Krabi is a dive of a destination. After a day supposed rest there, we were more than keen to be on our way out. For myself, Molly and Haydn, the south Thai roads were beckoning, and although there was to be no coastal riding until Malaysia, anything would be better than the bed-bug infested hostel we found ourselves in.
Two days of sweaty cycling to a city called Trang ensued, as we happily distanced ourselves from the bed bugs. It seems impossible to get used to riding in those temperatures, and counter intuitively, we’ve found that keeping riding is preferable to stopping in the heat of the day – the light breeze you get from cycling wicks the sweat away and keeps you cool. The route to Trang was broken only by a night spent camping in a temple, where a drunken man came to interrogate us with his two-sentences of broken English, ‘you are German’ followed by ‘you use euro’. Despite both being statements, they were very much questions in his mind and he peppered us with these over and over. Equipped with an unsatable British longing for politeness, which admittedly was being tested after a day’s cycling in the heat, we explained that we were English and used the pound sterling enough times for me to start to wish I was brought up German and called Klaus, just to make him up shut up.
Before arriving in Trang, we’d sent out some couchsurfing requests to people living in the city. We’d received a few positive replies from willing hosts, but nobody had been able to accommodate all three of us at one time. So, as we entered the city, I left Molly and Haydn to stay with expat named Nelson, whilst they stayed with a Thai family. Nelson turned out to like being called Kim (I do love it when someone uses a completely different first name for no apparent reason), had a jet-black beard and lived with a family on the outside of the city. Like many expats, he had started coming to Thailand years ago on holiday before eventually deciding to move permanently from his hometown Pennsylvania. He was definitely a unique host, in that he had no real interest in cycling, travelling anywhere other than Thailand, and that his Thai partner amusingly appeared to hate having cyclists staying in the house. He chuckled to me that he had another couple coming to stay the night after I left and then a French woman the night after that, but his partner didn’t know yet.
During the day at Kim’s I played football with his young daughter and took her out cycling around the block of houses where they lived. I found doing this for a few hours meant that she no longer had the energy to launch bouncy balls at my face inside the house; or scream the place down when I told her she probably shouldn’t kick the dog. After visiting a lovely waterfall with the family the following day, I was climbing the walls a little and hoping that Molly and Haydn were ready to leave – they weren’t.
Thankfully, their host had agreed to take me in for the final night, where we spent the late hours watching Alex Honold’s ‘Free Solo’ ridiculous climbing film. I’d been intently listening to podcasts about him explaining his climb up El Capitan’s monstrous rock face without any ropes for the last few months and had been dying to finally see the movie for myself. Pumped after watching the film, we set off for what would be the final stint through Thailand. Heading out of town, we bumped into a British cycle touring couple, Joe and Verity, stocking up in the cool aired haven of a 7-eleven.
Funnily enough we all actually knew them by their Instagram name – byJovebyBike – without having ever met them. Of course, we found that we had plenty stories to trade and routes to discuss – aka boring cycle chat that I’ve come to love so dearly.
After Joe picked up four punctures in the space of an hour, we found ourselves camped up next to what was depicted as a temple on our maps, but turned out to be a monk living next to an incense filled cave. A water butt brimming with brown water and a floating bucket to pale it comprised the unique shower set up, but I think it can be said, a camp spot without it would have gone down significantly worse. All slightly cooler yet probably no less dirty after our showers, we had a lovely evening chatting the more interesting escapades of the trip – my Pakistan border fiasco going down a treat.
As they headed off to a four-day island retreat, we cycled on to the border, camping up in a national park and jungle as the evening rolled round. It was here that, surprise surprise, we met another British cycle touring couple camping out in the park. Lewis and Cathy were doing their year of cycling ultra-lightweight. Beautiful bike packing set ups with minimal baggage made us gawp at how little stuff they had with them. Not so secretly envious of how fun their bikes looked to ride, we peppered them with questions and watched on as they meticulously packed these tiny bags with a tent, stove, and, and… pretty much everything we had with us but without any excess. There and then I decided that when I do another trip In the future, that will definitely be the way I go.
That night we were camped up underneath a pavilion overlooking a lake in the national park. The surface of the water was covered in waterlilies and all the surrounding hills were alive with sounds from the jungle. Whooping monkeys made this eerie high-pitched noise from the opposing bank which gave the whole valley a wild Junglebook feel.
