Our departure from Istanbul was a stress filled experience. After queuing for ages to check our luggage in, the check in staff couldn’t find the information that we’d booked and purchased cargo space for the bikes. After that was solved, we were sent to the oversized baggage area for the bikes, but they refused to accept them because we’d been given no luggage tags. In a rare moment of assertiveness, Richard refused to go back and queue again. The guy we spoke to just shrugged and left, but fortunately someone else helped out.
We landed in Kuala Lumpur the day before Richard’s birthday, so that combined with the fact that the bikes needed some work doing, meant we planned to stay in the capital for a few days. Nothing whatsoever to do with me booking a hotel on “food street” and wanting to eat everything I could. I guessed that of the food cultures in Malaysia, Indian would be the one we might not see as much, so took advantage of roti breakfasts and curry dinners. We probably stayed a bit too long though, as we were itching to get going again almost immediately.
On the way out, some of KL had a bike lane, which was really pleasant. It was a Sunday, and lots of cyclists were out and about and stopped for a chat or just waved. And then there wasn’t a bike lane but a road hellscape for cyclists. And like the circles of hell, the roads were all at different levels, so not only did we need to find a road going in the right direction, but one at the right height. However, once we got on the correct road out of the city, there was an entirely separate motorbike path running alongside an expressway. It ended at one point, disintegrating into roadworks and a jungle, but the expressway was the only road and clearly signposted as no bicycles or even motorbikes. A guy on a moped noticed our confusion and rode over to check we were okay and knew where to go, I told him where we were heading. “Follow me” he said and rode off onto a small piece of the expressway and then down a fenced off path and back onto a motorbike lane. He waved us on as he went his own way. We never would have found our way, it couldn’t be seen from where we were and wasn’t signposted.
The next day we overreached, underestimating how soft our legs and arses had become after a couple of weeks off the bikes. I was coming down with a throat infection, we had a headwind and found doing 100km a slog. There were lots of friendly waves and hellos throughout the day though and we have found Milo in cartons, which is the single greatest non alcoholic drink in the world. We used to order cans and cartons from an online Thai food shop, but they stopped doing it a few years ago. The hot chocolate drink is available in the UK, and it’s nice, but not the same. That evening we ate at a small outdoor restaurant. The young guy who served us came over with his phone to translate that the business was started by his mum 30 years ago, and was the first chicken rice restaurant in this town, and he wanted to let us know that his mum was happy we wanted to eat here. He then brought out a huge sharing bowl of dessert as a gift, and then took a round of photos with his mum and her friends.
The following day we took some small rural roads and were treated to some gorgeous scenery and sightings of otter and monkeys. We planned to get a small ferry boat across the Penak river, but the road started to deteriorate and seemed to be going through a large logging space. The road was blocked, and from a security hut a man very aggressively told us we couldn’t go through. With no other way to get to the crossing, we had to turn back. I wondered if it was just that we weren’t allowed into the area where there was clearly some very scorched earth deforestation going on, but on our way back a moped rider pulled alongside for a chat and told us the boat isn’t running. So gatekeeper guy actually saved us a few more miles of backtracking. It was a major detour as it was to double back and then get to a bridge, adding about 20 miles onto the day. We’d been lucky the first couple of days cycling in Malaysia that it’s been very overcast, but as the day wore on the clouds gave way to the intense sun, which makes things difficult on top of the humidity.
As the days had gone on, my throat problem had been getting worse, and when it got to the point of struggling to eat (I’m almost entirely driven by food, so this was distressing) we knew we had to rest for a couple of days. Cue catching up with washing and giving the bikes a good clean too, so at least the time wasn’t entirely wasted.
As we travelled further north the opportunities to ride routes along small local roads have become fewer. The deltas and wide rivers mean being funnelled over the large bridges which are only accessed by bigger, busy roads. There have also been flood warnings in the north, and we’ve seen many rivers bursting at the seams, so it doesn’t seem a good idea to go too far off piste and get caught out. The rains have been like clockwork every day in the late afternoon. Heading up the coast, the landscape has changed to huge palm oil plantations, which means there can be stretches with not many services, since it’s all plantation land. It’s very safe riding here though; most of the main roads have a large shoulder or even a whole side lane, because there are so many mopeds. On roads where the opposite lanes are separated by a central reservation, there are even bridges specifically for motorbike use so they can cross safely. They also love to pull alongside and say hello or “Welcome to Malaysia!”
We made it up in the north to a nice seaside town where I was hoping to get a ferry boat across another river, after the disappointment of the last one. But alas, this one wasn’t running either. At least this time we were prepared for it, so the detour to a bridge wasn’t as galling. On the road later that day we pulled over to rest at a bus stop when a driver pulled over, went into a nearby shop and came over with two cans of drink for us. The kindness of some people never ceases to amaze me.
The scenery in the far north changes to endless rice paddies and karst formations. It’s a nice change from the palm oil plantations, and signals how close we are getting to Thailand. We’ve spent the whole time in Malaysia surrounded by political party flags, banners and posters. They drape from every lamppost, bridge and pillar, and the flags are planted for miles upon miles with no space in the ground for any more. We’ve ridden past rallies and huge preparations for more of them. We knew there was a general election coming up, impossible not to, so we decided to cross the border to Thailand before the day itself, mostly just to avoid the massive disruption.
There aren’t too many land border options on the West coast, the only one really available to us is at Padang Besar. We read some reviews of the Thai border guards being really strict, but in the end the process was smooth and friendly. And as luck would have it, for a limited time Thailand is offering 45 day visas rather than the usual 30.
We’ve thoroughly enjoyed Malaysia, despite me being ill for all of our time on the road. But our intention is to loop round South East Asia and come back to cycle down the East coast, so it’s farewell and not goodbye.
A playlist for the ride: