Selamat Datang ke Malaysia (April 12th - April 28th)
(Sichon - Nakhon Si Thammarat - Phattalung - Hat Yai - Thailand border - Alor Setar - Sungai Petani - Bailing - Grik - Banding - Jeli - Kota Bharu)
Distance biked so far: (15, 305 km)
The deep south of Thailand is plagued with the same Muslim unrest that grips the southern portion of the Philippines and I was warned a number of times to avoid the 3 provinces in the very south and east portion of the country that borders Malaysia. The indiscriminate nature of the attacks against civilians and a recent spate of bombings in the relatively peaceful city of Hat Yai got my attention but I had to go through there to get to Malaysia. It is interesting going through on a bike because your slow speed allows you to witness the gradual change from a Buddhist society to a Muslim one. The appearance of Mosques, women wearing veils and the exceedingly friendly and warm welcomes everywhere convinced me I was in Muslim territory.
The only problems I had other than the rain was Songkran, or Thai New Year festival that lasts for 4 days. I was in Laos at this time last year and enjoyed getting water thrown on me in the heat and this year was more of the same. People line the roads and will stop you to paste your face with bright color paint, powder or just buckets of water. Here is a typical scene as I prepared to get soaked.
The water dousing and frequent downpours made for a wet ride as I slowly made my way south. The scenery in the Deep South is very green and I enjoyed some excellent days on the road. As I was nearing the border and the rain started again I ducked into a small coffee shop and when I came out the owner's father had placed 2 umbrellas on my bike to keep the panniers dry. A perfect example of the hospitality of the Muslim people I have experienced repeatedly.
On Wednesday April 18th I cycled out of Thailand and into Malaysia.
Selamat Datang ke Malaysia.
The border crossing was the easiest I went through with a simple exit stamp from the friendly Thai border patrol and a free 90-day visa from the even friendlier Malaysian side. A 90-day visa is issued to all members of the Commonwealth and other countries could learn a lesson from the ease in which Malaysia welcomes tourists into their country. It is one thing I have yet to understand, why some countries often make it so hard to allow visitors.
There wasn't a lot of change between Thailand and Malaysia as you continue south but one difference was the roads. The south of Thailand has few roads due to the narrow strip of land running north to south which means they are often very busy. The main highway in Malaysia connecting the border to Kuala Lumpur is the same but there are optional routes for cyclists so I was able to enjoy a very peaceful and beautiful ride as I headed south. Here is what I saw for the first few hours in Malaysia.
The first large town is Alor Setar, the capital of the State of Kedah. Malaysia is divided into 11 States on the peninsular portion and 2 States on the island of Borneo, which they share with Indonesia. I will be cycling around the perimeter of the country and will be in each of the peninsular States at some point.
Alor Setar is a Conservative city with a fairly strict interpretation of Islam so not a lot of late night drinking establishments or wild parties. However, they have some beautiful buildings and the most striking is the Masjid Zahir Mosque in the center of the town.
I was able to stroll around the city as I searched for some street food and it made for a pleasant evening.
In all of the hotel rooms in Malaysia they have green arrows on the ceilings to point you towards Mecca for your 5-times a day prayers.
The food in Malaysia is excellent because of the large Malay, Chinese and Indian populations. You get a lot of great choices but for breakfast there is only one choice for me, the roti canai. It is soft warm and gooey and is dipped in a curry or dhal sauce. It goes perfectly with a hot tea. It may not be as good as a dutch pannekoek with maple syrup but it's close.
Here is a Malay lunch of rice, egg and chicken.
I decided to turn inland to make a clockwise circumference of Malaysia, to keep to the less populated and more remote east coast to start. It means going over the mountains of the Central part of the country but I hope to escape some of the heat. The quiet roads and peaceful surroundings are fantastic areas to bike and most of my day is spent looking at green trees, blue lakes and listening to birds singing and monkeys scampering in the trees. It is ideal cycling. The Malaysian people have been exceedingly friendly with young guys passing fruit and water as they go past on their motor bikes, drivers honking their horns and giving the thumbs up as I climb the mountains and people going out of their way to smile and say welcome to Malaysia.
