West Coast of Malaysia (June 24th - July 8th, 2012)
(Pontian Kecil - Batu Pahat - Melaka - Port Dickson - Sepang - Klang - Sungai Besar - Bidor- Tanah Rata - Ipoh - Taiping - Pedang)
Distance biked so far: (16, 350 km)
I left Singapore on a Sunday morning and had about 30km to the Causeway linking Singapore with Peninsular Malaysia. The crossing was easy as I biked in the motorcycle lane and was quickly stamped out of Singapore and received an automatic 90-day visa coming into Malaysia.
On the surface there is not a lot of difference between Singapore and Johor Bahru, the first town on the Malaysia side but not far beneath the veneer you start seeing differences. Things are a little rougher around the edges; you see buildings in need of repair, garbage on the streets and a clear realization that you have left Singapore.
The Malay people make up the majority in Malaysia with the Chinese holding majority status in Singapore. The reputation of the Malays is more laid back and easy going with the Chinese being more business oriented and aggressive and you can see that as you pass from one country to the next. In general Singapore is cleaner, more efficient and the people seem more focused on work. Those on the Malaysia side linger a little longer over tea in the cafes but also have more time to talk and wave to cyclists going past. It is an interesting mix to see close up. The differences are not as marked if you compare Singapore with Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital but is obvious in the smaller towns along the coast.
It took a short time to remember the heat and humidity in these tropical countries. I spend more in a day on fluids than I do on either accommodations or food. I typically manage an hour before having to look for water and a drink with more calories, usually ice tea or chocolate milk. Then I wet a towel, put it on my head and cool down and then I'm ready to go again.
I love the reminders that you often see here. This one was in a restaurant and posted just in case you forget.
The City of Melaka on the west coast of Malaysia has been designated an UNESCO World Heritage site. The City reflects the countries mixed Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures and is one of Malaysia's most popular destinations. I arrived in the City after 3 days of biking through the small coastal villages and various agricultural plantations of the southwest. The high heat and humidity has forced me to stop every hour or so to rest and take fluids but the roads are flat allowing for easy riding as I try and regain some fitness.
Here is Melaka as I approached from the south.
I usually carry a travel guide that makes it easier to find budget accommodations. The Lonely Planet guides provide a short list of hotels in various price ranges but the main thing I look for is a mention of a leafy garden or something different than a normal place to stay. I found one in Melaka that fit the bill perfectly. It was advertised as having a leafy garden with running water pools and away from the busy streets. I entered and the owner asked me if I would mind having a place by running water. I knew I was going to love it here. This is the entrance to Emily's with my room making up the wall on the right.
The hostel was filled with recycled goods and the owner lived a very simple life. He had property in the back with fruit trees and was largely self sufficient in the middle of the City. One example of his creativity was a coffee table that he cut out of wood. It was a coffee table in his living room and the long center was a barbecue with a lid and on the end was an open space for a fire. It was his coffee table, barbecue and wood burning stove all in one.
Melaka was a strategically important settlement on the Melaka Strait and together with Penang and Singapore formed the Straits Settlements, the 3 British territories that were the centers for later expansion into the Malay Peninsula. It is a medium sized City and most places of interest can be navigated on foot. Here is a shady park near my hostel.
The Colonial district in Melaka includes the salmon colored buildings in the Dutch square including the Christ Church and Clock Tower pictured here.
There is a river that runs through the center of the historic city. For those not interested in boats, you can also ride a colorful trishaw. Those guys earn their wages riding tourists through the City.
There is a vibrant Chinatown and strolling down the streets and going in and out of artisan shops is a wonderful experience. The intricate paint job on some of the second story buildings lining the streets is fascinating.
You can also see a statue of a Mr. Universe.
On a late Friday afternoon I was feeling unusually depleted from the heat and noticed a nice hotel right along the shores of the Melaka Strait. I went to the front desk and asked if they allow camping on their site and the girl said yes. You have to pay a nominal feel but can use the public bathroom and the swimming pool. I almost started crying when she showed me the areas designated for camping. It had everything you would want with the proximity to water, showers, and swimming pool and as a bonus and something I wouldn't find out until just before entering into a deep sleep, Karaoke. With the heat I didn't put the rain fly over my tent as that tends to make it feel like an oven but I did think to get it out and attach one end in case it did rain later. Sure enough I was woken at 4:00 am with lightning so jumped up, fastened the rain cover and by the time I got back into my bed it was pouring rain. A strong wind and lightning came up but my tent held. I did get some leaks from water sipping through the seams but considering the ferocity of the storm, it held up great and I fell back to sleep. Here is my campsite.
