Our first bicycle tour. Our first country. Our first of many firsts. This is the beginning....
We landed in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, from Sydney airport at 5:30pm on Sunday the 25th of March 2018. Coming off the plane we were pumped, a little dreary from the air travel as always, but excited so that any feeling of sluggishness was just background noise to the bustle of the Kuala Lumpur highway. We pre-booked a hotel in the northwest of Kuala Lumpur, a district called Kapar. The area we stayed was a little derelict with dilapidated buildings, crammed spaces and rubbish littered across roads and the small rivers/canals.
The first two nights we stayed here, slowly watching the traffic to assess our ability to ride in Malaysia. Traffic was not dissimilar to Australia with the exception of weaving motorcyclist and cars that changed lanes at the drop of a hat. However, there was a kind of general order.
On the second day….we rode! Although, it did take us a few hours in the morning to work ourselves up to actually getting on the road. It became awkward at one point because we both kept stalling each other and were getting a little irritated by each other’s tactics. Finally, we took off. Straight onto the west coast highway that takes you out northwest of Kuala Lumpur along the coastal towns of western Malaysia…..and, so it began…..
To put it simply we rode along the west coastline of the of Malaysia (western island of Malaysia). We followed the old highway which took us most of the way with the exception of a few detours. Highlights of the trip included the road from Ipoh to Taiping, the buildings of George Town (Penang) but not so much Penang itself and the coastal road from Penang to Langkawi.
MALAYSIA AS WE SAW IT
As we left Kapar, we quickly noticed how easy it is to ride in Malaysia. The roads are flat and much of them are well paved. There is hardly a hill along the coast unless you head east into the mountains of the Cameron Highlands. There you will feel that lactic burn. Also, even though the traffic looks a little chaotic as the observer on the side of the road, when you are in the thick of it then it is organised, courteous and has a unique flow. I can say hands down that the drivers in Malaysia are much more courteous than drivers in Australia towards bike riders.
As we rode north we passed a National Park in Kuala Selangor. You have to pay $4 rigget ($1.30 AUD) to go into the National Park but you can take your bikes in for a ride. There wasn’t much to see here although it was nice to see a sanctuary for trees. Much of the land on the west coast is cultivated or has been made into a concrete jungle. The National Park had thousands of tiny crabs along the mudflats with salamanders hiding in the murky waters. Unfortunately, one thing you noticed was the rubbish and that was a continuing theme throughout Malaysia (I suspect probably most of Asia). Even in a National Park, that was being cared for, there was serious amounts of rubbish, likely brought in from the ocean as the National Park was on a tidal flat.
We continued north, looking for places to camp. However, in Malaysia it is not easy to find good camping spots. Most of the land is either farm land or residential housing. If you are lucky to find land that doesn’t fit into these categories, then you would probably be camping in a swamp. Luckily, it is very cheap to stay in a hotel. After riding in the heat all day, a hotel with a cold shower is exactly what you want. We generally stayed in hotels that were priced between $60 rigget to $100 rigget ($20 to $33 AUD), including the ridiculous $10 tourism tax they charge all tourists in Malaysia.
After riding along the coast for three days, we cut back east to try and find some camping spots and waterfalls that we had heard about. This road took us towards the old tin mining town, Ipoh (pronounced eeeepohhh in Malaysia). We were riding down the highway to get to the waterfall. When approaching the waterfall, which you can see from the highway, we realised that there was no turn off for the waterfall. After checking the map in detail, we found that it was twenty kilometres either way to find a turn off. So, we jumped the fence on the highway. Easy right? It wasn’t that easy. We had to hike our bikes up the man-made batters that were very steep and then lift them over a 6ft fence before pushing them up another batter even steeper than the one before. This was all in 35/40 degree heat. We were dripping with sweat and exhausted by the time we reached the road we were meant to be on. Eventually we made it to the waterfall. It was a small waterfall in the end as the rocks were not on a steep cliff rather they made a slow incline. However, there was a pool at the base where we got to swim and recover from our ordeal.
We then took advice from a local Malay at the waterfalls who directed us to a campsite about 5 Km away called Draco campsite. It was free to camp there and we had the place to ourselves. We camped right next to a river where we could swim, cook and wash. It was very peaceful and worth all the effort to get there. That night it rained in the mountains. Suddenly, the small peaceful river was in full rage! It doubled in size within ten minutes going from clear, tranquil water to brown ferocity. It was so loud we had trouble sleeping. Not to mention our tent and the humidity made it so hot that I could feel my skin melting.
