131 miles, 15 mph average2 Feb 07Day 1
North West Malaysia - Perlis & Kedah

I rolled the bike out into the comfortable warmth of a Langkawi morning, still cloaked in darkness at 6am and only the Muezzin's song to break the silence, his lilting voice floating over the harbour with hypnotic calm. I found the call to prayer irresistible and rode the few hundred meters up to the Mosque to listen more closely. I kept a respectful distance as I was dressed for cycling in the tropics and hence in less than modest clothes for visiting mosques, so I was just a little anxious when a young man stepped towards me from inside the domed building. But he raised his hand in a friendly greeting and sat on the wall next to me.

I asked about the meaning of the prayers that were being broadcast and he explained that in this instance they were for the forgiveness of sin much the same as in Christianity. I was intrigued that he should draw such a comparison and highlight the similarities, whilst in the western media all too often it seems the differences are highlighted and anything Islamic is inextricably linked with fundamentalism and terrorism.

I headed down to the 'jeti' (jetty) to catch the 'feri' (ferry) delighting in the translation of the signposts and relieved that Roman characters had now replaced the indecipherable Thai script. Even though the signs were now readable, I was to lose my way as soon as I reached the mainland and this pattern of hopelessly unreliable road signage was to set a precedent for the whole of my journey through the Malay peninsula (see route).

After being given a personal greeting from the captain, my bike was lashed to the back of the ferry and we set off for the mainland. I found myself alone on deck enjoying the first rays of sun, whilst the locals hid in the shade below deck. Langkawi is an archipelago of over a hundred islands and is now very much on the tourist trail, deriving its name from the 'Helang' or sea eagles that commonly patrol the local skies. By the time we reached Kuala Kedah the sun was gathering strength and highlighting the fort guarding the Kedah river and provincial capital Alor Setar upstream. It was built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, but captured from them by a local sultan just a few years later.

I followed the road south through rice fields so fertile they can be harvested twice per year and circumnavigated Mount Jerai. Standing at 1217m (as high Sca Fell), the height of the mountain relative to the surrounding plains allowed traders to use it as a navigational point in ancient times. At the Merbok estuary I reached what appeared to be the end of the road, so found a seat in the shade until a passing boat could be requisitioned into a ferry service. The two young lads who owned the boat knew a sucker when they saw one and hideously overcharged me, but it was still only pennies when converted back to Sterling, so really not worth arguing over and their good humoured delight in handling my 'basikal' made the trip all the more worthwhile. 10 miles futher south a new bridge spanning the river Muda solved the next potential problem and I sped on south towards Butterworth and Penang Island.

Under British rule Penang was known as Prince of Wales' Island and in the 18th century prospered as a trading post for those most precious of commodities - tea and opium. How times haven't changed?! I decided to avoid the island's uninviting highrise waterfront and started to head inland on Highway 1. It was money from this trade and the British East India Company that funded the construction of Highway 1 to link Penang to Malacca and (once Sir Stamford Raffles had made a deal with the Sultan of Johor) onwards to a little fishing island to the south by the name of Singapore.

The road skirted around Taiping (a city famed for having amongst the highest rainfall in the world) and inland towards Kuala Kangasar. I was just in time to see the stunningly beautiful Ubadiah Mosque at sunset, which, with its huge golden dome and symetrical minarets make it one one of the most photographed Mosques in the Muslim world. Kuala Kangasar was the site of the first experimental planting of rubber tree seeds imported from Brazil in 1870. It is said that every rubber tree in Malaysia and Thailand can be traced back to this very first tree.

I settled into the very comfortable but ludicrously cheap government resthouse for the night. They insisted on giving me a discount as I'd arrived late and was planning to leave early and even after a sumptuous four course dinner my total bill was less than a tenner. My ground floor quarters can only be described as immense - a king size bed lay lost in the far corner of a room at least 6 meters square. As with all hotel rooms in Malaysia, a small green arrow marked KIBLAT was fastened to the ceiling to indicate the direction of Mecca.

Just as good fortune gives, she taketh away also and I slipped in the shower lacerating my heel on a loose tile. The receptionist made a special trip to the pharmacy to bring bandages and a small bottle of iodine. I was all too aware that in the foul fug of my cycling shoes an infection was almost inevitable, so I regularly had to peel back the flap of loose flesh on the rear of my heel and irrigate the wound with the antiseptic. It stung…a bit, but I resisted the temptation to take a photo you'll be pleased to know.

Malaysia - Singapore
126 miles, 14 mph average3 Feb 07Day 2
Kuala Kangasar to the Genting Highlands - Perak

I started even earlier than usual as I was faced with a climb in pitch blackness into the Cameron Highlands to start my day. Lush, dense rainforest covered the land and I caught a few glimpses of monkeys that scampered from the side of the road as soon as I came into view. Quite often they would stop, turn and stare indignantly at me as I passed.

