Inroads into Malaysia, not all Tarmac is Equal
The Final Days of Thailand
10th to 24th October 2019
Phuket to Wang Prachan Border Crossing
Distance 325 km
Total Distance 31352 km
So at the end of the last blog I had been sitting in Bangtao, Phuket for about 3 weeks and I was waiting for my credit card to arrive in the post.
It finally arrived the very next day, the 10th of October. But as I mentioned I now only have 5 days left on my visa for Thailand with 485km to the Malaysian border, about 6 days cycling. Or I could get the ferry to Koh Lanta and cut that down to 310km, 4 days cycling. My other options were to extend my visa for 30 days at a cost of 1900 baht ($62) or catch a 10 hour ferry direct to Langkawi Malaysia for about $120! Well as it happened there was also the small matter of Englands Rugby World Cup Quarter Final game against Australia. If I left immediately where would I watch it?! Decision made I popped down to Patong Immigration Office and extended my Thai Visa for another 30 days. Now I didn’t have to rush off.
Claudine and Billy’s furniture also turned up that week, all the way from Azerbaijan, so it was all hands to the pump, unloading, unwrapping, hanging pictures, moving furniture, knick knacks and kitchenware from room to room! Claudine has the eye of an interior designer and the house is soon looking amazing!
And then it was Saturday and the big day was upon us, Australia to beat to proceed to the semis. I was very nervous about the outcome so Emma and I went down the pub early for some pre match drinks to settle the nerves. It was a huge crowd in the pub, mainly expats with a few holidaymakers and 1 round the world cyclist in the mix. Also visiting was Sam, Emma’s friend from Kuala Lumpur, she’s a PE teacher, netball coach/player and all round good egg. With the crowd in good form and the drinks flowing we sat on the edges of our seats, stood and cheered, hugged and congratulated as England put Australia to the sword. What a fab day.
That Sunday was definitely needed as a rest and recovery day as I packed up my bags and got ready to leave Phuket. Billy and Claudine had been amazing hosts and I love them to bits but it was time to get out of their hair and move on. The feet were itching for some cycling. So on Monday 21st October, a whole month after arriving I said goodbye and cycled down to Phuket Town and the ferry terminal to catch the ferry to Ao Nang and the mainland.
It was a fast and easy 25km to the ferry and I arrived with plenty of time to spare. I bought my ticket and paid a little bit extra for my bicycle then sit with a few tourists and wait for loading. Unfortunately when it came to load it seemed there were three other ferries that we had to cross deck to get to the final ferry. This was quite easy for my bags but when it came time to carry the bike on board the gangplanks were too narrow. I ended up having to lift it upside down and balance it on my head whilst navigating the gangplanks! It was a pleasant 2 hour crossing but funnily enough at the other side I had to once again porter my bags across another 3 ferries and then return for the bike, all whilst fighting the crowds of disembarking passengers! To cap it all off as I cycled out of the port it started to rain. Sod it, it’s only midday but I’m going to call it quits and grab a hotel. At least I’ll get to see what Ao Nang is like.
Well in the rain it was a bit drab, but there’s some beautiful beaches and lovely restaurants dotted all along the sea front. In the afternoon the rain lifted and I enjoyed a meal whilst watching the sunset.
So for the next 3 days I make my way steadily to the border. The ride out of Ao Nang and past Krabi was reminiscent of Tam Coc in Vietnam, with steep kaarst mountains lining the road.
On my final day in Thailand as I neared the border I stopped to use the toilet at a fuel station. When I came out I noticed a tandem bicycle with touring panniers parked beside the ladies toilets. I loitered by the ladies (not often do you hear me say that!!) and then introduced myself to Cat and Raz as they came out. We shook hands, (yes we’d all washed them!) and as the ladies were stopping for a coffee I joined them to have a chat.
So it turns out that Cat (Catherine) and Raz (Rachel), both from the UK, are on a bit of a mission! They are attempting to break the Guinness World Record for a circumnavigation of the world by 2 women on a tandem, and raise money for charity as well. They reckon they’re still on target and actually there’s a good chance they may even beat the men’s record. The men’s record currently stands at 283 days, seven hours and 36 minutes to cycle more than 18,000 miles across five continents.
