Country Roads

Penang (Malaysia) to Singapore
26th February to 20th March 2019

I’ve just had a look at a big map. We’re level with Sri Lanka! No wonder Chris thinks it’s hot!
Rather than cross into Malaysia by road we decided to take a ferry from mainland Thailand to Langkawi, a Malaysian island, partly because we had heard of security issues in southern Thailand, though we saw nothing, and partly because we heard that Langkawi was a beautiful island.

As often happens when crossing a border things are suddenly different. Malaysia straight away felt more wealthy. More ‘western’ than Thailand. We threaded our way to a hotel we’d picked off the screen. One way systems, busy traffic and no pavements made for a tortuous 5km journey. We balanced along a narrow spit of concrete with a storm drain on one side and a highway on the other and found a way through to our hotel.
The island wasn’t quite as tranquil as we had hoped. We decided to push on southwards the following day and take a ferry to the island of Penang. We’d both read a novel set in Penang during the war years around the time of the Japanese invasion of Malaysia and we were looking forward to seeing it in real life.
The Georgetown of our novel was hard to find. There were tower blocks and modern shopping malls and everywhere there was traffic. The old parts of the town would have been so good to see on foot but the arched walkways under the buildings that were cool in the scorching sun and would have been dry in the monsoon season were constantly blocked often forcing us into the road to negotiate double parked cars and avoid the constant flitting motorbikes.

We saw some great murals through and had a very enjoyable afternoon climbing the mountain that rose behind Georgetown.- Well alright we didn’t exactly climb it as such… we went up by funicular railway.

From Georgetown we headed back to the mainland and set our wheels southwards again.
Our first hotel we christened ‘prison cell’. Four bare walls, no window and with just enough room for a bed and the door to open. We could have had a really nice room at the Pearl View complete with ensuite for about £8 more. A budget is a budget though…
Onward past rice paddies which completely flooded after a brief (and very rare) downpour and into palm oil country.

We cycled for around 25 km and saw nothing but palm oil plantations. A completely different level to plantations in Thailand.

Suddenly I saw a flash of iridescent blue on the edge of the palms. Did you see that? I shouted to Chris. She was hard on my tail. She looked all around. I braked hard. Chris crashed into me, wobbled and came to an uncomfortable stop sprawled across the road. Fortunately, the road was quiet and there was no serious damage to Chris – or the bikes. The next time I saw a kingfisher I took care to slow down less abruptly…
Our routine was changing. We were now getting up at 0400 and trying to cycle most of the day’s miles before 1200. It’s really a beautiful part of the day . The sky turns from black to dark blue to pink, the stars fade away one by one leaving only Venus in the southern sky ahead of us and the warm morning air is just a perfect temperature to cycle.
We stayed in a hostel in a small town and went out to look for something to eat. We found an Indian restaurant where we got chatting to the owner. We’d seen Christian churches, mosques, buddist temples and hindu shrines. All in the same town. Does everyone get along? we asked. Yes, of course they do, he told us. It’s the politicians who mess things up.

We stayed in another small town in a guest house called Novelty. The name appealed! When we first went in I didn’t really understand what I was seeing. There were cars (4) parked in the living area. The garage sort of ran into the living room. We met the mother who had designed the place and she was busy designing another place. That is, it was being built and she was designing it as it went along… The daughter of the family, Lim, was so friendly and took us out twice for local treats. The first, I have to say I wasn’t keen. It was ice and jelly and evaporated milk with a large dollop of what looked like frogspawn. Tapioca maybe? I think Lim maybe guessed that frogspawn delight wasn’t a complete success. She kept laughing every time she looked at my face. She took us out again the following evening and we had all sorts of roti. Similar to chapati or pouri . Sweet and plain, chrispy and soft. Particularly good for mopping up the sauce – fried egg in curry sauce. It was good!

