Sunday, 24 April 2011

Malaysia: A Fusion of Cultures and Cuisines

Malaysian Border – Penang - Kuala Lumpur

After some long days on the bikes in the severely flooded south of Thailand, we were ready to cross into Malaysia, hoping for an improvement in the weather. We had chosen a remote border crossing in a hilly jungle area. The 30km cycle from Chalung to the border was very quiet, leading us to doubt that the border crossing was even official, but suddenly we found ourselves in a bustling Sunday morning border market.||

Having pushed our bikes through the market and spent our remaining Thai Baht on our last “Cow Pat Guy”, we got the required immigration stamps and cycled into our 17th country, Malaysia. A sudden steep climb awaited us on the other side, and as usual we had perfected our timing to tackle the climb at the height of the mid day heat. At the top of the pass, we could see far into Malaysia, admiring the jungly interior and the flat coastal region that we were heading towards.

When we stopped at a restaurant, we suddenly realised that we didn’t know a word of the Malaysian language yet. To our relief, the ladies running the restaurant spoke good English, something we subsequently encountered almost everywhere in Malaysia, making communication much easier. Added to this is the fact that the Latin script is used in Malaysia so that we can finally read street signs again. The food was also more varied than in Thailand (though not as fresh), and even rural restaurants often offer a lunchtime buffet with a good selection of dishes. 

When we arrived in the town of Kangar, we realised that, although it had not been in the international news as no tourists were affected, the north of Malaysia had also been badly damaged by floods. Half of the town was still under water and we watched as people rowed to their houses in rubber boats to retrieve valuables. Some of the hotels were inundated and therefore closed.

Flooded home   Rubber boat in flooded area

As we stopped outside a supermarket to ponder our options, several people came up to us to ask if we needed help. One was a cyclist, Sam, who had come to Kangar to help repair the flood damage. He was part of a mountain biking club and invited us to stay with him in his home town, Ipoh, which unfortunately was not on our route. 

With the help of the locals we found a hotel that was open. We had expected to pay more for hotel rooms in Malaysia than in Thailand, but fortunately this did not prove to be the case and we usually sought out Chinese owned hotels that were always very clean and good value at £7-£10, with air conditioning and hot water as standard (luxuries we haven’t had for a very long time!). One quirky feature of the numerous Chinese areas in Malaysia is the ubiquitous sound of chirping birds. Most of this is actually recorded sound, designed to attract swallows to build nests at the top of buildings. These are then harvested and sold to China for a large profit, where they are made into bird’s nest soup.

Chinese temple in Penang    Incense at Chinese temple

Even though we had only spent a few hours in the country, Malaysia felt quite developed after our stint in rural Thailand. There were shopping malls, KFCs, new suburban homes with garages, and even supermarkets. Having made all our purchases in tiny corner shops in Turkey, Iran, India and Thailand, we now actually visited a supermarket which was large enough to lose sight of each other between the highly stacked shelves.

We had heard from other cyclists that the east coast of Malaysia is much more enjoyable for cycling as it is quieter than the west coast, but due to the timings of our flights we did not have time to cross over and were stuck with the west coast. It meant cycling on fairly busy main roads for most of the way to Singapore, not something we were really looking forward to. On our first day in Malaysia we had a little over 100km to cover in 41C heat - good training for our upcoming ride through the Australian Outback. 

Just when we thought Malaysia would hold few surprises we spotted something moving on the road just in front of us. It looked like a little dragon, about 1.5m in length, it was in fact a monitor lizard. Just as we had pulled out our camera, the lizard slithered down the side of the road and disappeared into a storm water drain.

Cycling in northern Malaysia  1.5m monitor lizard

As the day drew to a close we started the search for accommodation. We toyed with the idea of staying at the “Harvard Golf and Country Club” just out of town, but eventually we made it into the city centre of Sungai Petani to stay at something, well, cheaper. Just down from our hotel was a Vegetarian Chinese restaurant run by a very bubbly Chinese girl. Malaysia is a very diverse country with large Chinese and Indian populations, which is also reflected in the cuisine. Apparently we were the first foreigners to have set foot into the popular little restaurant, so the owners took a photo of us chowing down some grub.

A few hours cycling in the morning got us to Butterworth, from where we took a ferry over to Georgetown on Penang Island. We had been to Georgetown before and had fond memories, so we were planning to spend a couple of rest days here.

Georgetown really comes alive in the evenings. Where during the day our street was dominated by key cutters and electrical stores, at night street-food hawkers magically materialise and set up their stalls, complete with sidewalk tables and portable “kitchens”. The air fills with taste bud tingling aromas as they whip up a fusion of foods from sea food curry laksa to Malay kofta.

