Apologies in advance for the blog entry gunfire that will commence shortly! On reaching Kuala Lumpur I downsized my luggage for the journey through Singapore, Malaysia Borneo, Brunei, Philippines and Japan. Having since en reunited with my trusty computer on my way to Indonesia coupled with being temporarily imobile due to a dog bite (more on that later) the adventure catch-up can commence!
Kota Kinabulu, market goer.
Local hanging around his stilt house, Malaysia Borneo.
Cycling in Malaysia is rather underrated in my opinion. Sure it initially has a stale American 80’s throwback feel to it and off road cyclists are surely miffed by the smooth asphalt. Ever the optimist, I however enjoyed the contrast. The smooth road surface does wonders for morale, a power ranger cyclist I am not but practically skipping off to dinner, bright as a button after a day of 120km in stifling heat makes one seem invincible! Even the third class roads here would qualify as perfect runways in a few of their neighbouring countries. A welcomed change to my usual greeting of “Helooooooooo, your countryyyy” is a short, snappy and altogether more satisfying “Mango, mangooooh?” Never one to offend I have often accepted the mango with a side of tea (again a sugar with tea ratio). In northern peninsula Malaysia, gold panning is the hobby and occupation of choice. However as a chosen occupation this involves living in the jungle for months on end, relying on monkeys and exotic birds for sanity saving conversations. Upon meeting a few retired gold panners I’ve found this to be an unsuccessful strategy. One such character was “Sikut” which I have no doubt mis-spelt. He introduced himself as a doctor and due to my ever worrying spider bite it has become a knee-jerk reaction for me to immediately brandish my wound on hearing the word doctor. It would seem doctor is a very loose term here (you would think I would have the sense to question why a doctor spends his days gold panning) and within moments he was picking herbs from the garden like a child picks pick’n’mix sweets. The end result was not entirely to his satisfaction and prescribed local “gange” or marijuana as the sole cure. Realizing I had a fully fledged (although well intentioned) nutter on my hands I felt conversing on the subject was futile and adopting a smile and nod strategy was best. Little did I know he was already busy making calls to source some “Gange” for the troubled cyclist and was very disappointed to inform me on my departure that none of his contacts could realize his request. It may be appropriate to mention at this point that death penalty is the punishment for being caught with drugs in Malaysia. Thinking nothing of it I set off on the final 30km to my destination for the day. It was nearing dark as I approached Alor Setar and was whilst deciding on a suitable direction to search for accommodation a guy approached me “Irieland cyclist Kitche?” A hesitant nod on my behalf caused him to produce a bag of “Gange”. My good doctor friend had obviously sent word out that an Irish cyclist in need of “Gange” was headed towards Alor Setar and to sort her out. After a few firm refusals, pedalling away at speed was the only solution. Ironically the fallen deal took place outside a police station on the main road while the Muslims responded to the call to prayer at the adjacent mosque. I did a few zig zag moves around the city streets in a desperate attempt to lose my newly acquired drug pushers and chose the rear entrance a hotel with no onlookers as I hastily pushed my load directly into the lobby out of sight, much to the fright and disapproving look of the receptionist. Bicycles are not considered sophisticated machines in these parts, where briefcases instead of panniers seem to be the luggage of choice. I was surprised by the modern hotel data-base, the likes I have never seen in Asia, where I could see the list of guests for the past 9 years since it opened. Yet again I am the sole Irish guest to grace or ungracefully cross its threshold. I told the receptionist if anyone called to ask about my staying there to firmly say no. There were 7 messages for me the following morning!
Penang Bridge and the amazing sunset that goes with it.
Always when you have a boat to catch something goes wrong. A record breaking 5 punctures in one day and slit tyre were the ingredients for an eventful days cycling. Thankfully I had my folding tyre in my pannier to get me through but call me an optimist but 5 spare tubes I didn’t have. Unfortunately the blow-out from my ripped tyre (twice) left both tubes beyond repair and I was left in a momentary pickle as I dismantled my wheel to access the damage. The blow-out happened outside a road-side restaurant which produced quite an audience for my “ Women can change tyres too” performance. Sadly the show came to an abrupt end when I discovered the irreparable tube but as always in Asia a solution is never far away and unknowns to me a local guy had been summoned to source a tube. Moments later my knight in shining armour arrived by scooter and I was pumping the said tube with gusto much to the astonishment and admiration of the crowd. My audience was almost entirely male but not one of them offered to physically help. The sole person to help me was an incredibly mature 16 year old girl who said it was her pleasure to help and her duty to me as a guest in her country. I asked why the men only intimidatingly watched and didn’t offer to help (not that I wanted them as brute force and ignorance is often the way to fix the poor mans transport) and she replied “They want but their wives not happy and anyhow they know only motorbikes and cars. Bicycles are for children” A child I am then.
If there weren’t aerodynamic holes in my helmet I would have passed it around to the every increasing crowd of onlookers/most eligible bachelors in the village as a form of appreciation for my “heroic, brave act”! Obviously it takes little to impress in these parts.
Bike one, machine zero. Taken in the middle of nowhere in Malaysia Borneo.
