Beyond the Bike 2015/16 - Bamboo with a View.
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Straits Cycling: Singapore to Malacca and Penang.
Wonderful people, careful drivers, and very few hills: after over a month of ‘holiday’ where we cycled only about 200km we needed to make up some miles and Malaysia was the perfect place to do this. We chose the west coast as it was a shorter distance, better weather and less touristy. In fact, between Malacca and Penang we didn’t see another westerner...
Celebrating Chinese New Year in Malaysia.
After an emotional farewell to both sets of parents in Singapore, we crossed the border (a 1.5km bridge) to Malaysia. Rob (a mate of Stu’s) was on the bamboo and I was enjoying not having to think about the hoards of cars and motorbikes on the back seat of Thandie. All seemed to be going well when after a big (and very painful bump) we realised we had a flat tyre. Luckily not an omen of things to come. Coincidentally Max, who had ridden with us to the border had a ‘sympathy flat’ at the same time on his way home!
Stu and Rob changing the tyre just over the Malaysian border.
Two good, fast days followed (thanks to Rob!) and we ended up in the surprisingly nice coastal town of Muar, with its very impressive Indian temple, beautiful mosque and waterfront. We packed Rob off to his meeting in Johor and Stu and I continued up to Malacca. We had two lovely nights in this historically very interesting town, enjoying the waterfront, preparations for Chinese New Year, architecture and even a visit to the history museum. Malacca’s ruling from Sultanate to Portagues, to Dutch, to British and then links with China makes it a fascinating place to understand the country's evolving place in the world economy (at least for Stu!).
The ever-present reminder of Chinese relationships and power.
We then sped up the coast taking advantage of Malaysia’s excellent, mostly paved, back road network. The west coast is very industrial with palm and rubber plantations dominating the countryside in between towns. Pollution is evident and thus between Malacca and Penang there is not a huge amount to write about the scenery. However, the Malaysian people do deserve a blog to themselves. They are some of the nicest, friendliest people we have met and even on the big roads, although there were many, many cars, the drivers were very patient and careful with us!
Lovely small roads to cycle on.
One thing that struck me was how the first thing the men would say was how old they were: “I am Zahari, I am 74’ said one. ‘I am 72 years old’ said another. ‘I and 47 and my father is 70’ said Hafami, our host one night. Old age is a sign of respect and should rightly be lauded. Especially when we remember the amount of change this country has had. Zahari continued by saying ‘my birthday is when the Japanese took this country...'
Zahari and his nephew.
Hafami is an interesting guy who runs the Pachitan Homestay, 100km north of Malacca. Before this he studied in London and then worked for a bank in Kuala Lumpur, but he likes having the freedom of running the homestay. We stayed in his house but his whole village accepts visitors into their houses and they put on cultural events and tours. His main clients are Chinese and Japanese, we were his first British visitors although he hopes to have more in the future…
He took us to the riverfront cafe his cousin runs for supper and we met his father who was fishing. His father had been in the army and then a teacher but a stroke made it hard for him to continue working. He does fish every evening although he says most of the fish are too small and so he gives them to his cat!
Hafami and his father, taking a break from fishing.
On Chinese New Year, we again marvelled at the generosity of strangers. We had stopped for a quick rest by the side of the road when a cyclist wearing a bright yellow Tour de France jersey stopped and started talking to us in Hokkien (a Chinese dialect). He then got out his phone, said a few words to someone and then passed it to us: we spoke to his daughter who said that her father wanted to invite us for a New Year’s breakfast!
Chinese new year with Mr Ong and his daughter.
Our next proper stop was on the island of Penang. We had hoped to cross the 7km bridge and had been told that cyclists do it, but we were turned back, even when we pointed out to the guard that cycling back into four lanes of oncoming traffic would be more dangerous than continuing. He stood firm. We headed to the ferry which luckily was short, cheap and regular. Georgetown is another fascinating town, similar to Malacca in many ways although seemingly more touristy. It was a bit of a shock to be surrounded by so many westerners (and to pay tourist prices) after being ‘off the beaten track’ for a while.
Ferry across and then the beautiful architecture of Penang, very similar to Malacca, and Stu was happy to find the 'Wheelers Coffee Shop!
Then onwards and upwards, we headed towards the Thai border. The scenery got more interesting as industry and palm plantations made way for natural forest - we were cycling through the start of the karst topography which southern Thailand is famous for. The people and cars also lessened making for even more pleasant cycling. Our final day in Malaysia was the toughest cycling we had done in a long time. Just before the border was a big and very steep hill. I ended up having to walk up some of it. It made me realise how ‘un hill-fit’ I had become, and that the following days in Thailand would be interesting…!
View from half way up to the border back towards Malaysia - the start of the climb is in the distance!