We were now approaching Chris’ zone of horror. We had to pass Kuala Lumpur. And the gap between the city and the coast wasn’t very wide. It wasn’t too bad. We got completely embroiled in the school run at one point but once clear of that there were few problems. Until we hit the building site. When I say building site, think Basingstoke or Milton Keynes. The high rise flats weren’t finished. The terraced and detached houses were finished but unoccupied and the whole town was gated. There were roads where there should have been forest tracks and where the road was meant to be there was a fence. We set off on a huge detour and when we finally popped out the other side I realised we could have gone through a hole in the fence…

Another place we stayed we named coconut milk. The owner asked if we’d like some coconut milk. I said no but Chris said yes and then it all went very quiet. Chris was convinced that because I was a man and had declined she wasn’t going to get any. But she did! The owner came back on his motorbike after about 15 minutes with two fresh coconuts he’d cut from the tree. The tops were trimmed off and Chris was presented with a glass of fresh coconut milk!

One night we actually unpacked the tent. It was sort of nice to see it again. It was part campsite part chalet accommodation. And nearly everything was made of bamboo, which, given favourable conditions can grow around a metre in one day! What a material!

So often as we cycle through towns and villages we spot posters advertising events, carnivals or festivals. Almost always they took place the week before or the spectacle will be in a weeks time. This time however it was different. We were bang slap on the right weekend. It was ‘raptor watch’ weekend. This very weekend hundreds, possibly thousands of raptors would be crossing this particular spit of land on their migration routes. The only slight downside was that there were hundreds, possible thousands of people there too… Lodgings were in short supply and the tiny roads were choked with coaches and cars. Actually I do wonder if the birds knew or cared that it was raptor watch weekend. I’ve got a feeling that on the Monday after the weekend there might have been just as many raptors thermaling overhead. But we saw honey-buzzards and sparrowhawks and eagles, all on journeys of thousands of miles which they routinely make twice a year!

We also had an interesting walk on a jungle path that seemed to be going on for slightly longer than we had anticipated and it was edging towards dusk and we didn’t have a map… We did pop out where we were intended. Which we were both quite pleased about. We would like to have had a cooling off swim in the hotel pool but the dress code put us off. Both men and women had to be fully clothed…

Malacca was our next port of call. Or at least it used to be a port. Way back sometime after the Dutch fought the Portuguese and relieved them of the town, it was a very important port and a resting place for ships re-equipping and waiting for favourable winds on their voyages between China and Europe. The taxes exhorted by the harbourmaster provided a healthy income for the town. That is until the British spoilt it all by running the island of Singapore and making it a free trade port.
Malacca was a fascinating town. We had a European breakfast, an Indian lunch and on one evening enjoyed a Pakistani dinner and on another we experienced a satay meal, Malay style. We chose our skewers of meat and vegtables from the fridge, bought them to our table where a gas burner kept a hot satay sauce bubbling in the centre of the table. At the end of the meal the staff simply counted your used skewers.

We rode further down the coast and stopped for a night at Nilam’s house. Nilam is a warm showers host who though she doesn’t cycle herself enjoys welcoming cycle tourists from all over the world. She welcomed us at her cafe where she gave us a local desert – jelly, peanuts, sweetcorn condensed milk and ice and then fed us with banana fritters until it was time to close up the cafe for the night. We then went to her home where we were welcomed by her brothers, sisters and parents. We were given our own room which I’m sure somebody had relinquished for us and made to feel at home. It was a privilage to be a part of that Muslim household.

Almost at the tip of the peninsula, with stones throwing distance of Singapore we stopped for the night in Pontian. We hooked up to the wifi in a local coffeeshop and scrolled through the local hostelries. Some were too expensive, some unappealing but we narrowed things down a little. Our deliberations were interrupted though when a man introduced himself as a cyclist too and he was part of a cycling club and were we looking for somewhere to stay and would we like to stay at the cycle club’s flat where there were beds and showers and of course there would be no charge. Well, what could we do? We were a little bemused but we slurped the last of our coffee and followed him outside. He jumped in his car and we followed on our bikes. He left us at a lovely flat and told us he’d be back to pick us up for dinner at half past seven! There was a fridge full of beer, packs of biscuits and a shady veranda overlooking the sea. People the world over are kind. It’s sometime very humbling.

