Heart to Beat #35 Malaysia

Published on June 19, 2019 at 6:46 AM

We cycle on the Malacca peninsula from Thailand through Malaysia to Singapore. As travelers, we enjoyed Thailand very much: in terms of cycling (beautiful routes, lovely nature, good roads, bicycle shops); in terms of adding enough calories (delicious food, food and drink stalls everywhere); in terms of convenience (everywhere shops, 7-elevens, many accommodations) and in terms of vibe (friendly, happy and open people). We expect that Malaysia will cut us short on some of these “parameters”, but we like to be positively surprised. Roughly we want to follow the west coast of Malaysia and visit the main cities: George Town, Kuala Lumpur and Malacca.

From Krabi in Thailand it takes three and a half day to get to the Malaysian border. The day before we reach the border, we pass the magical 10,000-mile (16,093 km) milestone and record it with help of some toiletpaper on Instagram, Facebook and this blog. Proud!

The scenery of the palm oil and rubber plantations continues to accompany us. What is changing is that the population is changing from predominantly Buddhist to predominantly Islamic. The number of temples is getting smaller in size and the number of mosques is growing as is the size of mosques. Women wearing headscarves increasingly start coloring the streets. The people here also wave and call to us, but we have the idea that the Muslim men mainly express this to Harry. What makes the change in religion even more noticeable is that it is the last week of Ramadan, when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset. For us, it has the annoying side-effect that many eateries where we usually score calories and regain strength, are all closed. They might open after sunset during this period of fasting. Instead of a noodle soup and a fruit shake, we now only can get food and drinks from the 7 Elevens, at least when we come across it.

The last night in Thailand we spend the night in a narrow valley just before the Malaysian border, in the middle of a national park, in the middle of a tropical rainforest with high rocks. We even see an elephant with tusks and without chains (so maybe a wild one) screeching under a bridge. It is beautiful here! This also applies to the border crossing that we pass the next day. The tropical rainforest also continues in Malaysia, there is also a national park that is connected to the Thai park. We conclude that this is the most beautiful border crossing on our trip so far. Malaysia is the 24th country that we cycle into, excluding double visits of course, so it says something.

On the Thai side of the border we meet the nicest customs officer so far. He also likes to cycle and treats us to refreshment wipes, water and a photo shoot. He shows pictures of previous cyclists he met; we think we recognize a number. Apart from the EU, this also is the smoothest border crossing so far: getting the stamps very fast on both departure as arrival side, all for free and without forms, without passport photos, without a queue or without any waiting at all.

From the border we cycle through the tropical forest  We know that after ten kilometers a short tough climb is waiting for us: 200 meter rise in just 2 kilometers , so around 10% increase on average. Fortunately the tropical forest grows at and over the edge of the asphalt,  allowing us to cycle in the shade, while the monkeys accompany us with a lot of cheers that reminds us of the warning siren on every first Monday of the month in the Netherlands. The summit is followed up by a short and beautiful descent and we are treated to breathtaking views of the Malaysian flat lowlands below, which is interrupted in by karst mountains.
Unfortunately the natural beauty, winding roads through the karst mountains end up in a straight wide roads through a flat, rather boring landscape with rice fields. We visit the first larger city to get ringgits (the money here) and to buy a SIM card. We are pleased to see that there are also 7 Eleven’s in Malaysia, but they have a very poor selection compared to those in Thailand. In particular, the “fast food” section which has been so good to us, is missing, so no ham & cheese sandwich, bapao bun or spaghetti. There is also no cheese or sausage for making our own sandwiches, no boiled eggs, and even no rack with reading glasses that we lose or break so often. To our satisfaction we see that they do sell beer, always nice on arrival after a long hot and tiring bike day.

With the ringgits and a SIM card in our pocket, we cycle to the town of Alor Setar, our first place to stay. At sunset the street fills up with food stalls. We choose spring rolls that are covered with a spicy red soy sauce and sprinkled with crumbled peanuts and a plate of rice, vegetables, chicken and a boiled egg that is wrapped into a takeaway package. We take it to our cheap windowless tiny room. The only ‘storage space’ is a folding shelf next to the bed and once folded (we will have to move the mattress), we dine sitting on the bed eating form the shelf.

