I’ll be honest. The only reason I took the boat over to Langkawi from Thailand was because I’d heard that the island was duty free. I’d also heard that booze was expensive in the rest of the country. That didn’t surprise me – Muslim countries have a habit of sticking a mean tax rate on naughty drinks. I figured I’d head over to Langkawi, have a few drinks on the beach and then crack on down the mainland’s west coast. Sounded like a good plan to me.
The ferry had been delayed and it was dark and wet when I reached Pantai Cenang on the other side of the island. It had been a fairly miserable ride over in the rain, but once I’d checked into a cheap hostel, had a shower and sat down with a £1 gin & tonic in my hand life didn’t seem so bad.
Whenever I arrive in a new country I give myself a 24 hour ‘budget free buffer’ (I’ve written about it before in this blog). Sometimes I get so stuck into the mindset of being a cheapskate I forget to ever treat myself, so this silly tradition gives me a chance to eat loads of nice food during my first day sussing out a new country.
Not only did I make the most of the duty free during my ‘budget free’ day , I also headed over to the Langkawi SkyCab – a huge cable car that ferries tourists up to the mountain top. It cost about £8, which I wouldn’t normally spend on something like that but I’m glad I did. The views from the top were stunning.
It was stressful outing. Just a few days after Eid the whole country was in holiday mode. Tourists had arrived from all over the world, especially Arabs. On the way down I shared a cabin with some guys from Yemen. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone from Yemen before.
I made a quick exit when I touched back down. I don’t like being in crowded places in this part of the world. Asian people don’t know how to queue properly. How’s that for an unfair sweeping statement? I wish I could have shown the guy leaning into me in the queue a video of people in Wimbledon demonstrating how efficient and enjoyable an orderly line can be.
I squeezed my bike onto the boat back to the mainland among the hordes of returning holiday makers and stopped for a night in Alor Setar.
On the way into Penang I bumped into Kiwi cyclist Renée. Or rather, she caught up with me. She also started in London, but only left a year ago – putting my pace to shame much to my own annoyance.
She was the first cyclist I’ve seen on the road in three months and we took the boat over to Georgetown together.
I had to stay in Penang a little longer than her as I had an Indonesian visa to acquire. It turned out to be and incredibly easy process – they were happy to accept a bank statement instead of flight bookings and I left with a 60 day visa. (Cost me 190RMB, £32).
I stayed with Ellie and Dan in town. Ellie had messaged me via my blog many months ago and they had a really lovely place for me to rest up a few days.
I also spent a bit of time (and money) on the bicycle – departing town with new brake rotors, chain and cassette. Unfortunately it seems the front gear shifter is buggered, which means no mountains for the moment. I’m quite happy not to have the choice in this heat!
Mainland Malaysia’s west coast is busy, but that didn’t bother me too much. I was happy just meeting people and finally I could stay with people most nights via Couchsurfing & Warmshowers. I wanted to try and avoid sleeping in my tent in Malaysia but I didn’t get very far with that. The night out of Penang was another tent job. I’d heard they had a free campsite at Matang Mangrove Forest Reserve so headed over there.
The rangers offered me a place to pitch my tent in a neglected building and then had the cheek to ask for 60RMB (£11!). They said some nonsense about it being a ‘government fee’ for conservation. Government my arse. We both know that dosh is going straight into your back pocket.
I told them they could have 10, which fortunately they accepted. The rains had arrived and I would’ve been stuck otherwise.
I hadn’t realised it was my 18 month anniversary on the bicycle that day. Had I known I might have treated myself to a hotel! Yet, here I was in some mouldy shack back in my tent. It’s not a glamorous life, this one – but I wouldn’t want it any other way. Just before bed I tried the switches in the room. I hadn’t expected the power to be on but suddenly one of the overhead fans started rotating. Hurray – a breeze! That was a good enough present for the 1.5 year mark!
In the morning I went for a stroll around the reserve. It was actually beautiful in the morning light and most definitely worth the little cash!
The next day I had another reason to celebrate – 25,000km on the odometer! The map is looking quite bonkers now. I try to focus on each day as it comes in order not to get distracted but when I do zoom out and look at the world map Australia suddenly doesn’t look that far away…
If you want to see my route in more detail, zoom in on the map on my site’s ‘route’ tab.
The next day I stopped in Seri Manjung where I stayed with Diana, who hosted me via Couchsurfing. She was one of the only Malay women I’ve seen not wearing a headscarf. I thought it was pretty cool, but her peers apparently didn’t think so. Malaysia is, (at least for the Malay community) far more conservative than I remembered it being. But the influence of Islam seems to be growing here and Diana reckoned that more women wear the hijab than five years ago.
All the houses were unique and the older wooden stilt ones were particularly charming. Large palm trees hung over the colourful homes and occasionally a villager would come running out to chase away a troop of cheeky monkeys that had roamed into their garden. It was all terribly exotic to me.
I stopped in village one to ask a bloke if I could pitch my tent on his land. He looked up at me and said ‘money?’. Everyone I’ve met in Malaysia has been lovely apart from the two people I’ve asked about camping! This was the first time anyone has ever asked me for money just to camp on their land (and I’ve asked a lot of people around the world!). Instead I camped down the road by the beach, where no one bothered me apart from the omnipresent mosquitoes…
I decided to skip Kuala Lumper. I’d picked up my Indonesian visa and the bike was (sort of) working, so there was no need to go. Cycling into a huge Asian city is never fun and I’ve been to KL before.
Instead I stopped in Klang, an outer suburb of the city where I stayed with Tew via Warmshowers. We went for a little tour of the area in the evening. In the nearby ‘Little India’ a church, mosque and Hindu temple all faced each other around one central square. This is the kind of chemistry that makes Malaysia so special – a crazy mixture of cultures right on top of each other. You can get Chinese dim sum for breakfast, Malay laksa for lunch and then an Indian curry for dinner. All on the same street!
It’s a very unique fusion and an intriguing mix. On the surface everything seems rosy between the ethnic groups but in reality there is some tension just below. It’s something I’m learning the more time I spend here. I’ll feel a little better qualified to write about it for the next blog – so I’ll save that for next time.