Malaysia: A Fusion of Cultures and Cuisines
Malaysian Border – Penang – Kuala Lumpur
After some long days on the bikes in the severely flooded south of Thailand, we were ready to cross into Malaysia, hoping for an improvement in the weather. We had chosen a remote border crossing in a hilly jungle area. The 30km cycle from Chalung to the border was very quiet, leading us to doubt that the border crossing was even official, but suddenly we found ourselves in a bustling Sunday morning border market.||
Having pushed our bikes through the market and spent our remaining Thai Baht on our last “Cow Pat Guy”, we got the required immigration stamps and cycled into our 17th country, Malaysia. A sudden steep climb awaited us on the other side, and as usual we had perfected our timing to tackle the climb at the height of the mid day heat. At the top of the pass, we could see far into Malaysia, admiring the jungly interior and the flat coastal region that we were heading towards.
When we stopped at a restaurant, we suddenly realised that we didn’t know a word of the Malaysian language yet. To our relief, the ladies running the restaurant spoke good English, something we subsequently encountered almost everywhere in Malaysia, making communication much easier. Added to this is the fact that the Latin script is used in Malaysia so that we can finally read street signs again. The food was also more varied than in Thailand (though not as fresh), and even rural restaurants often offer a lunchtime buffet with a good selection of dishes.
When we arrived in the town of Kangar, we realised that, although it had not been in the international news as no tourists were affected, the north of Malaysia had also been badly damaged by floods. Half of the town was still under water and we watched as people rowed to their houses in rubber boats to retrieve valuables. Some of the hotels were inundated and therefore closed.
As we stopped outside a supermarket to ponder our options, several people came up to us to ask if we needed help. One was a cyclist, Sam, who had come to Kangar to help repair the flood damage. He was part of a mountain biking club and invited us to stay with him in his home town, Ipoh, which unfortunately was not on our route.
With the help of the locals we found a hotel that was open. We had expected to pay more for hotel rooms in Malaysia than in Thailand, but fortunately this did not prove to be the case and we usually sought out Chinese owned hotels that were always very clean and good value at £7-£10, with air conditioning and hot water as standard (luxuries we haven’t had for a very long time!). One quirky feature of the numerous Chinese areas in Malaysia is the ubiquitous sound of chirping birds. Most of this is actually recorded sound, designed to attract swallows to build nests at the top of buildings. These are then harvested and sold to China for a large profit, where they are made into bird’s nest soup.
Even though we had only spent a few hours in the country, Malaysia felt quite developed after our stint in rural Thailand. There were shopping malls, KFCs, new suburban homes with garages, and even supermarkets. Having made all our purchases in tiny corner shops in Turkey, Iran, India and Thailand, we now actually visited a supermarket which was large enough to lose sight of each other between the highly stacked shelves.
We had heard from other cyclists that the east coast of Malaysia is much more enjoyable for cycling as it is quieter than the west coast, but due to the timings of our flights we did not have time to cross over and were stuck with the west coast. It meant cycling on fairly busy main roads for most of the way to Singapore, not something we were really looking forward to. On our first day in Malaysia we had a little over 100km to cover in 41C heat – good training for our upcoming ride through the Australian Outback.
Just when we thought Malaysia would hold few surprises we spotted something moving on the road just in front of us. It looked like a little dragon, about 1.5m in length, it was in fact a monitor lizard. Just as we had pulled out our camera, the lizard slithered down the side of the road and disappeared into a storm water drain.
As the day drew to a close we started the search for accommodation. We toyed with the idea of staying at the “Harvard Golf and Country Club” just out of town, but eventually we made it into the city centre of Sungai Petani to stay at something, well, cheaper. Just down from our hotel was a Vegetarian Chinese restaurant run by a very bubbly Chinese girl. Malaysia is a very diverse country with large Chinese and Indian populations, which is also reflected in the cuisine. Apparently we were the first foreigners to have set foot into the popular little restaurant, so the owners took a photo of us chowing down some grub.
A few hours cycling in the morning got us to Butterworth, from where we took a ferry over to Georgetown on Penang Island. We had been to Georgetown before and had fond memories, so we were planning to spend a couple of rest days here.