They aim to cross 25 countries, cover the five continents, averaging between 80 and 100 miles a day to break the record. (The women’s record is 320 days) The goal of their fundraising mission, called TandemWoW, is to attract a pound per mile and collect £18,000 to be shared between the Motor Neurone Disease Association and Oxfam. I ask them if it’s OK to ride with them to the border. They are happy to have me along on one proviso… I’m not allowed to go in front. This would be deemed for them to be drafting me and against the rules. I on the other hand have no quibbles about drafting for an easy life and slip in to their slipstream as they cycle off. Wow, they can certainly shift and at times its hard to keep up, especially on the inclines. I take some pictures and videos of them in action and send them copies.
When the traffic allows (and my speed) I pull up alongside and chat with them both about their challenge, the route and cycling niff naff and trivia. Finally we turn off the main road and hit some pleasant back roads through forest just before we start climbing towards the border. Just as it starts to rain too. Fortunately the heavens wait until we are at the border before unleashing a monsoon rain and we are able to take shelter.
The border crossing at Wang Prachan is very quiet and we are soon booked out of Thailand and enter Malaysia.
Total days in Thailand 70
Total cycling days 26
Total Mileage in Thailand 2317
Average Daily Mileage 89.12
24th Oct to 9th Nov 2019
Wang Prachan Border Crossing to Johor Bahru
Distance 978 km
Total Distance 32329 km
The rain lifts and the sun pops back out again as we set off along the steaming Malaysian road. There’s a short respite from the climb but then we hit the hill. I manage to get ahead of the ladies as they stop to change some clothing and I take some more video as they climb up and around one of the many switchbacks. The girls pass me by and we continue climbing, grinding up the hill. The sun is blazing and after the heavy rain the humidity is thick enough to cut with a knife.
Suddenly I start to feel quite sick, the girls are now way ahead and I’m still climbing. I pull over under a tree. Wow, I’ve never felt like this before. Heat stroke? Weakness? Anyhow, sitting here isn’t going to help much so after a short rest I drink the last of my water and continue on. I get out my umbrella and deploy it, feeling some respite from the strength of the sun. I weave from one side of the road to the other seeking shaded patches where the jungle shields me further. Thankfully it’s a very quiet road. At last I crest the hill, and would you believe it, the clouds come back and it’s instantly cooler as I descend for the next 4km. I’m soon feeling much better but at the bottom of the hill there’s a small village and a general store so I pull in, yet again just in time as the clouds unleash another monsoon rain. Damn this monsoon! At least I can get some fluids and food here and recover. The tandem duo have obviously continued on. How do I know this? Well in the shop are another 2 cyclists, Daniel (Australian) and Claire (Canadian) both now living in Melbourne.
They saw Cat and Raz cycling off into the rain. However I spy an opportunity here. I have Thai baht but no Malaysian Ringgit. I ask Daniel and Claire if they have any and would they like to swap some. Yes and yes. So now I have fixed the immediately problem of no currency to buy goodies from the shop. We are sat under an awning opposite the shop and whilst I tuck into a litre of pop, biscuits and crisps (for the salt obviously!) we swap info on Thailand and Malaysia. I gift them my Thai Sim card as it still has a large quantity of data on it which will be useful for them. Unfortunately their’s has run out, but they tell me which is the best to get, so I pop back into the shop and now I have data and money!!
Well the rain has eased off a little although the clouds are a deep and dark grey, leaden with cyclist soaking monsoon rain. I’ve got another 26km before the first proper town with accommodation (Kangar) and it’s getting on so I’d best be going too. I say goodbye to Claire and Daniel and cycle under the malevolent clouds.
And yes you’ve guessed it, with about 10km to go the drizzle becomes a downpour and by the time I find my accommodation for the night I am soaked, not only from the rain but also from all the spray as the crazy Malaysian drivers whoosh by me in the half light of the downpour. But I sing out loud and feel alive and weirdly invigorated. What an up and down day, filled with meetings and weather, highs and lows. Some days are so enriched then others can be so dull. It’s a weird life this cycling!
