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Cycling Plus

Cycling Plus #5:
Malaysia
8/4/99

Its very name appealed to me: the Jungle Road. This 500km pass links the west coast of the Malaysian Peninsula to the east, crossing the range which runs the length of the country's spine by way of its remote interior, and emerging south of the border with Thailand.

The three lane highway that leads out of Kuala Lumpur is empty and as smooth as marble. I leave it for the jungle road, looping its way through lush undergrowth, matching the contours of the murky brown Sungei River. Malay villages become fewer. In Kuala Lipis, two tourers from the UK are heading the same way and we cycle together, as the surroundings change to towering rocky outcrops reaching out of the land, looming over us. But for a shiny black scorpion crossing the road, we are very much alone in the searing heat.

Venturing off our route, the tarmac surface that cuts through much of Malaysia's red soil soon becomes a washed out track, disappearing into the distance. Caught in the afternoon sun, there is no shade to lurk in; we arrive, exhausted, in the almost overbearingly friendly village of Dabong. Jungle waterways lead to the next town, but no one seems sure if a boat will pass by, or whether it can carry our steeds...When it does, at sunrise, we pile our bikes aboard its skinny hull, and set off downstream as the first rays of light appear through the dark morning clouds and thick jungle canopy. Propelled forward by an enormous old car engine, the pencil-thin boat travels quickly and we are soon deposited at our destination, a bamboo raft bobbing up and down. We walk the gangplanks on to land, with bicycles over our shoulders, where we continue on to Kota Bharu stopping to enjoy 'roti canai', a breakfast pancake with curry, and fresh watermelon along the way.

Throughout most of Malaysia, the roads are sealed and smooth, and once off the main highways, almost devoid of traffic. The main challenge is the heat that accumulates throughout the day. Malaysian drivers are some of the friendliest I have met, leaning out to shout out encouragement up a hill and leaving plenty of room as they pass. Trapped on a four lane expressway into the capital, a moped rider sidled up beside me to ask me where I was from, while trucks swerved to avoid him! I have had only one major problem with Possum; leaving Kuala Lumpur, the rear rim began to spit. The bike shop I visited was run by the national coach and fortunately had a Mavic 217, 36 spoke rim in stock. There I met his son, himself a Malaysian record holder, who has decided to join me for a week's cycle in Thailand.

Drawing from a rich Muslim, Hindu and Chinese heritage, the country is an intriguing mixture of high tech and tradition. In Kuala Lumpur, the Petronas Towers stand as a showpiece to Asian achievement, the tallest buildings in the world. In the interior, huts perch on stilts above steamy jungle rivers. Mosques are reflected in the mirrored surfaces of high rise towers, veil-clad girls surf the Internet in a McCyber cafe. Malaysia is a fascinating country to cycle through; the perfect way to enjoy its incredible food, meet its friendly people and reach some of the least accessible parts of this varied land.

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