Malaysia may be predominantly Islamic, but there are also many people with Chinese and Indian roots, each with their own religion. Halfway through the last century the people came (the Chinese) or were brought (the Indians) to Malaysia. An advantage is that the Chinese and Indian do not participate in Ramadan and open their eateries during the day. After two days of cycling we already come to the conclusion that these three different cultures make Malaysia a nice country. Mosques, Indian and Chinese temples stand next to each other. This also applies to the cemeteries, each religion has its own distinctive and recognizable cemetery. We even occasionally see a field with some Christian crosses. They seem to live fraternal next to each other. But they also seem to hardly mix, although they influence each other, in the sense that they adopt each others qualities as we see in the cuisine. Yum!

We cycle the 200 kilometers from the border to our first intended highlight of Malaysia, George Town, in two days. As just mentioned, rather boring stages, with the exception of the beautiful nature reserve in the beginning at the border then. Well, what do you do during boring stages: you try to “make a lot of miles” and – with a lack of better – look more often at your odometer and celebrate our own daily, small milestones:

  • 21.12 km: “twenty one twelve!” (memorable album by Rush, of which Harry was a fan in his younger years)
  • 47.11 km: “eau de cologne!” (or sometimes “Kölnisch Wasser!”)
  • 88 km: “aaachtentaaachtig!” (number where Harry can sing his soft “G” 3 times)
  • 40 km to go: “almost there!” (a silly selfmade psychological limit)
  • 17 km to go: “La Trappe!” (cycling distance from the monastery brewery to Oirschot)
  • 15 km to go: “Eindhoven de gekste!” (cycling distance between Eindhoven and Oirschot)
  • 13 km to go: “Leeuwarden!” (cycling distance from Roelie’s highschool to her home in Grou).


Located on an island called Penang, George Town is a melting pot of nations, beliefs and cultures. It is connected to the mainland by long bridges, of which we know for sure that no cycling is allowed on the first one. Both bridges are in the south, while we come from the north. In the north there is also a ferry service directly from the town of Butterworth to George Town. The English place names still date from colonial times, but unlike many other cities in the world that have changed their colonial names, this has not happened with both sister cities. We connect with a long line of waiting motorbikes and scooters, pedestrians board a level higher and cars with priority on the same level. For a moment not everyone – including us – threatens to be able to board, but with a loud shout everyone is summoned to “thicken”. The ticket for the crossing in less than half an hour cost surprisingly little: for the both of us with the bikes something of € 0.60 and later it will turn out that it is a return ticket as well.

In George Town we think about staying 2 nights and on the internet we find a studio apartment: lots of room to relax, a washing machine and a kitchenette to cook a game. The neighborhood is very fashionable with many skyscrapers and in retrospect not our taste. Harry falls ill at night and gets himself into an amorous, intimate relationship with the toilet until well into the next day. Roelie does the shopping and meets a non-English speaking cashier who tries to make something clear but of which she doesn’t understand anything. A lady from the growing queue behind her comes to the rescue. Roelie has chosen vacuum-packed ham and the Muslim woman at the checkout does not want to touch the package to scan. Aha of course, that ham is totally impure but later on also super tasty on a sandwich under a fried egg. For the evening, Roelie has bought more Western nonsense: spicy merguez lamb sausages, potatoes  to fry wedges and baked beans. Oh and those lamb sausages were also not touched by the cashier lady, assuming it contains pork. As a customer, Roelie scans her own ham and lamb sausages and the problem is solved.

Because of the “lost” day, we decide to stay an extra night in George Town, but move to the heart of the old center. It turns out to be a very good choice: the street art that George Town is known for surrounds our guest house and the room is amazingly large and nicely decorated. On the second day of rest, we cycle around along the painted walls; most of them are painted in 2012, and due to the humid climate the quality deteriorates rapidly. On the other hand, we think this gives an extra dimension to art.

We make an important decision on the last evening in George Town. We change our intended route and do not cycle further along the west coast, but want to cross over to the east coast. The west coast is busy, flat and boring: we have had enough of it already after two days. We skip our intended visit to Kuala Lumpur and Malacca and focus on the Cameron Highlands, a rugged, densely forested high mountain with – according to the internet – still fairly untouched nature. Then the east coast awaits, which will be much quieter than the west coast. An additional advantage is that we are expected to be able to camp regularly in the mountains and on the east coast, which is extra nice because we think that overnight places in Malaysia are quite expensive, at least the most expensive so far in SE Asia.