We woke up late that day and it was hard to get motivated to move after a bad night sleep. At about 10am we were off again…. for about ten minutes until we found the local restaurant for breakfast. We stopped there for some classic Malaysian stir fried rice with a mixture of??….. I don’t really know what is in it. I think there were sardines, maybe? These small road side cafes/shops also serve great iced coffee and iced tea. Although generally served with either condensed milk or a tonne of sugar with milk. You need to ask for no sugar. Malays love sugar in their drinks.
We then rode again…. For ten minutes. Until we found a little store selling fruits and vegetables. These stores are everywhere. You can buy a little of anything really. We usually get some fruit but at this store we didn’t need to buy any. The customers were giving us their fruits out of kindness. This is one of the many things you receive from friendly strangers when bicycle touring and it makes your day. At the same shop we met and elderly man who used to live in Australia as a horse trainer. His name was Loh and he kindly invited us to stay at his property in Ipoh for the night.
We rode to Ipoh and set up camp at his property. Loh then came and took us out for dinner at his favourite Indian restaurant in town. I’m not 100% sure but I think Loh said the Sultan eats there sometimes. Loh then took us on a tour of Ipoh. Showing us the old colonial buildings, many Chinese cave temples and the famous chicken soup street. It was a great night with a fantastic host.
The next day we rode straight towards the highway and stopped right where the Ipoh road toll is. Here there was a classic road side rest stop. However, Malaysian road side rest stops have one fantastic quality better than the Aussie ones… they have a SHOWER. After getting fresh and so clean in the lovely road side rest stop, we decided to tour some of the temples during the day. The best of the temples we saw in Ipoh was the Perek Chinese cave temple. It had one very large golden buddha inside a deep limestone cave. The cave itself had many caverns all with old paintings of Chinese warriors, buddhas and the classic Chinese dragons. You can climb up a stair case cut into the cave which leads to a platform very high up the mountain itself, overlooking northern side of Ipoh.
Following Ipoh we took the old road which went northeast, following the arch at the base of a large mountain/mountain range. You should note that the scenery changes dramatically when you approach Ipoh. The scenery goes from a vast, cultivated flat land positioned beside the ocean to a smooth plane with outcrops of steep, undulating hills that are separated from neighbouring hills by more level planes. The most impressive hills were made of limestone. These hillsides were eroded by years of heavy rainfall such that there were steep cliff faces and formations that looked similar to stalactites found in limestone caves. The colours of these hills ranged from bright white transitioning in areas to browns, oranges and reds while being framed perfectly by the thick green Malayan jungle.
We eventually stopped at a little town called Kuala Kangsar. This is the Sultan’s town. It is a very busy but sweet bustling town. The bridges into the town appear to be of colonial age and are white with golden lamp posts. There is one main road through the town and as we reached it in the afternoon it was like peak hour in Sydney. Cars were backed up and it was perfect for a bicycle to zig zag its way through. We found a nice little hotel for the night which Teagan loved as it had antique furniture and appeared to be an old colonial office building transformed into a hotel. As soon as possible, we went on the hunt for food. When you cycle all day you will be sure to notice that the hunger never ends. We ate two meals that afternoon each and probably could have had much more. Although all the food is amazing in Malaysia, it’s hard to go past the Malaysian street burgers. They are killer for a hungry cyclist. Packed with juicy goodness, salads, egg, meat/veg patties and chilli sauce. Mmmmmmm. Watch out McDonalds. Another great option is the classic rotti. You can have rotti with egg, rotti with potato, rotti with chicken, all the rotti you can imagine and served with sides of different curries. The food was priced reasonable too. Compared to Australia it is super cheap. You can get a rotti with egg for about $3 to $6 rigget ($1 to $2 AUD) and a burger cost about the same. Drinks are between $1 and $3 rigget (30 cents to $1 AUD). In tourist areas its about double. Kuala Kangsar was one of Teagan's favourite places. Aside from the beautiful streets and buildings, the place was practically overrun with cats. We now have more photos of cats on our camera than photos of Malaysia itself.
Now for one of the best parts of Malaysia we went to… Taiping. We rode into Taiping expecting to stay one day so we could see the night Safari. When we got there, we went into the suburbs to look for a little guesthouse we found on our phone app called ‘maps.me’. After a little bit of back and forth through the streets we found a hidden gem in the suburbs of Taiping… ‘The Forest Stay Guesthouse’. This place is owned by a lovely Chinese/Danish couple Lin and Gert. They were immediately super excited to have us stay and it was such a nice welcome. We got to stay in their little triangular shaped cabin which had luxury items like a toaster! This little get away house was quaint and it was more like staying at a friend’s house than at a guesthouse. Very personal and we loved it so much we stayed another night.