Musings
Malaysia has given Pete and I many different thoughts, experiences and memories. It has been the penultimate country of our trip and thoughts of home and an impatience for the time to fly by have made it unsettling. We have to keep reminding ourselves to live in the moment and not be impatient and we have arrived at the southern tip with 2 days to spare but as Pete pointed out that on a trip of 18,000 kms lasting 17 months that isn’t too bad!
Malaysia has been disturbing in many ways despite being one of the most friendly countries we have been through. We have received extreme kindness, smiles, greetings, waves and hospitality. Many people speak English which has been really nice for us to be able to ask questions and converse easily.

Malaysia was immediately very different to Thailand. There is more obvious wealth. It is fast, busy, lots of new roads and massive housing developments. It feels to be a country on the up.
The multi cultural nature of the country has been inspiring and having the wonderful experience of staying with Nilam and her family and having a conversation with her about Islam was one of the highlights.
We have eaten amazing food from different cultures . Our eyeballs have rolled around with the excesses of chilli and we have marvelled at how anyone can eat food that is so hot. We have eaten more pineapples than we can count and have screeched to a halt by many a road side stall selling water melon, mango, durian and lychee juice or just plain iced tea.We’ve cycled in the early morning darkness listening to the call to prayer and pondered on how different life is going to feel when we get home.

The more negative impressions we have had of Malaysia have been to do with the environment. The message against single use plastic and re-cycling doesn’t seem to have reached here and all roadside drinks and even some in cafes are in plastic cups with a plastic straw.
On top of all this ‘home grown’ plastic, Malaysia is now the dumping ground for recyclable plastic from Europe and America. We used to send it to China but they banned imports of foreign waste in 2018 and Malaysia has taken it over with the government welcoming the revenue but not providing regulation. We have heard of illegal operators burning plastic causing horrendous problems for people living nearby. Certainly the air quality for us on the road has always felt bad, not just with traffic fumes, but unidentifiable smells and burning vegetation.
The countryside we have passed through has many water courses, canals, or what we thought might be storm drains. They can be the source of some really bad smells and the repository for much of the plastic litter and rubbish. I remember having to cross an open drain in one town on a narrow concrete bridge with my bike and looking down at the slime and festering liquid in it and thinking that if I did fall in I would probably dissolve.

In Johor province where we are at the moment a river was recently contaminated with chemicals, releasing a toxic gas that affected nearly 3000 people who had to be treated for breathing difficulties and some including many children becoming seriously ill. The culprit has not yet been found.
We have seen lots of monitor lizards that seem to be able to survive in these horrendous stretches of water but we have seen a couple of them belly up and bloated floating on the surface. It’s sad to see them disappear under the water and all the rubbish as we pass by. One day we saw small fish floundering at the side of a canal and jumping out onto the bank. We watched them with a local man and he couldn’t explain why they were doing this. It looked as if they were desperately fighting for oxygen.

Just recently a dead whale was washed up on the coast of the Phillipines with 40kg of plastic bags in its stomach. This part of Asia is apparently the most prolific contributer to plastic waste in the world and I think we have seen it first hand. One of the saddest things we have seen was outside a large school with the children coming out and the lawns outside the school so covered in plastic cups and wrappers that you couldn’t see the grass. If children are not seeing the horror of that then one can really despair for the future.
We have cycled through miles upon miles of palm plantations. Malaysia and Indonesia provide 80%of the worlds palm oil which is used in food and toiletries. It has provided great wealth to Malaysia but at a huge cost to the environment by destroying indigenous forest and the ecosystems that survived there. Orang Utans, tigers and rhino are all now seriously endangered due to loss of their habitat . The destruction of the rainforest and peatland has had devastating effects on global warming as the forests play a crucial role in reducing greenhouse gases by absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
We went on a guided nature walk by the sea and mangrove swamps and the guide told us that if we had done the same walk 6 years ago there would have been much more to see. We saw a lot of soldier crabs but he also pointed out a black line on the sand which he said was due to the discharge of sewage from the nearby hotels.