Dinner at the night market   Penang delicacies

An elderly couple in front of our hostel offered crispy coconut pancakes, made in individual lidded pans. Watching them cook the pancakes was strangely mesmerising as their hands darted from pot to pot whipping out the golden pancakes and pouring in new dough at phenomenal speed.

Pancake stall

We also visited the blue Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, built in 1898 by a Chinese business man. The mansion was built according to Feng Shui principles, featuring an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese architecture and European touches, e.g. lamp posts imported from Glasgow and floor tiles from Staffordshire, England. The Chinese business man started out as a water carrier and ended up being the richest man in Asia, nicknamed the “Rockefeller of the East”. He spent his time shuttling between his 6 houses and 7 wives until his death in the 1920s. Many movies were filmed in his mansion, including the French movie “Indochine” with Catherine Deneuve.

Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, Penang   Rickshaw at Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion

After two enjoyable days in Penang we were back on the road for our push to Kuala Lumpur. The cycling on the busy main road was quite uneventful. On our first night we stayed in the pleasant hillside town of Taiping. Feeling slightly guilty to forego the local night market but needing a change from rice and noodles, we treated ourselves to an expensive meal at Pizza Hut.

Many a time our presence seems to catch other road users by surprise and often we see them looking back to get another look. On this occasion the following morning (as we suspected would happen one day) a motor bike rider was so distracted that he rode right off the road and into the road side ditch! Much to the amusement of his friend riding behind him.

The coastal highway did not afford us any glimpses of the coast, and we didn’t find the cycling very enjoyable, particularly as we were cycling on a dual carriageway with no hard shoulder. Added to that, our heads were in the clouds. Our upcoming visit to Germany was on our minds, as well as the challenge of cycling through the Australian Outback. We thought about everything except the here and now. The uninspiring scenery of endless palm plantations did not help matters. Later we realised we had missed the opportunity to stay with a local cycle tourer near Penang, a contact through Sam from Ipoh who we had met in Klang. Out of absentmindedness we had never bothered to check where exactly he lived, and now it was too late. We only had ourselves to blame. It was time to snap out of our apathy and give Malaysia a chance. 

The opportunity presented itself quite soon. Kuala Selangor, our home for the night, is famous for its fireflies. We asked the hotel manager to arrange a taxi for us just after nightfall. When we arrived at the firefly park just out of town, we really had no expectations whatsoever, particularly as it looked like it was about to rain, which is usually not a good time for seeing firefiles. Once we had found two other tourists to team up with, we bought tickets for a wooden rowing boat and were rowed out onto a river, to the soundtrack of a nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer. As we neared the opposite bank, we noticed what looked like fairy lights on some of the mangrove trees. Within arms rearch we could see the little fireflies perched on the branches twinkling and sparkling in unison like a brilliantly lit Christmas tree. Kuala Selangor is one of only two places in the world with such large congregations of fireflies, what an amazing sight!

A short day saw us arriving in Klang, a fairly industrial town about 25km west of Kuala Lumpur. Our research about cycling into Kuala Lumpur had revealed that it is one of the more difficult cities in the world to negotiate by bicycle, as there are no minor roads going into the city and some sections have to be cycled on a busy express way. Following the advice of other cyclists we decided against cycling into the city, we would skirt around instead.

By pure chance, one of Guy’s friends from the UK, Beng, who had moved back to his native Malaysia last year, was in Klang for a business meeting and we met up for lunch. It was great to see Beng and also get a few more insights into the Malaysian culture. After a delicious Indian lunch we tried the local delicacy, Cendol, a sweet coconut dessert soup containing green noodles, kidney beans and ice cubes.

No place for cyclists,   Beng and Guy

As we are flying to Germany for 10 days from Kuala Lumpur to see Freddie’s family and our brand new little nephew Felix, we are leaving our bikes and some luggage at the hotel in Klang and returning here at the end of April to complete our bike ride to Singapore, the final country before Oz where the mighty Australian Outback awaits.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011

Raging Floods and a Love Hotel

Ao Nang (Krabi) – Chalung (Malaysian border)
Despite the floods and the relentless rain, we had little choice but to crack on and leave Ao Nang as the clock was ticking on our flight out of Kuala Lumpur. So we pulled out our wet weather gear again and tried to tell ourselves that riding in the rain all day, every day was a character building experience. Fortunately the rain was much lighter as we left town, and the floods seemed to be slowly receding, surely this was the end of the rain. How wrong we were! ||

Initially the seriousness of the situation had escaped us, but slowly we realised the full impact of the floods, particularly when speaking to the locals and reading newspaper reports about the dozens of lives the floods had claimed. Usually the weather is completely dry in March, but this year there was more rain than at the height of the monsoon season. Rivers had been transformed into raging torrents of water, swallowing up roads, farms and houses.

