February 28th - March 4th: Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, MalaysiaAs part of their Sunday morning ride, Singapore cycle club Bike Aid were escorting me over the border into Malaysia. Formalities over, we cycled over the bridge linking Singapore with the mainland and hit the main road out of Jahore Bharu, towards Kuala Lumpur. In true cyclist tradition, we clocked up just a few kilometres before stopping for breakfast. Rama, one of the riders, introduced me to the notion of a curry at this early hour. I was initiated to roti canai, a layered pancake served with daal or curry sauce. Along the way, we stopped off at roadside cafes to sample the cuisine, such as egg with soy sauce. Riding together, it felt good to have some company again. When it was time for them to return to Singapore, we bid each other fond farewells and I headed on alone.
Malaysia's infrastructure is very developed and the main road was busy. I soon turned off to follow a quieter coastal way to the town of Muar, a distance of some 170kms. This road ran parallel to the coast and its tarmac surface cut through the deep red gravel of the land. Picking up where the Indonesians left off, Malaysians shouted and waved enthusiastically as I past by. One even stopped and offered me a lift to Kuala Lumpur. He seemed quite perplexed when I politely declined and offered me his card instead. Even a convoy of military trucks waved and cheered as they overtook.
But for the unusual amount of dead armadillos curled up by the roadside, an enormous outdoor loo showroom and a mysterious circle of people wearing buckets on their heads (whilst singing round a fire), the day past uneventfully as I peddled on! Adjusting to a new country is exciting: sights, tastes and sounds seem particularly acute. In the late afternoon a storm rolled in and for the last 50kms I cycled through a wall of rain.
Muar had just one budget Chinese hotel. At a pricey £5, this included towel (or rather teatowel) and soap. The place was devoid of other travellers, but for two other UK cycle tourers: Andrew and Hilary. They had been pedalling in NZ, Australia, and now SE Asia, before heading over to Europe. Such meetings aren't quite as slim as you might expect. Cyclists probably make up the small majority of tourists who stop off in these towns, not deemed to have enough 'interest' to attract more than a passing comment from the guide books. Yet it is in these sometimes nondescript locations that you feel closest to the 'real' country.
Requiring urgent energy replenishment, I went to an Indian restaurant for supper; there a Chinaman was paying a little too much interest in the hotel I was staying in. 'Where is it?' he commanded. 'Oh, over there, I forget the name', I responded vaguely. He started to follow me back on his moped and asked to come back to my room. Fending off this unwanted interest, I beat a hasty retreat!
The following morning, the two cycle tourers and I combined forces and we set off for a morning ride to Malacca, the historical centre of Malaysia. Approaching the town, a Giant Trishaw - a bicycle taxi - was being built, incongruously placed a short way from the road. The city itself is a mixture of old and new. Large tower blocks loom over the remains of the Portuguese, Chinese and Dutch quarters. Tracking down the traditional 'Eastern Heritage', this beautiful old building had a large wooden staircase and strict orders to tread quietly. Its indoor plunge pool, to escape the daytime heat, was strangely complete with swimming fish. The dorm was barrack-like and two great fans strugled to keep it cool.
Malacca has an eclectic group of museums and historical architecture. Perhaps the most unusual of these is the Museum of Enduring Beauty, housing the following: first floor, displays on the success of Malacca; second floor, methods of changing the appearance of the human form, (including head deformation, dental mutilations and the now banned foot binding) and third... kites. Trishaw drivers gathered in clusters around the tourist spots, lounging in the shade of their passenger canopies. With bikes that are often very ornate, teeming with lights and flowers, they all smoke continuously, pedal in flip flops and are stick insect thin - at any moment it seems they might snap!
Among Malacca's backstreets are identical shops crammed with baskets of spices, jars of biscuits and peanuts and assorted goods dangling from the rafters. 'Mango mango...fresh...hmmm...good...mango mango!' (in Malay, a word is put into the plural by repeating it), called out an enthusiastic fruit seller. Here I stumbled across an old favourite, jackfruit. This tropical fruit is housed in an enormously bulbous ball; nestled in its sticky sap are balls of flesh, a delicious cross between banana, pineapple and lychee. Later I found a bike workshop, stacked high with tyres, old bike parts and inner tubes, to retrue a rear wheel wobble. Deftly, a gold toothed Chinaman slipped the tyre off, tightened the spokes and straightened the rim. I wondered how many wheels he must have changed... The bill: 60p.
