22 January – 10 February 2016
The first leg of my Asian journey is from Singapore to Yangon, Myanmar. My initial idea was to write one section but as it becomes too long and it doesn’t make sense to mix comments on the cultures of different countries, I’ve decided to split it into country sections.
After realising I will only get a 2 weeks visa for Thailand crossing the land border, it’s a backwards calculation from when I’m going to meet my friend Sandy on 26 February in Yangon. With only 4 week’s visa in Myanmar and having to return across the same land border to Thailand, I don’t want to spend 4 days biking from the border to Yangon twice. Instead, I plan to cross the border and take a bus to Yangon and then bike to the border when leaving the country. This means I’ll enter Thailand on 11 February which leaves 3 weeks for Malaysia - an unusual situation with too much time. The “direct” distance to the Thai border is about 950k, which would be only 50k per day. So I planned to do a longer trip inland and up to Cameron highlands and across to the east coast making it about 1,500k which should work out with a couple of rest days here and there. However, it of course didn’t go as planned c.f. below.
Instead of commenting everything in timely order, I have written some relevant topics. The pictures shown are in line with the trip timeline, however they are not representative for the journey because I took more pictures in good weather and because the nature didn’t change much along the way.
Description of itinerary
From Singapore, I crossed the border to Johor Bahru in Malaysia and went west to Pontian on the coast. My initial idea was biking about 500k up the coast and then head inland to Cameron Highlands but the coast was busy and built up as well as hot and humid. Instead, I turned off the coast already after 125k despite people telling me it was a steep climb up the hills, which could be problematic with a 100 kg bike and only a few days of biking. Fortunately, it turned out not to be the case – only a few 10-15k stretches of rolling hills including some challenging 8-10% grades but never very long.
The big challenge was climbing the 1,500 metres up to Cameron Highlands. Or so I thought – in reality it was fairly easy and to my own surprise I managed it in one day. Many times along the climb, I was very happy to have replaced my normal 32 rear gear with a 34, giving me a slightly lower gearing. The temperature was very pleasant 20-22C so I decided to spend my 4 extra days in Malaysia here, socialising (international hostel instead of the local hotels I’d stayed in), blogging and doing a day hike in the surrounding hills. Afterwards my plan was to loop northeast towards Kelantan and then west along the Thai border until I could cross at Bukit Kayu Hitam. However, leaving Cameron Highlands a spoke broke for no reason at all on a steep downhill slope after 30k. It was raining cats and dogs, and the visibility was only 15-20 metres. I didn’t want to fix the spoke in the rain (on the busy highway with little visibility), there was no cover (only forest) and 90k to the nearest small town Gua Musang. I needed to go back up the hill and couldn’t bike but fortunately Su stopped and offered me a ride. He took me to his work place – a flower plantation – where I changed not only the broken spoke but another 8 that were slightly damaged from another chain overshooting as I left Singapore the second time. Changing 9 spokes and keeping a correct wheel tension is not that easy as a layman especially without a machine to check it on. Consequently, I didn’t feel like riding 60k downhill to Ipoh with 100 kg luggage, but Su’s colleague Jerry was kind to give me a ride. It was late so he helped me find a cheap hotel and gave me directions to the bike shop where I got the tension fixed (for free) the next day. The problem was annoying but on the positive side, it happened close to “civilisation” where I could get help.
After the bike shop, it was late for check out so I stayed another day doing laundry (everything was dirty from fixing the bike the day before), and arranging spare parts from Denmark. From Ipoh I went north on 76 to the Thai border and then northwest along it before I crossed into Thailand at Bukit Kayu Hitam – many hundred kilometres shorter but still good exercise a couple of small mountains and lots of rolling hills to navigate. On the last day I had another broken spoke – actually the one I replaced earlier, making me think there’s problem with the wheel despite it being new.
The views didn’t change much along the way. On the coast everything was built up and in the hills the views were almost the same the whole way – a few villages/towns and small stretches of forest/jungle but mostly palm oil tree plantations after massive deforestation. As I came north from Ipoh it changed to rubber plantations (basically open forests) and farmland in different shapes. Because of the many bike problems, Malaysia ended up being only 1,100k so I’m far from the good shape I had hoped for before having to do 1,500k in 2 weeks in Thailand. If it’s fairly flat, not too much headwind and not too many bike problems I might make it, but otherwise it could be too big a challenge making it necessary to use public transport for a stretch - time will tell.