I cycled about 30km out of my way one day to take advantage of a campsite near some hot springs that many people mentioned to me earlier. I arrived to find a series of pools and each contained the hot water of various temperatures. I asked at the reception gate about camping and they said I can camp for 5 Ringgit (less than $2) and to just set up my tent over there by the bridge. I looked at the 4 different bridges and asked for clarification and the girl just tilted her head and said over there. I felt like I was back in the Philippines, as the people there would often tilt their head to a vague spot in the distance when providing directions. I walked over to the bridges and only found a large brick deck surrounding the various pools. I asked one of the maintenance men and he pointed to the ground and said I can set up my tent here. It is a public area in the middle of a large deck and I said this is not a campsite, it's in the middle of a public swimming pool deck and he smiled. I noticed a nice grassy area over one of the bridges so just walked my bike there and started setting up. My new buddy came over and asked what I was doing. I said this is a nice area for a tent. It has grass, a shady tree, you can hear the river a short distance away, its far from the light stands surrounding the pool and is somewhat out of view. He said, "no, this is not a good place. There are no people around, it is dark and you won't be able to hear the music." I'm not sure he really understood this whole camping thing so I just continued setting up. He left shaking his head at me and I was left wondering what he meant by the music. It was about 6:00 pm and only a handful of people mingled around so with darkness coming in another hour or so, I thought it would be a peaceful night.
Here is the pool area where I was told to set up my tent.
Here is the camping site I chose instead, much to the bewilderment of my friend the maintenance man.
I sat with my feet in one of the really hot pools, it was too hot to even keep them in for more than a few seconds but it was a nice place to do some reading. I left for my tent about 8:30 to do a little more reading and get ready to sleep and it was still quiet. At about 10:30 I woke up to loud music and a lot of voices, including children playing and I was confused as to what happened. I got up and there were about 10 tents set up on the brick deck with entire families out in the different pools, eating and carrying on. I couldn't believe how things changed at that late hour. It turns out that the people in Malaysia seem to enjoy late nights. I was up at 4:30 and still heard young children laughing in the water, music playing and people carrying on. I've never seen anything like it, particularly with so many young school aged kids. The man who told me to set up my tent thought I was there to join in with the other families for an all night swim. There was no drinking here in the Islamic country, just families out all night with their young school age kids and infants, on a weekday.
It's a good thing I saw this 5-foot long snake after I left my campsite. It might not have been the best idea to walk out of my tent without my sandals on last night.
The road east across Malaysia is as expected quite difficult with long climbs in hot temperatures. The interior jungle area is also very humid but the scenery is fantastic and certainly worth the effort of some of the two-hour-long uphills.
At the top of the mountain range I stopped at a restaurant at the advertised scenic outlook. It was a great view but for some strange reason, the person responsible for setting up the cement encased chairs decided that a view of the parking lot was better than that of the mountain range below.
I still haven't seen an elephant on the roads despite the caution signs. I was told that often they use the roads to sleep on during the early mornings, that would be quite a site to come across but maybe I have to get up earlier to see that.
My last day before crossing the mountain range started with beautiful sunshine and blue skies after a night of rain. It was breathtaking to see the mist coming over some of the green trees with a blue backdrop.
I am now in the city of Kota Bharu and will take a day off before heading south towards Singapore. As I arrived I stopped my bike to look for a place to stay and a girl approached and asked if I needed help. I recognized her as someone I met briefly in a bike store in Bangkok about a month earlier. I asked her if she was Jet and she said yes and then she also recognized me. We had written to each other once or twice as we were following a similar route but with me stopping for 10 days at the retreat I didn't think we would meet up. She spent about the same amount of time on some of the islands here and arrived in Kota Bharu 2 days earlier and will be leaving a day before me. Jet is from Holland and started travelling about 6 months earlier with a backpack. She met a few cyclists and thought that would be a better way to get around so she bought a bike and some pannier bags and set off. She is quite an adventurous young girl cycling on her own but she agrees with me when I say people take special care of single females travelling as they feel they want to protect you. She said she has never felt remotely threatened. There are some bad people everywhere but too often those few stop us from doing anything and we end up living safe lives but miss out on so much. A lot of the fun and memorable things happen when you take a bit of a risk and get out of your comfort zone.
Kota Bharu is supposedly a very devoutly Conservative Muslim city. It is in the most Conservative and poor (funny how those always seem to go together) State's in the country. On the first night I went with Jet and a few others from the place I was staying to the night market. The food here is excellent with a good variety of offerings to choose. On the way back to the hostel we stopped at a grocery store for something to drink. As I was getting in line to pay I realized that the checkout counters are segregated into male and female only lines. The others hadn't noticed and didn't pay any attention when they were here on other nights but the rules aren't enforced for foreigners so there would be no problem. I have been in some very Conservative Muslim areas of Turkey and Syria but have never seen segregated check out counters.
I will be continuing south down the east coast of Malaysia.