Mainland Malaysia - Penang to Kuala Lumpur
Hej Hej friends, family and followers!
So, it has been some time since my last blog post, just over 3 months in-fact, so I thought I’d just give you a brief update before we continuing from where we left off, which was leaving Langkawi, Malaysia, some 5 months ago.
I’m now in Denmark! Whaaaa?!
Yes…. Since my last post, I’ve cycled through Malaysia, Korea, Japan, Finland and Sweden, had a 10 day Wim Hof breathing and ice course in Poland, have got to know my real self on new levels, and have just this day arrived in Denmark, oh….and I lost my passport; doughnut!
It is actually only the 2nd thing i’ve lost in 18 months of being on the road, the other being a flimsy green sun hat that flew off my bike whilst riding in Vietnam. Fortunately, losing my passport happened with the path of the Schengen countries of Europe in-front of me and not whilst in Asia. It happened whilst travelling by train between Turku and Helsinki to send some belongings back to the UK. So here goes travelling through 5 European countries without a passport. If the UK parliament wasn’t a zoo, it might have been a bit trickier.
Let’s quickly go back in time with a little recap of arriving in Malaysia.
I’d arrived on Langkawi Island, Malaysia, by ferry, from Satun, Thailand, after riding the 1,000km+ from Bangkok. I’d only intended on spending a few days on Langkawi, but had made some changes to my plans in not riding through Indonesia, and enjoyed Langkawi so much, that I ended up spending a month there. Matt, Nural and Odin, my Airbnb hosts, quickly became friends and were super nice, making me feel somewhat ‘at home’. The location of Nural and Odins Airbnb was something really very special.
Each morning I’d wake up and meditate with the adorable Dusky leaf monkeys or the not so adorable Macaques climbing around the building and surrounding trees. Eagles would soar through the sky and monitor lizards would stroll lackadaisically through the garden. Matt and I would whizz around on his moped, frequenting a few very local restaurants, including the best Naan bread in the world at Haji Ali, a non alcohol restaurant. The food was incredible everywhere. By night, Matt and I would wandered the food market for our weekly supply of Murtabak and a cornucopia of deliciousness, stock up on beers, and then sit, chatting away, watching natures incredible nightly lightning show lighting up the night sky over looking the bay, whilst casually smoking a pack of vanilla cigarillos a night.
It was an awesome month of tropical Island life which had unveiled the attraction of sedate, island living, but the time came to jump on Surly Temple, and continue the journey…….
In my short time in Malaysia already, the one thing that really stood out for me, unlike other countries I’ve visited, was just how ethnically diverse it is but also just how well that diversity seems to work in harmony and unity.
Cultures, beliefs and traditions seem largely respected by each other and life seems to move at a beautiful pace, something I find quite rare in this day and age.
Then there’s the food, oh my, the food
With this ethnic diversity brings the opportunity to eat a whole range of foods. Malay, Peranakan, Chinese, Indian, Nyonya and the amalgamation of all of them. In one day, I could find my self eating 4 different cuisines, but the strange thing was, these didn’t feel all too far away from each other like they do when eaten in your own country. There’s the odd cross over and similarity in textures and ingredients, which, like the culture, work together in a sort of harmonious taste bud jamboree.
One thing that is nearly always similar in the dining experience is the ambience and the setting. No frills, little hygiene control, plastic chair and tables and people very proud of their delicious food. It certainly re-writes the rules of what I was taught. Fortunately for me, my gastrointestinal tract was now capable of dealing with some pretty gnarly plates of food.
George Town, Penang
Penang’s reputation as a “foodies paradise” attracts hoards of people from all over the world, but as I cycled through streets of George Town, I was reminded that whilst the culinary reputation played its part in attracting the hoards of people, the incredible colonial architecture and popular street art lay way to the towns UNESCO World Heritage status, designated in 2008.
Founded in 1786 by Captain Francis Light of the British East India Company, George Town became the first British settlement in Southeast Asia, and after 171 years of British colonization, George Town offers a rare glimpse into British Malaya.