Later we were due to pass near to a small national park and read an account of what was there to see which was undisturbed rainforest with ancient trees and umbrella like plants. We got excited and looked forward to going until the writer said that a local mining company had been given permission to quarry there. As the article had been written 3 years ago we were put off as the quarrying would now be in full swing. He also wrote that nearly all the visitors to the park leave their litter behind and people swim by a beautiful waterfall ignoring all the rubbish in the water around them. We didn’t go.
This is a tale of woe and certainly Malaysia isn’t the only country abusing the planet but I’m sure there is hope somewhere. We did meet people from environmental groups who are campaigning against the damage being done to the sea which is warming up rapidly with damage to coral and fish.
Let’s hope that the young people’s climate strike message reaches here and the next 12 years will see attempts to reverse the damage already done.

Birds Nest Soup
We first came across the ‘bird hotels’ in Thailand. Large square buildings with tiny windows and a loudspeaker on the side playing recorded bird song. It took us a while to find out what they were but have since found out that they are there to encourage swiftlets to nest in the building. The nests are made from the birds saliva which hardens and that is when the nest is harvested for birds nest soup. We have seen many ‘hotels’ in Malaysia and hear that the nests fetch a great deal of money particularly in China where it is considered a delicacy and beneficial to health. Apparently it doesn’t taste of very much and has a slimey consistency. It also takes a great deal of preparation and cleaning. One lady told us that you have to pick out the feathers before you can cook the nest.
I think I’ll stick to leek and potato.

Sharks Fin Soup.
I don’t think that birds nest soup causes any harm to the bird. We were told that the nest is harvested after the swift has left the nest. Sharks Fin Soup however which is also considered very special and is often served at weddings and other celebrations is pushing sharks to extinction. Apparently it is completely tasteless and crab and spices are added to give the soup some taste. Often the fishermen will catch the shark and remove the fin while the shark is still alive believing that the fin will regenerate. They then throw the shark back into the water. Without its fin the shark is unable to swim and sinks to the sea bed where it will die a slow and painful death.
President Trump was recently served Sharks Fin Soup in Vietnam. In the past he has served it in one of his own restaurants and when challenged said that he wasn’t a great fan of sharks anyway. Oh dear.

Abbreviations

If you’re in the know Kuala Lumpur is always referred to as KL. We noticed the abbreviation being done to other cities. Johor Bahru is JB. Port Dixon is PD. So when we were on our way to Melaka and I told someone we were going to M, I was surprised when they looked a bit blank.

Becoming a curmudgeon.
Recently Pete accused me of becoming curmudgeonly and after I looked it up agreed that I fitted the bill and had indeed become a bad tempered, difficult and cantankerous person. I put it down to the heat. I took exception however when he said that I was prone to exaggeration. All I had said was that cycling into the city of Klang at rush hour was like entering through the gates of hell.

Road kill.
Seeing dead animals by the side of the road is always upsetting and here it has the added sadness of the animals being to us, quite exotic. We have seen very large monitor lizards, wild pigs, civett cats, birds of prey, and quite a lot of, domestic cats and dogs. It is also an indication of the wild life that is inhabiting the forest either side of the road. One early morning when we were cycling in the dark we came across hundreds of rats who were running across the road in front of us from the rice paddies on one side to a drainage ditch on the other. It was easy to see why there were many squashed on the road but luckily we managed to avoid them.
Apart from monkeys we haven’t seen very much non dead wild life although we have seen some live large snakes and lots of dead ones. Seeing the snakes in particular was one of the reasons that we didn’t feel very inclined to camp and when we saw this chap who we think was a python we were well and truly convinced that camping didn’t appeal.

Karaoke
Karaoke is very popular here and has provided us with some ear splitting entertainment when we really wonder whether the singer isn’t in severe distress and certainly us as the listeners most definitely are. Imagine my delight however when we were in a cafe and when Pete went to ask for the wifi code, the lady owner said he could only have it if he gave a turn on the karaoke machine. I suppose it was the digital equivalent of singing for your supper. He agreed and gave a very good rendition of John Denver’s Take Me Home Country Roads and only went a bit flat on the high notes. I was proud of him.