As for Cat and Raz, they are still going strong and as I write this they are already in Australia, about to cross the infamous Nullarbor. If you want to follow them here’s the link
Ok, so Malaysia, what’s it like? Here are some observations from the road…
Tarmac, as the title of the blog alludes to, the state of the road surfaces in Malaysia are noticeably poorer than anywhere else I’ve ridden in SE Asia! Huge cracks, rough pebbledashed sections, potholes, shoddy repaid and lack of hard shoulders continually slow my pace down.
Drivers, there’s more of them in Malaysia and it seems everyone is in more of a hurry to get to their destination.
Traffic lights, OMG!!! The traffic light sequence in Malaysia is soooooo slow. And there’s a lot of traffic lights!
Cars, it may just be me, but there seems to be a lot of poorly maintained, older cars in Malaysia. There is also a hugely excessive amount of boy racers with loud, smoking exhausts.
Hotels, crazily overpriced compared to the rest of SE Asia (less Singapore obviously!!) average is $12 to $14 in towns.
Dogs, after the crazyness of Thai dogs barking, chasing and putting holes in my panniers the placid Malaysian dog is a beautiful animal.
Food, Malaysia is a hodgepodge of Malay, Chinese and Indian, with a splash of Thai nowadays. So food choices are amazing, Roti and curry, Nasi Goreng, Chinese lemon chicken all delicious and readily available. The prices are good too and in the smaller towns and countryside it is easy to find a meal and a drink for 1 or 2 dollars at the very lost.
People. OK, so forget about the bad roads, traffic lights, fast drivers and pollutant cars. Because the people are so amazingly nice. When I’m sat at traffic lights everyone is saying hello or passing me food. Every truck that passes me by has a friendly arm or grinning face waving and smiling at me. I’ve had breakfast, lunch and dinner paid for by people as I stop and chat with them. On my first full day in Malaysia I didn’t buy a single meal. One man I stopped for a photo with managed to find me on the road several hours and kilometres later and flag me down with 2 bags of drinks and snacks (thank you so much Richard!!). Everywhere there are smiles, cheery call outs and waves as I cycle by. Everyone is inquisitive about my journey and worried that I am alone. So forget about that tarmac, because it’s only 1 small part of my journey, taken over by the kindness and friendship of Malaysia.
So remember that we beat Australia in the Quarter Finals if the Rugby World Cup? How could you!! OK so the Semi Final is against New Zealand, I check my map and wonder where I might catch the game. My best bet is a tourist location, as most normal Malaysian towns it will be difficult to find a bar showing the game. I decide that Georgetown on the Island of Penang will be an ideal location. Just a small matter of riding 200km and catching a ferry in 2 days time to ensure I see the game. No problem!
As the sun sets on the second day I cycle onto the crowded ferry to take me the short distance to Penang Island.
Destination Georgetown! Here’s some Internet blurb…
Georgetown is a pedestrian-friendly city, with a well-planned series of roads and paths connecting one end of Penang’s capital to the other. Here, lots of random goodness has been mixed together to result in a city that is just so vibrant – think, colourful street art caricatures right beside centuries-old temples, and you are right on the money.
There is a wealth of creativity, plus a dedication to preserving this island state’s colonial heritage and evidence of this can be found just about everywhere, from the indigo-blue Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion to the ornate Kek Lok Si Temple.
I have to say, the street art is amazing. From walls covered in murals to statues, or lifelike painting of subjects in juxtapose with everyday objects, and steel rod metallic sculptures giving whitty history lessons on the area, Georgetown has it all covered. You can easily walk around the city, hunting out all these amazing sights, handily marked on Maps.Me and Google. You’ll just have to wait your turn on busy days to get that perfect shot without some Korean or Chinese tourist taking selfies or long photoshoots with their friends in front of them!
So I spend the morning of the game walking under the blistering sun, scoping out these magnificent works of art. I’m staying in a great hostel in the centre and I’ve sorted out two venues to watch the rugby at later in the day.
Oh boy, this is going to be a nervous game to watch. New Zealand have won 33 of the 42 games they have played against England, they haven’t lost a World Cup match against anybody since 2007 and have won 15 of their last 16 international games. Some record.
Well as you probably know by now it was a historic game that England proudly dominated and finally won over the All Blacks 19 to 7!! Celebrations all around!!
So that’s it, England are in the final of the Rugby World Cup and thankfully I’ve got an invite to watch it in Kuala Lumpur with Sam (Emma’s friend who I met in Phuket at the England Australia match), she’s even said she’ll put me up for however long I’ll need at her apartment! I’d best get cracking, it’s 500km to Kuala Lumpur and the games in one week! (easy peasy really!!)
So the route from Penang to Kuala Lumpur is pretty uneventful. Except it’s monsoon season so everyday in the afternoon there’s a torrential downpour and I have to seek shelter under the first building, awning, bridge or as a last resort I deploy my woefully inadequate umbrella to keep the worst off, but this is a little fraut with danger as there is a lack of visibility for me and the passing cars so it’s normally best to get off the road. Sometimes these heavy rains can last 20 mins and then it’s drizzle that I can cycle through. Other times the heavy downpour lasts over an hour and that’s it for the day.
On route I stumble across Perak Cave which has a Chinese temple inside and just before Kuala Lumpur I revisit Batu Caves which I saw last year.
I also meet several other cyclists on route including Eric, William and Kelvin who I meet one morning outside the hotel we were all staying in. They are cycling back to their home in Singapore, but they are one road racing bikes with a very small bag each. Super fast, but we do enjoy a breakfast together in a very local restaurant before they whizz off.
The evening before I get into Kuala Lumpur I stop at Batu Caves, a magnificent staircase leads up to the caveand inside is a Hindu temple.
I arrive early in Kuala Lumpur and this gives me time to sightsee before meeting Sam after she finishes work at her school 30 minutes drive south of the city centre. I manage to cycle right upto the front fountains of the Petronas Towers before an none too vigilant guard comes over and moves me along. I also visit the Central Market, and some of the ancient buildings that are dotted around this thoroughly modernised city.
Traffic is hectic at times and as I head over to meet Sam I get caught on an overpass as the monsoon rain hits… Wow this one is a biggie and by the time I find shelter in a bar I’m soaked to the skin. I end up having to get half naked and wring out all my clothes whilst standing under an umbrella outside the bar before I can let myself in. Even so I still leave a huge puddle!!
After a while Sam arrives home to her apartment and I cycle the last 10 minutes to her block but thankfully the rains have finished.
Wow, she has a beautiful home, and when she gives me the walk around I’m suitably impressed by the swimming pool, gym and lounge area that all the residents share. I’ll definitely make use of them during my stay. I’ve arrived a little early for the Rugby but it does mean I get to join her and her friends at the local pub quiz, cook us both a meal (anytime I get access to a kitchen I’m more than happy to cook!) and thoroughly enjoy lounging around on her sofa watchig Netflix whilst she’s at work!!
Finally the big day arrives and we meet some of Sam’s friends in a local bar to watch the final of the Rugby World Cup. England vs South Africa.
On Sunday its a bit of a relaxation day as I’ll be cycling on again…. Wait! What happened at the Rugby you ask?? OK if you must know England didn’t turn up and we lost the game. Sam and I go out for an English roast Sunday dinner, roast beef, Yorkshire puddings and all the trimmings! Wow, makes up for the crap rugby!!
Thanks again Sam for hosting me and allowing me to lounge around your pad and swimming pool whilst you work your tail off at school! I hope I wasn’t too much of an inconvenience!!
Cycling out of Kuala Lumpur was a bit of a nause, but leaving at 5am in the morning definitely helped as at times I find myself on busy expressways to save kilometers of zig zagging on minor roads with innumerable traffic lights! Once I’m out into the country and heading to the coast road the traffic is much more manageable. Next destination, Melaka / Malacca depending on how you want to spell it!