I continued up the coast on Saturday and had trouble finding a place to sleep. It's not a problem when you carry a tent but it is very hot here and you really need a source of water to take a shower or swim or it would make for an uncomfortable night of sleeping. I was in a small town and all the places were booked for the weekend so I had little choice but to find some out of the way place to set up my tent. I noticed a vacant area just outside of a condominium development with only a herd of cows to keep me company. I set up my tent and someone approached on a motorcycle and I first thought they would ask me to leave. As he came closer I noticed he was Indian so I relaxed. The Indians don't bother too often with rules so I knew he would be okay and sure enough, he gave me a big smile and wave as he went past to feed his cows and an equally enthusiastic one when he passed back again a half hour later. I was in the middle of nowhere so my shower involved soaking a hand cloth with water from my water bottle and wiping myself off. A short while later a set of car headlights were pointed at my tent and a man yelled out to ask what I was doing. I got out of my tent and walked towards him and said I was biking and couldn't find a place to stay so I am sleeping here for the night. He said that is no problem but watch out for the snakes. He then added that there is usually nothing to worry about, as snakes are more scared of you than you are of them. I replied that I doubt that very much and kept my eyes glued down as I retreated to my tent, much to his amusement.
On Sunday morning I was up early and stopped at a gas station to fill my water bottles. I noticed 2 cyclists out for their Sunday morning ride so went over to speak with them. They were members of the local cycling team and offered to ride with me back to their town of Banting. I had to cycle a little harder than normal to keep up to their easy pace but managed to hang on. We arrived in Banting and they treated me to a few cups of Teh Tehrik, the local tea and milk and a few bottles of water. It was nice to be with road cyclists again. Gary was an emerging triathlete so I recounted my triathlon days and shared some training tips with him. It was an enjoyable few hours and I really appreciated the company. Here are my cycling companions Gary and Darren.
Here is a beautiful Mosque as I approached the town of Teluk Intan.
I decided to get away from the flat hot coast and bike up into the Cameron Highlands. The road to Tanah Rata was 59 km and uphill the entire way. The usual payoff for the hard work is spectacular scenery and cool air. Here is the sign as I approached Tapah, the gateway to the Cameron Highlands from the south. I would be staying in Tanah Rata but you can see the beautiful weather, at least down here at sea level.
Here is Tapah with the mountains in the distance. I struggled all day with keeping my bike straight due to always looking up at the spectacular scenery.
The road up from the south side was one of the most beautiful rides I have ever done. The grade was fairly easy, at least for the first 47km and was covered with shade. All day I heard waterfalls or running streams and the traffic was light. You couldn't script a better bike ride. Here are some views of the road on the way up.
Here is one of the waterfalls lining the road.
If you read or hear anything about Malaysia it will often include their stated desire to be a world-class economy by 2020. This was an oft-repeated line from the former Prime Minster Mahathir Mohamad who served for 22 years and continues today. As is the case with most countries electing to pursue economic advancement, there are groups left behind. In Malaysia, the Orang Asli are the aboriginal people and can be found in the mountains of the Cameron Highlands. The pictures of their villages show a far different perspective of Malaysia than one found in Kuala Lumpur. Here are a few pictures of their settlements.
The Cameron Highlands is Malaysia's most extensive hill station and is known for their tea plantations, strawberry farms and for offering excellent hiking trips. After 6 hours or so of biking uphill I started having views of tea plantations.
The last 13 km of the ride were the most difficult as the road became steeper and the clouds rolled in as you can see in the picture.
The wind picked up (it was of course a headwind), the rain was driving and I had to search for a long sleeve shirt and rain jacket. I never thought I would be cold in Malaysia but I was freezing and with nowhere to stop had little choice but continue on to Tanah Rata. I found a place and it wasn't exactly one of the 5-star resorts that are propping up here but it did have a warm shower (shared of course), which is all I wanted. I guess when you get a room for only one night; you don't really have to be able to stand up in it.
The next day I continued thinking it would be downhill the entire way but the first 30 km was a combination of up and down. I had beautiful sunshine and more tea plantations to keep my company followed by a 50 km downhill run. It is a strange feeling going down when you can feel the temperature rise quickly. I turned around and with a heavy heart took a picture of the sight behind.
Here is one of the many beautiful Mosques in this part of the world.
I continue to eat well here and have found a few excellent Chinese restaurants for breakfast. Their specialty is Dim Sum, small portions of food cooked in steam baskets and served with Chinese tea.
It is now Saturday July 7th and I have just arrived in Penang. I will take a few days off here to recover from 9 consecutive days of biking and to obtain a visa for Thailand. I have seen the best Malaysia has to offer and it has been unforgettable with beautiful ocean and mountains within a short ride. I will be here a few days then take a ferry to another beautiful island of Pulau Langkawi and then another ferry into Thailand.