Thursday, 18 October 2012

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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