Georgetown really comes alive in the evenings. Where during the day our street was dominated by key cutters and electrical stores, at night street-food hawkers magically materialise and set up their stalls, complete with sidewalk tables and portable “kitchens”. The air fills with taste bud tingling aromas as they whip up a fusion of foods from sea food curry laksa to Malay kofta.
An elderly couple in front of our hostel offered crispy coconut pancakes, made in individual lidded pans. Watching them cook the pancakes was strangely mesmerising as their hands darted from pot to pot whipping out the golden pancakes and pouring in new dough at phenomenal speed.
We also visited the blue Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion, built in 1898 by a Chinese business man. The mansion was built according to Feng Shui principles, featuring an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese architecture and European touches, e.g. lamp posts imported from Glasgow and floor tiles from Staffordshire, England. The Chinese business man started out as a water carrier and ended up being the richest man in Asia, nicknamed the “Rockefeller of the East”. He spent his time shuttling between his 6 houses and 7 wives until his death in the 1920s. Many movies were filmed in his mansion, including the French movie “Indochine” with Catherine Deneuve.
After two enjoyable days in Penang we were back on the road for our push to Kuala Lumpur. The cycling on the busy main road was quite uneventful. On our first night we stayed in the pleasant hillside town of Taiping. Feeling slightly guilty to forego the local night market but needing a change from rice and noodles, we treated ourselves to an expensive meal at Pizza Hut.
Many a time our presence seems to catch other road users by surprise and often we see them looking back to get another look. On this occasion the following morning (as we suspected would happen one day) a motor bike rider was so distracted that he rode right off the road and into the road side ditch! Much to the amusement of his friend riding behind him.
The coastal highway did not afford us any glimpses of the coast, and we didn’t find the cycling very enjoyable, particularly as we were cycling on a dual carriageway with no hard shoulder. Added to that, our heads were in the clouds. Our upcoming visit to Germany was on our minds, as well as the challenge of cycling through the Australian Outback. We thought about everything except the here and now. The uninspiring scenery of endless palm plantations did not help matters. Later we realised we had missed the opportunity to stay with a local cycle tourer near Penang, a contact through Sam from Ipoh who we had met in Klang. Out of absentmindedness we had never bothered to check where exactly he lived, and now it was too late. We only had ourselves to blame. It was time to snap out of our apathy and give Malaysia a chance.
The opportunity presented itself quite soon. Kuala Selangor, our home for the night, is famous for its fireflies. We asked the hotel manager to arrange a taxi for us just after nightfall. When we arrived at the firefly park just out of town, we really had no expectations whatsoever, particularly as it looked like it was about to rain, which is usually not a good time for seeing firefiles. Once we had found two other tourists to team up with, we bought tickets for a wooden rowing boat and were rowed out onto a river, to the soundtrack of a nearby mosque calling the faithful to prayer. As we neared the opposite bank, we noticed what looked like fairy lights on some of the mangrove trees. Within arms rearch we could see the little fireflies perched on the branches twinkling and sparkling in unison like a brilliantly lit Christmas tree. Kuala Selangor is one of only two places in the world with such large congregations of fireflies, what an amazing sight!
A short day saw us arriving in Klang, a fairly industrial town about 25km west of Kuala Lumpur. Our research about cycling into Kuala Lumpur had revealed that it is one of the more difficult cities in the world to negotiate by bicycle, as there are no minor roads going into the city and some sections have to be cycled on a busy express way. Following the advice of other cyclists we decided against cycling into the city, we would skirt around instead.
By pure chance, one of Guy’s friends from the UK, Beng, who had moved back to his native Malaysia last year, was in Klang for a business meeting and we met up for lunch. It was great to see Beng and also get a few more insights into the Malaysian culture. After a delicious Indian lunch we tried the local delicacy, Cendol, a sweet coconut dessert soup containing green noodles, kidney beans and ice cubes.
As we are flying to Germany for 10 days from Kuala Lumpur to see Freddie’s family and our brand new little nephew Felix, we are leaving our bikes and some luggage at the hotel in Klang and returning here at the end of April to complete our bike ride to Singapore, the final country before Oz where the mighty Australian Outback awaits.