Tuesday, 10 April 2012

A thousand kilometre detour to the oldest rainforest in the world (Part 1)

1st March - 10th March 2012
Up the coast from Melaka to Kuala Lumpur
Melaka - Pasir Panjung - Port Dickson – Kuala Lumpur
2179.8 – 2500.9km


Once you've tried it a few times, it's not hard to work out why nobody goes camping in Malaysia. Our first night after leaving Melaka was spent lying in our tent in a small patch of woodland by the sea, sweating. Not only was it swelteringly hot, but our extended break in Melaka had turned us soft, and we were jumping at every snapping stick or rustle in the leaves outside. Sleep evaded both of us until about 5am when we slipped into a fitful doze for about an hour until another woodland noise snapped us awake again. The embodiment of Snow White's dwarves; short, grumpy, and sleepy, we rolled up the tent and headed off down the road to find ourselves a proper bed as quickly as possible.

The coast road from Melaka to Kuala Lumpur was really some of the best cycling conditions we could have hoped for, so good in fact, that we had started to grow a little bit bored of it. After so many days of perfect weather, scant traffic and pretty much zero hills we were longing for some kind of challenge. Actually, tell a lie, on the second day's riding all we were longing for was a bed and a good night's sleep, excitement and incline could wait.

Melaka - Pasir Panjung - Port Dickson - KL
Thirty kilometres up the road we found Port Dickson, and some rugged accommodation in a multistorey block of concrete behind a Chinese restaurant. Propping ourselves up on a cheeky sugar wallop from macky-dees, we managed to remain in a state roughly approximating consciousness until early evening, when we sank into a deep, black-out sleep that would have been the best feeling ever, had we been conscious enough to notice.

Our alarm rudely woke us at four the next morning. We groaned, got up, and began hauling our multitude of bags down the steps onto the streetlight yellow road outside. Port Dickson lay just over 100km from Kuala Lumpur, and we were going to go for it in a single push so an early start was essential. Unfortunately our eager plans failed to take into consideration that fact that it didn't get light until just before dawn at 7am, and Malaysia doesn't do lighting on motorways. So we found ourselves, bleary eyed and slightly confused, pedalling along an empty, pitch black motorway for two hours, our world contracted to a circle of rolling tarmac in our feeble front beams.

The motorway at dawn
Dawn was heralded by an owl swooping right in front of Liv, and within minutes the sky was light and the world appeared once more. The road got busier once the sun was up, and busier again as we came nearer to the capital in the early afternoon.

Spot the Petronas Towers
Since we don't carry a guidebook around with us, we had absolutely no idea where we might like to stay in the city, so we opted for the modest goal of just getting into the city centre, and then seeing what would happen. Despite our unambitious target, we kept taking wrong exits and finding ourselves pedalling off towards the sea, or back the way we had come, and we were getting fed up. Thankfully a friendly guy pulled over and pointed out the way. Once we had penetrated the squirming mass of inner roads we picked our way through endless traffic lights to the obvious focal point of the city; the Petronas Towers.

Kuala Lumpur

The guards at the towers were complete dicks. They wouldn't let us take a photo with our bikes in front of the towers because, apparently, we might block the way for other people, despite the fact that the stairs we were “blocking” were about thirty feet wide, and there were only about three other people there. Rules were rules though, and they weren't budging.

Matching the heights of the obstinacy of the guards, the Petronas twin towers are very lofty indeed. Looking like highly polished apparatus from Frankenstein's laboratory, they rise up in alternating bands of light and dark until they terminate 450 metres up with an early hollywood sci-fi ray-gun finish. They shine like stacks of silver coins. One feels they might have had a past life in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, or some other fantastical industrial world in its golden age. From 1998 to 2004 they were the tallest buildings in the world, just beating the World Trade Centre in America, and although today half a dozen structures stand taller than them, they still hold the title of the tallest twin buildings ever.

The guards' unreasonableness ended up paying off for us though, because it meant we bumped into another cycle tourer who, like us, had snuck around the side to try and take a photo with his bike. His name was Hao, and he was quite an extraordinary individual. He was our age, and had never been outside of China before, but had just caught a flight to Singapore on his own, and was in the process of pedalling solo all the way back to China with just a tent and a couple of panniers. He spoke very little English and no Malay so he was very much alone most of the time. Riding around with bags on your bike was as good an introduction as any of us needed though, and after a lot of waving of hands and nodding we joined forces to try and make our way to Chinatown to find a place to stay.

