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RoughGuides #2:
South East Asia - Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia
2/5/99

Leaving Australia, my introduction to South East Asia came by way of the wet heat, noise and energy of the tiny island of Bali. From the bright green terraced rice fields to the ornate Hindu temples adorned with offerings, Bali offers a profusion of colours and customs that leave an indelible impression.

Cycling is a wonderful way of exploring the island. In dealing with the manic Balinese driving, a certain riding technique must be adopted: throw yourself into the frenzy and weave in and out of pedestrians, bicycles, mopeds, minibuses and trucks. Buses stop to scoop up passengers unexpectedly, cows wander by the roadside and in amongst this chaos, a lone moped piled high with parents and children might be seen winding its way through. Lowest in the 'Traffic Web,' everyone has the priority to run you off the road... in a land where belief slants towards reincarnation.

There is never a dull moment. Women balance baskets expertly on their heads, brimming with delicacies mysteriously wrapped in banana leaves. Men cycle with ducks tucked under their arm like a morning newspaper. People wave zealously and streams of children call out, 'Hello Mr!' as I ride by; sometimes they join me on their bikes before peeling off to their respective villages. Volcanic mountains rising from the the island's belly loom tall and foreboding in the distance. A battle to ascend, from the top they command a sweeping panorama of volcanic lakes, palm trees and beautifully sculpted paddyfields that cover the land like a giant patchwork quilt.

Escaping the tourist trail, I found that cycling in such a natural environment focused me on my surroundings. One evening, on Lombok, a storm drew close: a dark ink blot spreading across the sky. The sea was like thick glass and fishermen stood far out; their hats, long fishing rods and nets, silhouetted against the sun. To escape the impending rain, a boy cycling by, had fashioned a poncho out of a giant leaf, cutting a hole in its centre for his head to pass through. Steam rose from the hot tarmac as the heavy droplets hit the ground.

Whilst the islands I visited were unaffected by the economic troubles at the time, I was very much aware of the volatile situation. Unity and diversity embodies the country's mentality, yet years of corruption has driven Indonesia into political turmoil, and a very real lack of food has driven its peaceful and good-natured people to violence. One Balinese philosophised sadly: 'Anger is hunger, hunger is anger.' Indonesians I spoke to were hopeful that the first free elections in June will bring a lasting change, but were wary of the empty words of politicians that they have heard before.

When it was time to say a fond 'salamat datang' to the islands, I crossed to mainland Asia, to begin the overland journey back to Europe. Arriving in Singapore, I was greeted by a skyline far removed from anything seen before. Where in Indonesia I had stood in the sea holding my bike aloft to clamber aboard a dugout boat, in Singapore it was stowed away neatly aboard a high speed ferry. The focus here is very much on profit. In this immaculately clean city, less than an hour's boat ride away from its neighbour, dual carriageways feed business men into gleaming skyscrapers and the ringing of mobile phones fill the air.

A local Singaporean cycle club escorted me over the bridge to Malaysia, a country often bypassed in the rush to South Thailand's beaches despite its unique mixture of high tech and tradition. In Kuala Lumpur, the Petronas Twin Towers stand as a showpiece to Asian achievement, the tallest building in the world. Veil clad girls surf the internet at lunchtime in a McCyber cafe and mosques are reflected in the mirrored surfaces of high rise towers. Expressways link the cities, but dotted along its small coastal roads are peaceful villages, 'kampungs'. Chinese, Muslims and Hindus live side by side, illustrated by contemporary mosques, Buddhist shrines and colourful Hindu temples, as well as a vast array of food from the different cultures.

I found Malaysians wonderfully hospitable. Trapped on a four lane highway into the capital, a moped rider sidled up beside me and asked me where I was from, while trucks swerved to avoid him! When I stopped to check directions, I was invited into a Muslim home to experience 'kampung' life. Photos dating back to colonial times were brought out, refreshing coconut milk was served and a hearty meal prepared before the family excused themselves for their afternoon prayers. We exchanged email addresses and I went on my way.

But as developed as Malaysia's cities may be, their outskirts are never far from the jungle. The 'jungle road' crosses the range that runs the length of the peninsula's spine. Following the murky brown Sungai river, it offers the chance to explore the remote interior. I met two English cyclists and we found a washed out track that led to the friendly village of Dabong. Caught in the searing heat of the afternoon, we arrived to find that the road went no further. A boat continued through the jungle waterways to the next town, but there was confusion as to whether it could carry our steeds, or indeed if it would pass by at all. It appeared just before sunrise, propelled by an enormous old car engine, and we piled our bikes into its pencil-thin hull. As the first rays of light permeated the dark morning clouds and thick jungle canopy, we were deposited on a bamboo raft bobbing up and down. We walked the gangplanks on to land with our bicycles slung over our shoulders and the journey continued.

It is during moments such as these that I am experiencing everything I could have hoped for by choosing to cycle. Aiming to be more approachable, I've been taken aback by the friendliness of everyone I've met. After 6 months on the road, I am really beginning to feel at home with this way of life, and the chances it offers to delve into areas that might otherwise never be reached. Free of the cocoon of buses and trains, I am feeling as much as seeing a rapidly shifting Asia, and look forward to tougher months ahead in Vietnam and China.

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