We have just arrived in Malaysia, truly Asia.
We had made our way down the western coast of Thailand, taking a couple of days off to enjoy the beaches and catch up on admin in Krabi. This part of Thailand is a tourist honeypot, something we welcomed as a change from the usual routine. Two days surrounded by shops selling baggy trousers, banana pancakes and tattoos meant a break from the fried rice and offal soup we usually end up eating, and other people to talk to.
Although this might not be the cool thing to admit, we have been loving the backpacker scene in South East Asia, largely because it has been such a contrast to everywhere else over the last eleven months. This doesn’t mean we have been living in up in bars and at drug-fuelled full moon parties: five hours of exercise a day means we can’t handle more than one beer and the only drug we’d take is dioralyte. However, it has meant once or twice over the last few weeks, we’ve found ourselves in western enclaves, filled with people who speak our language and menus we understand.
Tourists who spend ages trying to head off the beaten track, seeking out places extolled as untouched by the Lonely Planet, would do well to jump on a bicycle. On previous trips I have followed the crowds to these supposedly undiscovered destinations, only to arrive slightly crestfallen at the number of other white faces and cafes offering banana pancakes. On a bicycle, however, you spend much more time in between tourists sites than at them: a day or two in one backpacker zone followed by a few days or weeks or months getting to the next spot, even in a popular country like Thailand. It makes for a fascinating insight into a country overall, but the brief moments in towns set up for tourists can be welcome relief, without the usual uncertainty over where you will sleep and what you will eat.
Lecture on cycling over; back to the blog post.
We slogged it to the far south of Thailand, camping or sleeping in cheap hotels or occasional temples, where we were invited to pitch our tent in front of the Buddha statues. It is difficult to imagine doing the same in a church, pitching up in front of an altar.
The Wang Kelian border post we chose to cross from Thailand into Malaysia is surrounded by the mountains and jungle of Thale Ban national park. Lack of public transport means it is not well-used, so opening hours are limited and we arrived after it had closed for the evening. We took refuge in a local cafe and as usual, we produced our magic letter, asking for somewhere to pitch a tent. We were offered the family’s prayer room out back, which was perfect once we’d marked out our sleeping territory amid the ants and giant spiders. Having seen a scorpion as big as my foot earlier that day, along with the snakes which have been a regular feature throughout South East Asia, we were slightly skittish about our neighbours in the surrounding jungle so I pitched the tent inner to take refuge in.
As we were wondering what to do about dinner, a veiled girl appeared at the door. Her English was word-perfect and she explained that she had taught herself using You Tube videos. She told us that all the restaurants were closed now, but that the cafe owner was her step-mum, her father’s ‘other wife’, and would make us dinner. Minutes later, a huge feast appeared and despite our offers of payment, we were told that it was free of charge. Being Ramadan, guests are treated particularly well, in a culture where guests are lavished with hospitality at the best of times.
After a hot and sticky night spent listening to whoops and whistles of what we named the Clangers monkey, we presented ourselves at the border checkpoint. The police were more interested in taking photographs and asking about our trip than inspecting our panniers, giving us coffee and offering us money before they let us through into Malaysia. So much for the recent military coup: all the Thai police we met were extraordinarily relaxed and treated us as a photo opportunity or gave us supplies for our journey.
Once in Malaysia, we had a particularly steep and sweaty climb over a mountain ridge before free wheeling down to a main road through paddy fields. Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country and Ramadan means that few eating places are open during the day, meaning it was a hungry morning before we hit a town. Eventually we made it to Alor Setar, where we had been promised a place to stay for the night in a bike shop. A night in a bike shop meant just that, curled up next to a display cabinet full of derailleurs and surrounded by mountain bikes.
Tim had been feeling a little off-colour so we took a day off. The town had little to offer by way of amusements so we found an air conditioned restaurant*and spent an afternoon reading. It is still incredibly hot and humid and we often duck into convenience stores on cycling days just to enjoy a few minutes of air con as respite from the heat. We also took the decision to catch the bus across the peninsula to the east coast. We had been strongly advised to cycle down the east coast of Malaysia by a cyclist we met in Japan who used to live here, but had crossed into the country on the western side because of long-running political unrest in eastern Thailand, near the Malay border. As we are due to meet a friend in a few days’ time in Kuala Terrenganu, and given Tim’s bout of illness, we figured we’d skip the sweaty climb over a 1,000 metre pass and take the cheater’s option.
After a fairly hair-raising journey on a night bus, we made it to Kota Bharu. Arriving at 4.30am after no sleep, we did the obvious thing and set off cycling the 40 miles south to where we’d been offered a bed for a night. Cycling has become an automated state for us so it took surprisingly little effort to sit and spin the pedals for a few hours in a sleep-deprived trance. We took a brief rest stop in a restaurant** to eat breakfast and join the crowds watching the Argentina-Netherlands World Cup semi-final: a somewhat surreal experience, surrounded by Malaysians screaming at the TV as they ate their pre-dawn meal before a day of Ramadan fasting.
Eventually, we arrived at our host’s house and collapsed in a heap. We are staying with a group of American teachers and as always, it is interesting to learn about a country through the eyes of expats. Other foreigners tend to pick up on things about a country which natives take for granted and wouldn’t deem necessary to explain. We are now planning on spending a few days exploring this area before heading down south. The Perhentian Islands are just offshore so we may head there for a couple of days, or pedal inland to a nearby waterfall. Either way, we’ll be enjoying the food which Malaysia offers, particularly at the markets which appear every night during Ramadan.
Next stop: Singapore and then Australia.
*McDonalds, but hopefully you didn’t bother checking this footnote.
**McDonalds again. I promise this isn’t a usual habit.