Our comrade on two wheels, Hao.

Chinatown apparently lay at each of the cardinal compass points from the towers, or at least everybody we asked pointed us in completely different directions. After a couple of hours we finally found it, and then after a bit more roaming around in the afternoon rain we found a cheap place to stay and hauled our gear up the steps.

There were no bed bugs at the inn, but the kittens were
riddled with fleas. They were adorable, but we kept a
safe distance.
It was a recommendation from Hao's Lonely Planet, and it was a large scale affair; an old four-storey building converted to accommodate probably a hundred or more travellers in a mix of dorms and rooms. Hao took a dorm room, while Liv and I opted for the luxury of a bit of personal space in one of its cells. No windows, just a bed with a sagging mattress, a table (no chair), and a fan that stirred the hot air around. No bed bugs, which was good, but it was annoying being partially devoured by your bed if you happened to sit at the wrong corner.

Considering Kuala Lumpur's tender age of 150  we were surprised at how much character the city had, and we warmed to it in no time. There were plenty of alleyways to go wandering down, nondescript eateries serving up succulent chicken, enormous Islamic inspired train stations, and a whole host of temples to the various faiths. Right outside our hostel was a boisterous marketplace that sold knock-off watches and handbags, along with genuine fruit and chestnuts.

On our first night in town Hao treated us to a meal in one of the Chinese restaurants by the market. He didn't reckon the food was up to much, and said there would be much better food for us if we made it to China. That sounded good to us, because after camping in creepy woods and cycling a couple of hundred kay the food tasted pretty dam good to us, and the beer was downright luxurious.

The next evening the treat was on us, so we three headed to the local reggae bar and made our way through a couple of pizzas and some more of those lovely beers. Hao brought his phone along this time so we could use it to translate phrases to each other. It was slow going, and the translations didn't always make sense, but it meant we could talk to each other at last. Hao was a great guy, and the three of us clicked despite the language barrier. We appreciated his frustration at not being able to communicate, remembering all too well the glacial conversations we'd had in Java.

After finishing our meal, and feeling a bit tipsy from the beverages, we ventured off down the road where we came across a large Hindu temple. A stack of deities and monsters stared down from the pyramid cap at the entrance, painted in dazzling, ostentatious colours. The place was packed with people, and nobody seemed to mind us coming in, so we spent the evening gazing at the vibrant walls of the compound, snapping pictures and watching heavily decorated young dancers perform on the central stage. Bright colours, sandlewood smells, and music all slurred together in our woozy heads to make for a great evening. It's one of the great joys of travel; sharing moments like these with people you hardly know from all over the world. It makes everything seem that bit closer, and more connected. We retired in good spirits to the roof of our hostel, downed some exorbitantly priced cans, and watched the city light horizon, and the hostel's albino hedgehog, before saying farewell and goodnight.

Hao left early the next morning, but Liv and I had some errands to run. We needed to arrange our visa for Thailand, and my handlebar grips had become a flapping mess of worn rubber, elastic bands and toilet roll that dangled forlornly from the bike and left my palms sore at the end of each day. A trip to a bike shop was in order.

We arrived at the Thai embassy to find an assorted queue of travellers and Buddhist monks winding out of the gates and down the street, but despite the fact we didn't get to a counter until way past the deadline for applications the staff were great and still accepted it. We returned the next day to receive a shiny new visa in our battered old passports.


Despite its age Kuala Lumpur has had its fair old share of action over the past century and a half, and we bumped right into it one overcast afternoon as we sat around in our cell, browsing the internet. I was doing a bit of research when I came across a photograph of the Japanese invasion of the city during the Second World War. The photo was taken at a tense moment with soldiers running down a street, while another crouched down low in the road. The location though, was remarkably familiar. Liv recognised it at once as the junction just up the road from our hostel.

Armed with a print out of the photograph we marched up the road. Despite the passage of time remarkably little had changed, except for the signs of the shops, and the fact that in the present day there were no invading armies, although there was a regular stream of traffic that kept trying to run us over whenever we tried to line the photo up.

We pinched the idea of lining the old photo up with the present day from the World Press Photography exhibition in Melaka, so we can't take credit for the idea, but we think it works very well at bringing this black and white scene back to life.