I arrived in George Town, Penang Island, by bumpy ferry from Kuah, Langkawi, and after circling round for a while on Surly Temple, I found my Airbnb, a beautiful old building whose interior had been restored to a very cool and quirky space.
The main high street is dotted with lively bars and street vendors selling a plethora of foods, so having got my self settled, I explored the many quaint streets around George Town.
Street food is very popular here, and Lebuh Kimberly, Chulia and Cecil seem to be a few of the most popular streets to find the best offerings.
Here you can find all sorts of delicious edibles, from the famous ‘Lok Lok’ a street food skewered hot pot, ‘Char Kuey Teow’, a Malay fried noodles dish, to ‘Cendol’, one of Malaysias most popular desserts, usually consisting of conspicuous green jelly noodles immersed in shaved ice mixed with coconut milk, palm sugar and kidney beans, and ‘Ais Kacang’ a shaved ice dessert full of brightly coloured fruit syrups, accompanied by red kidney beans.
Matt from Langkawi had told about a restaurant called Yeap Noodles he’d been to. “Hands down the hottest noodles I’ve had, you’ve got to try them” he’d said.
He wasn’t lying; great kick. That's the nice thing about Malay food, and Southeast Asian food as a whole for that matter; whilst often spicy, the chilli actually taste like chilli, and it is delicious, sweet and sweat inducing.
There are plenty of restaurants all around Penang that offer equally as good food. One particularly gnarly looking restaurant 20 minutes from George Town with no name was a real locals place, and the young group of guys cooking smiled as I leaned a naked Surly Temple up against the fence and took a seat. Kuey Teow soup comes in so many different variations, and whilst this one wasn’t the best I’d had, at £1.50 for a large bowl of noodle soup, a super sweet lemon iced tea and an authentic experience, you can’t help but sit and enjoy. The best Kuey Teow in all of Malaysia was in a local restaurant on Langkawi Island and it was a thing of beauty. Deeply rich in taste and colour, almost sweet, with the perfect balance of spice and salt. It was a master class in depth of flavour and umami, so good.
The popular but more expensive ‘A Taste of Teksen’ offers a delicious menu of Chinese food, located just off of Chulia Street. I had a spicy sweet and sour clay pot dish and rice, that was excellent, and as hot as lava.
Popular, but more laid back towns like George Town always offer the opportunity to meet different people, and throughout my 5 days in Penang, I met a miscellany of cool people, offering different stories and experiences, which was fun.
I met Antoin, a cool French kite surfing instructor, who lived in Koh Pan Yang and Eri Maryana, a really cool, very petit and funny Indonesian girl, who now lived in Germany and was an author of mediation and buddhist practice. They were both great company and we had some cool chats. We went for street food dinner one night and then onto a bar for a few drinks and live music. Eri Maryana had had some ice cream, and then had a cider, and after taking a sip of cider, she looks at us and says “ I eat ice cream, then I drink cider, but I still think I am eating ice cream” which really tickled me.
The seasons all over Southeast Asia vary greatly, and the same is said for in the individual countries themselves. Peninsular Malaysia’s weather is characterised by two monsoon seasons; the Southwest Monsoon from late May to September, and the Northeast Monsoon from November to March. Having spent a damp month in Myanmars monsoon season only a couple of months before, the thought of cycling through another onslaught of H2O offered ease in decision making, but this unfortunately meant I would not be visiting the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, said to be where the finest beaches in Malaysia can be found.
From Penang, I made my way south, stopping at smaller towns along the way, enjoying the different foods, different cultures and new experiences.
At this point, the weather was hot and super humid. Riding for 5-9 hours a day I’d be soaked through from the very start of the day like someone had poured a bucket of water over me, albeit, hot water. I’d drink anything cold; water, iced tea, Milo, electrolytes, . This particular day (pictured) I was battered as you may tell from my sunken eyes, so when a stopped at a shop and saw a fridge full of magnum ice creams, I couldn’t resist.
My first stop from Penang was Taiping. Once famous for its tin production, Taiping is also home to the very first railway line and train in Malaysia, built by the British and opened in 1885.
