Wednesday, 16 May 2012

95. Malaysia - a week in pictures

Tea plantation in the Cameron Highlands

Picking tea leaves

 Mr.Chong, Dan, Jet, Ellie and Rene

Four becomes six for a day - New Zealanders Steve and Leigh


A new government-built village for Orang Asli

Iced coffee and ice tea is good for you

A lot of palm oil trees

Traditional architecture

2012 Year of the dragon: Melaka

Trishaws in Melaka

Christ Church in Melaka's Dutch square

Bus driver with his tangled slinky

Roti time

Staying at Ringo's Foyer guesthouse with Howard, a warmshowers host

Melaka's Tuesday night market

Melaka, Malaysia
Pedalled: 60,802 km

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

94. Into the Highlands

Crashing into the Malaysian mainland at Butterworth pier, we disembarked from our hastily docked ferry whose captain had sent Julian and Rocinante and several other dozing passengers sprawling across the deck. We soon found Highway 1 and almost as quickly lost it again. Another few kilometres circumnavigating Butterworth's industrial zone and finally we found Highway 1 again and rode southeast towards Taiping. A late start to the day and a desire to make some forward momentum meant we decided to try the highway rather than the quieter but longer backroads. We soon discovered that the old Malaysian highways that parallel the fast new motorways, have plenty of gaping holes and the fast traffic had us concentrating hard for the first 30 kilometres. After this the road improved and the traffic lessened as we continued on towards the former tin-mining centre of Taiping. This part of the country receives a very soggy average annual rainfall of about four metres (double the volume of the Wicklow hills). The night markets were in full swing as we arrived into the city just after dusk and dinner was Chinese-Malay fare surrounded by three-generation families happily slurping and burping their way through large quantities of rice and noodles.

The next day as we crossed a small pass between Taiping and the royal town of Kuala Kangsar, Ellie appeared at the summit with another cyclist in tow - Swiss Rene. The Malay penninsula is a funnel for peddlers who have drifted down from various scattered regions to the north and like others we met, Rene had crossed to Asia overland on the trans-Siberian railway before he cycled south from Siberia through China and southeast Asia. We pulled over in the next village and ate the Malay staple, roti canai (rotis with curry sauce) while a pair of munching policemen eavesdropped on the conversation. Unlike most other countries where discussions of our journey soon descends into incredulity on the part of many interrogators, many Malaysians seem to assume from the outset that we are cycling around the world. Cars will pull up alongside with the windows down and a few swift answers later they pull off having found out where we're from and wishing us good luck.


About ten kilometres from Ipoh we lost Rene again when we got separated during a rainstorm and Ellie's patched patches on her disintegrating inner tube gave up. The following day we climbed up from the steamy lowlands into Malaysia's famed Cameron Highlands where we were gradually rewarded with cooler temperatures over a 50 km climb up to about 1400 metres. We'd set off assuming that in terms of supplies, our route would be like any other over the last few months with plenty of villages to get fed in but the new road into the highlands only passes the turn-offs to a few Orang Asli (literally Original People) villages. The statistics for the eighteen recognised Orang Asli tribes in Malaysia paints a depressingly familiar picture of abuse, neglect, proselytising and abandoned livelihoods that have left these groups as the most impoverished in the country with continuing encroachment onto the lands that they subsist from. A couple of men and young boys lounged under bamboo shades, selling jars of honey on the roadside, hardly earning enough to sustain their families. After discovering there would be no food for the next twenty kilometres I flagged down a passing scooter whose jovial owner was selling fried roti and pancakes and this provided fuel for the rest of the climb. As we packed the food into our panniers a tour bus descending from the highlands stopped opposite at one of the stalls and within moments a dozen different lenses were being pointed at us at point-blank range while a loud tour guide lectured to us that the people we were sitting with were Orang Asli and they live in the jungle. More photos. Having approached us with no fear, the camera-toting domestic tourists from the capital, then nabbed a couple of the young boys from the village and sat them down for a quick snap. Two minutes later the bus pulled off and the bemused older men sat looking at us and waved us goodbye.


"Holiday apartment for rent"

Six-inch scorpion on the climb to the highlands

We arrived into Kampung Raja at sunset and found a bed for the night before going to the night market stalls that were laid out along the street, providing goods and services for the large population of agricultural workers who serve their time on the surrounding plantations of tea, fruit and vegetables. Since the booming 70's Malaysia's economy has depended on large numbers of foreign workers to maintain its upward growth. Many of the workers are in Malaysia illegally, having come from Indonesia and Bangladesh in particular, with promises of good pay only to become indentured servants for the murky network of recruiting agents that brings labour from these countries once a sum is paid to them.

Yesterday we arrived in Tanah Rata and met another couple of bicycle tourers, including Swiss Rene who caught up after a day off in Ipoh and found us. A couple of local cycling enthusiasts, including Mr. Chong, who is recently back from a tour of China and Taiwan had already met Dutch Jet and were already fixing her her almost seized rear hub when we arrived yesterday.