The market outside our hostel
The whole of South East Asia was inexorably altered by the goings on of the Second World War, as the trauma of invasion and neglect nurtured nationalist feelings that paved the way for independence across many of the countries in the region. You see, leading up to the Second World War South East Asia, or the East Indies as it was known then, was marshalled by the colonial powers, principally Britain, France and Holland. These European rulers used their power to extract valuable resources like tin, rubber and spices and ship it back home.

Nationalist feelings bubbled away in some parts during this period, but on the whole the idea of these colonies ruling themselves was not really taken seriously. The colonial powers, like Britain, saw themselves taking on the grudging duty of raising these people out of their quaint ways and into civilisation – and in return, of course, it was only right that they should get wealthy off the land's resources and labour.

The myth of European supremacy was to be blown apart spectacularly though, when the Japanese army descended into South East Asia, at the same time as they bombarded Pearl Harbour, on the 7th December 1941.

The battles in Malaya were bloody ones, but the Japanese pushed the Allied forces back again and again until the “impregnable” Singapore, full of refugees, fell to the Japanese forces. Singapore's surrender by the British was the largest capitulation of British led forces in history, and it was to be the death knoll of the British Empire. As Taufiq summarised when we spoke to him about it; “We thought the British were going to look out for us, but as soon as the going got tough they left us on our own.” The myth of the colonial powers' supremacy was over, and now the Japanese were in charge.

The war waged on, many people suffered terribly under the Japanese, but then the tide of war shifted, nuclear bombs were dropped, and the war was over. When the British returned to take up their rule once again the political landscape had changed enormously though. People had lost the respect they held for these old rulers, and realised that they were just as prone to mistakes and defeat as everybody else. All across South East Asia groups formed to fight against the reinstitution of colonial rule.

Like many of the communist groups that sprang up out of the Second World War, the Malaysian National Liberation Army began life as an anti-Japanese militia, their ranks filled mainly by ethnic Chinese who were persecuted heavily under the Japanese occupation, and who had been enthused by the news filtering down about the rise of communism in China. When the British returned, the MNLA began their guerilla campaign against them, and thus began The Malayan Emergency.

The Emergency lasted from 1948 – 1960, and cost thousands of lives. It has been termed “Malaysia's Vietnam”, but although it was fought against a communist guerilla army, the way in which it played out differed enormously from the better known war in the north. The communist fighters worked to sabotage important economic targets, like transport and industry, and had a potentially wide base of support from the ethnic Chinese community in Malaysia, who were often poor and were lacking equal rights to vote. The British response to tackle these fighters was to cut them off from their support base, by upping and moving whole communities of Chinese into fenced-in areas. Naturally, many people were distressed about the move, but once they found themselves in better conditions than they had been in before, and were told that the land was theirs to keep, people seem to have been accepting of the situation. By cutting the communists off from their local supporters, they were driven to more and more desperate measures, as their popularity waned and their purpose for fighting became confused.

The British eventually left Malaysia, but long after they would have, had they not been helping the Malaysian people fight the MNLA. The bitterness felt about this conflict was evident as we strolled around the Malaysian National Museum, where a whole gallery detailed the atrocities carried out by this communist army; including cold blooded executions, sabotage, and the derailing of a packed passenger train. The Emergency served to sour relations between Chinese and Malays for generations to come, and set the stage for a tug-of-war of racial politics that would continue right up to the present day.

However, the guerilla campaign flickered out, the British did withdraw, and finally, in 1963, the Malaysian Federation was born. Freedom was at last in the hands of this new country. And yet I'm afraid the story doesn't quite end there. The shadow of the past still hovers over the country today, in the form of racial tensions, and an enormously controversial set of laws that work to favour Malays over other races. This is a political quagmire that I shall leave for the time being, and instead move return to our own story, as Olivia and I skip merrily out of a bicycle shop in a swanky end of town with a plastic bag containing new handlebar grips, some oil, and a puncture repair kit.

So, our Thai visa was sorted, we had most of the parts we needed for our bikes; not much excuse to laze around now then. It was time to hit the road again. The night before we left we met up with Michael, one of the cyclists from Singapore, who lives part-time in Kuala Lumpur. He had grown up in Chinatown, close to where we were staying, so he took us out for noodles at one of his old haunts. After a delicious meal there he took us for a ride to his old school, tucked away on a little hill. It was an old missionary school, very grand looking, and the nuns had only recently departed and left it to the state.

