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March 10th - 14th: The Jungle Road, Kuala Lumpur to Kota Bharu, Malaysia

March 10th: Kuala Lumpur to Kuala Lipis

KL to KL! I left Kuala Lumpur and the British High Commission after a fond farewell to the sombre faced guards, to begin the ride into the Malay interior towards the town of Kuala Lipis. 170 km lay ahead and a range which made the Peak District's Snake Pass look more like a worm... Initially, I took the three lane highway, skirting around the toll booths; thankfully it was almost devoid of traffic and as smooth as marble. Then quieter roads lead through the jungle, looping their way through the lush undergrowth. I stopped at Bentong for a roti breakfast and at Raub, for lunch, where I was recognised from one of the articles in the papers!

Now, the road ran along ridges and dropped down gorges, a cloak of jungle all around. Almost everyone who past in cars and trucks poked their head out and waved cheerfully. Kampongs became fewer, though there was rarely a feeling of prolonged isolation. The road twisted and turned forever, matching the contours of the murky brown Sungei River. The heat seemed to accumulate throughout the day and it was with relief that I arrived in the town of Kuala Lipis after a long day on the road. Met up with Tammy, Andrew and Hilary (the UK bike tourers) and we opted for a Chinese supper. From an unusual wall-chart-sized menu I was sorely tempted to sample sweet and sour frog; the waitress led me into the kitchen to check the merchandise and there they sat, still very much alive in their cages, watching us. Selling out to table-pressure, I begrudgingly chose more familiar animal consumption...

March 11th - 12th: Gua Maseng and Dabong

Over the next couple of days we cycled through the small town of Gua Musang to Dabong, over a hilly road which left us all exhausted from the heat. Rocky outcrops reached out of the land and stood dramatically to our sides. We sighted a shiny black scorpion crossing the road and various dead carcasses - apart from that, we were pretty much alone. In Gua Musang two German tourers, Ronny and Kristin, arrived from the opposite direction - they had been cycling in Thailand and Cambodia. As we all pulled up in front of the Chinese hotel, the town looked on bewildered. I don't think the locals had ever witnessed such a gathering of cyclists! Over supper we exchanged tales of daring cycling deeds. After noticing that neither seemed to be bitten by mosquitos, both Ronny and Kristin said that they had dispensed with Malaria tablets and repellent, despite travelling through some of the most malaria active zones! We listened enviously. Ronny, however, couldn't stand spicy food; he had attached a great wok to his bike in order to cook up his own spice-free noodles!

Heading on to Dabong, this tiny Malay village off the main road is served only by the river and the Jungle Train. In the searing heat, the smooth tarmac surface that we thought would lead there deteriorated into a washed out track, rising and falling into the distance. There was nowhere to escape, no shade to lurk in. Progress was slow and Hilary looked doubtful. A pickup passed. 'If the worst comes to the worst, we can always get a lift,' Andrew tried to reassure her, with a smile. That was the last car we saw going in our direction... Dabong truly lay in the back of beyond, and when we finally arrived, we were met by a gang of zealous kids who showed us to the government rest house. In the evening we wandered down to one of two little restaurants. The railway station, the focal point of the town, looked like it had been caught in a time warp. From the lingering stares, we guessed the tourist boom hadn't quite reached these parts.

March 13th: Jungle waterways and the road to Kota Bharu

I rose at 5.30am with the others, still in pitch black darkness, to investigate rumours of the 6.30am river boat from Dabong to Kuala Kerai, as there is no road between the two towns. However, our source was doubtful whether (1) the boat would actually arrive, and (2) whether it could hold 3 bikes in its skinny hull. But sure enough as the hour came, we heard the sound of an engine in the night air and we strained to catch sight of the craft as it rounded the bend. As narrow as it was, conventional packing theories were defied and bikes and baggage piled high. Setting off downstream, the first light fought its way through the dark morning clouds and the thick jungle canopy. The river was brown and sluggish around its edges but in its centre the current was fast, ferrying logs and branches on journeys of their own. In the morning light, the jungle was layered in hues of misty blues and greys.