So, we had a day to spend in Taiping. We went to the zoo which was ok, but we are still not sure how I feel about zoo’s (animals in cages etc). Gert then took us hiking to his secret waterfall/pool in the mountains. This is a service of the guesthouse that is offered at a price, but it is so worth it! We followed the river up the mountain and Gert told us much about Malaysia, the fruits and the overall intricacies of life in Malaysia. Trekking soon became reasonably hard as there was thick jungle along the river banks and the banks themselves were very steep and lined with a slippery clay. I assumed that we were the only people walking that part of the jungle for many days as there was a swarm of leeches. These blood starved leeches seem to come from nowhere and attacked us as quickly as their long tubular bodies would carry them. As we scrambled out of the jungle and back towards the river, we realised that we had reached a tranquil deep blue/green pool that had a small waterfall feeding it. We quickly picked all the leeches off our feet before diving in for a well-deserved swim. It was beautiful and something I’m sure we wouldn’t have experienced in Malaysia if it wasn’t for Lin and Gert. If you are cycle touring and need a break, please check out these guys and stay a day or two. It is worth your time.
Following Taiping we went to Penang. Travelling into Penang from the south you need to head to the mainland town of Butterworth. There was a sudden change in the housing density as you approach the city. We go from rural towns/cities to a bustling metropolis. It is a little nerve racking to say the least. One thing to remember in Malaysia is don’t follow the road signs. They are shockingly bad. We were trying to cross the old bridge into George Town, Penang but got lost in the industrial area because of the signs. Then the signs took us onto the highway with no turn off to the bridge. Finally, when we got to the bridge it turns out bikes aren’t even allowed to cross it (because it is supposedly too dangerous). We had to then get the ferry. This short trip we expected to take an hour at max took use four hours. When we got to George Town, the traffic was even worse because we now had to also deal with tourists walking randomly all over the streets. So, our initial perceptions were one of frustration and nervous annoyance. However, that afternoon we went for a walk. We found that George Town had its own unique cultural hub. There is a strong mix of Malay, Chinese and Indian in one small, densely populated city. George Town also has a large artistic feel to the town with modern cafes and restaurants. It was nearly the opposite to the country side we just rode through. All this culture and art was set on the backdrop of old, slightly deteriorated, colonial buildings. The terrace buildings were of varying bright colours of yellow, whites, creams and blues. They had wooden doors and shutters with detailed art deco balustrades. Graffiti art was everywhere in George Town and you can take a whole afternoon walking around admiring the buildings and the graffiti art.
We stayed one day in George Town and this was enough for us. Although the buildings are great, its downfall is the tourism. Being a tourist town, it was significantly different from the rest of Malaysia we had just past through. We preferred the small country towns than the bustling city. So, we left George Town and decided to go north on the Island of Penang. In the northwest of the island is a National Park where supposedly you can camp for free. This sounded perfect for us. Maybe too perfect….
The travel to the National Park was interesting. Much of the land had been developed into fancy villas for the rich and probably the retired expats. It was a nice ride north as suddenly the road turns to jungle on your left and beaches on your right. We stopped for a rest at a place called the spice gardens where there was a nature sanctuary specifically designed to provide detail to the public about different flora from around the world, particularly spices from Malaysia and southeast Asia. It was a little pricey to get in there at $30 rigget per person, but it was beautiful and informative. It is worth a visit if you enjoy a relaxed scene and want to smell some amazing spices.
Reading up about the National Park, we found that there were two camping spots “Monkey Beach’ and ‘Turtle Beach’ with ‘Turtle Beach’ supposedly being the nicer of the two. When we got to the National Park, we found out that you cannot travel by bicycle to the camping spots. They just won’t allow it. Not even with the nicest persuasion. Also, we can only go to the populated camping spot called ‘Monkey Beach’ by boat which cost around $90 rigget ($30 AUD) for two people with bikes. They introduced a new rule in Malaysia that you can only go to ‘Turtle Beach’ with a guide because it is too dangerous. I called bullshit. I think it is just another tourist trap to get money. The Malaysian Government seemed to do that frequently to tourist which, for me, leaves a bad taste in my mouth. So, in the end we couldn’t go to the nice beach just the bad one and it would cost the same as staying in a hotel for the night. So, we free camped on a beach just south of the National Park. It was a win for jttouring, kind of. The issue was that the spot was right next to a busy road, it was covered with mosquitos and it was sooo hot. We hardly slept at all that night and nearly gave up on camping all together.