Michael told us, as we drove around the back, how it had been used as a hospital during both world wars, but how after the Japanese invasion the field at the back had been used as an execution ground to decapitate anybody suspected of harbouring resentment towards the occupation. Thanks to the battles raging in China against the Japanese, the Chinese took the brunt of this fury. When Michael was at school, workers who were building on the edge of the field unearthed a collection of skulls belonging to these unfortunate causalities of occupation.

But since driving around war-graves wasn't the best way to end an evening, we headed for a faux Irish pub and sunk a beverage or two, and put the world to rights. When we woke up the next morning, feeling a little bit groggy, we decided it was only right that we have just one more day off in the city, and leave the next day. We didn't want to strain ourselves now did we.

11th - 18th March 2012
West coast to east coast.
Kuala Selengor – Genting Highlands – Bentong – Temerloh – Kuantan
2500km - 2947km


A praying mantis that joined us for breakfast
The Thai border lay less than 500 kilometres to the north, but we weren't going that way just yet. In the centre of mainland Malaysia lies an unbroken stretch of rainforest said to be the oldest jungle in the world that is a home to all kinds of wonderful exotic species of animals and plants, from Tigers to Elephants, hornbills to pitcher plants. There was no way we were going to miss out on that.

So we decided we would take a thousand kilometre detour, since we're lucky enough to have the time to do so. The plan was to cut east over the hills and ride to the east coast, then head north for a bit, then cut west again, drop in to the seldom visited back entrance of the rainforest, then keep carry on back over Malaysia's highlands again and onto the western highway, just in time for tea.

After so long sat around in Melaka and Kuala Lumpur we were both very excited to get back into some proper long distance pedalling again. So we set off... in the opposite direction. There was just one more thing we wanted to check out before we headed off into the sunrise; and that was fireflies.
Just west of Kuala Lumpur, close to the coast, lies a little town built around a river that is famous for its nightly displays of phosphorescent beetles. We arrived in Kuala Selangor, home of the famous bugs, after a very pleasant afternoon's cycle. The buildings were all painted light colours, and although the paint was now peeling and there weren't many people around, this little congregation of streets around the estuary of the river had a bonny atmosphere about it.

After securing a room in a cheap hotel that had the most comfortable bed in the entire world, we wandered up the hill that looked out over the town. Although this was the location of a stunning lighthouse, and the site of the first successful raid against the Portuguese by the Malays, the undisputed attraction here were the monkeys. Monkeys on telephone lines, monkeys up trees, black monkeys, brown monkeys, monkeys with bright orange babies. Even a few monkeys manning the old cannons along the ramparts. We spent our afternoon strolling with the monkeys, and then hopped on our unloaded bikes as the sun went down, and cycled the 10km to the site of the fireflies.

It was a really special evening, another one of those nights that shan't be forgotten. We were worried that it might rain and scare the bugs away, or that we might get devoured by mosquitoes out on the water, but it turned out fine. We bought our tickets, put on our life jackets, and stepped into our own little wooden boat. The boatman swept his oar, and we floated down the silent obsidian water. At first we couldn't see anything, it was very dark, with only the vaguest traces of shrub against the plum sky behind. But as we came closer to one of the bushes that hung over the water, we saw it gently glow, then go dark, then glow again.

The boatman steered us towards it, and soon we could see hundreds of individual lights go on and off in unison – exactly like fairy lights at Christmas. Our eyes were now adjusted to the dark, and we could make out the other bushes further downstream, all throbbing with the synchronised lights of these insects.

Despite all our best efforts it was just too dark to get a photo of the fireflies.
We floated about on the dark river, brushing past bushes teeming with little lights. Sometimes they fell out of perfect synchrony, and a few pulses swept across the shrubs like Mexican waves before order was restored and the rhythmic beating of the lights all came on, and off, in unison once more.

After half an hour we were taken back to the little dock and we disembarked, very happy with ourselves, and cycled back down the road to our super comfy bed.