As I approached the wealthy tin mining city of Ipoh, I could see a procession ahead and heard chanting in time to the beat of several drums. All a bit odd for 6am I thought. Even odder was the sight of an entranced sword-wielding guru at the centre of the procession. I had to rub my eyes in disbelief at what I saw as he passed - he appeared to be trailing reins attached to metal hooks embedded in his back, but this was nothing to the next procession where the guru had dozens of hooks attached to his very own shrine that he was towing up the hill, apparently oblivious to all pain! I suspected some form of jungle 'medication' had been used to aid the transcendence into such a trance. I appeared to have stumbled upon the morning after the night before the festival of Thaipusam. This is a day of penance and thanksgiving by Hindu devotees held in honour of Lord Subramaniam.

After such an amazing start, the rest of the day dragged out along the dull road flanked by the endless forests of oil palms which have been superseding Malaysia's more attractive rubber plantations for obvious economic reasons. As the heat rose so did my fatigue and even though I was constantly drinking (on average 12 litres per day) I was peeing just twice a day. It felt like a constant battle against dehydration and the blistering heat of the sun. The temperature here rarely falls below 30 degrees Celsius and in the midday sun, when my shadow all but disappeared beneath me, it really is a time reserved only for mad dogs and Englishmen. It was along one such stretch that I was greeted by a jolly looking man on a moped. He rode alongside, asked suspiciously well-informed questions (rather than the usual 'where country you from?' ice breaker to which any answer is futile as this is usually the only English the potential conversationalist speaks) and introduced himself as David. When he offered me a chance to stop for a cool drink at a shaded shack I had no hesitation. It can get quite lonely on the road and frustrating when it becomes clear that any chat is going to be limited by linguistics. To my amazement David went on to explain, in perfect English, that he too was a round-the-world cyclist and I was even more amazed when he produced a portfolio of photos to back up his claim and a website of his adventures to date; www.bicycletouringmalaysia.com

Having seen Mosques and Hindu celebrations already, the sight of the Buddhist cave temples at Bidor seemed to add a sense of balance. Whilst Malaysia is governed as an Islamic State, tolerance seems to be the name of the game. The temples run deep into the limestone hillsides whilst outside the ornate buildings are surrounded by pools and ponds inhabited by tortoises. As well as a religious balance within the federation, Malaysia is divided into thirteen states, each governed by a local sultan. Every five years the sultans elect one from their number to take on the role of Head of State, who takes up residence in the royal palace at Kuala Lumpur.

To the north of Kuala Lumpur the Cameron Highlands give way to the Genting Highlands and I decided to take a diversion into the hills in search of some scenery. The foothills were interspersed with gentle streams and tranquil lakes . Climbing in the heat was really taking its toll, but the views and lush greenery were well worth all the effort. As the jungle on either side of the road was so dense and tall there was no way of knowing how near the top of the mountain I was climbing and come the last few miles I was ready to drop. It was at the moment that I was about to crash out at the side of the road, I heard the sound of a truck engine straining and clawing its way up the pass behind me. It was travelling at about 20 mph so all I had to do was wait for it to pass, pick up an equivalent speed and grab hold! There was a short length of chain clanking at the rear that made a perfect towrope and so I got a free ride to the top. What came next can only be described as cycling Nirvana. I've ridden down many a mountain road, revelling in the freewheeling loss of altitude, but so often my hands have been almost frozen to the handlebars and I'd not been able to focus on the view for shivering. This 10 mile decent was truly awesome. The road wound down at a gradient steady enough to maintain 30 mph without pedalling and for once the equatorial heat wasn't boiling my blood as waterfalls and lakes whizzed by.

Evening was closing in so I turned off Highway 1 into a small town to find a hotel. To my dismay there was just the one. It appeared to be deserted and filthy. I hate to sound so precious, but it's really not what you need at the end of a ten-hour mountain ride when you are on the verge of heat stroke. I'd noticed a sign to a golf resort on my way into town, so I struggled up the last few miles past the course and found that they did indeed have rooms to let. There was no food available so I hitched a lift back into town and picked around my plate at a fairly dingy Chinese restaurant. It was hard to tell just what the meal comprised of, and the meat was as sparse as the hair on Kojak's head, but I did manage to identify a few fragments of lower jawbone from what appeared to be a small mammal…

Malaysia - Singapore
120 miles, 15 mph average4 Feb 07Day 3
Kuala Lumpur - Selangor

I rose later than I'd expected. I would have preferred to get the pre-dawn miles in before the temperature rose, but it had been daylight for a few hours by the time I was turning the pedals. The extra sleep, a rolling road and a hint of tailwind did me the world of good and I blasted towards the capital KL. I passed the ubiquitous groups of children on their way to school; always immaculately dressed in pressed white shirts and always laughing out loud at the sight of my approach. I'm not sure if I really look that funny, but rather hope this is just the natural response to the surprise sighting of a foreign cyclist.