The 90 minute journey passed quickly as we watched these layers of forest change shades; through them we caught glimpses of huts on tall stilts half hidden in the foliage. Propelled forward by an enormous old car engine, pistons pumping in and out, the boat travelled quickly and drowned out any sounds of the forest; when the engine cut, the incessant insect sounds could be heard once more. Deposited at a bamboo raft bobbing up and down, we had reached our destination, and along with Malayasians off to the market, we walked the gangplanks onto land with our bicycles slung over our shoulders.

Once in Kuala Kurai, there was time for a fuel loading roti breakfast before hitting the road to Kota Bharu. Though only 70 km away, the sun was already beating down and we peddled quickly. Stopping to regroup and rest in the shady open huts by the road, we feasted on deliciously sweet watermelon. The scenery was quite different from the day before; the hilly jungle range had sunk into nowhere and the road was lined with palm trees and banana trees, their fruits sometimes close enough to touch as we sped by. Buses and trucks hurtled past with friendly beeps and waves; busy kampongs and all the life that goes with them kept things lively on the road. At one point we saw an old man cycling along with a monkey; its hands held the handlebars, its tail was curled around the frame.

Despite hearing that some Muslim areas of Malaysia are not as openly friendly as other parts, we were greeted with the usual waves, smiles and enthusiastic cries that I have come to expect. As I overtook a moped laden with children, one even reached out to shake my hand on the move!

March 13th - 14th: Kota Bharu, East Coast of the Malaysian Peninsula

First impressions of 'KB' are of a town with a much stricter adherence to the Muslim faith. Women are covered from head to toe, a shawl hiding their hair: sweet round faces peep out. Throughout the day there are breaks for prayers, and impressive modern mosques tower high and catch the eye. The contemporary architecture draws from Middle Eastern influences.

Like much of Malaysia, KB is also a town abundant with incongruous sights and these are intrinsic to that unique 'Asianess' which catches the Western eye but goes unnoticed by those living here. In a medical store, zimmer frames are sold alongside ice creams... A herd of goats wanders through the gleaming forecourt of a Shell service station at night...

In an octagonal building, the central market is rich in fruit and vegetables noises, colours and smells. Stall holders in their traditional Muslim headscarves sit amongst their colourful produce, swatting the flies; when viewed from the third floor, an intricate pattern of neatly laid out fruits and vegetables is formed. Winding passageways lead to unexpected discoveries and mysterious foods. Beggars reach out and shake their tins. Shock registers with the realisation that some are lepers, and just opposite, the McDonalds emporium has seized upon the town's internet frenzy to introduce its own McCyber Cafe...At lunch, it is packed with veil clad girls surfing the web, a symbol of traditional and modern Malaysia.

The night market also brims with culinary delights, offered by a throng of stall holders who gather in the evening and stay till midnight. To a foodie, everything looks tempting; particularly the Ayam Percik (chicken cooked in a delicious coconut sauce) and the Pisang Murtabak (banana pancakes that may be a little greasy, but are worth it just to watch the skill with which they are made: sweeping figure of eight movements spins the dough thin, speed sliced banana neatly folded in). Sit down and tuck in. No knife or fork necessary - just make sure you eat with your right hand...One women cut her way through the tables and chairs selling finger sized bananas, a bunch laid out on her head like some strange hair style. Andrew and I tucked into our pancakes, finally reaching our 'stillpoint' - a full belly!

We're staying in a little guesthouse with shoe box rooms. They remind me of the Monty Python sketch - 'A shoebox?!? We used to dreeeam of living in a shoebox!' The fan sweeps the room in an attempt to cool it down, but in vain. Regular showers after each foray into the streets below are the only answer. I'm waiting to find out from Edwin and Louis, my KL cycling friends, if they are able to join me for a week's cycle in Thailand, just 30 km away. Its been a tough few days over the inland range, particularly due to the heat, so I'm glad to have a rest. In the meantime, I'll go and investigate the Parentian Islands, a backpacker retreat just off the coast. Home to the mythical white sand beaches...

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