Tanah Rata, Malaysia
Pedalled: 60,404 km

Wednesday, 2 May 2012

93. Through an Asian crossroads - into Malaysia

A ninety-minute ferry ride brought us into Malaysian waters and the duty-free island of Langkwai. Amid the gaggling Asian tourists on-board, a silent Hannibal Smith and B.A. Baracus blew things up on the screen. The A-Team film had apparently blown all the budget on production and ended up having to hire a five year-old from rural Thailand to do the English subtitles. Once we docked we loaded up on the jetty and made our way to the now deserted immigration booth, where a young female immigration officer, wearning a hijab matching her uniform, sternly asked "Why are you late?". Entering Malaysia feeling like scolded children, large posters reminded us that trafficking in illegal drugs carries the death sentence.

Our original idea was to cross the border on the mainland but we'd followed Troy over to Langkwai as he had heard it was a popular mooring place for wandering yachts and he was hoping to find a lift to far-off lands by easier means than pedalling. We visited a couple of the marinas on the island, chatted with some sailing folk and pitched up under a shelter overlooking a beach on the western Bahau bay as lightening and thunder built up to a crescendo that engulfed us in the middle of the night. After eating our museli in the baltic air-conditioned petrol station, we headed off on a northern circuit of the island. Torrential rains forced us to find shelter at a closed school building, where we waited for three hours before the deluge abated and we could carry on. The beaches and bays on the northern side were beautiful and deserted and waiting to be camped on but we headed back to Kuah to complete our loop of the island and catch the evening boat to Georgetown. We rode into the ferry terminal with 45 minutes to spare and casually wandered up to the ferry desk only to discover that Malayasia is one hour behind Thailand and we'd missed the last ferry of the day. All three of us piled into the cheapest digs we could find in Kuah and later I followed Ellie and Troy to the nextdoor bar where they were chatting with a group of ruddy mariners who appeared to have spent more of their lives on water than on land. As we were packing up to leave the following morning, Troy got a message from a yacht in one of the marinas that they were interested in meeting him. A few hours later, as myself and Ellie sailed on the afternoon ferry to Georgetown, Troy had found himself a ride to Sumatra and then the Maldives on-board a yacht.

People feeding the monkeys trash

Waiting for the rain to stop on Langkwai

Arriving to Penang island

When Captain Francis Light set foot on Penang island in 1786 and claimed and named the British settlement after King George III, Georgetown was to be a base for the British East India Company in the vital maritime artery of the Straits of Melacca. As well as being close to the commercially important Spice Islands, it was also midway between China and India. The settlement encouraged emigrants from both countries and over the years, the population expanded with a mix of ethnic Malays, Chinese and Indians including small numbers of other nationalities. Today in the old centre of the city, mosques and Chinese temples stand side by side while noodles and stir fried dishes mingle in the air with more pungent Indian spices. The Indians were predominantly from the Tamil-speaking south and many were Muslim who came across the Bay of Bengal to work on the rubber plantations or other manual labour. Many of the Chinese migrants worked in the merchant warehouses in the city and came to dominate trade and commerce, an imbalance with the local Malay populace that has continued until today.

We had only planned to have a day in Georgetown but somewhere between a Chinese breakfast of curried noodles and an Indian dinner of mutton curry and rice, Ellie picked up a bad case of food poisoning and she has spent the past few days in bed. In keeping with our tour of local medical facilities, we can highly recommend the Adventist hospital here in Georgetown, who weren't able to do much but at least reassured us after a couple of days of high fever and vomiting that it was just food poisoning and nothing more serious. Fortunately Ellie seems to be on the mend. Julian meanwhile has both bicycles sparkling. I also managed to break my kindle's screen. Having initially assumed that it would be a right off I discovered online that since 2009 Amazon have been issuing free replacements for kindle's with cracked screens and a short conversation with their customer service in Kentucky had a new device in the post to Ireland immediately, which is free provided that I return the broken device to them within thirty days. Even the postage is paid for, as long as I can find a UPS drop-off location - a task that is not as easy as one might assume in Malaysia. I think the Kentucky operator assumed I was in Georgetown D.C. rather than Georgetown Penang. So I have spent the last couple of days following up dead-end leads to addresses in the yellow pages although I think I found the office I need now which is on the other side of the island.

During our stay in Georgetown we've been oblivious to the wider protests that had taken place over the weekend against the ruling coalition government of Barisan National who have dominated politics since the early 70s. At the so-called Bersih 3.0 nationwide rally last weekend, opposition groups have been demanding electoral reform before the upcoming summer general elections. Unfortunately the protests became violent when protestors and police clashed in Kuala Lumpur. Instead our concerns were more local and as Ellie was bed-ridden in a dump of a hotel that we'd decided on quickly and gradually realised that the friendly Chinese management and dolled-up lady boys were running a busy brothel. Combine that with terrible toilets and an ant infestation and the last straw came last night when our roof proved permeable to the tropical downpour outside and we piled our gear in the dry corner and maneuvered buckets to catch the run-off, which soon overwhelmed us. Now we're a few doors down where for a dollar extra you get a seat on the toilet, a TV, clean sheets and a roof that doesn't leak and I don't get propositioned every time I leave the building. It's the small things in life.

Georgetown, Malaysia
Pedalled: 60,119 km