About 8 miles north of KL are the Batu caves. Once I'd secured parking for my bike behind the tourist offices, I set out to climb the 272 steps to the cave cave entrance. The site had been the focal point of the Thaipusam festival the day before and was sadly littered with offerings of decaying coconut husks and the detritus left by the thousands of pilgrims who had gathered earlier. I waded through the mess and climbed up into the Cathedral Cave that has its very own Hindu temple within, lit by shafts of light from gaps in the ceiling high above.

Kuala Lumpur means Muddy Estuary in Malay, but this gleaming, glitzy capital gives away no trace that this was all that was here 150 years ago, when the first tin miners settled in the area. I am certainly no lover of cities, but for me KL has it all - friendliness, safety, history and for the price of an English B&B you can get a suite at a 5 star hotel. They don't even look twice when you drip sweat on their marble floors, having wheeled your bike right into the foyer! The city has a taste for the tall, being home to the world's tallest flagpole, 3rd tallest radio communications tower (from which there are stunning views of the city) and of course the Petronas Twin Towers - which at 452 meters are the tallest pair of buildings in the world. The glittering towers of glass and stainless steel can be seen from all points of the city, and acted as beacon to guide me to the centre on my ride into town.

Leaving town was not so easy and I ended up on the motorway with…err…a Police escort. When I explained my predicament of being unable to find any other way out of town they were (as is the norm in Malaysia) well humoured and helpful. I had planned to ride out to Sepang and find a hotel near the new F1 racecourse, but Sepang turned out to be a rough dump of a place nowhere near the track and certainly with no hotel. I didn't want to back track 20 miles, so even though it was threatening to get dark, I pushed on for the coastal resort of Port Dickson, where I was assured I would have a choice of accommodation. I decided to stop at the first seafront hotel I found. It was a modern high-rise affair, but all that was available was a self-catering three bedroom flat at an exorbitant price. I was too tired to argue and after a quick bite tried to settle down for the night. The reason for the hotel's popularity soon became clear; it was playing host to the Miss Malaysia contest and even though my room was on the 10th floor the din from the show and accompanying karaoke ritual was horrendous.

Malaysia - Singapore
60 miles, 12 mph average5 Feb 07Day 4
Port Dickson to Malacca - Negri Sembilan

The road snaked and undulated along the coast, but trees or houses usually obscured any view of the sea and I had to clamber between to catch at glimpse of the Straits of Malacca. By 10 am I was halfway to Malacca itself and ready for morning coffee, so I stopped at a typical roadside café where the whole family gathered round to ensure I was enjoying my roti (pancake) and coffee. The coffee was excellent, as ever, but mixed with sickly sweet condensed milk that for me masked the flavour altogether.

On a quieter stretch I was caught by a local triathalete who was in training for the Langkawi Iron Man. He kindly slowed his pace so we could chat as we spun along. Suddenly he came to abrupt halt and urged me to do likewise. A waterbuffalo cow stood square in the middle of the road. I had spotted her but assumed that these docile looking creatures would be afraid of humans and just like cattle at home would scarper as soon as we closed in. Not the case it seemed, and those cute looking, centre parting horns were not really for decoration either. Her calf stood at the other side of the road and she was clearly guarding it. My new riding companion explained that if we edged forwards but avoided any sudden movements or threatening eye contact, we would probably be OK. She didn't budge an inch as we crept past, heaving an enormous sign of relief once we made it clear. God only knows what would have happened if I'd been alone and unversed in water buffalo etiquette at this point.

Malacca has prospered since the first Sumatran refugees arrived in the 1300's and by the end of the 15th century Melaka (as it is locally known) had become the centre of a great trading empire with links as disparate as China and Persia. It was from Persia and Moorish merchants that Islam first arrived in the peninsula. There is still a thriving Chinese community in the town said to be directly descended from these early settlers, and when I arrived, the streets in their district were festooned with the red paper lanterns that are always brought out for Chinese new-year.

In 1511 the Portuguese took control, followed by the Dutch 100 years later, leaving an eclectic European influence as a legacy. In the central square is the oldest Dutch building in Asia; the 1641 Stadthuys (town hall) that now houses an excellent museum. In spite of the crowds I had the museum virtually to myself, as they seemed to prefer the tacky stalls. The central district has been preserved and restored to a remarkable extent. Every building is painted a deep crimson with cream slatted window shutters and the whole area was thronging with tourists, some of which were being pedalled around in rickshaws. I stopped off at the rickshaw station (the camaraderie between cyclists being inevitable) and we joked about racing the rickshaws and offered swaps of our machinery. The riders were mainly of Portuguese origin and, as well as stinted English, spoke the antiquated Christao dialect so I was able to be understood in my pidgin Portuguese.