The camp spot was a real beauty, we even had a brand-new toilet block just a few hundred meters away complete with showers and lights. As a storm rolled in we were protected from the worst of the weather by our trusty pavilion, leaving us all ready for a good night’s sleep inside the mosquito net inner linings of our tents. Unfortunately, an over enthusiastic park ranger turned on the lights for the pavilion in a bid to help us see everything and never turned them off all night. With no switches anywhere around us, and not knowing where in the large park his electrical nerve centre lay, we were reduced to constructing eye masks from thermal bottoms and attempting to sleep that way.
Crossing the border the following morning was exciting, country number 32 was soon safely stamped into my passport and the whole of Malaysia lay in wait. The roads were on par if not even smoother than those of Thailand – always a good sign when crossing into a new country – and straight away the smooth ribbon of tarmac led us up our first hill in months. An incredibly sweaty effort up a short but steep 100m climb brought us to our first downhill in what felt like months, complete with incredible views out over the jungle.
That night we were all due to stay with a Warmshowers host called Muhamad, but before we could reach his place we got caught in another huge thunderstorm. As we were taking refuge underneath a metal awning (great idea) a bolt of lightning hit the ground just 5m away from our feet – the instant crack of the thunder sent us all deaf in one ear whilst simultaneously making us crap ourselves in fright. For the next 10 or so minutes we couldn’t hear anything and were constantly pointing at the point where it hit like the small children we really still are. After the 30-minute deluge had subsided, we were soon at Muhamads place, where to our joy he revealed that he makes ice cream for a living – bring on dessert!!
After a lovely dinner (he cooked for all 5 of us!), he told us stories about him cycling around the UK and South Korea. The stories were made all the sweeter by giving us all a taste of his various fruity ice cream flavours, although to our horror we found that he makes a durian ice cream (durian is an extremely smelly fruit that they eat here. In fact it’s so smelly it’s banned in all public places).
The following day we split from Lewis and Cathy, who were opting to ride the 130km directly to Penang. Molly and Haydn didn’t fancy riding quite so far in one day, so we happily found another couchsurfing host for that night just 50km away from the Penang ferry. Yuki was a lovely housewife who was looking to meet new people from all over the world. When she signed up to meet exciting and adventurous cyclists, I’m not sure a gaggle of disgustingly smelly Brits who excitedly played video games with her crazily energetic son really came to mind… Nevertheless, she found it hilarious as we got killed by her gaming mad child again and again. The next morning she took us all to the local food market for breakfast, where the sight of three white Europeans turned more than a few heads, but thankfully, smiling faces were attached to all these heads making us feel very welcome.
After a great breakfast, we soon made up the distance to the ferry that would take us across the short stretch of water to the island of Penang. A hub of both creative and industrial activity, Penang’s main city of George Town attracts a lot of visitors drawn to its quirky street murals and colonial era architecture. A series of tax reductions for commercial businesses has seen the likes of large western technology companies set up shop here and consequently seeded a big expat community. We were to be staying the vacant apartment of two of that community – Mike and Lauren. Colleagues of a friend, they had kindly allowed us to stay in their apartment overlooking the sea from the 23rdfloor (having just had a child they were both back in the states with family). The place was unreal. An open plan lounge and kitchen looked out over what felt like the whole island, and we felt like royalty having individual bedrooms to ourselves.
The next five days consisted of a lot of relaxation in both the apartment and incredible pool available to those staying there. I really did feel like a fraud walking around that place – nobody here knows that I was washing in a dirty waterbutt just a few days ago…
Soon it was time to up sticks and move across the island, as another colleague had kindly offered us a spot at her place. It was nice to see a different part of the island, and here I revelled in watching the sunrise over the sea every morning. Right in front of the window stretched a crazy 22km bridge to the mainland where I could sit and watch the cars disappear into the sea haze as I got on with writing a few more articles. Every day, after swim in the pool, we would join our friends on their work campus to slackline in the afternoon, before heading out for some lovely street food in the evening.
After a week on the island, it definitely felt like it was time to go. Two of our friends – Molly and Kai Ching – decided to cycle they fancied cycling us for a long weekend. Excited at the prospect of a mini adventure, they duly bought a tent that evening before working to attach pannier racks to the bikes the night before setting off. After chucking a small rucksack of clothes on the back rack the following morning, we all happily set off towards the ferry.