After that shocker of a night we just packed up and rode out of Penang. Soon we were back to the small towns and quite roads where we felt comfortable. Only about 100km out of Penang, we found a small beach town called ‘Yan’. We overheated a little that day and decided that we needed to stop for the night. We found a place called the ‘Pawana Jerai Resort’. What a chance finding too. The owner, Yani, spoke amazing English and he was such a welcoming host. Immediately we were talking about the Islands just off the coast when he asked if we wanted to camp the night on an Island called ‘SongSong’. He said it was pristine and nothing like the tourist areas. So, we got on a boat and camped the night on a beautiful tropical island. The island itself was only around 200m to 500m in diameter and was popular with Malaysian fishermen. We collected coconuts off the trees and relaxed in a hammock reading a book. The next day Yani picked us up from the Island and took us to a local Malaysian seafood restaurant where we had some BBQed fish. So delicious.
Our last stop in Malaysia was the second largest tourist spot in the western Island of Malaysia, Langkawi Island. To reach this Island we needed to catch a ferry from a small port town called Kuala Kedar. It was a reasonably priced ferry, around $40 rigget ($13 AUD) per person including bikes. The ferry drops you on the eastern side of Langkawi. This is not the tourist side of the Island and we stayed one night here just to rest.
The next day we rode to the western side of the Island and found a hotel on the beach. The beaches in Langkawi were very clean, probably the cleanest beaches we had seen. Other than the beaches we didn’t see much more of Langkawi, although we heard there are some great waterfalls and hikes that could be undertaken with a little more time. During the afternoon we were lucky enough to run into another cycle tourist. His name was ‘Walter’ and he was from Holland. He had been travelling for about 5 months through India and Nepal. Along his travels, Walter had decided not to pay for accommodation during his travels and was camping where ever he could. We offered for him to stay in our hotel for the night which he accepted. This was great as it meant we got more time to talk to him about cycle touring. Walter told us all about the adventures he has had since he decided to not pay for accommodation. They were such great stories that it reignited the flame in us to continue camping and try harder to find more places to pitch our tent.
The next day we rode back to the dock and jumped on board a ferry heading to the town of Satun, in Thailand. The next stage of our journey was about to begin. This time we were going to camp more often and hopefully increase our opportunities for adventure and further our experiences.
OUR TIPS FOR BICYCLE TOURISTS
I thought a few notes of things we found interesting during our travels would be great to put down for other cycle tourists:
- Firstly, Malaysia is super easy to ride around. It’s flat and food is everywhere. The only issue is that after midday it gets hot. We’re from Australia and thought we could handle heat but it is relentless in the afternoon in Malaysia. Ride early. Sun rises about 7am so start at about 7:01am. Not that we were ever diligent enough to be out the door by then. Usually we were out by 7:15am to 8am.
= Next, try not to spend too long in George Town. Although the buildings are impressive, you do see these old colonial style buildings across Malaysia. There were some particularly good ones in a town called Kuala Kangsar. The rest of George Town can be viewed in about a day. There are a few more restaurants selling beer in George Town though, if you needed a cold one after a few days of riding.
- Be warned about camping. It is hot even at night. That makes it very hard to sleep. We only had one good night camping in Malaysia and that was on the tropical Island called ‘SongSong’. The rest of the nights camping we were either too hot or it was super noisy outside from all the cars and motobikes in Malaysia. If the hotels weren’t so cheap I would have tried to find more camping spots. Supposedly, you can camp in Mosques, but we didn’t try that. Additionally, we didn’t know whether it is suitable for women to camp too. Our friend Walter had a little rechargeable fan that would be worth investing in for camping.
- Get the app ‘Maps.me’ or something similar. It is an app similar to google maps but can be used easily offline. It has a heap of features perfect for bicycle touring. There are heaps of reviews about this app so I won’t go into much detail here.
- You don’t need a sleeping bag if you are only travelling these hot parts of Southeast Asia. We still have our sleeping bags, but we expect to use them in the not too distant future. Just bring a sleeping bag liner.
- Finally, get ready to be in the photographs of every Malaysian restaurant owner in the country towns. I’m still not sure why the wanted photographs with us, but our ugly mugs are likely the profile picture of half of Malaysia.
Malaysia is a great country to ride through. Many cycle tourists enjoy Malaysia and we have met quite a few on our travels. Malaysia has a huge mixture of culture from pre-existing colonial times merging into an array of Malaysian, Indian, Bangladeshi and Chinese cultures. Most people speak English in Malaysia, so communication is very easy. The only downfall, which is minor compared to how beautiful this country is, is the rubbish. I suspect most of South-East Asia to be very similar, but the rubbish is tremendous. It covers nearly every part of the country where we rode. There were a few exceptions where the rubbish wasn’t as bad, but it was still present non-the less.
For our first country, I think Malaysian might have been the perfect choice. It was easy to navigate and communicate. The food was delicious, and the people were super friendly. Next on the agenda is Thailand. Keep posted for more photographs, videos and blogs. We are on Facebook as JT Touring and Instagram as jttouring.