Our original plan on returning here was to head across peninsula Malaysia to the east coast via Gerik. There had been dissatisfied rumbles from Richard and his knee about this, and he was able to stage a successful rebellion against it. On closer inspection we would not have been able to do one of the long distance days between places to stay, considering how much climbing was involved. We instead headed south with the intention of doing one of the big climbs a bit further down.
That decision meant revisiting in reverse a couple of days of our previous route. It resulted in me really struggling mentally for the first few days of Malaysia, and feeling very down and lost in general. For the first time the bikes felt very restrictive rather than giving us freedom. Looking back now it’s coloured my memories of Malaysia, which is quite unfair because we met some wonderful people and received some amazing kindnesses along the way.
Since we left Malaysia last year there has been a new tourist tax added on to the cost of accommodation, which starts to tip travelling here into being pretty bad value. It’s hard not to compare staying here to staying in Thailand, and it suffers from that anyway because the quality and value in the former was always better.
On the bright side the food was incredible. Since it’s Ramadan we’ve been forced (OH NO!) to go to Indian and Chinese places for food, since there’s no fasting in those communities. The Indian food has been show stopping. We’ve been living off – 3 times a day sometimes – banana leaf curries, dosa and milk tea. Possibly even better though was a traditional Chinese claypot rice place, where it turned out the owner used to live in Brighton before returning to his homeland and serving amazing food.
It’s also probably the place that people stop and chat the most to us, though this partly will be that English is spoken widely and fluently. Even just stopped at traffic lights it’s very common for a driver or motorbike rider to pull alongside and ask about us. Standing out a bit can be a downside though – lots of the time people openly stare, particularly when we’re eating, and even film us just eating or walking around.
We spent a miserable couple of days negotiating the sprawling concrete mass of roads in the north west. There’s a few cities close together and a convergence of motorways to connect them, all tightly packed together. After being fed up with the noise and traffic the first day we went on a smaller road the next. If anything this was worse, since it was still very busy but this time the road was narrow and the drivers impatient. At least the major routes had a shoulder we could use, but the constant left turns on and off the roads didn’t feel that safe. Once we were the other side of Taiping though things improved, and we were now very much on a more inland route than the one we took north, so the terrain and towns were new again and I felt less hemmed in.
The monsoon will soon be upon this part of the country, and it was raining heavily like clockwork every day in the late afternoon as an appetiser. On one day the downpour came early and we got caught out before we found shelter under a bus stop. Within minutes a couple of lanes on the duel carriageway we’d been on became flooded and unusable. It hammered it down for over an hour, with the drainage unable to cope. The water was rising almost to where we were huddling and we began to worry we might get trapped, but when it finally eased off the flooding disappeared as quickly as it had come.
We spent the night in an out-of-town hotel and were able to experience one of the things we’d heard about and wanted to try: A Ramadan buffet. As soon as the sun went down the eating started, with many people piling their plates high beforehand and sitting waiting for the clock to turn seven. This is both an impressive feat of self control and superb ability to not waste a single second of eating time. At the first of those I am useless, and the second highly accomplished. The food on offer was a greatest hits of Malaysian dishes: Beef rendang, spicy fried chicken, fish head curry, biryani, laksa, and various sambals and stir fried vegetables. Plus a huge selection of sweets and mini desserts, most prominently little jellies or blancmange type things, as well as different flavoured cakes.
The riding either side of Ipoh was beautiful, and the city itself was probably the nicest of the ones we saw in Malaysia. We met a guy who had emigrated to Australia but who had returned to visit family. He lamented how things had changed here in two time spans – the decade since he’d moved away when the roads and cities had expanded to the point he didn’t recognise them anymore, and in the couple of years since Covid hit, when so many businesses had shut. It’s been hard to judge for us whether some things have been closed for Ramadan, whether they just aren’t open at the time (things open very late here) or whether they are permanently closed following the pandemic. It’s probably a combination, but it’s been very noticeable just how many shops and restaurants and businesses appear deserted. It’s probably around half overall, with some towns looking completely vacant.
In preparation for the coming monsoon, the humidity is gathering pace and slowing ours down. The air became noticeably denser and the heat more difficult to deal with as the days went on. The hills here were undulating and they wouldn’t have bothered us if not for the humidity. The pattern here has often been one upside for every downside, and after swinging further inland the scenery was almost overwhelmingly beautiful, with frequent monkey sightings and almost no traffic. I hadn’t really expected Malaysia to look as wildly magnificent as it did, or get as remote, and it was even more surprising in its contrast with the endlessly built up parts we’d been through.
Ramadan now over, it became evident that the coming week would be far more of a problem for us than the days of fasting. Since Eid al-Fitr fell on a Friday it was a bigger celebration than usual, with an extended holiday weekend, which then bled in to national holidays the following week. So whereas before only Malay restaurants were closed in the evening, now the Chinese and Indian ones were often shut too. The only saving grace was that fast food chains were open, so even though that sometimes meant a few mile’s ride, at least we could get a dinner.