We get up early to cycle from George Town to the fishing village of Kuala Sepetang, almost 100 kilometers away. The night before we had to put a lot of effort into finding a place to spend the night. Today is the second holiday of the Islamic Eid-al-Fitr and everything is fully booked or closed. As a result, we divert and cycle for another day along the west coast to the coastal fishing village situated in an old mangrove forest. According to Google, there is not much else to do: there are a few fish restaurants and a greengrocer. Harry is already shivering: no beer on arrival and fish for dinner. To complete his sorrow heavy rains accompany us all day, the fish is also coming, but the village turns out to be a tourist attraction for mainly Chinese and the villagers are also predominantly Chinese. And let them be very fond of a cool beer!

The village is bustling; of course it is a holiday but everywhere are restaurants, street food places, a lively day market and quite some of tourists. Oh yes and that fish, what about that? In the afternoon we explore the village already a bit and a lively Thai street restaurant “with authentic grill dishes” caught our eye. When we arrive there in the evening and inquire about dishes without fish (and for example with chicken or something), the sturdy Thai owner is first surprised and then indignant. She doesn’t speak a word of English, but non verbal she screams  “what the hell are you visiting a fishing village”. We do not want to go somewhere else under the assumption that all serve fish and order rice with breaded shrimp in curry. While we are waiting, we actually think that the lady is right and we do order a fatty fish to barbecue. And yes, fishater Harry also eats quite tasty of it.

The guesthouse is to be remember for a long time: nicely decorated in a converted harbor shed under the wings of a giant bird of prey and by far the most noisy room so far. The walls are of plasterboard, the ceilings of wood and the wooden ceilings is the floor of the floor above us. Our nice and cozy room has (again) no window and is trapped between three corridors and two floors. All around us only holiday-loving, non-environment-sensitive Chinese, with whirling children. It sounds like the children above us wear Dutch wooden clogs … Yet we slept well, Harry thanks to his earplugs and Roelie because she just sleeps everywhere, where she lays her head.

The next day we leave the west coast and cycle to the city of Ipoh, exactly 100 kilometers away. It promises to be a more intensive day, because in addition to those 100 km, some 500 meters must also be climbed. Add to that – after yesterday’s rainy day – a sunny, hot and humid day today and you get two overheated and somewhat burnt Westerners who are ecstatically happy if the first guest house in Ipoh offers a pretty fine cheap room.

The serious work begins after Ipoh: we climb up to the Cameron Highlands in one day. Immediately after Ipoh the erratic limestone rocks begin to shoot from the bottom. Chinese and Indian temples stand against the perpendicular slopes. A little further this beautiful statue is brutally disturbed by mineral companies that apparently have permission to damage this beauty for construction material… painful to see. The 50-kilometer climb (route 185) with more than 1,600 meters of altitude is great for cycling, even though there is probably more traffic than usual on a Saturday. Later we hear that together with the Eid-al-Fitr the Malaysian New Year is celebrated for two weeks. Haha, the fourth new year within six months that we can experience on our bike ride: after the (for us) normal new year, we were able to celebrate the Chinese, Buddhist (Songkran) and now Malaysian new year!

The first pass and the real start of the highlands is in the clouds at 1450 meters. Our overnight stay, a very nice hostel is 10 kilometers further and 250 meters lower. The second pass follows the second day and we touch the 1650 meter altitude. The Cameron Highlands promises to be the highlight on our route through Malaysia – and that is literally also at an altitude of 1650 meters – but we have to admit that it makes us a bit sad. The area is almost completely full and is characterized by an apparently hasty and chaotic proliferation of tourist accommodations and covered horticulture (mainly strawberries, tomatoes, flowers and corn) in virtually every possible and impossible place on the slopes. There is also a lot of (mainly plastic) waste along the road and in the rivers. Like we said, it’s sad.

Anyway, that second day we cycle out of this “highlight” again and what follows are two beautiful, but also very strenuous cycling days towards the east coast of Malaysia. The first day promises a lot of descending, that’s right too! But what we have overlooked is that we also have to climb 1,300 meters in the same stage. In total we can go down no less than 2,400 meters. We arrive at a homestay in a strange village, most reminiscent of an exclusive suburb of an Asian city. The homestay is closed (New Year’s holiday!), but the owner offers us a small canopy under which we can place our tent. It just fits. A top spot and very welcome, because it rains very hard all night long.

The next morning the owner asks us where we cycle to the next day: “Jerantut”, we answer. “Ooo, hilly hilly, a lot or uphill meters”, the best man answers and makes a wavy gesture with his hand. He also cycles, he says. Oh well, it is not so bad, we think, since we are at an altitude of around 150 meters already. And well, we knew that; the next day will be one of the toughest after almost a year of cycling! It is a stage of over 100 kilometers up-and-down and up-and-down and up-and-down and so on: eight hours of interval training and the hills are getting a bit lower but the percentages are constantly increasing. We shift faster and faster from the highest to the lowest gear, every descent is used to get speed for the hump that follows. We put a top speed of 75 km/h on the counter downhill and then switch back to 4 km/h uphill.

From Jerantut we cycle to Maran between a still natural landscape and cultivated palm oil plantations on a quiet, winding road. In Maran we find shelter just in time in a chalet that is overdue for maintenance before it starts to rain and rain. It is not the rainy season in Malaysia. This would be the driest time of the year, but certainly not this week. We are nice and dry in our chalet with a large veranda, except for the moment that we go shopping and after 500 meters we step into the (too) cool air-conditioned supermarket soaked.

The last day of the crossing we get a help from a strong tailwind and we almost fly into the town of Kuantan. It is a celebration day for us. We have been married for nine years today and are celebrating our wedding. For this one time we raise our daily budget limit slightly and check in a nice hotel, which we immediately compensate in price for a delicious meal for less than € 3 at a Chinese food court around the corner.

So in the meantime we are on the east coast of Malaysia and hope to cycle and camp on the beach. If we continue to follow the coast, the last village offers a small ferry service that only sails to Singapore when the boat is full. That is our goal, to go another 500 km. In the first instance we note that the coastal strip under Kuantan has a quiet, somewhat shabby appearance. There are few roads and that means that we drive the main road for large parts of the day: a narrow two-lane road with not a lot of traffic, but also no “shoulder”. That little traffic, incidentally, drives incredibly fast and especially trucks and buses hardly give way to cyclists. It is not very nice to cycle, your gaze is constantly focused on avoiding holes, cracks, glass and broken truck tires in and on the road in front of us and on the mirror to the rear trucks. In the town of Pekan we are fortunately getting more motivated. We are often approached on the street while we shop for camping tonight. On the instructions of the route app we leave the town via somewhat smaller roads until a man in a pick-up stops us and warns us that that road will end. We don’t feel like cycling back the 6 km traveled and decide on good luck, but also with little confidence, to continue following the route app. A little further on the pavement has disappeared and a little further on a barrier hangs above the cart track, but fortunately in the position that we are allowed to cycle on. Another two kilometers further, two men are standing next to the path. They ask where we are going and we call back to the main road. They gesticulate to our great relief in the same direction that we cycle and are happy for a change when we turn back on the main road a little later.

Along the main road there are a number of pineapple stalls and we eat the most delicious pineapple ever. Above the stall  are photos on which the lady, who has chopped our pineapple in pieces, receives certificates and / or prizes. She also gets a big compliment in the form of four thumbs up from us. With those sugars in the body we cycle the last part of the still very boring main road to Kakunang Tering Lodge. The ‘lodge’ is owned by Pak Yus, a warm show host who allows cyclists to camp for free on the beach. He is one of the ‘must-visit’ warm show hosts in Malaysia and many cyclists post a photo of the place on Instagram.

Unfortunately, Pak Yus is not present itself. Whoever is there is cyclist Mikel from the Basque Country. So nice to meet a cyclist again! What is a bit of a shame is that Mikel has of course taken the best place already: a generous size and fun (and therefore often photographed and tagged) shelter. No worries, there is a smaller and apparently less rain-resistant shelter below, where we try to put our tent under. However, the tent is too big, so next to the shelter between the bushes it is placed in the sand: also a nice place! We put our things under the cover of palm leaves and soon Mikel comes closer to get acquainted. Mikel has been on the road for 5 months, started in Vietnam and goes to Australia. His parents come there and the family goes traveling in a motor home. Then he gets back on the bike to see Japan.