Who needs a tripod for a long exposure!
After only a 20 minute ferry ride the island of Penang offers a much appreciated quiet respite from the bustling mainland. I quickly discovered that bicycle is the quickest mode of transport as the roads are more populated than the beaches. Georgetown offers an eclectic mix of old world charm, little India, significant Chinese population and a dollop of colonial architecture for good measure. It was the kings birthday and so a national holiday proved an ideal time to explore the city with all the annoying tourist shops being closed but temples, churches and mosques in full swing. The well to do locals were out giving free meals to the poor who accumulated and I’m guessing also sleep in the temples. My arrival by a heavily loaded bicycle caused quite a stir with the Hari Krishna crew as they ran after me with 2 meals. Given that only the poor were offered the free meals I thought this a sign to rethink my wardrobe.
Would a smile hurt....
To complete my sightseeing before I caught the boat I needed to get rid of my bags so that I could do some photography unimpeded. The tourist office gave me the solemn shake of the head and all too familiar Asian “Cannooooought” so I was admitting defeat when I happened across “motorcycle parking” outside the Ferry terminal. For the princely sum of 20 cents I had security minding my bike and bags all day. It may seem like a very minor triumph but as a solo cyclist keeping an eye on your luggage is a constant pebble in my shoe! Again it was a case of character judgement and he seemed rather an affable chap and he gave me a sincere look in the eye. I did cross the street however and sat watching him for 10 minutes out of sight. My instincts were right as he was far more interested in looking at the latest soap opera than riffling through my dirty socks in my panniers!
After disembarking the boat I was literally catapulted back into the main land as I whizzed off the less than sturdy ferry ramp wedged in a sandwich of motorcycles. If my arrival in Penang was a sensation my arrival in Ipoh was a riot. That night my evening meal turned out to be quite a bargain when the very entrepreneurial owner of the restaurant-shop-bar-chemist-money changer and now Guesthouse proprietor insisted I stay at her house. I assumed that I would be staying with her family but bizarrely enough the family prefer to stay cramped in the restaurant sleeping on the floor as opposed to using their spacious house 5 minutes away. With the 4 bedroom house to myself , I brought the kettle out of hibernation for my morning dose of coffee, locked the doors behind me and headed back to the restaurant to return the key. I found them all heaped on top of each other snoring away merrily while the cupboard come “Foreign exchange” was open to the uninvited…..there went my theory that they slept there for security purposes! Later that evening I had planned on finding a train station about 50km from the capital Kuala Lumpur as I had been warned that cycling into KL centre is not an option open to negotiation. I thought after Delhi, Calcutta and Bangkok that traffic was never an issue for me but oh how the mighty fall! The novelty of sucking exhaust fumes wears off quick.It would appear I have mastered the art of Asian negotiation. On arriving at the deserted train station I made the bleak discovery that all cargo offices were closed and the station master come ticket seller informed me “Cannaaauuuught” with a bicycle. Without changing facial expression I said “oooh” and we stared at each other for about 5 minutes. Then I asked if I make it smaller and put it in a bag “Cannnaught” and we stared into distant space for another 5 minutes, I then asked again “really, if I make it smaller ok?” and bingo I got the resigned head wobble I was looking for. Case and point as to why I love Asia…there are no rules everything is possible with the right attitude, non invasive negotiations and a large smattering of patience. Later when the station master saw me dismantling my bike he offered me twine to help with my exertions and then offered me to make myself at home and use the kitchen and shower in the staff area of the station…..what a turn around!
On arriving in Kuala lumpour I had the added bonus of seeing my friend Mirjam who has pretty much turned into my Asian family since I started this journey. As I left her in Thailand a few months ago it really seemed like a milestone to reach her over four months later. This top notch German hospitality has it’s drawbacks though as once you get used to this home from home experience enjoying a familiar faces company everyday….it’s damn hard to leave! If I wasn’t lucky enough to have Mirjam also Dearbhla from my Loretto school days lives in Singapore. Moments like this when you are chatting with a friend from home as though continuing an interrupted conversation, the backdrop of Clark Quay replacing (stunning) Navan as the only subtle difference, you realize how very small the world is!
Half an hour after arriving at Dearbhla's in Singapore. Reunited and rehydrating with Champaign. Oddly enough this was one of our better photos!!
I was gearing up for a quite a culture shock in Singapore but it never arrived. “The bubble” that is Singapore is so incongruous to it’s neighbours that it doesn’t offend. Perhaps it’s geography is the only truly Asian aspect of Singapore and maybe I am guilty of having a hankering for small funny countries (I did study in Liechtenstein for a while after all!) but I thoroughly enjoyed the break from reality. No doubt the excellent reception from Dearbhla and her amazing friends went a very long way in assisting my transition into the “The bubble”. Other do however face the torment or culture shock everyday there. I noticed in little India the madurai style of Architecture was very prominent. Having cycle throughout Tamil Nadu I was familiar of it’s origins and caused a few eyes to swell up when I described the town in the area I had cycled through. This had more to do with their homesickness rather than my romantic description of sleazy Tamil Nadu. The men spend their meagre life savings to come to Singapore in search of the Asian Dream, working in construction, 10 people to a room in Little India district sending back their 250 Euro a month to their families. Their monthly salary adds up to a night out in Singapore so their quality of life (without their family) is seriously compromised. The nail in the coffin comes if they have an accident as they have no medical insurance and never in a month of Sundays could they ever repay the medical expenses. Out of work, in debt to the hospitals and not allowed leave the country till their bills are paid, sad faces on crutches are a common sight throughout little India.