The road by the fireflies river early the next morning

Night of the living Dog

We had no more excuses now, so the next morning we set off east down quiet roads towards the hills that guarded the central plains. Despite our eagerness to get off the flats and hit some gradients it must be said that rural riding in Malaysia is a delight; with long flat roads meandering through villages and homesteads. There's often the tangy smoky smell of burning vegetation in the air, that reminds me of autumn back home. It's nice, although much too often the landscape gives way to ranks of oil palms, or acres of land stripped bare ready for planting. I'd say we were always within half an hours cycling of a plantation. I'll be intrigued to find out what happens when someone comes up with another way of making cheap cooking oil. What ever will they do with all those oil palms then?

Land levelled ready for planting..
Since we'd gone so far the wrong way the day before to see the fireflies, we only managed to make it to the foot of the highlands that first day, less than 50km north-east of Kuala Lumpur. It wasn't too late, maybe only 3pm, but we weren't sure if there'd be anywhere to find food further on, so we pulled into a large roadside restaurant.

I was adamant that camping round the back of warungs was a tactic worth pursuing for a number of reasons. First of all, it's free. Secondly, it means we don't have to cook ourselves. Thirdly, we don't have to worry about trespassing or camping somewhere we shouldn't. It's perfect, what could possibly go wrong. So we sat down, ordered a cup of tea, and plucked up the courage to ask the owners if we could pitch our tent round the back. They were very nice, and said yes right away.

We'd noticed the dogs roaming around when we arrived, but we hadn't really paid them much attention. They didn't look too wild, and dogs were ubiquitous in Malaysia, so as long as they weren't vicious we figured we'd be fine camping in their patch. Trouble was, we hadn't seen the state of the matriarch that waddled around the tables, if we had done, we might have thought twice about staying there.

We've seen a lot of unfortunate looking mutts in our time, but this one was something else. She was a short, scraggly thing, slightly bent out of shape. She was partially covered in lank blonde hair that was so badly afflicted by disease to be rendered red-raw and bald in many places, most prominently her arse. She walked around exposing a bald, wrinkled and blemished anus and sagging vagina for all to see, like some terrible re-enactment of an Edvard Munch. Her face was pocked with marks from either fights, or fleas, or scratching, and her swollen nipples hung like bruised acorns from her wrinkled pink belly. This was a dog you lurched violently out of the way to avoid being touched by.

“Oh god I feel sick Rob.” Liv said as it sniffed around the table legs nearby.

We drank our teas with one eye on the whereabouts of this dog, not wanting it to get anywhere near ourselves or our gear. It looked like an extra, nay, a leading role from Night of the Living Dogs. Thankfully it disappeared round the back of the building and out of view, and I relaxed with my book and tea, then Liv sat up and said quite calmly and matter of factly: “It's got a nappy.”

The dog had returned to the scene with a large used nappy. The dog plonked it down with a wet thud right beside our table, before beginning to lick and chew noisily at the contents. Liv suddenly felt very ill and had to go for a walk to get away from it. I stayed to watch our stuff, and with a heavy heart watched as the dog's puppies - poor silky innocent looking things destined to a rather unhappy future I fear - began fighting over the sack of poo like hyenas around a carcass; tugging at both ends, ripping shreds off it, and spilling foul smelling brown fluid all over the ground.

Our comfy bed in Selangor seemed a long way away now.

The owner's were extremely nice to us though, and showed us where we could shower, and helped us pick a place to pitch the tent, but we were unsettled by the dogs, and were worried that they would come sniffing around us as we slept. As usual with camping in Malaysia though, the biggest problem turned out to be the heat. Tents trap body heat like nothing else, and even though we waited until nightfall before we set it up, it immediately became hot and stuffy inside. After several hours of tossing and turning we both eventually fell into shallow sleep.

We woke suddenly at about 4am as one corner of the tent twanged violently. I shouted out and quickly sat up and opened the tent door to scare away whatever was attacking us. Just outside the door was the face-of-meth dog looking in at us – not the most pleasant sight first thing in the morning – it yapped and ran off, its puppies chasing after it. The tent was fine though, it seemed one of the pups had just tugged at a guy rope and let go, but we were not likely to get back to sleep again, and decided it was best that we just get moving as soon as possible.


We packed up our things, rolled the tent away, slung everything on the bikes and pushed off up the road. It was still pitch dark, and we made our way down the dark road lit only by our little front beams and the steady flashes of our rear lights. Lorries thundered past us, illuminating the road ahead as they passed. We hit the foot of the hill around 6am. Despite not having eaten breakfast we started up the road, but both of us felt the lack of energy catch up with us quickly, so after an hour we pulled over and fired up the stove and made ourselves a cup of coffee and some noodles.
The Genting Highlands; our first hill in a while.

