is.”
Biker rides off, presumably pleased with himself for having helped a pair of hapless cyclists establish where they are.
Tamar & Keith almost ride off the road laughing.
Or perhaps we misunderstood; perhaps he was telling us that he was from Malaysia…but then why did he think we might have thought otherwise?
On another occasion we’d stopped for a snooze at a bus stop (sadly no longer as frequent or relaxing an experience as it was in Thailand as the bus stops in Malaysia are not nearly as well appointed) when our doze was interrupted by the screech of brakes. I cracked an eye open to see a concrete mixer truck slewing to a halt on the grass verge just ahead of us, and its two occupants leaping out and trotting in our direction. Keith was closest so they prodded him awake to have the usual ‘Where are you from? Where are you going?’ conversation before hopping back in their truck and departing. I wouldn’t say we regret our decision to travel on such an interesting machine, in fact most of the time it facilitates the most wonderful and enjoyable encounters, but if we are recumbent with our eyes closed then please people, we really just want to be left alone for a little while.
Oh, and car, truck and motorbike drivers, unless your horn issues anything other than a very mellow parp or a cutesy little toot-toot, please, please restrict yourself to a giving us wave or thumbs up when you pass us. Seriously, any other honking or blaring occurring as you hover on our shoulder can only sound at best annoying and at worst, downright aggressive.
Poor bus-shelter provision and careless hooting are not the only let-downs of late. To Keith’s chagrin 7-Elevens are no longer a source of delicious and cheap iced coffee, and when he does now purchase one (usually from a cafe to accompany his lunch) it is frequently made with what looks like a tea-bag. That’s just wrong!
Thankfully, these minor irritations are just that, and do not really detract from the wonderful experience we’ve had in Malaysia so far. We particularly like the multiculturalism of Malaysia. The diversity of ethnicities, evidenced in the cuisine, the languages, architecture and places of worship gives a very different feel from the other SE Asian countries. If you have an ear for it (or, if like us, you don’t and you just ask people outright what language they’re speaking) you’ll hear Chinese dialects (Cantonese, Mandarin and Hokkien), Indian dialects, the Malay language, and, handily for us, English. Malay is the official language, but you can still find people from the older generation who don’t speak it at all as they were educated in English and their home language was Chinese.
Malay cuisine is as diverse as its people. In Georgetown, where we’d anticipated spending a couple of days, we were so overwhelmed by the plentiful, cheap and fabulously varied dishes on offer that we ended up staying five nights and gorging ourselves stupid. Penang Laksa, Hokkien Mee, Char Koay Teow, Nasi Kandar, Roti Canai, Wan Tan Mee, Rojak, Cendol and Ice Kacang all competed for our palates’ attention. Warm rich spices from India, tangy hits of tamarind, chilli and lemongrass, sweet and spicy shrimp paste, garlic, sesame, ginger….oh! be still our beating hearts and salivating mouths! The only dish that wasn’t entirely enjoyable was the Beef Torpedo Soup, the main ingredient of which was somewhat chewy. I’ll leave it to your imaginations to work out which bit of the bull might be the torpedo. In between eating we wandered around admiring the sights and sounds of Georgetown until we reluctantly heaved our groaning bellies back onto the bike and set forth again, hoping we didn’t sink the ferry from Penang Island back to the peninsula.
It’s becoming a bit of a cliché, but it really is the people we meet who make our journey so wonderful, and Malaysia has an exceptionally rich seam of extraordinarily welcoming people, both in the expat and local communities. We’d encountered Malaysian hospitality on our first visit here last year when we met Mudrikah and her friends in Khota Baru, and Zachariah helped us out near Alor Setar. We got in touch with Zachariah again when we knew we’d be passing by, but sadly our timing was off and he was not around. So instead of visiting Zachariah we stopped off at a hotel, where the owner’s son, Richard, turned out to be a keen cyclist and after he and his friend had been for their evening ride they took us out for dinner and we had the chance to find out a little more about Chinese culture in Malaysia….and also marvel at the different hours that Malaysians keep compared to the rest of SE Asia. Most other Asians seem to be early risers and, with the exception of in the busy cities, the restaurants seem to close quite early. Not so in Malaysia where we frequently saw people sitting down to dinner at 11pm.
We left Hotel Akasia laden with gifts of fruit and biscuits and made our way from there to Georgetown for our gluttonous feasting, and then to Simpang Ampat where some friends of Andrew (our friend in Chiang Mai) live. Andrew had contacted Brett and Noey, and they’d very kindly invited us to spend a few days with them and their four children. Two nights turned into five as we played Mah Jong, swam and fooled around in the pool, were introduced to the never-ending joy of banana-leaf curry (where waiters repeatedly pile curry and rice onto your banana leaf until you beg them to stop), sighed in delight on a return trip to Georgetown to sample some ‘to-die-for’ patisserie in an unusual art gallery, oohed and aahed at the fireflies lighting up the trees like Christmas lights on a river trip, and made even more new friends at the combined birthday parties of some of Brett and Noey’s friends and colleagues.
It was at the birthday party that we met Amanda, who lives in Taiping, and who invited us to stay with her when we finally dragged ourselves away from the family fun of Brett and Noey’s. Amanda took us to an extraordinary bar, more of a ‘speakeasy’ really. Previously a tailor’s shop, it went out of business over a decade ago and the owner appeared to have simply locked up on the last day of business and left it at that. Shirts and half-finished suits hung gathering dust on the wall and bolts of cloth were left in careless piles on the counter. And so it sat until a year ago when the owner decided to turn it into a bar. To facilitate the change of use from tailor’s to drinking establishment the owner has taken a minimum expense approach. He’s basically bought some crates of beer and unlocked the front door. The dusty suits and bolts of cloth remain in situ, there are no tables, few chairs, you just perch where you can and soak up the unusual, musty ambiance of this unforgettable venue. Unfortunately Keith lucked out on the conversation front, being perched closest to a regular who didn’t like the British and was determined to tell Keith all about it at drunken length.