Parallels

I remember Pete playing at being Captain Kirk in Kazakhstan and telling me that we were holding steady on the 42nd parallel. I didn’t know much about parallels at that point but am now quite proud that we have travelled from the 54th parallel in Hallbankgate and will reach the 1st in Singapore. We haven’t quite made the equator but not far off!

Mystery Arrow

In many of the rooms we have stayed in we kept seeing this arrow. Sometimes it was on the ceiling, other times on the wall. Once we even saw it in a drawer. We were mystified. Was it to do with plumbing, electrics, fire escape, the way to the bathroom? None of these but actually pointing the way to Mecca so that people know which way to face to pray. So helpful.

There was an area in Northern Malaysia where we came across some very strange hotel names and wondered if all the owners had got together to see who could create the weirdest name for their place.
Some examples are:
A Stroll Along Paddy Fields on a Dewy Morning.
Paddycation. Let’s Dorani and Chill.
Walking Away from Reality for Two Days Should be OK.
Eat, Sleep, Paddy Repeat.
Epic Sunrise+Paddy Fields+Breakfast = Bliss.

We also came across the rather un-PC Auntie Fatso’s Cafe and Glutton Square

We’ve arrived in Singapore! Our journey home has so far been taking us ever further south. On Sunday (31st March) we board our container ship – at least, hopefully we do. We haven’t actually heard from the shipping company yet… and turn northwards and in three short weeks we’ll be docking in Southampton. We’re quite excited. We’ve no idea if there will be other passengers though we know there won’t be more than 12 and we’ve little idea of what shipboard life will be like. We’re stocking up on books and planning on doing lots of sleeping and hopefully lots of eating… our ship is called the Kerguelen and with the wonders of technology you can dial up this site: https://www.marinetraffic.com/en/ais/details/ships/shipid:3144024/mmsi:235108381/imo:9702132/vessel:CMA_CGM_KERGUELEN and click on the map and you’ll be able to see exactly where the ship is on the face of the planet and follow our journey home! (That is, if you’re really stuck for something to do on a wet Sunday morning…)
Land ahoy! Avast there! Splice the mainbrace! Full speed ahead Mr Bosun! Aye aye captain!

Just practicing !

Comments

  1. Daphne Roberts says:

    Well done on making it to the port comfortably. What an extraordinary journey you’ve had. Will you ever be able to settle down to life in HBG again? Enjoy your voyage home and thanks for all the fascinating posts over these many months. With love and best wishes from Daphne & Mark

  2. Helen Robinson says:

    Well done on your achievement. What an epic journey. Perhaps you should write a book for other cyclists. I’ll pray for good sailing weather for your return journey. Can you cycle around the ship to keep up your fitness levels?

    1. neil says:

      What a great idea, id love to hear indepth about your epic journey,best wishes glad to hear both home safe and well x

  3. Anthony Farrell says:

    Wonderful epic achievement, so envious but we are happy in Brampton at the moment but who knows?

  4. Yvonne Lutgerink says:

    Great trip you made! I am happy that I met you!
    I am in Portugal now, cycling slowly back to Holland into the spring…which has actually already started here. The temperature is so nice, it’s a relief after the heat in Asia.
    Have a nice boat trip back to England!
    Yvonne

  5. Hilary and Tim says:

    We are so in awe of your amazing achievement and thank you both for sharing your experiences via your blog. It is so nice to read something that does not mention the “B” word. We hope you enjoy your voyage home and don’t miss being on your bikes too much.

  6. Marilyn Bray says:

    Great to hear the next instalment and your take on the contrasts between countries and lifestyles. When I stopped over on Singapore on way to Australia years ago we were struck by how clean the city was but we were told not to drop litter because there were on the spot fines. Did wonder where it all went – now I know Malaysia presumably. Hope the seas are calm for your sail home. Marilyn

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