Friday, 4 May 2012

The perfect place for a break down

5th - 14th April 2012 - Malaysia
3483 – 3848km
Moonriver lodge – Brinchang – Ipoh – Lenggong Valley – Bagan Serai - Butterworth

The perfect place for a break

Cameron Highlands, lush green tea plantations for miles.
People often ask us if it's difficult cycling with such heavy looking bags. Wash outs and cattle stampedes aside, we tell them, it's not so bad. When the road's flat and we're up to speed we hardly even notice them. Going downhill the extra weight gets us where we're going even faster.

Going uphill is a very different matter. Uphill is when every little thing in our panniers unite to pull against us. It's tough, it's exhausting, and yes, riding into the Cameron Highlands had plenty of uphill about it. We spent the morning crawling along in first gear, going so slowly that we were overtaken by two farmers casually strolling past us in wellington boots. There's something very demoralising about that let me tell you.

The Cameron Highlands owe their existence to the old colonial days when pasty British types needed somewhere high up in the cool hills to escape from all the ruddy heat. Today the little villages that lie along this high altitude valley are studded by mock tudor hotels, testament to its past, where modern day Malaysian holiday makers now come to chill out.

Besides tourism, agriculture is the other big business here. As we descended into the valley we past hillside after hillside of plastic sheeted cultivation, great swathes of tilled soil spilling vegetables, and a dozen farmer's markets. The cooler climate allows for crops like tea and strawberries that would croak elsewhere on the peninsula. They go mad for strawberries here. Every other market stall sells fresh strawberries, strawberries coated in chocolate, dried strawberries, strawberry jam, chilli strawberry pickle. If your frothing lust for strawberries still isn't satisfied then you can buy a t-shirt, an umbrella, or a badge to proclaim your love, and place all of your strawberries and strawberry merchandise in your strawberry themed backpack.

While we were in the Cameron Highlands,
we visited a butterfly farm.
I'm normally quite cynical about such things, but I actually kind of like it when hardcore marketing is applied to something so benign as a little strawberry. I like the fact too that if alien archaeologists come digging around here in five thousand years time they'll find enormous cement strawberries standing guard at the town gates; artefacts of the inhabitants' devotion to this fruity red deity of the many seeds.

The ride through the highlands turned out to be a lot less work than we'd imagined, and despite a few lingering up hill sections there was plenty of flat and downhill as we made our way through the villages of the valley until we came to one of the larger towns at the far end. Brinchang was its name, and it was brimming with hotels. The competition afforded us a bargain in a lovely room with a view across the town.

Hiking back with Ricky and Soph

We spent four nights in Brinchang, our days spent lazily wandering about the town, eating fruit, catching up with blogs, and visiting the local attractions. On one such wander through a tea plantation we met a lovely couple from Scotland, Rick & Soph. They were on a year long super-tramp, had already been to South America and some of the Pacific islands, and had just got back from Borneo.

We came to a pick-your-own strawberry farm, picked our own, then sat around drinking tea and guzzling our harvest before ambling back into town for a night of finest quality cheap-as-we-could-find red wine. We enjoyed a couple of evenings exchanging tales from the road with our lovely new friends with good food and bleak wine.

The perfect place for a break-down

We set out early on the morning of the 9th April heading back up the road the way we had come five days before. The first half hour was a long downhill into the cradle of the highlands, before the road rose up again for an hour or more to the junction that led back down onto the western highway, just 200km north of Kuala Lumpur where we had set out east almost a month ago.

 Moonriver lodge - Brinchang - Ipoh - Lenggong Valley - Bagan Serai - Butterworth

As we reached the summit and the road levelled I noticed a subtle change in the way that my pedals were turning. They felt just a little bit rickety, like there was a few grains of sand in the axle bearings making them crunch a little as they turned. Something to get checked out at lunch time, or later in the evening when we'd stopped, no doubt.

It's difficult to maintain a smile for the camera when
your front crank is dangling loose,
said the vicar to the nun.
I set off again, but then within ten turns of the pedals it began making a noise probably quite similar to an oven being dropped into an industrial waste disposal unit. The entire crank and front gears were wobbling through several degrees as I pedalled, grinding the chain painfully through first, second and third gear with every rotation.

We pulled over and I got to work removing the pedal arms to take a closer look, but it was pretty obvious that this problem was way beyond our tools and ability. The whole axle was loose, the bearings were knocked out of place, and the only way to fix it was to get it to a professional bike shop – but we were 65km from the nearest town. Shit.

We were, however, about 1500m up in the hills, with almost non stop downhill for the next 55km. Who needs to be able to pedal when you have that most dependable of allies – gravity – on your side. So we just rolled through the whole afternoon beneath a sapphire sky, surrounded by green hills that spilt down the edge of the highlands to the plains below. On a few occasions the road levelled out for a kilometre or so, but I just got off and walked the bike - at a faster speed indeed than when we had climbed into the highlands a few days before.

The view on the way down.
We pulled into Ipoh in the late afternoon and found a cheap hotel manned by an eccentrically happy and talkative receptionist. The first bike shop we found said they could fix it in an hour, but when we came back they had changed their mind, and said it was beyond them too.

The barrage of optimism behind the hotel counter heard this news and organised a lift for us into Little India the next day, where apparently some master bicycle mechanic plied his trade. Sure enough, the guy knew his stuff – his family had been running the shop for three generations – and he replaced the offending bottom bracket within an hour. Impressed, I got him to take a look at my handlebars, which had on a couple of occasions in Indonesia come loose resulting in the rather disconcerting effect of delayed-action steering. He released the handlebar stem, took one look at the gnarled and soiled inner workings, threw it away and replaced it in a couple of minutes.