We decided that since we’d ruled out the challenge of crossing to the other coast that we would stay inland and at least tackle one of the famous hill stations. We chose Fraser’s Hill since it offered a pretty obvious loop and didn’t mean going too much out of our way. Not long after setting off on the hills we stopped at a viewing point to admire the pretty sight of the Sungai Selangor reservoir and get some calories in for the day ahead. A man named Selim came over and introduced himself. He is the first Malaysian to publish work about depression, something which he has been writing about during Malaysia’s lockdowns. He was heading to Fraser’s with his family for a weekend break, as he tried to do several times a year.
It was starting to heat up when we got moving again. The entire day’s climb was just under 40km long, and to my complete surprise I not only found the majority of it comfortable, but actually really enjoyable. It made me realise how far I’ve come from the big soft potato I was nearly a year ago. The road was nearly empty, the thick jungle surroundings sheltered us from the sun, and we had several people stop and chat, including some road cyclists doing the climb for the first time. The part actually known as the Fraser’s Hill road turns off about 8km from the top, and at that point becomes one way and quite narrow in places as deadfall from the jungle encroaches some of the road. Some drivers pulled over to talk at points, but had to move on when another car came along. The climb also gets much steeper in places, and this is where the pain really starts. The last 4km were really tough on the legs, but the views were spectacular. Richard had heard about a proper pub in the mountain village and was very much looking forward to a beer at the end of the day, since Malaysia has been mostly dry, but I had found out that the pub wasn’t there anymore. I hadn’t mentioned it to him in case he tried to wriggle out of doing the climb, but within 10 minutes of arriving we had the following exchange:
Richard: My legs really hurt. Do you think we should stay here 3 nights?
Me: The pub has closed down.
Richard: Maybe 2 nights is fine.
We bumped into Salim again that evening with his family. Fraser’s Hill is a place that they and many families retreat to for long weekends, thanks to how peaceful the area is, the hiking trails, the flora and fauna, and due to it being cooler up here. He sent over some food for us when we sat down for dinner, once again reminding us of the care and generosity of the people here. The kindness we’ve been treated to in Malaysia is one of the most memorable things about this country. We’ve had people pull over and hand us food, water or just good wishes, which often is just as uplifting.
On the whole we found Fraser’s Hill an odd place. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the climate is cool. I’d describe it more as a slight absence of heat. But it felt even more humid than the lowlands, and without the searing temperatures to burn some of that off, the dampness is all pervasive. Apart from the attractions mentioned above, Fraser’s Hill was a former colonial hill station, and has retained some mock British architecture in its buildings, clock tower, post and telephone boxes. It’s the only place I’ve been to in south east Asia that could be described as quaint. We took a day off to rest, and then it was back in the saddle for a day of descent which was even better than a day of not cycling.
The following week the days blurred into one long haze of heat, sweat and tough riding. As we rode through the centre of the country the sharp inclines and crazy temperature felt as though they were chipping away at our sanity. And although the awesome jungle setting and wildlife remained, the traffic became much heavier so that most of the latter we saw was dead. Monitor lizards, scorpions, tapir, cevits and monkeys wiped out by the insane driving in these parts. I’ve never seen so much roadkill. The bad days started to outnumber the good ones until I was questioning if I want to be doing this. It’s now so hot that stopping at traffic lights feels like torture because we sit waiting in full sun. I have heat blisters all over my arms and for both of us now it’s almost embarrassing to go into a shop during the cycling day, because we sweat so much that we absolutely stink by about 9am.
On our final day in Malaysia we stayed in the border town of Johor Bahru, because we know the crossing into Singapore might be a bit fraught navigating amongst the expressways. The hotel we booked into refused to let us bring the bikes indoors, insisting that they needed to stay outside on a busy street with nowhere to lock them. There was a ten minute stand off until one of the managers let us leave them in a storage area. It’s the only time in months, and only the second time at all, that there’s been a fuss over the bikes, and it’s also incongruous with what Malaysia has usually been like. It didn’t help that it came on top of being fed up and exhausted in general. We feel chewed up and spat out by the cycling recently, not helped by deciding to keep relentlessly pushing to Singapore instead of taking a break.
We did some forward planning on the route to Singapore, because we’d heard that avoiding getting funnelled on to expressways can be difficult at this border. It was the busiest crossing we’ve experienced, but still pretty straightforward. And the planning paid off, because even though we’d read about which lanes to get in and when in Singapore, we very nearly got caught out.
The last month has been a rollercoaster emotionally, and we’ve been physically put through the mill. We’ve discussed and dismissed many options of where to go next, most of them still in south east Asia and all of them that we’ll get to down the road. But what we really want is a break from the heat and a chance to rest and reset. They say a change is as good as a break, so next up: Australia.
A playlist for the ride: