Thursday, 18 October 2012

The journey that changed my life – Cycling Malaysia in 1987

As I write this, I am sheltering from a typhoon that is hurling wind and rain at the east coast of Taiwan. When it passes I shall attempt to complete my 2012 huan dao (“around island”) trip of more than 1,000 kilometers by bicycle. I did my first such route in 1992, the first year I came to the ROC. But both my living in Taiwan and my passion for cycling—which now exceeds more than 100,000 kilometers in over two dozen countries—derives from a biking holiday I took through Malaysia 25 years ago.

Actually, the story starts one year earlier, with my first visit to Asia, to Thailand in fact. Which was a great disappointment.

Do not misunderstand: I love Thailand, as I love Malaysia and Taiwan, and many other countries.

But I made a mistake—one made by many neophyte travelers—of following guidebooks to popular destinations, shopping districts and beach resorts. Although I had a good time, I was left wondering where my “Asian experience” was as I could have seen many of the same kind of things without leaving home.

So the following year I packed my bicycle and although I had never cycled further than to school or the local beach, decided to pedal through southern Thailand, the entire length of peninsular Malaysia and into Singapore—a little over 2,000 kilometers by the time I would finish—before flying home from Kuala Lumpur.

This could have been the most stupid thing I had ever done, but it turned out to be the smartest. And, as I say, it changed the direction of my life in more than one way.

I could still visit the tourist hotspots, but to get between them I had to pass through “real” towns and villages, converse with “real” local people, stay at small hotels frequented by truckers and salesmen, and eat the same food they ate. Despite my aching legs, back, arms and especially backside, I was instantly hooked.

At Alor Setar, I celebrated my arrival in Malaysia by having a can of Guinness. I was a pleasantly surprised to find beer easily available but far more surprised to find my favorite Irish stout was among the popular brands.

The next day I pressed on, however, and it was in Penang’s Georgetown that I fell unconditionally in love with Asia. I cannot say what it is I liked about the place, but ineffability is not an option for a writer, so I must try. Something about the mix of ethnicities perhaps, or at least the mix of foods available: Indian roti for my breakfast carbohydrates, Chinese noodles for lunchtime sustenance, and Malay meat dishes for my evening protein. Or the architecture of the old town, learning taiqi in the park at dawn, trying to master a few sentences of Bahasa Malay—not yet realising how widely used English was—and cycling to the beach in the late afternoon for a leisurely dip.

My planned two-day stay became two weeks, and even then it was hard to tear myself away. The next target was Tanah Rata around 1,500 meters up in the Cameron Highlands, for which I allowed four days.

I made it in two. One day saw me arrive late at night in Ipoh, the next, including a five-hour climb in a thunderstorm, brought me to Tanah Rata, a small town set among tea plantations at a very pleasant altitude. The manager of my guest house told me my timing was impeccable: early the next morning the Tamil Indian community would hold its Thaipusam festival in which believers allow themselves to be possessed by Hindu deities, have their flesh pierced with dozens or hundreds of hooks, before everyone parades 5 kilometers through the streets and then has a free meal at the local temple.

Naturally, flying downhill was fast and I made Kuala Lumpur before midnight, the first time I had ridden over 200 kilometers in one day. Time was running out even faster than my budgeted savings, however, and I soon had to return to the UK for work, so I left the capital to explore on subsequent visits.

I did manage brief stopovers in Malacca, where I was enchanted by its old town, and Muar, which is still a lovely sleepy port to this day.

From there the ride to Singapore was more or less a formality, though by now I knew bicycling, and Asia, would be permanent elements in my life, rather than just the one-off holiday I had planned.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

(the photos on this post are from a similar event in Butterworth in 2003)

The good, the bad, and the one regret – Cycling in Malaysian Borneo

FOR a step into the unknown, I can thoroughly recommend cycling from Kota Kinabalu, capital of Sabah, to Kuching, capital of Sarawak, some 1,300 kilometres to the southwest.

I say “some”, since when I tried to check the distance on Google maps, it wouldn’t offer a figure. Then I noticed why: the road from Sabah peters out in the hinterland near the Sabah-Sarawak border and then seems to resume near the Sarawak-Brunei border.

“No it doesn’t, don’t worry,” Thomas Fong, my Malaysian cycling buddy told me.

So I booked my return flight from Kuching, and was now committed to getting there within 16 days; 100 kilometers per day with a day or two for getting lost, resting or finding a bike shop to fix any mechanical malfunction.

Initially, everything went to plan if somewhat uneventful. I stayed at Beaufort in Sabah, and after surreally getting my passport stamped out of Malaysia and then stamped back into Malaysia at Lawas on the Sabah-Sarawak border—Sarawak, by far the largest state in the Malaysian federation, uniquely has its own passport control. Both towns had good food options, but as a vegetarian who lives in the Chinese-food-paradise of Taiwan, I ate Indian roti and curries at every opportunity on the first few days.

Next up was the Brunei double-decker sandwich. This is to be traversed, not eaten, however, as the highway between KK and Kuching crosses the independent state of Brunei not once but twice, rather like a Sarawak sandwich with a Brunei filling.

The first stretch, measuring about 30 kilometers across, is a bit bizarre: Since prices are significantly higher than in Malaysia, and with nowhere being more than a 15-kilometre drive away, there are no shops or restaurants on the main road.

Brunei also lacks alcohol sales, so Miri, its southwestern neighbour back across the border into Sarawak, is party town. I arrived on Friday evening and was lucky to get a room.

Leaving Miri I made my first mistake: I decided to take the quieter coast road to Bintulu around 200 kilometers away, rather than the “new road” further inland. “Quiet” meant there was only one store/restaurant and no hotels the entire way. I camped at the entrance to a plantation and had to flag down passing motorists for drinking water. Here, Malaysians proved themselves supremely generous and no more than two or three vehicles passed before a driver understood my gesticulations and stopped to quench my thirst.

Taking the coast road also meant I missed the famous Niah Caves and national park, and instead spent two days cycling past palm oil plantations.

Bintulu also was not to my taste, so I pressed on and spent the night in Tatau. Little more than a bend in the road, it at least set me up within striking distance of Sibu.

On the map, Sibu looks much like Bintulu, but the two could hardly be different. Sibu is a staging post on the 563-kilometer-long Rajang River, connecting to Song and Kapit upstream in the jungle, only accessible by boat and not by road. I would have loved to jump aboard and gone on a real adventure, and this is exactly what I will do when I next return to Borneo.

Feeling that I had a day or two in hand, I cycled up to Lubok Antu. This unassuming town was a highlight of my trip, and were I not travelling by bicycle with its limited baggage capacity, I would have bought many indigenous handicrafts as they were on sale for use—and therefore at regular prices—rather than as tourist trinkets.

One night per town is my usual bicycle-touring rule, but Sri Aman, the next town, was so charming, and the river-view room so peaceful, that I immediately checked in for another night. Searching for a vegetarian dinner I met Joanne Sim and her husband, who invited me to a party for Sarawak workers to be held the next night.

The next day should have seen me arrive in Kuching, but I got distracted by a sign to the Indonesian border at Tebedu. Mistake number two. I rolled into town at 5:40, bought an ice-cream at the petrol station, only to be told there were no hotels in town. The police proved friendly, however, and I camped beside their station, then spent the evening in a bar with the police chief and his four buddies drinking Malaysian Guinness and imported Chinese lager.

The next day, I rolled gently down the hill to Kuching. The city of cats was a perfect end to my trip, and I spent the final two days of my trip exploring its downtown and environs. I still have little idea how far it is from Kota Kinabalu, however. I cycled about 2,000 kilometers in total, but that included several side trips. My only regret was that I didn’t have more time.

If you enjoyed this article and would like to find out more about travelling to Malaysia, please visit the Tourism Malaysia website

photos copyright Jiyue Publications

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