Taiping also holds the title of the wettest city in Peninsular Malaysia, which I only found out once I was there and found comical considering my avoidance of east coast Malaysia for that exact reason.
You may have noticed from some previous photos that Surly Temple had been sporting a “ Keep smiling and carry on” tin plate on her bum? 2 km out from Taiping, and I slow down to get my bearings, when I hear a voice behind me "keep pedalling and carry on"! I looked around to see a Malaysian guy on a road bike behind me, smiling from ear to ear.
"Where are you going? he asked.
'lnto Taiping, I'm not sure where yet". I responded.
'Follow me" he said, riding up beside me.
"Where are you from?"
"Where about’s?" he asked, not a question usually asked by a local Malaysian.
“London" I said
Where about's?" he asked again
"Well, just outside of London. Essex."
'Do you know Leytonstone?" he asked, much to my surprise.
"Yes, I know it quite well” I said
“I lived there for 10 years” he said.
“ Ha, wow. Didn’t expect that” i said will a smile
Atich, a Malaysian from Taiping was a super friendly guy, and for the next 40 minutes, guided me around Taiping showing and explaining the sites of Taiping, including the famous railway and Taiping lake gardens, the first public garden in Malaya.
After 40 minutes he says “ Ok, I’m going to play badminton now, great to meet you” and we said goodbye. It’s these little encounters that make this adventure so special.
Whilst Penang is globally known as a foodie’s paradise, it soon became evident to me that it wasn’t just Penang that offered delicious food, but Malaysia as a whole. In fact, I personally had more enjoyable, authentic and delicious food experiences outside of Penang.
In Taiping I had an outstanding dim sum in a small, local restaurant called Kedai Kopi Kong Meng.
Every town I stopped at I would have a great food experience in very local restaurants. The chefs would be delighted that I’d be eating their food and they would nearly always have a conversation with the locals about this foreigner, me, being there. Someone would nearly always ask me where I was from or where I was going, which was great.
Food Glorious Food
Mee Goreng, Char Kuey Teow, Laksa, pork and rice, chicken and rice and Nasi kandar became the usual daily feed. It didn’t matter where you were, you’d be able to get one of these options and it would always be very good. In these small towns, which seldom saw tourists visit, it was actually difficult to have a poor meal if you follow the simple rule ‘eat where the locals eat’.
-Delicious Laksa in local food court in Sitiawan.
These food courts are so popular in Southeast Asia and for very good reason. The variety and quality of food is top of the pops and they are always such a joy to visit and enjoy dinner, whilst watching the local people go about there daily lives. I was the only white person in there and I could feel eyes on me, as children would walk past staring at me as they do, then collide with a chair or a person. So I’m sat, enjoying my delicious dinner, when I notice two western guys walk in. These weren’t your normal travellers though, oh no. These guys were wearing short sleeve smart white shirts, ties and smart black trousers and shoes, which instantly reminded me of Michael Douglas in the film ‘Falling Down’, who in the movie, goes on a psychotic rampage around LA. When they spotted me, they made a B-line straight for me. They then explained that they were missionaries from their local church in America, which I found fascinating and very unexpected.
Food and cold liquids are high on my agenda when cycling these long distances and the heat on one day combined with a sudden hunger got the better of me, so when I saw a sign for a Mc’ds, the prospect of a vanilla milkshake and an air conditioned room left little to contemplate. Not usually a fan, it was actually a nice change, which I never thought I’d hear myself saying about at Macdonalds. I did learn something though; when a Malaysian Mc’ds dish says it is spicy, it is spicy. I did feel a little conscious however, because due to sweating so much, I left a trail of sweat on the floor.
The idea of actually using the drive through made me laugh. The look on the face of the staff would be a great picture.