On the coast it was mostly sunny with temperatures around 32-35C (feeling like 42- 45C) and 80-90% humidity. As I went inland the temperature dropped slightly but often it felt cooler because it was more cloudy. At night slightly cooler but not much c.f. camping section below. It was dry season and still it rained quite a lot. Most mornings until 8 and evenings from around 7-8pm. And always at least one heavy downpour mid afternoon lasting between 20 minutes and 1½ hour. It was about finding cover quickly as a few minutes would soak me completely.
As I began ascending Cameron Highlands the temperature dropped steadily and when I got there it was very pleasant 20-22C with only a few, short daily showers. However, I left in heavy downpour from low-hanging clouds with almost no visibility. The remaining 5 days in Malaysia, it was mostly sunny, hot and humid but only a few evening showers.
The wind was predominantly around 25-35 k/h from the north (occasionally NE or NW), so most of the way I faced a headwind (as always). Pleasant to cool me down though less wind could have done the job.
Road quality and drivers
Like most drivers around the world, Malays are impatient but except for a few they honked and waited instead of squeezing by when there was no room. Worst were the motorbike riders going in big groups with 120-150 k/h up the narrow, winding hill roads.
In general, most annoying was the pollution. Besides the ubiquitous burning of garbage (especially plastic), Malaysian vehicles have no exhaust filers so the fumes are nasty especially from trucks on the steep hills.
In Singapore, people had told me about the bad Malaysian roads so it was a positive surprise to encounter many fairly decent roads – on the coast there was often a wide moped lane, I could use as long as I paid attention to the oncoming traffic! The bad roads/stretches however, were so bad I had to slow down to 7-8 k/h not to damage the bike (especially considering the weak rear wheel spokes).
I didn’t meet any long distance bicyclists but a couple of times I tagged along with some locals out exercising. Their limited English (and my lack of Malay) minimised conversations but still nice with some company for a few kilometres.
One thing I noticed was how lazy people are – nobody walks anywhere. One time a friendly guy wanted to give me instructions to a laundromat jumping on his moped. I thought he would drive there to show me (as they sometimes kindly do) but he went 30 metres to the corner of the road to tell me from there. And countless times, I’ve seen people driving 50 metres from one house to another a little further down the road.
I’m sure there’s a lot of different wildlife on the peninsula but I didn’t really experience much. Countless macaques, a few snakes and many birds including different kinds of hornbills. And then of course countless mosquitoes and ants when camping.
Staying overnight incl. camping
The first days on the built up coast I stayed in cheap hotels. A little against my principles but I couldn’t find secluded places to camp and it was only 8 USD for a single room with own bathroom and aircon. The latter particularly enjoyable because I forgot to put on sunblock and got burned. As I turned inland camping became easier – palm tree plantations seemed to be my best bet as there was little risk of detection (no work done on a regular basis) even though it was difficult to hide with lack of dense undergrowth.
As I came north, it became increasingly more difficult finding palm trees plantations, so a couple of times I asked locals for advice. Fairly hopeless with the cultural differences and language barrier – often they were more curious than interested in helping out, so it could take 15 minutes to conclude they had absolutely no clue. Other times I ended up in a Muslim house where the husband wasn’t home creating a problem for the frightened woman compromising her religion. One time however, some kind people let me put up the tent in front of their house and – I think - only because it was getting dark. A question they asked made me understand the general lack of openness to inviting me in – “are you having problem with the police?” They simply don’t understand my trip - leisure is limited and for relaxing; not exercising.
It got dark around 7.30pm so that’s when I went into my tent or even earlier to avoid the mosquitoes. Not much fun being in the tent at more than 30C and very difficult to sleep as it seldom cooled down before 10pm and never to less than 25C. Fortunately, I was often so exhausted that I managed to fall asleep anyway.
Other camping challenges were finding branches strong enough to carry my food bags (several times it snapped and I had to get up and change branch in the middle of the night) and getting up early enough to prevent monkeys from stealing my food.