 Walking in the rain  Flooded roads near Trang
We had planned to stop around the 90km mark at a hotel that was marked on Google Maps, but the hotel did not seem to exist and we were pointed down the road to the another town, Sikao, 20km away. The ask-three-different-people rule rarely fails so we were surprised to arrive at the town and be told there was nowhere to stay and we would have to do another 10km to the beach were there were most definitely bungalows to stay in. It was getting dark and the rain was coming down harder, we were getting desperate, for something, anything! Fortunately arriving at the beach we spotted a resort that looked open. Arriving at reception we had to loudly excuse ourselves as the manager was practising his karaoke, business was obviously quiet.

As we put out heads down on the pillow at night we could hear the rain pattering down on the tin roof, but in the morning we woke up to bright sunshine. Back on the bikes we soon came across a police blockade. The highway ahead of us was closed as it was inundated up to waist level. We turned right, but the next road was also closed, forcing us to make a detour to cross the raging river, which was swollen well beyond it banks, extending for hundreds of metres inland. Only the tops of some palm trees were visible, and many houses were flooded, some up to the roof. In some places, emergency shelters had been erected on the road where people were waiting out the rains, unable to return to their homes.

Just after we had crossed the bridge, another downpour ensued. Assuming it was just a shower, we took cover in a bus shelter to wait it out. However, after an hour we noticed that the road was slowly beginning to flood. We watched as council workers arrived and frantically cleared the blocked drains with their bare hands, sitting in the ever deeper water on the other side of the road. When we spotted the barriers in their truck, ready to close the road, we realised we needed to get moving, and get moving fast.

Waiting in a bus stop   Downpour
It started raining so hard we could barely see a metre in front of us. The water was quickly rising over the road so we had to regularly cycle in the middle to just get through and at times we were doing a slow-motion ride through water up to our knees. A sudden realisation struck us, “we could get trapped here, we’ve got to get to higher ground”. At the next junction we could see the road ahead was closed as it was completely submerged, the decision was made for us, we turned inland, leaving the swollen river and the flood behind. Later in the afternoon the clouds lightened and the sun began to shine once again, we felt relieved to have made it through but sad for all the locals we passed that had just lost their homes.

Weary after all the adventures of the day we again struggled to find accommodation. Luckily a lady who spoke good English helped us out and escorted us to the only place in the town of Yan Ta Khao. As we pulled into reception she enquired about a room on our behalf to a row of ladies lounging around on an outside sofa. One of them stood up and though we couldn’t understand the conversation, said something like this:

“Mmm, mmm, mmm, what do we have here! Look what the cat dragged in,” snigger, snigger, snigger. To which the other girls laughed in unison.

A little strange we thought, but then we looked around and noticed the seediness of the place, the discrete parking bays, the dress attire of the “staff”. Ah huh, it’s a brothel! The last time we had stayed in a brothel (we swear, we have only ever stayed in one) was on a motor bike tour in Eastern Cambodia in 2003. It hadn’t been a nice experience and we had resolved to avoid them in the future, so we felt a bit of trepidation at spending the night here. To be fair the ladies running the place, once you got beyond their gruff exterior, were quite friendly, well apart from Madame who continuously scowled at us as she strutted around the complex in her high heels. Unlike our last experience in Cambodia, this room was very clean. It also included a special feature in the form of three little steps at the end of the bed, presumably designed for a theatrical performance.

When the coast was clear and Madame was “occupied” we walked back into town for dinner and found an interesting market and a lovely little cafe run by a Burmese guy. Outside of tourist towns, you are more likely to end up on a little plastic chair in someone’s front room, which does not feel like a place to linger over a coffee, but this place had a few nice tables and even a couple of atmospheric lamps. Tea was served in pretty cups and traditional Thai pancake was on the menu, delicious.

Back at the ranch we realised that choosing a Friday night to stay in a brothel was probably not the best idea. Needless to say, we, nor anyone else got much sleep that night.

Clouds rolling closer
The following day we had planned to cycle around 100km along a quiet and scenic route. On arrival in town, we were told that there was no hotel (or brothel), so we pushed on for another 20km to the next town, Chalung. It felt like a déja vu, and whilst we usually don’t like to do such long days in the saddle, 120km per day seems to become a new habit as our quest to find a hotel in Thailand was rarely easy.