I would often get some very perplexed looks from locals as I rode through their small villages, as there I’d be, this random, ginger bearded white foreigner, on a bicycle carrying way too much stuff, grinning from ear to ear which was nearly always met with a smile in return. On one occasion on a quiet, beautiful road, a middle aged man stopped on his typically southeast asian motorbike, and after some gesticulating and refusal by me, handed me a 10 Ringitt note and said ‘Welcome to Malaysia’, and rode off. This amazing, selfless, simple act of kindness to an absolute stranger left me smiling for hours afterwards. When the opportunity came, I gave that 10 ringitt to someone who needed it and hoped the act alone brought as much joy to them, as it did me. You may be wondering how much 10 ringitt is, but that doesn’t matter. For me, an act of kindness can’t be considered on its value or based on your own or anothers opinion and circumstance, for I know that many of the people that have stopped and selflessly offered me money, drinks, food, and such things from their heart, have offered things beyond their means to give away.
Although the echoes of “the food is amazing” were ringing true, the other thing I’d heard, “cycling is very popular and the roads are great for cycling” weren’t quite as meritorious. The roads were very busy with lorries and everyday traffic, often with a very small, bumpy and debris ridden space for cycling. One way of avoiding the busier roads, is to head into the mountains, but I’d chosen to avoid the mountains, for more interactions with people and the culture. That, and you know you’ll inevitably meet some hills at some point along the road.
Approaching one particular small town around 5pm, cooked from 7 hours riding in 35°C heat, I got a puncture on the side of the road. The local factory had obviously just finished for the day, as a good few hundred workmen all dressed in orange overalls and yellow hats rode passed on their motorbikes, with one guy stopping and asking if I need help. “Brother, you look to be in some trouble, do you need help?” he asked, which was very kind.
With no spare tubes or tyre now, the following morning I made my way to a bike shop. My tyre was shredding due to wear and it wouldn’t be long before it completely ripped through. The bike shop on the map didn't exist, so I decided to hit the road and hope that it would hold out till the next town. That hope didn't last very long, as 10km down the road the tyre goes. Hmmm. I walked, pushing Surly Temple for a km down the road. Concerned for her rims, I stopped by a parade of shops, when a man pulls out of his house in a nice looking truck with his window down. “Hello my friend, is there a bicycle shop near hear?” I asked, with little confidence, having ridden though the area.
“Yes” he said, “10 km that way”, pointing in the direction of where I’d just come from.
“Is there a bus that goes from near here I asked?”
“No. I can take you though.”
5 minutes later and I’m in this kind mans truck with Surly Temple and bags in the back, on our way to a bike shop. So kind.
The bicycle shop was a local a local mechanics with some very old bikes sitting around, but think they were quite happy for me to be there.
Soon I had a new tyre on and was on the road again.
I’d stopped planning routes a while ago, and whilst this often lead to some great rural, off the beaten paths, the same couldn’t really be said for the roads surrounding and leading into Kuala Lumpur. 25km’s outside of KL, riding through a pretty town, I have two options; a bigger, more direct road, or a much smaller, potential walking path. I decided on the smaller, potential walking path. After a few local encounters with laughing locals, and stumbling across and amazing Hindu Temple the road soon ended and became a dusty, bumpy path leading up a pretty steep path. I climbed up the steep track, turned a corner and quickly regretted my decision to take the path less travelled, when a group of about 6 very unhappy dogs went absolutely berserk which stopped me dead in my tracks, with me stood there going “Ssshhh Ssshhh” like a lemon. Fortunately the owner was quickly on hand to shout the dogs down, but I don’t think I was very far away from a trip to the hospital for a rabies jab.
I pointed at my self, then up the hill and she replied with “can not”.
A quick “terima kasih “ meaning thank you, and I head back down the hill to check my pants and to take the main road to KL.
It seemed there was no easy way of cycling into KL, and I soon found myself on a very busy, 3 lane highway which was a little gnarly. For about 2 kms I cycled fast until I reached the next exit and made my way from there. Fortunately, the exit I took, took me through a lovely, upmarket and quiet neighbourhood overlooking KL.
Cycling into Kuala Lumpur was a unique experience in itself, but having seen plenty of it on my ride in, I soon realised I wouldn’t be spending too much time there. Birthday, then out and south.