Reality was to strike again soon as I was flying from Johor Bahru to Malaysia Borneo. My guidebook mentioned little of the area and I saw this as an omen that I was going to like it a lot! There is a tamed jungle wilderness feel to Borneo that is crying out to be explored and thankfully by bicycle (unbiased reaction) is the best way to do it. I got myself re-orientated in Miri staying on a catamaran on the Marina. Another of my more interesting berths to date. While my bike went to the doctor after a thorough bashing on the flight (I positively hate flying with a bike) I explored the laid back fishing, sailor town of Miri. Foreign cyclist are quite a rarity in these parts and the Angelina Jolie effect I’d lost in cosmopolitan Singapore was back. The bicycle shop owner “Mayuin” (definitely mis-spelt was positively the kindest bicycle mechanic around. On seeing all the country flag stickers on my bike he had perhaps accurately diagnosed me as a dotty fool and refused payment for all his labour. Then for the tyre and tubes he charged me only cost price and was filling my panniers with isotonic drinks when I wasn’t looking. It acts of kindness like this from complete strangers that makes travelling all the more worthwhile.
Local outside the Arab quarter, Singapore.
"The Durian" opera house, Singapre. It's nikename coming from it's uncanny resemblance to oddly enough a durian!
(Mlaysia continued) After my soujern in Brunei I was back in Malaysia after a failed fingerprinting at the border. My chain had just come undone and with no tissues to hand I just assumed my mechanic role ad-hoc. As a result at the border crossing my fingers were smeared with grease and wouldn’t work on the finger printing scan machine-very high tech here in Malaysia. A few giggles later a baby wipe was produced and the dilemma was averted….everyone still giggling.
For first impression of Sabah is of a place where time stands still. I was warned about venturing too much off road as there are many a triggerhappy tribesman (supposedly from Brunei) who have been active for years and occasionally let loose. I get so many of these warnings or scaremongering that I really feel locals often exaggerate conditions in their country so they get the warm feeling that “wow I saved that girls life” Call me a sceptic but if one tenth of their warnings were true I must very well be invincible or have taken the luck of the Irish to the next level.
Sabah is a very unique place offering a wilderness “out in the wilds” feeling that the Malaysian peninsula failed to offer. It’s most treasured attraction from a touristic point of view is Mt. Kinabulu which is exactly that a tourist attraction which takes the good out of it in my personal opinion. For me Sabah will be about the amazing wildlife and birdlife, the mangrove jungle, spectacular sunsets and amazing people who made each day a memorable one.
The cycling was also relatively easy here. The only negative was the weather. The heat is stifling during the day and by lunchtime you could collect a cellar of salt of my skin I’m perspiring so much. In the afternoon the rains kick in and are so torrential that you literally cannot see more than a metre in fornt of you which makes for less than ideal cycling and leaves you no choice but to hide in the next form of shelter of 2 hours. This is quite inconvenient as it usually happens around 4 pm which is precisely around the time I tend to look for accommodation and so far I have been caught out each evening and end up looking for accommodation in the dark with is never an easy task particularly when brownouts are common! I arrived in the port town of Sipitang so late that all the accommodation was full. After a little convincing the owner agreed I could stay in the dormitory. I soon understood his reservations. The all male occupants look like murder is their favourite hobby but to give them their dues none of them has emitted any sleazy remarks (not that I’d understand) or looks. Generally I tend to shy away from sleeping in a confined area with five armed men but they are evidently a sophisticated race…or perhaps my fake wedding ring is having the desired effect! I reckon I shall be sleeping fully clothed this evening for modesty and a quick getaway if needed.
Mt. Kinabulu...hiked not cycled!
Kota Kinabula was an adventure in itself with a slight mishap of a drunken fool successfully mugging me but he is definitely the exception to the rule and was just as likely to happen back home if you cycle about with your head swaying from side to side like a comic tourist brandishing an SLR camera on your back for the world to see…..one of my less street wise moments! More common to the rule was the amazing hospitality I had the good fortune of receiving from Ellie in Kota Kinabulu. Kayaking at night in the wild mangrove amongst fireflies and great company certainly goes down as an unforgettable and magical adventure in my journey.
Stilt houses outside Kota Kinabulu.
Busy fish market, Kota Kinabulu.
Market vendor hard at work.
The initial plan was to head to Sandakan and take the boat to the Philippines but after hearing from another cyclist that due to terrorist attacks on the island, tourists were not allowed board the boat (locals oddly enough were). So plan B was put in place and I headed regrettably by flight to manic Manila!
Singapore wildlife...I really am becoming a twicher!