Malacca City (also spelled Melaka) is the capital of the coastal state of Malacca, in southwestern Malaysia. At its center, Jonker Street, Chinatown’s main thoroughfare, is known for antique shops and its night market. Nearby, the 17th-century Chinese Cheng Hoon Teng temple has ornate decorations and multiple prayer halls. A green, 3-tiered roof tops the 18th-century, Javanese-influenced Kampung Kling Mosque.
Malacca is the historical state of Malaysia, rich with heritage buildings, ancient landmarks and colonial structures. It was here that colonial forces first made contact with Malaysia, which eventually shaped the country into its current economic and political system.
Today, in Malacca, you can still see the imprints of British, Dutch and Portuguese forces left behind in forts, museums, churches and towers. Visit Malacca for the cultural experience of a lifetime.
It’s a little bit like Blackpool but without the tower, a tacky aging coastal resort. However I do find a great hostel with some fun people in, and Steve the touring cyclist. Like me he’s been on the road for a long time and now he’s hoping to get to Africa. He shows me a great Indian street restaurant and we grab naans and curries and sit on the street in the cooling evening heat.
Pictures around town
It’s at this point I get some bad news. My plan for the future was to cycle to Singapore, catch the ferry to the Indonesia island of Batam about 2 hours south of Singapore then catch the 24 hour ferry from there to Jakarta. This ferry only sails on a weekly basis and I wanted to make sure I didn’t spend too long in uber expensive Singapore. I’d been on the PELNI ferry company website quite a few times but its a clunky site and I was having problems getting the sailing schedule up. In the end I find a WhatsApp number for the main office and send them a message. Well, apparently the reason why I couldn’t get the schedule up is because the ferry is currently out of service for maintenance. Nobody can tell me when it’ll be back in service! Bugger!!
So I decide to stay an extra day in Malacca and strategies my next move. Here are the options I came up with
1. Get the ferry from Malacca to Sumatra. This would add 1500km to my schedule but more importantly eat into the 30 day visa available for Indonesia. You can extend for another 30 days but this takes up to a week sat in one place and I had been hoping to do this in the comfort and paradise of Bali where I can enjoy the snorkeling, beaches and mountains whilst waiting out the beaurocracy.
2. Get a ferry to Borneo then another to Java. This ferry however goes via the Anambas Islands, Natura Islands and then sits for a day in Pontianak before another day’s sail to Java. So about 4 days on a boat. Also it leaves in 3 days and it would be difficult if not impossible to reach in time. Further, the next sailing wouldn’t be for another fortnight.
3. Fly. Yes, fly…. again :-(. This is always an expensive and fraught option and one I like to leave as a last resort. But with options 1 and 2 looking unlikely I searched for a flight. Well as it turns out my favourite airline, Air Asia, do a very cheap flight from Singapore to Jakarta. Why is it my favourite? Because when you book tour flight online their website allows you to prepurchase a bicycle check-in and extra luggage weight at a reduced cost. So the one way flight all included was looking to be about $150. Which isn’t too bad.
So research done I went for a relaxing swim at the 50 metre Olympic outdoor pool in the town centre. Actually quite nice, as there were only about 6 people using it and I was able to get some good laps in.
Next Day I cycled out of Malacca continuing south. I sent the ferry company a follow up question regarding any possible other ferry options and if that all fails I’ll book a flight when I get to Singapore. That day I cycled 110 km to Batu Pahat, and just as I’m turning into the hotel I meet another cyclist, Ivan from. Switzerland. Wow, he’s on a carbon road bike with one small saddle bag at the rear. Super lightweight tourer, way to go. Apparently he has 3 sets of clothes, 1 for cycling, one for relaxing and one for dancing!! We agree to meet up later and have dinner together. In the mean time I do my daily clothes wash and get a couple of hours kip.
We meet for dinner and get on like a house on fire, chatting away about all sorts and finding we both have a similar sense of humour of the road. I really enjoy my time and we sit for ages just gossiping away.