We talk a lot, but soon we have to take place under our shelter because it starts to rain. The palm-leafed roof looks pretty good. When Mikel says goodbye and goes to see how his shelter is doing, we start to cook. The rain decreases for a moment and it starts to get dark. The meal – sweet-and-sour chicken fillet with fresh vegetables and rice – is ready in no time and we can eat in no time. What follows is the worst attack of mosquitoes so far on our journey! The wind has subsided, the rain has subsided a bit, the darkness is falling and Harry and (especially) Roelie are “punctured”. We quickly spray anti-mosquito, but it doesn’t seem to scare the mini-mosquitoes out and they always find an untreated piece of human being, even though they have to stick through our t-shirts. Moreover, the damage has actually already been done, Roelie’s ankles and feet have been bitten a dozen times. Roelie quickly flees into the tent with her ‘sweet and sour’. Harry is eating stoically outside, doing the dishes and tidying everything up. Already the first birthday present to Roelie tomorrow morning, he thinks. In the tent, Roelie, while she treats her feet with after-bite, wonders for the umpteenth time why the mosquitoes always throw themselves on her…

It keeps raining all night and the tent is soaking wet when we get up in the morning. We decide this morning (Oh yes! Congratulations Roelie! 44 years!) to take it easy and give the tent time to dry. That means a shorter leg of 60 kilometers to a place where, according to Google, you can camp on the beach. Around noon we say goodbye to Mikel and we continue to Kuala Rompin. The beach shows a large picnic area where you could indeed pitch your tent. However, you are in the midst of day trippers, short-term and long-term parkers and hanging youth. Not what we had imagined at the campsite. Moreover, there is no possibility of hiding from the rain and it threatens to come again. We discuss the options and ultimately choose to rent a bungalow with a veranda for this birthday and then cook for ourselves. We look for the resort, and after fifteen minutes we find out that the location is not in this town, but on the island 10 kilometers off the coast. Bummer! Eventually we check in at a meaningless budget hotel two kilometers outside the town. The cooking plan must also be skipped and we eat quite early at a Chinese restaurant in the town. The food is tasty and we order fried rice as a take-away for breakfast the next morning. If we want to cycle back, an unbelievable thunderstorm erupts, which just won’t give way and therefore lingers above the town. A light show of the weather gods for Roelie’s birthday. We wait half an hour, but the thunderstorm keeps on raging. We are not afraid of a wet suit – this has happened to us almost daily in recent weeks – but it is now dark and we don’t like it at all in the pouring rain on that dangerous main road. We are finally fed up with waiting and cycling back to the hotel as fast as we can. Indeed soaking wet, but enormously relieved, we park our dripping bikes in the hotel lobby a little later.

The next possible camping spot is not so far below Kuala Rompin: about 60 kilometers. We can cycle the second half of today’s route on smaller roads. In the first half along the main road we come across two cyclists: an experienced longdistance cyclist from Romania and his Malaysian wife who has just learned to ride a bike. The majority of the impressive amount of luggage hangs on and behind the Romanian bicycle. Probably this weight is the reason for his back pain that has kept them calm for the past four days.

Once we arrive at the campsite, we see no shelter at all and the clouds are thick and dark again. Instead of setting up the tent we cycle on to Mersing, a town with quite a bit of liveliness because ferries depart for a few paradisiacal islands. We leave the islands untouched and the next day we head back onto the main road that brings us a little further from the coast into the interior. After 45 kilometers we stop at a gas station. Immediately after the gas station we had planned to leave the main road and head back to the coast. But the boring straight road with the many ups and downs has somewhat put our mood in the “down position”.

A cold sports drink from the gas station is the first impetus for a mood swing, the rest is due to a change in plans. We are fed up with the east coast and camping is not going to be anything. We see the rain coming again. We decide to cycle directly to Singapore. We are a bit done with Malaysia. The west coast was not fun cycling and the east coast either, but that’s out opinion. However we really enjoyed the crossing through the interior, from west to east. We are now particularly curious about Singapore and our hospitable hosts over there.