Malaysia - Singapore
150 miles, 15 mph average6 Feb 07Day 5
Melacca to Pontian Kecil - Johor

After such a welcome rest in Malacca I was ready for some serious miles. It was slightly overcast with only a gentle headwind to impede my progress I got my head down. Just out of town I took what I thought was a wrong turn onto a new and unopened road. The surface was perfectly rideable and the signposts read towards Muar so I pressed on. It could not have been more exquisite; an empty road with a glass-smooth surface, even the jungle contours had been flattened out in places. 50 miles of silent bliss. The only traffic was just one other bike being used by an ancient lady carrying her crop of bananas on the rack.

At Muar I succumbed to western influence and stopped at Pizza Hut for lunch, but made up for such plebianism by briefly calling at the city's blue Mosque. The road south to Batu Pahat was often lined with fruit orchards and stalls selling pineapples, star fruit, jackfruit and the foul smelling durian. As it was still following the coast there were occasional fishing creeks cutting inland.

By 5pm I was in Pontian on the lookout for the Pontian Hotel that had been recommended to me by a pair of Dutch cyclists on their way north. They had started out riding a similar route to mine but had caught the train south and were reversing their route after being exhausted by the persistent and unseasonable headwind. They were the only foreign cyclists I had met on the whole trip.

Malaysia - Singapore
58 miles, 15 mph average7 Feb 07Day 6

I was up at dawn to see the sun rise over the Straits. Only 50 miles to the border and my final ride so I decided to get some speed on and blast it out.

The traffic was heavy with commuters heading for Johor and the causeway into Singapore, but after about 25 miles I spotted a sign to the "New Causeway" and checked with some traffic police if it would be OK by bike as the road was not on my map. They agreed and pointed out that, as it wouldn't take me into the central district of Singapore, the road would be quiet. Quiet and hilly it was though, rolling away through dense palm plantations, it seemed the perfect way to end my journey through Malaysia. At the border post the guard just waved me by without the need to stop and I entered a kind of no-man's-land with a three-lane highway neither in Malaysia nor Singapore. After a further 3 miles I hit the bridge and stopped next to a sign offering 'Death For Drug Traffickers'. I only spotted the sign after I had emptied out the front pocket of my panniers into which a packet of Polo mints had burst, and I causally dusted the highway with white powder under the gaze of the security cameras. Oh dear.

The burly customs woman pulled me over with the welcoming news that I could not enter Singapore. She pointed out the overhead gantry that indicated lanes for lorries, buses, vans, cars and motorcycles, but nothing for bicycles. As I had been riding illegally on the motorway, I couldn't come in. They take the law very seriously and very literally in Singapore. My protestations that I had been shown the way by Malaysian police did nothing to help my cause as I was now in Singapore not Malaysia, so needed to abide by their laws and not those of their slack neighbour. In exasperation I ventured that if I hitched a lift on the back of a passing moped could I then be permitted access? This was met with 10 seconds of stony silence after which she said, "Yes!" She snatched my passport, but handed it back immediately gleefully pronouncing that I still couldn't enter, as I hadn't collected my Malaysian exit visa. I started to explain that they had just waved me through at Malaysian customs but I was clearly getting nowhere. She further explained that they might not let me back into Malaysia to obtain an exit visa as I had now not officially left Singapore either, and even if I could get that far I wouldn't be allowed to ride back down the highway to Singapore either.

I had no choice but to struggle back uphill in the kind of sticky heat that can only be experienced at midday one degree north of the Equator. I'd had enough; I'd burnt out any energy reserves earlier in the day and these additional miles were just too much. I phoned Adrian.

Adrian had been living in Singapore for about 6 years and was an old friend from many years back. I'd arranged to meet up with him when I arrived, but knew he'd be working so didn't want to put him to any inconvenience. When I explained my predicament he roared with laughter. "F**kin' typical!" he said, "you'll be there forever trying to sort those idiots out, so just hang on and I'll drive out to get you."

Within the hour he pulled up to the service area in Malaysia, we got the bike disassembled and with it sticking triumphantly out of the top of his convertible BMW, charged back over the causeway. The look on the customs official's face was priceless, especially when the head of customs popped out of his office to ask if Adrian was playing golf that coming weekend…it's not what you know…as they say.

For the next two days nothing was too much trouble for Adrian and his Malaysian wife Zarina. They put me up at their apartment, laundered my clothes and Adrian even gave me a set of his to wear in the meantime. We wined and dined at Singapore's finest, enjoying views over the business district from the Stamford Hotel (one of Singapore's tallest buildings at 73 storeys) and back towards the city from Mount Faber. I even took the cable car to Sentosa Island and mainland Asia's most southerly point, although I felt a bit of a cheat not having ridden the last few miles there.

© 2008 site by mjrcreative
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