Dusk and dawn are notoriously rapid close to the equator, owing to the speed at which the central belt of the earth rickers round in relation to the rest of the planet. First light came as we were serving up the food, and within minutes it was morning. You can literally see the light seep into the world around you from about 7.15 – 7.30. The top of the hills we were cycling into looked very high up, but thankfully the sunlight was padded by grey clouds to keep the temperature down. We packed up, and leaned into the incline for a tough morning's cycle.

The Genting Highlands, as they are known, are a popular tourist attraction in Malaysia since they are the location for, funnily enough, a casino complex. You wouldn't have guessed it riding up the quiet country road, bounded by woodland. We reached the base of the cable car station at around midday. Cycling uphill works up a monsterous appetite, and we headed straight for the little run of restaurants behind.

After pigging out on Indian food and cold drinks we rode up and down the rolling top end of the hills, and then settled in to a whole afternoon roaring down the highway that descended in a pleasing sweep into the flatland below. It had been a long time since we had tackled a hill – a very long time; Malaysia and Singapore had been pretty much hill-free, so this was the first real uphill challenge since before the new year.

A whole afternoon of freewheeling
Although it would be misleading to say that pedalling against gravity is pleasant, it really is quite a buzz once you get into it. The extra workout gets your endorphins going, rest is heavenly, and lunch tastes amazing after a hard morning's ride uphill. It's strange but we look back on uphill days fondly, despite often cursing them at the time. Of course one cannot forget that once you ride up a hill, you get to go down the other side too. Perhaps it's wired into us animals to enjoy a challenge like that, knowing that there will be some reward at the end of it. Maybe flat, easy, stable courses aren't appealing over the long term because they lack the excitement, and that warm glow that endorphins bring to proceedings. We certainly relished the challenge, and the subsequent thundering descent.

The road we found ourselves hurtling down was a major highway, but since it had the Malaysian-standard unused motorcycle lane we got to tear down it without worrying about the traffic. There's nothing quite like a whole afternoon with the wind roaring in your face, watching the tens of metres click by like seconds, while you just sit there and hold on tight. Concerns about falling off, in case you're wondering, are relegated to much later in the day, once you're off the bike and safely in bed.

We came off the highway around 3pm, and made our way along a quiet windy road to the town of Bentong. It was a fairly large town by Malaysian standards, with multiple hotels and manufacturing plants. There was a considerable Chinese presence in the form of warungs, markets and little red post-box shrines. We found a great hotel with a huge room for forty ringitt, and since we were both really shattered and had to catch up on the blog, and because we had the time, we took two days off.

Cross country

Moving through so many of these little known places, as we do, helps to create a faint, broad impression of the country as a whole. We're never around long enough to get to know people, the things a community has to offer, or the problems that it faces. There are times when, wandering around yet another town – sometimes forgetting even what the place is called – we feel utterly disconnected from it all. Like fleeting spirits floating through the streets one evening, gone by the morning, never to return. The adhesive bonds of the normal everyday are gone, and we slide through town after town, city after city, taking with us only the most superficial of impressions.

Yet there's something liberating about living like this for a time. There's scope for thought and introspection unhindered by the banalities of routine. You also become adept at making good first impressions too; smiling and being nice to people, because these are often the only impressions you get to make. Conversely, on the rare occasions when people, usually kids, are rude or unfriendly, you realise how important simple things like manners and smiles really are. It's not always easy when you're out of breath and a guy on a scooter comes past waving at you, but we always try to return the gesture. The world, condensed into two wheels, is better like that.

So we meandered through the little streets of Bentong under the hot Malay sun, thinking about this, that, and the other, and then headed to our two-night home and watched the delightfully mindless Bourne Identity, before curling up in bed ready for the push across the flat central belly of Malaysia.

Selangor - Genting Highlands - Bentong - Temerloh - Kuantan
We set an alarm and were up before the sun, showering and packing away in the hope of covering some distance before things got too hot. There were unlikely to be any serious hills over the next few days, according to Google's topography, but the heat from about midday through to 4pm was ruthless. We estimated we had a little over 230km to get to the city of Kuantan on the eastern coast, so three days of 70-80km per day would do the trick.