Amanda very generously let us stay on at her place for a few days whilst she was at a conference in Ipoh. We relaxed with Lilian the dog (who is looked after by everyone on the street but spends a lot of time at Amanda’s), pedalled round the beautiful Lake Garden, and watched the entire first season of Game of Thrones over the course of two evenings.
From Taiping we rolled down to Ipoh where we met up with Amanda and Noey and some of the other people from the party in Simpang Ampat. It was then a two day cycle from Ipoh to Kuala Lumpur and we broke the trip at the curiously-named ‘Slim River’, which turned out to be named not after a skinny bit of water but after a 19th century English captain who mistakenly went up the Slim River instead of the main River Perak.
We’d initially hoped to visit an old friend of Tamar’s in Kuala Lumpur, but in another burst of bad-timing we managed to arrive when he was visiting friends and family in Scotland, so we approached KL resigned to hunting for a suitable hotel….and once again were rescued by the incredible Malaysian hospitality. Angie & Yuen were collecting some river gravel for their hydroponics hobby when two sweaty cyclists flopped down onto a nearby shady bench and promptly fell asleep. When they awoke the cyclists appeared hungry (rummaging in their bags for biscuits) so Angie gave them a container of rojak (a delicious curry) and politely went back to her stone gathering. When the cyclists came over to thank Angie for the meal she was appalled to discover they didn’t even know which hotel they’d be staying in for the night – how can anyone live like that? And so she immediately offered them her spare room for the night. The two cyclists were very, very grateful!
KL’s a bit of a nightmare to cycle round – lots of busy dual-carriageways – plus we wanted to stop off at a ukulele shop en-route, so it was a little later than anticipated by the time we got to Angie & Yuen’s where a sumptuous feast awaited us. Yuen’s a fantastic cook (under Angie’s tutelage we believe).
One of the things we really wanted to do in KL was buy a ukulele for Keith (inspired by Brett and Noey’s musical family Tamar had already bought an alto recorder in Taiping). He’d spent a couple of hours trying some out in the shop en-route to Angie & Yuen’s and we had a few more shops earmarked for the next day. Luckily, the one closest to Angie & Yuen’s had a really helpful assistant who talked Keith through the pros and cons of various instruments and showed him a few chords….and then all we had to do was to work out how to a) attach it to the trailer and b) keep it dry in the hot, humid, storm-prone tropics.
In addition to a suitable dry-bag for the uke, Tamar also needed to buy a new bikini (the old one having become a suncream stained rag). How hard could these two tasks be? Very hard as it turned out. There are precious few outdoor gear shops in KL (it seems that the only expeditions Malaysians make are by car to their air-conditioned shopping malls) and swimwear manufacturers, for the most part, do not cater for a combination of broad ribs and small boobs. After a day of emotional anguish we did eventually manage to get everything we needed, and as it was so late when we finished we had the added bonus of seeing the spectacular Petronas Towers illuminated at night. It was almost midnight by the time we padded our footsore way back home to Angie & Yuen’s. When we weren’t shopping, Angie and Yuen drove us around to see the sights (and some shopping malls) and were great company.
From KL we headed south to Melaka (aka Malacca), and once again had the good fortune to be befriended by a local. We were sitting on a bench, having a biscuit to fortify ourselves before hunting for accommodation, and as usual had drawn a crowd of spectators, one of whom asked us, unexpectedly, if we were WarmShowers members (Couchsurfing for cycle tourists). We replied in the affirmative and he said he was a WarmShowers host and his last guests had just left that morning so if we wanted to stay we were very welcome. Naturally, we leapt at the chance. Howard owns the excellent Ringo’s Foyer Guesthouse and keeps a room free up on the roof for WarmShowers guests. He is without a doubt the host with the most and within minutes of arriving we’d been introduced to the other guests and were all on bikes being shown round town by Howard before being taken to one of his favourite cheap eats places for some excellent laksa. After dinner he took us to the best place to see the procession celebrating Buddha’s birthday – as luck would have it we’d arrived on Wesak Day. Melaka’s an easy place to like, especially if you’re staying at Ringo’s Foyer, surrounded by bikes of every shape and size, and taken to the best places to eat every night by the ever-helpful Howard.
From Melaka we gradually began to bear east, through Muar, Batu Pahat and Kluang to Mersing, where we took the ferry to the beautiful island of Pulau Tioman. We had to negotiate the Pino’s passage directly with the captain and ended up paying more for the bike than for one of our own tickets, but the deckhands were helpful and took note of Keith’s instructions on where to grasp the trailer, bike and bags to cause least damage to them.
Once safely disembarked, the Pino once again proved its worth as a way into the local scene. Within hours we’d had three invitations to the same snorkel-test (the ‘graduation ceremony’ for a new divemaster), made friends with a scuba instructor who follows both the Giro and the Tour (and told us which bar he’d be watching them in), and been invited trekking the next day. By the end of the night we’d made good contacts in two dive schools and had the name of the manager in a third.
During this period of pedalling, eating, shopping and making new friends, we also found time to submit applications for new passports. We’ve run out of pages in our old ones and are now waiting on tenterhooks to see if the passport office will accept our applications, which we’ve submitted without our original passports. We’ve sent full colour copies of our passports instead but are not keen to be parted from the originals, which we need to check into most hotels, and would also need if suddenly called upon to travel home. So here we are, on another tropical island paradise, awaiting new passports and passing the time by freelancing as divemasters. It’s a hard life.