In Chalung, we noticed some bungalows at the town entrance, but unfortunately they were full. We then spent an hour cruising up and down the main street of the town, following pointed fingers in all sorts of different directions. After being told by a pharmacist that the next hotel was 13km away, we cycled back to the start of the town where we had seen an advertising sign with a picture of a bed (all signs are in Thai script so we can’t read them). Pointing at the sign, we asked some people at a food stall to explain to us the location of this place. After much giggling, a young girl took pity on us and escorted us to the hotel on her motorbike. It was a great place, very cheap, really clean and best of all not a Madame in sight!

Monday, 11 April 2011

12,000 km Photo

That’s us in front of the dunny block at a Thai fuel station. Classy, we know! The locals were quite perplexed as to why anyone would take a photo of themselves in such an illustrious location.

12 000km Photo||

Thursday, 7 April 2011

Kit Review (Part 1)

Over the last year we have pushed our kit hard, its been tested in a variety of demanding situations and terrains. Some items have excelled whilst others have fallen short. Below we talk about our experience with some of our essential items and attempt to give a unbiased performance review. ||

Like any kit, regular care and maintenance is essential for longevity. On the road it's not always practical to keep things in tip-top condition but we have tried to adhere to the manufacturer's advice as much as possible. If we have deviated from this we have noted it next to the particular item.

We would love to hear your comments if you have had any experience with any of the items below.

Thorn Raven Tour Bicycles Rating: 10/10
Bicycle trouble is one of our worst fears, especially in remote locations. Fortunately the Thorn Raven Tour has risen to every challenge we have thrown at it, it truly is a well thought through touring bike...

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Rohloff Speed Hub Rating: 9/10
We agonised over the decision to pay out for the Rohloff but now looking back over the last 10,000km are so glad we did. On remote trips where you are away from facilities the robust and maintenance...

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Hilleberg Nallo 2 GT Tent Rating: 8/10
There is much to admire about the Nallo 2 GT; it is quick and easy to set up in any weather, completely waterproof, stands strong in heavy storms, is light and compact and is extermly well made. We can...

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Panaracer Pasela Tour Guard Tyres Rating: 9/10
The tyres are light and sporty but amazingly puncture resistant. We used the tyres for 4,000km from London to Istanbul on a variety of surfaces from rough tarmac to lose gravel roads...

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SIGG Water Bottles Rating: 9/10
Fed up with drinking warm plastic water we moved onto the Sigg water bottles. The aluminium shell keeps the water cool and the inner shell allows the water to maintain a neutral taste...

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First Need XL Water Filter Rating: 7/10
We were attracted to this filter as at the time we couldn't find a water filter that filters out Bacteria, Cysts and Viruses. The filter is generally easy to use, though the pumping action...

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Tuesday, 5 April 2011

A Very Wet “Dry Season”

Chumphon - Krabi

On our first day without Nick as we cycled from Saphli Beach to Arunothai following an estuary out of a small fishing village we couldn’t help but notice the air felt a lot more humid than usual and the dark clouds on the horizon started to look a little more menacing. Little did we know what Mother Nature had in store for us.||

Without Nick, communication was a little sketchy and even though we were sure we knew the words for “fried rice with chicken” by now (how can we forget, “Cow Pat Guy”! In India it was cow, now it’s chicken, we are wondering what Guy will mean in Malay), we often seemed to end up with a plate that contained everything but chicken, often prawns, squid, pork, cow’s tongue or liver… With a little chillie sauce and imagination it all tastes like chicken anyway. In general Thai food hasn’t quite been what we expected – in rural Thailand, there are no Green Curries, Pad Thai’s and Sticky Rice with Mango. Instead, it’s much more basic, usually fried rice, fried noodles or soup from a little food stall with no menu.

Arunothai was a small beach town which seemed to be set up for local weekend tourists. As it was mid week, it was very quiet, and we were the only guests at the bungalow resort we stayed at. We decided to have a rest day before pushing on to the West coast and Krabi. It was very relaxing. Guy busied himself by giving our kit a once over including an oil change for our Rohloff hubs, while Freddie caught up on our journal.

Thai bungalow   Motorbike barbeque

We seemed to be developing a habit of moving from one beach to the next, so the following day we ended up at yet another beach. Once again we were the only guests. Just after we had arrived, a torrential downpour ensued. Assuming it would pass we awoke the next morning to grey clouds and more heavy rain.

There’s only one thing that makes cycling in heavy rain worse: roadworks. We were riding through roadwork areas where the red soil had turned into sticky mud, and to top it off we weren’t really sure where we were going as we hadn’t had internet access for a while to plan our onward route. Our map wasn’t really detailed enough for the job, but with the help of the locals we decided we had to detour 10km into the wrong direction to get to a hotel.

