Saturday, 7 September 2013

Epic Malaysian Bike Tour




I left the UK in June 2006. Four months later I arrived in Chiang Mai after touring the Eastern Himalayas. Apart from a nine month stint in Taiwan I've been in ASEAN countries ever since. Little did I know that I would fall in love with the region and end up staying here, thus derailing my travels to Australasia and South America. However, I have no regrets and see myself staying here indefinitely. I sincerely believe nowhere is as good as here.

Since leaving Bangkok I've travelled 5400km. The last week has seen me ride 2000km from the Cameron Highlands to Langkawi Island via Singapore.

I have a new mission as I accepted a job in Laos as a IGCSE/A level Maths Teacher. It starts on the 1st of October so I have 23 days to get from Langkawi to Vientiene. Motorbikes can't cross the Mekong River via the Nong Khai bridge so I'll enter Laos via Chiang Kong (near Chaing Rai). This means I can tour the North of Thailand again - excellent!

I have accepted this position as I see it as an excellent opportunity to experience life in sedate Laos for a while. My retirement only lasted 3 months but will resume on completion of this contract (unless I love it there)! The plan is 5 more days on Langkawi Island (after only 45 days of a 90 day visa which is disappointing), a 15 day tour through Northern Thailand, a 30 day tourist visa for Laos and a ride to Luang Namtha and the Laos/Chinese border before heading to Vientiene to start work at Panyathip International School. The pay is less generous than Bangkok but I'm relishing the opportunity to teach in the communist country's second-best (allegedly) school!!



A motorbike trip from Bangkok to Singapore to the Laos/Chinese border would not impress Kasper from Poland. If you did it by bicycle it might. Kasper cycled 180km around the Cameron Highlands one day. His legs are like steel! Kasper (20) currently studies economics in Singapore. He's originally from Zakopane on the Polish/Slovak border and was amazed when I told him I hiked the surrounding Tatra Mountains in 2004 as part of a trip to Krakow. He had some excellent GPS gadgets that record his trips in incredible detail.
I finally left the Cameron Highlands after three weeks. I rode 260km from Tanah Rata to Kuala Tahan. My first stop was Kuala Lipis which is going for the HOLLYWOOD look.

The road from Tanah Rata to Sungai Koyan is excellent as it's brand new and still not on the road maps. However, from Sungai Koyan to Jerantut is simply awful.
Just past Jerantut there's a 60km road that terminates at Kuala Tahan village and Malaysia's largest national park - a massive 4,343 km² jungle wilderness.
I call this Uber-jungle. The dense foliage presents an impenetrable barrier.
Kualau Tahan. The Liana GH above the Tembeling River. 
To get feng-shui of this caliber for only £2/night is a bargain. This GH had the worst toilets I've seen in Malaysia. Think Trainspotting.
Here the clear water of the Tahan River merges with the silt-carrying water of the Tembeling River.

Those floating restaurants were great.
On a stroll past the village school I noticed another Asian phenomenon  - 'the windscreen wiper lift'. I have no idea why people do this. Does rubber perish faster in contact with glass?
Kuala Tahan to Melaka is 400km via the Genting Highlands and KL. Riding on the busy highway that traverses the highlands is stunning but dangerous. Imagine the three-laned M1 but with hundreds of death-defying corners and inclines.

Passing the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur reminded me of Bangkok. The traffic jams were a pain but the views east towards the Petronas Twin Towers were cool.




I love these balaclavas. These are obligatory Isaan-rice-farmer wear. They're normally complimented by a huge bamboo-woven hat resembling a sombrero. Together, with the additional Isaan farming attire of rags, you end up with something from Michael Jackson's Thriller video. I always wondered where they bought them. Alas, I discovered they sell them outside a McDonald's in the Genting Highlands!
Another reason I love this country. Proper highways. Just like the UK's motorways. Fast and safe. Even better is that motorbikes can use them for free. We just fly through the little side-lane while everyone else queues for the privilege of handing over their hard-earned.
The view from the River View GH in Melacca.
The GH in Chinatown. Does exactly what it says on the tin.
This picture is funny for reasons only Austrian Armin will understand. The sign sits beside one of thousands of Malaysia's palm oil plantations.