The highway out of Bentong
The ride across the flat waist of Malaysia was sweet. Hot, but sweet. The roads remained in good condition, and the whole way across we had the choice between the high-speed highway, or the meandering and scenic secondary roads. We cleaved off some kilometres on the highway first thing, then moved off down the lanes, through tiny townships, calling in for a long lunch around midday to dodge the heat and eat rice.


We always start out with intentions of camping when we don't have a day off, but when it comes to crunch time the idea of snuggling up in a cool, fresh hotel bed is usually too much for us, especially when the alternative is sweating it out in a dog bothered tent.

Hotels don't have dogs. In fact,
many of them have cats. Aw.
Once we've got it in our head that we're going to stay in a nice cool bed though, it's hard to shake the idea and it can sometimes lead us to quite drastic measures in order to secure it. The next day we set out along the highway again, the tarmac in front and behind shimmering in the rising heat. We had in mind that we could stay in a town marked on our map at the junction of two major roads, that sat about 60km from our city on the coast, Kuantan. That made it the perfect spot to stay for the night, then head off for a relatively easy 60km final push the next day.

We arrived in town around 3pm, but it was much smaller than we had hoped, basically just a line of buildings running along the road. There was a hotel, but it was just a little bit too pricey for us; $30 a night. We decided to try the classic bartering ruse of telling the guy it was too much for our budget and saying we'd try elsewhere, at which point the fellow usually decides that low-paying guests are better than no guests at all and offers us a lower price. That didn't happen though, and since there were no other hotels in town we just had to keep cycling down the road to the next village; a village that we had been told we could find accommodation in, although there was no guarantee it would be any cheaper.
There was no accommodation there, or in the village after that. The air was cooling off as the sun descended below the trees, which was a relief, but we were very hungry and tired, and ready to stop for the day. The next major town was 15km away but it might not have accommodation either. If we were going to camp though it would be foolish to set the tent up before the sun went down, or else the tent really would become an oven, and besides there was nowhere to sit around and rest while we waited. We had every reason to keep going, although, let's be honest, the driving force was the possibility of a lovely, cool, safe bed waiting for us.
The light was leaking out of the day as we freewheeled in to the town, eyes alert for tell-tale vertical hotel signs. An old man spotted us and shouted “Wan-tan!” and waved his arm down the road. We were shattered and just smiled at him, not really knowing or caring what he was talking about, and we continued our search. We reached the edge of the town dismayingly quickly, and there was no sign of a hotel, or guest house, or anything at all. Then it clicked, the old fella had been saying “Kuantan.” That was the next place with accommodation.

It was nearly 6 o'clock by this point, so we only had an hour of light left. Kuantan lay a further 30km away which was a very unpleasant distance to consider cycling at the end of a long hot day, but we figured that if we could make Kuantan that evening then we would have earned ourselves an extra day off, since we would have made it a day ahead of schedule. Besides, we had soft, cool beds on our minds, and knackered as we were, the idea of crawling into a hot tent and being molested by dogs on some patch of wasteland by a road was not at all enticing. So, after a slap up meal of biscuits and nuts from the local shop, and despite having already cycled 115km that day, we set off down the road again.

We arrived in Kuantan an hour after dark, after negotiating a few pretty hairy junctions in the blinding glare of headlights. It wasn't very nice but we found a hotel in no time at all. It was a cheap multi-storey jobby, with the cheapest rooms at the top of four flights of stairs. The owner was about as relaxed as you get, slouching topless in his chair, cackling at the TV with his left testicle dangling out of his boxers. We ascended the staircase with all our belongings, ran back out again to devour a brilliant meal from the place next door, and felt very happy with ourselves. Not only were we a day ahead of schedule, but we had set a new record. 145km in a single day, but by Christ we were going to need that day off tomorrow.


  1. This is awesome!!! I just found your blog and love it! You know, in 5 months I start my Asia backpacking adventure for a year!!! We need to get in touch, I would love to get some tips, even meet up if you are in the same place as me!!

    1. Hey, where are you planning on going in Asia (apart from India and Nepal of course)? Be good to meet up somewhere along the way, we could get some pro photos done :)
      You still in Italy?

  2. Amazing story as ever! Can't imagine how you cope half the time. The heat, the uphills, the wildlife, (bugs) the lowlife (feral dogs etc). Hope the downhills make it all worthwhile. A motto for this trip?