We left Ipoh the next day, pedals turning firm and true. We had wanted to check out a temple on the outskirts of town that was marked on our map, but all the hoo-har on the way in had left us disorientated so we had written the idea off. Thankfully we were just disorientated enough as we left the city to wind up riding right past it, so we stopped to take a look.

Spread throughout a sizeable cave complex, the Perak Tong temple is an impressive sight; with a giant vibrant gate leading inside, where a 40ft golden Buddha sits meditating, guarded by two gilded deities armed with a sword and a banjo, dancing a jig over the souls of the dead. Down through the passageways that led off left and right were statues of the various figures of Chinese Buddhism, along with beautifully painted people and animals on the stone walls.

The area around Ipoh is well known for its caves, and has been in fact for tens of thousands of years. Just a little way north of Ipoh lies Lenggong valley which is dotted with caves that were inhabited by homo sapiens some 30'000 years ago. We weren't really sure what there would be to see there, but we decided to take a little diversion to check them out.

This is what it feels like cycling up a hill fully loaded.
It looked like we might have to spend a night in one of the caves ourselves when we arrived, because the only resthouse in town told us they were closed for renovations when we arrived just before sundown. Liv batted her eyelids and told the receptionist how frightfully scared she was about the prospect of riding about in the dark to find shelter. Oh please, we are but humble travellers, is there not something you can do? They folded, and we got ourselves a lovely little room for the night.

Lost down a jungle trail
We spent the next morning and afternoon riding our nimble, unladen bikes around the lanes, visiting the local museum, and then getting well off road to find some of the stone age caves. The museum wasn't especially inspiring, but when we finally found them the caves were incredible.

After more than an hour of off road riding down jungle tracks to nowhere, we finally found our first neolithic cave. The entrance was colossal, towering 30ft above us like the gateway to some mystical land.

Hidden away in darkness to one side it would have been easy enough to miss the other little entrance, overshadowed as it was by the grand archway. We unclipped out bicycle torches and ventured into the darkness of the tunnel, where 8-bit squeaks of bats sounded from the roof, and strange spherical crickets hopped about blindly on the batshit cement floor.

The sign outside informed us that the cave had been inhabited from 11'000 - 5'000 years ago, by hunter gatherers who ventured out onto the plains to, well, hunt and gather presumably, and bring their bounty back to the safety of the cave each night.

The tunnel went on, not just horizontally, but branched off in diagonals into higher levels. I had a sense of millenia melting away as I clambered up a wall to reach another chamber, and as my hand automatically shot to the next good hand hold I noticed that it had been smoothed by the grip of countless other climbing hands over the years.

Although the chambers inside were pitch black, and stuffy with an ancient earthy smell, we could well imagine the people feeling quite cosy and safe in this cool hideaway home, considering all the tigers, bears, and prehistoric beasts of a toothy nature to contend with outside.

We came back out and headed through the enormous archway and followed a track to a series of other, smaller caves. These were much shallower than the first, but fascinating nonetheless. We found what seemed to be an ancient rubbish area, where a steady drip of water from above had eroded the topsoil away to reveal hundreds of broken shells – remnants, perhaps, of neolithic snacking.

Further down this jungle walkway we came to another cave that was currently being excavated, and had square trenches dug at various points. We read the information here, and discovered that the cave was called Tiger cave, since the archaeologists heard a tiger roar outside right after they discovered it. Not wanting to find out whether these tigers were still roaming about the area, we hurried back to our bikes and headed back to the resthouse to enjoy the rest of our day off.


The next morning we scaled the western edge of the valley and descended back into the flats along the west coast. We were almost at the top corner of Malaysia now, with the coast only a few dozen kilometres away, and the Thai border just a few days ride to the north. Just off the north west coast of Peninsular Malaysia, where we found ourselves pedalling, there lies a small island where the British East India Company first docked over 200 years ago.
Over the years the cluster of fishing villages on this jungle choked island were transformed into a sizeable British settlement, and marked the entry point of British interests in the area. Nowadays the island's capital, Georgetown, hums with life along its white walled streets and draws hundreds of holiday makers to its picturesque beaches and UNESCO heritage listed streets.

The journey from Lenggong to Butterworth - the nearest city on the mainland from Penang Island - took two days through flat, uninteresting industrial towns. Our friend Rahim from Singapore had put out the word that we were arriving in town, and we were invited out to breakfast by a chap called Rickee-Lee who lived in the area.

We stayed a night on the mainland side, and were picked up the next morning by Rickee-Lee along with his wife and daughter. We scoffed a great big dish of noodles with coffee, and Rickee-Lee told us about his plan to embark on a tour not too dissimilar from ours, by heading to China via Thailand and Laos, and back again through Vietnam starting in just a couple of months.

We spent the morning ambling around the local market, trying some snacks, jostling through the crowds, and watching the superfast cleaving of chickens ready for sale. Rickee-Lee and his family were very kind to us, giving us some pointers for cheap accommodation in Georgetown, and lending us a detailed map of the island before dropping us back at our hotel.

We waved them goodbye, saddled the bikes up, and made our way towards the small ferry port just off the highway. We were very close to the border, but still had two weeks grace on our Malaysian visa so we had plenty of time to get a taste of Penang Island, the Pearl of the Orient. We rode into the cargo hold of the time-worn vessel and gazed out at the glittering blue water as we rumbled towards the steep sloped island of Penang. 


  1. Nicely written about Malaysia. Not many people know the places you went, neither venture Lenggong's interiot, not even the locals. Bravo guys.

  2. Thanks for the kind words Mustafa. We both really loved Malaysia, and Lenggong was excellent. I think it's actually very easy to explore these little known places by bike, because once you're cycling through an area you end up riding right passed these places anyway, so it's so easy to visit these out of the way places (like Lenggong, Kuala Koh, Kuala Selangor etc). Robin