This was just outside Melaka (which seems to have two acceptable spellings) on my 350km ride to Mersing via Johor Bharu.
The first rain I've seen so far. I was wet and cold as I sheltered underneath a bridge. Many locals had the same idea. 
Drenched, I made it to the infamous Johor Bharu (or JB if you're local). I met some canny Singaporean biker lads here who explained the differences between Malaysian and Singaporean number plates. However, they failed to explain where I might get a BJ in JB!
The causeway linking JB to the Woodlands area of Singapore. There was a depressingly long queue of traffic on there.
Three big ships anchored in The Straits of Johor. I couldn't help but dwell on Britain's largest ever military capitulation in February 1942 as the Japanese successfully invaded Churchill's impregnable fortress from here. 80,000 allied POWs joined the 50,000 from Malaysia - many of whom will have ended up as slave labour on Kanchanaburi's death railway.
Mersing's glamorous Syuan Koong Hotel. £4/night for a single room here. Many guests were from the surrounding islands in the South China Sea.
An arty shot at the Mersing River. I am staring into the distance thinking "Why did I accept that stupid job in Laos?"
Many people catch a boat to Tioman Island from here. TIME magazine once described Tioman as one of the most beautiful islands in the world. However, you can't take bikes there so I was content to gaze at it from here.
I got talking to these young lads about Syria, the Euro crisis and the lack of Newcastle tops on display. Admittedly we skimmed over Syria and focused mainly on football. In fact we never once mentioned Syria and discussed only football. Good crack. Reminds me that I haven't spoken to a real English speaker in ages!
I finally bought a decent jacket for 80RM at a Mersing beachfront market. I think I am attempting a Gangnam style pose here.
Mersing River estuary.
Looking upstream at sunset.
Another HOLLYWOOD sign above Bruce Lee's house.
I forgot their names but they were the nice couple running the Hotel. He's 31 and she's 26. They're married with 5 kids and appear to be blissfully happy. 
I then set off for Marang near the excellently named Kuala Terrengganu. This is peninsular Malaysia's smaller jungle reserve just north of Mersing. The 400km journey took me up the beautiful east coast. 
A mosque in Pekan just south of Kuantan.
Many deserted beaches with crystal clear water. This is Cherating Beach.
About 40km north of Kuantan there's a massive oil refinery. There're many ominous signs warning you not to take photos. Making like an undercover reporter I sneakily got this shot. I was reminded of Teesside as a vast industrial landscape of pipes, flames and metal manifested itself on the horizon. I felt like I was riding through a futuristic Mad Max world. This place was huge and probably goes some way to explaining why Malaysia can have petrol for 38 pence a liter.
Malay people are generally very nice. I talked to Juz for half an hour during one of my many coffee stops just outside Dungun. He had some Thai staff and made me converse with them in Thai. He was a good laugh and let me have the coffee 'on the house'.



Another deserted beach just north of Dungun.
For some reason (probably Islamic) the east coast of Malaysia has signage in both Roman and Arabic script. I tested some locals and they could all read the Arabic if I covered the Roman. This might also explain why one sees many ninjas here. A ninja is a female tourist from a middle eastern country who wears a black body-blanket with only a slit for the eyes. I am reminded of a postbox whenever I see them. I also like to watch them eating in restaurants as they need to keep their 'face-blanket' in situ.

I would like to see a white body-blanket as they might give the appearance of ghosts in the evening. 



My 35RM bungalow in Marang. I swam alone in the clear sea enjoying the views of Kapas Island before sunset which was perfect after a 400km all day ride.
The 550km from Marang to Kangar was arguably the best so far. The number 4 road traverses northern Malaysia linking the east and west coasts. It passes spectacular scenery along the way and was a real treat. I stopped at this village near the Thai border to eat some durian. A real pleasure between the towns of Jeli and Baling - brilliant.
Look at that view of Thailand behind!!

The jacket was really worth its weight in gold up here in the mountains as the temperature plummeted and the rain started. I remained completely dry and warm. It even covers the neck and wrists. I wish I'd invested earlier. However, it does get hot inside a leather coat too if you're not riding fast. I wouldn't recommend one for Bangkok where the average speed is 1km/h - you'd boil.
I arrived in Kuala Perlis at 1700 hoping to catch a ferry to Langkawi. These lads informed me there's only one ferry a day for cars and bikes. I headed 10km to Kangar for a cheap hotel before returning the next day.
The RORO ferry company has only been operating for 5 days. Before this, cars had to be taken to Langkawi by a pontoon and a tug boat

Typically they required a document from the bottom of my bag.
The ferry geezer was dressed in traditional Malay garb. It costs 90RM return for me and my bike.
Kuala Perlis' floating mosque. Apparently one of only two in Malaysia. 
These two lasses gave me another coffee on the house! I promised them I'd bring them back some special chocolate that can only be had on Langkawi.
There weren't many vehicles using the service given as it's so new. Before we sailed there was a celebratory buffet for Azlan Man, the governor of Perlis state!
Finally we left Kuala Perlis only 3 hours late.
I went up to the bridge explaining how I used to work on Royal Navy SSBNs. They allowed me to skipper the ferry for 5 minutes!! I felt like Jean Luc Pacard on the USS Enterprise.....boldly going to Langkawi.
Quality GPS Navaids. We were in very shallow waters and navigating perilously thin channels. Time, heading, speed, lat/lon.....it's all there. I was loving it.
The Chinese-built ocean going hulk neglected to translate the symbols for full-ahead, half-ahead etc.
A view through the bridge window as we gingerly creep through a narrow channel. Langkawi consists of 99 tropical islands and islets. It was a stunning transit through them.
Arrival at Langkawi. Bollards, cleats, capstans, port, starboard, fwd and aft......felt like I was back in the Navy shipmates!

Some final points about Malaysia.

1. If you see a Chinese girl with a tent in a dorm, don't assume it's for a camping trip. In the Cameron Highlands a lass erected her tent on her bed and slept in it! Every time she moved it was like a million foil crisp packets being opened.


2. I got stopped twice by police who just seemed to want to chat. I asked them why so many monkeys get ran over here. They had no answer for that. 

3. At 0400 in Marang there was what can only be described as the sound of a cat going through a mangle being blasted out of a speaker system. It was the local mosque's call to prayer at 4am. 4am? Yes 4am. An old man wails into a microphone creating a hideous cacophony of sound that he feels the need to loudly transmit through the town's speaker system. Bastards. Keep your beliefs to yourself man. Would you like it if I blasted Richard Dawkins through the town's speakers at 4am? Stop it Steve.....you need to be culturally sensitive.

Kapa apa - How are you
Pulua - island
Sungai - river
Tandas dimana - where's the bog
kopi panas - hot coffee

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