Next morning we both wake up (ahem, separate rooms!) to a light drizzle. We pack up and decide to head over to a local restaurant together for.breakfast. Well as it turns out, Ivan has got a puncture so he’ll be needing to fix that too before he heads north whilst I head south. We get to the restaurant and then the afternoon monsoon rain decides to arrive sodding early, like, it’s only 7am in the morning!! Bugger. We both order some delicious roti chanai and sit waiting for the rain to stop. By 9am and after multiple cups of tea it looks like it’s easing off so I bid Ivan a fond farewell and hit the road. Later I get a picture message from Ivan. He broke his pump whilst fixing his puncture, so that’s him done for the day as he decides to stay another night!! Unlucky!!
Another 110 km day sees me on the southern tip of Malaysia, just before Johor Bahru, the crossing point into Singapore. I know the crossing is going to be a bit of a nightmare, so I’ve purposefully stopped short so I can do the crossing fresh in the morning.
So I’ve researched the crossing, I’ve watched YouTube video and I’ve marked my map with what I think the correct road is. If you look at the map picture there are about 20 lanes of crisscrossing traffic as it enters the customs building.
In the end I follow the hundreds of motorbikes that have their own separate 2 lanes. Once at customs there’s a long wait as we filter through the Malaysian exit. Thankfully there are signs saying to turn off engines and the majority do and roll their bikes forward until its their turn to be processed. I’m sat for about 30 minutes surrounded by motorcycles all pushing and shoving but finally get my passport stamped and I cycle up onto the causeway that crosses over onto the island of Singapore. On the other side it’s another repeat of a big queue but this time I need to ensure I get into the foreigner lane. There are lots of locals also in this lane and when I roll up to the box I get passed an arrival slip. Filling this out takes about 5 minutes as I sit on my trike with the queue behind me. I can feel their stares as I hold up the line! But then it’s done, my passport is stamped and I proceed. There are 2 further checks, one is customs bag checks but I get waved through. The other I’m not sure about but it seems only the locals get stopped again. And that’s it, Its been about an hour and a half but I’m in Singapore. Only one small hurdle left, I need to make sure I take the correct exit lane to not end up on the expressway and receive a police fine! This isn’t helped by the fact I’m following signs for BKE, thinking Bikes, when I realise the name BKE is for the expressway!! Narrowly avoiding this I get on the correct road and cycle on.
I still have about 20km to go to get to the southern tip of the island where Singapore City sits.
Oh and I forgot to mention, this morning I received some very good news. The ferry to Jakarta on Wednesday is back in service! That’s a huge relief, and I even go online and find the schedule has indeed been updated. It must be true! Before I go find some expensive accommodation in Singapore that I book as I’m cycling along a bike path I’m going to a recumbent bike shop first. Azub has sent some replacement seat mounts for my trike as mine are starting to delaminate. I find the address with some trouble as the “shop” is actually a storage unit on the second floor of a commercial office and storage tower block.
I meet the proprietor, John Chen. He’s in the middle of the room putting together a shiny new Azub Ti Fly with Pinion gearbox. It’s so shiny and new looking I fear my trike will have a fit of jealousy! He also has trikes and recumbents from ICE, HPV, Greenspeed and some others I don’t recognise. It’s a treasure trove for recumbent cyclists. It’s also a very new company and that’s why they are situated in this storage room. The market for recumbents in Singapore is still in the fledgling stage but hopefully for John in time they will take off. John even takes me out for a spot of lunch!! Thank you so much!
I now only have 5km to the hostel I booked earlier and I can kick back and relax. It’s Sunday now and on Tuesday I’ll get the ferry to Batam Indonesia then stay overnight before getting the ferry to Jakarta. So I’ll spend 2 nights on Singapore and do all the sightseeing / tourist stuff I can fit in.
Hope you’ve enjoyed the read and come back to see how I get on in Singapore and then Indonesia! Please feel free to leave a comment or share my adventures!
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MALAYSIA /SINGAPORE TOTALS
Total Distance 32382km
Number of days in Malaysia 17
Number of days cycling 10
Average Daily Mileage 95.3km
Number of days in Singapore 4
Number of days cycling 2
Average Daily Mileage 20