Red mud   A break in a bus stop

It was still raining hard, but the following morning we felt good and set off to cross over to Thailand’s west coast. We found the cycling easy and followed a decent but fairly quiet road west for about 90km. We ended up at a small bungalow resort. Like many Thais, the girl who managed the bungalows was quite shy, particularly when dealing with foreigners. We have found that although almost everyone waves and shouts hello when we cycle past, as soon as we stop to ask for directions or order some food, people get the shy giggles and sometimes shops mysteriously empty as we approach.

Cycling onwards through endless rubber and palm oil plantations, we really struggled to get into a rhythm. We had a fairly short day of only 75km ahead of us so we were hoping to arrive early afternoon and kick the feet up. Unfortunately we had no rhythm, stopping every couple of km’s for a loo break or to take our rain coats off or to put our rain coats on or to eat something or to drink something or to take a picture of something or to buy some of those weird looking fried things etc. etc…

Around lunchtime we noticed two little puppy dogs by the side of the road. They were very thin and clearly not in a good state. We figured they might have lost their mother, so we fed them our last piece of banana cake to give them some nourishment. Not quite sure what else to do, we called our friend Aom and asked if there was an equivalent of the RSPCA in Thailand, but this didn’t seem to exist. We decided to look for a vet in the next town, to see if he would care for them. However, the language barrier proved impenetrable. We showed pictures of doctors and animals to countless people in our Point-It book, unsuccessfully tried to pronounce the Thai word for “vet” and even fruitlessly tried to explain our quest to someone who spoke a little English. Nobody understood what we were asking for, but one man suggested we could go to the police station where they would speak English. We trudged through the rain to try and find the police station, but this was also a failure. One man even ran away from us when we pointed at the picture of a police man in our little book! After a frustrating hour we gave up, feeling intensely sorry for the puppies but unable to help.

The day didn’t get much better. Shortly afterwards, Guy had his first fall of the trip (Freddie hit the tarmac once in Hungary under very similar circumstances). We were cycling along a small tarmac road with a narrow hard shoulder which was slightly lower than the main part of the road. As the conditions were so wet, the road was quite slippery and when Guy tried to get back onto the road, his bike fell from under him. Luckily the bike took the brunt of the fall, so Guy had no serious injuries, just a bruised pride as his entertainment act tool place in front of a small fruit stall!

Even though it was raining hard at times the scenery was beautiful with jagged limestone cliffs jutting up vertically all around us from the lush green jungle and the hovering clouds and mist rising from the valley gave it a mystical touch.

Krabi landscape   Limestone cliff

We arrived in Ao Nang (Krabi) in a torrent of rain as tourists scurried around with umbrellas looking totally miffed that their week or so in Thailand was looking like a complete washout. We had expected a few bungalows and a quiet beach, similar to most of the beaches we had visited on our way down from Bangkok. However, when we arrived we were presented with a town heaving with tourists and all the related facilities from Burger King to Starbucks.

We found a fairly affordable hotel and decided that after 10 months of getting us up and down hills it was only fair we treated our poor muscles to a nice relaxing Thai massage. Well don’t be fooled by the size of those little Thai ladies, they may look pretty harmless but they have the strength of 10 water buffaloes! For the next hour they proceeded to treat us like an over active child might treat a clump of playdo - pressing and stretching and twisting and lifting our bodies in all sorts of interesting positions. At times it was entirely relaxing and you could feel yourself drifting into a serene sleep, moments later you were being straddled from the back and your legs were flung skyward as you performed some death defying double act straight out of Cirque Du Soleil.

The area around Krabi is famous for its stunning beaches and beautiful islands such as Ko Phi Phi, Ko Lanta and Railay Beach. We had been looking forward to some beach time and to exploring some of the nearby islands, but this was not to be. For the four days we were there, it rained and rained and rained without a break, even a small dash to the local eatery over the road left us drenched (we opted against the purchase of an umbrella citing it as an extravagance!). According to the locals this was unheard of in the dry season and had never happened before.

The full impact of the rains only became clear to us a little later, as the rain caused heavy flooding across southern Thailand, in which 53 people died, some of them in landslides in Krabi not far from where we were staying. As we prepared to leave after three days, the hotel manager shook his head and informed us that the road out of Krabi was impassable due to the flooding, forcing us to stay an extra day. 

Clean-up in Ao Nang, Krabi   A wet beach holiday

We hoped that the rain would stop today, as the following day we would have no option, cycle or swim the clock was ticking as we only had a little over two weeks until our flight from Kuala Lumpur, which was over 1000km away!