As mentioned, I also stayed 5 nights in a hostel in Cameron Highlands and 2 nights in a hotel in Ipoh while fixing the bike. With prices between USD 3-8 for a private room, it’s less important to camp out every night though I do enjoy it because it’s more quiet/peaceful than the noisy hotels. Expecting the price level to be about the same in Thailand, I might frequently continue to get a room instead of camping partly because the high temperature makes it difficult to sleep and partly because a room makes it easier to get an early start.
Food, water and people
Breakfast was a mix of bread with jam/cheese and oatmeal. Most days I had lunch at a food stall along the way – they are everywhere and the food is cheap and excellent. A plate is between 0.25-1.00 USD depending on where and what – the higher price included chicken/meat/fish. Often I would eat 2-3 plates and then a smaller dinner. Staying at hotels, I went out for dinner while camping the menu was either pasta or mashed potatoes (from powder).
I’ve always cooked on a gas stove but expecting difficulties finding the right gas canisters on my way to Europe, I have acquired a petrol stove. It’s a bit difficult to control the burner but I’m sure I’ll appreciate it as I become more accustomed with it.
As previously described, I don’t like to pay for water. However, nobody in Malaysia drinks tap water without a filter. The hotels I stayed in always had free water dispensers and most food stalls were kind to provide water so I only had to buy water a few times (of which almost all were from very cheap water dispensers in the street – 1 litre ~ 0.03 USD).
It was quite a joy riding in Malaysia as most people were smiling and greeting me. Only a few idiots shouted at me and threw stuff after me and then the annoying begging just because I’m white – even people in cars stopped to beg money! Outside the big towns/tourist areas, the language barrier was a challenge as few people spoke English. In the southern countryside it’s not taught in school, so mostly it was old people having learned in school or from the Australian troops stationed here long after WWII. Many people were curious, however not being able to communicate some weird moments occurred, when they came up to me and stared for minutes, and then left without a single word spoken. In the hills, a number of people stopped to take pictures and chat a little but surprisingly only one guy offered me some water. Besides Su helping me with the broken bike, some of the best experiences were taking cover from the rain e.g. 1½ hour with a Chinese coconut seller – very limited English but extremely friendly serving me two coconuts and some hot chocolate.
Health and equipment
As mentioned Koga (the bike manufacturer) finally honoured their lifetime warranty on my broken frame after 5 months. Having no expectation of getting help or bike parts along the way to Europe, I completely refurbished the bike except for the front rack (that only did Australia), handlebar and mudguards.
I had acquired a new rear rack in the US but it surprisingly turned out not to fit my bike despite being German made. I had to use bolts and tape to attach it but already after 4 days it turned out not to be enough and I had to use strings as well. A little too early to have problems with the rear rack to make me comfortable.
As mentioned in the Singapore section, my chain overshot after only 25k so I had to have a new wheel built. Unfortunately, nobody in Singapore had the more durable touring spokes I wanted (only mountain and street bike spokes), so I was uncertain how long they would last with my heavy load - and rightly so! After only 750k a spoke broke when leaving Cameron Highlands adding to my concern of the durability of the weak spokes. For comparison, the wheel I had built in Australia lasted 13,000k without problems and the load was as heavy as now.
The same day the spoke broke, a strap on my new Teva sandal’s had broken in the morning and in the evening a strap on my Ortlieb pannier broke. One problem never comes alone. The last day in Malaysia the previously replaced spoke broke again, making me think it’s a wheel problem despite it being new!? I hope I can make it to Myanmar where I can get new parts from Denmark as I’ll shortly meet my mother who’s randomly travelling there at the same time.
As always after a long break, I was struggling with sore buttocks the first week and it wasn’t helped by the heat and high humidity. Again, Compeed gave some relief as did the following week with little riding staying in Cameron Highlands and Ipoh. Afterwards it seemed to bother me less making me optimistic before Thailand.
I think I might have lost a couple of kg but nothing like expected as Malaysia never became a very long or hard ride. Nice to still have a lot of body fat to burn, but being in bad shape and heavier will not make Thailand easier.