Sharing a cyclist's appetite, much time off the saddle revolves around food. Guide book in hand, we set off to sample fondu-style satay. Set in the middle of the table was a great bubbling pot of satay (a traditional peanut sauce). Wooden skewers holding various unfathomable foods are balanced in the pot and left to cook in the sauce, until deemed ready. A dozen skewers later, amidst a table splattered in peanut sauce, these sticks are added up and the price worked out. Delicious. Next stop, the local baker. Enthusing over his pastries and cakes, using skills gleaned from working in England and France, the pastry chef was friendly and convincing - Andrew and I shared a satisfyingly similar idea of portions; our motto: quick, eat it before it oxidises!
Heading for Port Dickson by the winding and lush coastal road, I stopped to ask directions in a second-hand car dealership. I was invited back to Helmy's house to experience 'kampong' (village) life. Kampong life is laid back: lunch, afternoon papers, afternoon prayers... Being a strict muslim family, the Ramadan fast had recently finished. The Islam faith was discussed, along with its moral standpoints; in these instances it's easiest to become a tactical christian. With a flurry of activity, family photos were brought out, (it's not uncommon to have up to 10 children!) dating back to the 30's. The oldest was a framed black and white photo of a colonial Brit with a handlebar moustache, surrounded by all the village heads, one of whom was his father.
Many Malaysians have connections with England - a relative working there, a son studying at University (though as the currency weakens against the pound, this is becoming less frequent). Helmy proudly informed me that all seven of his children have degrees in the sciences, the youngest of whom is living in Queensway, London, studying at Imperial College with a scholarship. Studying by day and cleaning by night, the money he sent home, where its value is considerably greater, had paid for the kitchen extension.
While the 'missus', as Helmy called her, put on some lunch we went for a spin in the car. I was treated to a running commentary of the financial status of all the kampong houses we past. Helmy insisted we look for a traditional palm leaf thatched hut, a dwindling material for building in the west coast. Upon returning, an enormous feast of different tastes had been laid on, modestly referred to as 'an emergency meal'. It was delicious and we tucked in with our hands. To wash down the meal, we plucked a coconut from the tree and drank its refreshing milk.
With a full belly, I left them to their afternoon prayers and moved on, thankful for their hospitality. Hopefully I will be able to return this open kindness to their son when I'm back in London. I followed a stunning coastal road running flush to the sea. Cycling through kampong after kampong, friendly Muslim children pedalling alongside on their bikes, everyone seemed very peaceful and content. The profusion of Chinese and Hindu temples and Muslim mosques reflect the cultural melting pot of this land. All, on the whole seem, to live happily side by side. Indeed, this is perhaps evident in the wide variety of food on offer everywhere - Chinese, Malay, Indian... My destination that night, Port Dickson, was a sprawling town where great oil tankers sit on the horizon. Once a very popular place for weekend trips from KL, its seas are now polluted and it seems in limbo. I was shown to an enormously vacant dorm in the YHA where I laid my head for the night.
The following morning I hit the road early, stopping for a curry at 7.30am. I was truly Curry King! A quiet road undulating through palm plantations passed through the small towns of Sepang and Salak. Stopping to check directions at a petrol station, I was invited to yet another meal by its owner, who had studied at Bristol University when the exchange programme between the two countries was in its infancy. We discussed Malaysia's economic success and its potential for the entrepeneur. Yet another exchange of cards (his card read Awal Abu Samah, management consultant for petrol station sites), and the promise that I would look out for good business openings on my travels through the country, so that we might go into business together! Finally I managed to leave, but not before being plied with isotonic drinks from his shop and agreeing to visit Malaysia's new airport, its second national showpiece, on my way to KL. The fact that it was one hour along the expressway in the opposite direction seemed unimportant. Hmmm. Accidentally, I missed the turn off...
Determined to avoid the colossal expressway into KL, despite the best
efforts of everyone to reroute me onto it, I nevertheless somehow found
myself squeezed onto this four lane super highway, leading into the heart
of the city. Cycling around the toll booths, bike laden with panniers, I
must have looked quite a sight as trucks thundered by and a constant stream
of cars fed into the capital. I was condemned to this crazy frenzy for the
next 20kms; at one point, a moped sidled up beside me (this being the
equivalent of the M1) to have a chat. I couldn't hear much above the roar
of the traffic as everyone swerved to avoid him... It was not until I spied
the peaks of the Petronas Twin Towers, Malaysia's showpiece skyscrapers,
and the highest building in the world, that I knew this cyclist's nightmare
was at an end. I had arrived in Kuala Lumpur.