For the next three days we leisurely cycled to Taiping through small villages on quaint roads. The first night we asked to camp in an outdoor centre where we were terrorized by small school children who were overnighting as part of a school trip. They ran around the tents screaming until the early hours, meaning we were all more than ready to leave come the morning. After a great second night of card games and music, we said goodbye to them both in Taiping over another round of great street food. We all had a great time, and it was sad to see them go.
Back to riding as a three, we reached the lovely town of Ipoh after a sleepless night outside a humid mosque. Motorbikes revving and a 5am call to prayer did little to further our cause of sleep, so a day of rest in Ipoh was warmly welcomed by all. I enjoyed cycling around the lovely (again colonial) town, hanging out with some people from the hostel and watching a local football match. After that it was time to ride up to the Cameron Highlands. At 1400m above sea level it was to be quite the climb in the heat, but one that would hopefully lead us cooler climes and possibly, just possibly, a full night’s sleep in the tent.
I enjoy cycling up mountains, the challenge of it all combined with the amazing views has formed most of the cycling highlights of this trip so far. The Alps, Caucuses, Pamirs Karakorams, Himalayas and the north Laotian peaks, each of those have their own individual story to me. Not everyone shares my enthusiasm for these steep sloped beasts however, and each person has their own pace at which they climb at. It’s difficult to climb at a pace different to what is natural, and so I’ve always found it best for everyone to go at their own pace and meet up at points. In this instance, it meant I rode ahead from Molly and Haydn, meeting them at a great camp spot near the summit.
After a seriously sweaty first 500m, the climb reminded me of why I love them so much. I locked into the low end of my cassette, listening to hours of audiobooks as the horizon expanded around me. After months of pretty much flat-land cycling, I could finally look out and see more than just the road ahead. Reaching the designated café and camp spot, the cool mountain air provided welcome reward for a day’s uphill cycling. I sat up there truly content, watching a spectacular sunset over nearby peaks as a storm rolled into the valleys below us. I watched until the light gave out, eventually retiring to my sleeping bag where I slept like a log.
The next morning I rode ahead on to the Cameron Highlands themselves. A single road led in and out of the village, and the place was busy with tourists. I worked my way across to a surprisingly packed hostel, whilst Molly and Haydn opted for a double room at a nearby guesthouse.
I fancied making the most of the cool morning air, opting to hike up a nearby mountain to 1800m. It took me 4 hours of hard walking to complete the trail, and to be honest, for 99% of the time I couldn’t see anything beyond the dense bush. The path was basically an overgrown jungle, to which you needed to climb fallen trees and push through bushes at points to pass through. After seeing only 3 people in 4 hours, I found out that my particular route had been flagged as best avoided by local guides. Ah well, I enjoyed just getting out the hostel and away from the noise of the road. It was nice to do something apart from eating and cycling for once.
Now the proud owner of two legs full of burning muscles, I spent the rest of my time in the highlands bingeing a Netflix series about F1 and catching up on classic films that I had never watched (Trainspotting 2 was a big favourite from the binge).
The night before we were due to leave the highlands we all met up over dinner to work out a rough route to Singapore. Over a spicy samosa Haydn mentioned that Molly’s wheel had a bump in the rim after the ride up here. He showed me a video of it and it looked pretty bad. Since we had a huge downhill the next day, it wasn’t the optimal time to test out a dodgy wheel. I suggested getting a bus with the offending wheel into Kuala Lumpur to get it sorted before riding onwards to the east coast. They agreed that it was probably for the best, leaving me to ride out of the place on my own the following day. The plan was for me to ride to Kuala Lumpur and then meet them at a later point.
The next morning I bombed it down the mountain, enjoying the winding road through the hills as I listened to Stephen Fry’s audiobook. At lunchtime I met two French cyclists stopped in the only place for miles to grab some grub. We got chatting and it turned out I had cycled with one their ex-girlfriends (Priscilla) in Thailand a few weeks earlier – what a small world. Between the two of them they had five board games (absolute nutters), so we soon got stuck into a few rounds of Splendour before swimming in the nearby river. A few games became many, and before I knew it, it was 10pm and time to hit the hay.
I rode on early the next morning in what was to be my first real long ride in a while. I fancied making up some distance through the humid forested roads before knocking up over another colonial settlement called Fraser Hill. Still tuned in to more of Stephen Fry’s fascinating stories and anecdotes, I spent the best part of the afternoon climbing the 700m to the top before spending another lovely descent spent attempting to take no-handed pictures of the empty handlebars. At the bottom I pulled up next to a breezy reservoir. The sun was setting over the water where groups of fishermen lined the banks basking in the last of the day’s sun. I decided this would be a good place to camp for the night, and quickly found myself a place by the river underneath a bridge in case it rained, again.
Expecting another hot night, I draped my mosquito net over the tent poles and sat by the lake reading. It wasn’t too long before yet another bloody storm rolled in, blowing away my botched mosquito net construction and almost snapping my tent poles. I ran after it, grabbing everything I could as it started to chuck it down. After frantically weighting down all my stuff, I put up my tent as fast as possible whilst trying to protect my sleeping bag and electronics from the worst of the rain. After a bit of a mad scramble, all was okay, and I was left to just sweat it out. Once the fly sheet is on the tent in this humidity, it soon resembles a Swedish sauna minus all the attractive people, to which there is no escape. Open the door to let in the breeze and you’re attacked by mosquitos, so all you can do is lie there.
As soon as the rain stopped, I took of the fly sheet only for it to start up again 10 minutes later, horizontal and from the other direction. At least I could count my lucky stars that tonight a strong breeze was keeping me reasonably cool now as I drifted off to sleep. It didn’t last however, as I was woken up by a huge light illuminating my tent. It was 1am. I wearily opened up my tent to see what was going on to find around 10 fishermen commandeering a gigantic LED light stick connected up to a car battery meters from my tent. One of the main guys (I immediately decided to call him Frank the fisherman in my head) looked over at me, saying, ‘don’t worry, we’re only fishing.’ Yes, you may only be fishing Frank, but it’s 1am and you’re standing next to my tent with 10 head torches and something that resembles a portable sun right next to my tent!
I knew my attempt at sleep was done for right then, it was really pissing it down and this spot underneath the bridge was the only place they could fish whilst taking cover. As the night progressed, they ran excitedly up and down the banks of the lake and started up a fire to keep away the mosquitos. I resorted to the old, ‘tie the thermal bottoms around your head’ trick with little effect until they left at 5am. Thank goodness I would be arriving in Kuala Lumpur that evening with a proper bed to sleep on.
As I’ve come to expect, it rained profusely all morning, leaving me with little choice but to chuck on the raincoat and just cycle. Over here, when it rains it pours – there’s no such thing as drizzle. I climbed a steep 300m hill as the rain finally began to ease off as I approached the city. As I was cycling up, a large monkey decided it didn’t like the look of me cycling and began to charge at me. Seeing it late as I was engrossed in some more Stephen Fry, I could only swerve away from the mad thing. I rode onto the other side of the road where a driver who had seen the whole thing, drove between me and the monkey, stopping its run and giving me enough time to get away from it. I’ve seen a lot of monkeys on this trip, from Pakistan to Nepal through to Malaysia, and this one was by far the biggest. Being on the bike on a steep hill I would have stood no chance of defending myself against the bastard. Damn that was a lucky escape. Maybe being soaked and running on no sleep wasn’t so bad after all!
Now I could see the city, huge modern buildings rose into the sky in front of me as I descended as fast as possible away from the damn monkeys. Kuala Lumpur, or KL as everyone seems to call it, is not a bike friendly city. The only way to get around it is on these huge highways that weave around each other and the surrounding buildings – it’s a nightmare. Eventually I snaked my way across these mad roads to where I was to meet Cindy, a family friend who had kindly offered to put me up in one of her apartments.
The next day was a national holiday so they offered to show me the city – by car of course. I was grateful not to have to negotiate the roads and gladly accepted the offer to sit back and take it all in. We explored the famous Batu caves and the cities downtown, where I could finally lay my eyes on the Petronas towers. The only bit of Malaysia I was familiar with before leaving, I had imagined myself arriving to see them from my dining table at home whilst planning. Sat around the table with it drizzling miserably outside, they seemed impossibly far away. Malaysia was just an exotic land that I’d only heard about, and seeing them for real I thought would really be something special. Already the country is so much more than just those two towers for me now, but looking up at them, they were even more spectacular than I’d imagined over a year ago (with the nostalgia factored in of course).
Two giant sentries pushing up high into the sky with a bridge between them; in my mind there was only one more place before Australia back on that planning table after those towers – Singapore. One week’s cycle if I take the scenic route, one more week until I have cycled every possible inch of Eurasia. Bloody hell that sounds good.