Sunday 21 August 2016

The End of the Road - For Now

Current Location: Tanah Rata, Cameron Highlands, Malaysia

We were both quiet on the penultimate day of our ride. Put it down to those mixed feelings we always have as a tandem trip draws to a close - sadness that another adventure is about to end, relief that we have managed it safely, joy at the thought of seeing old friends and returning home, and indecision about where we might go next time and whether we have the energy for it.

Incense - Buddhist temple

Malaysia has been an uplifting tour for the most part. I say most part because the one issue that has challenged us has been the weather - the combination of heat and humidity. Many days the temperature has been in the low to mid 30s and the humidity up over 70%. Put the two together and the sweat pours off us and we have to stop every few kilometres for cold drinks. In the evenings when we have fancied a beer, often it's not been available in the mostly dry eastern side of peninsula Malaysia. That's the downside.

The upside has been pretty much everything else. The sealed roads, the cost of living, the food and the friendliness of the people all get a tick. English is widely understood so communication has been easy. We were able to leave the tent at home knowing that accommodation stops were within a day's ride of each other, most of the time.

For cycle tourists, Malaysia has a lot going for it.

The end of this cycle trip - about to arrive in Georgetown, Penang, by ferry.

Dining out Penang style with a wonderful crowd. L to R: Simon, Annabel and Suku (old and hospitable friends who are looking after us), Michelle, Judy and Gail.

Storm clouds over Georgetown.

And the Prize Goes to ...

Of all the people we have met, one stands out for me. The following is taken from my notes on the day, as we made our way slowly over the East West Highway.

        "A car slowed and stopped ahead of us. Assumed it was just someone waiting to take a picture, but we were waved to a standstill.

"The driver popped open the car boot, insisted we share a big blue bucket of mangosteens. Whipped out a rug and spread it on the grassy roadside and broke open the first of the purple, smooth skinned fruit. Inside were segments of white flesh - delicious. Bit like nectarines. We gorged ourselves.

Judy with Yahaya Mohd Yussof. Sometimes you just click. This was one of those occasions. An absolute gentleman, he insisted we share some of his mangosteens.

"His name was Yahaya Mohd Yussof, father of five, retired from the navy. During his time in the service, he had spent a year in Italy where he had the opportunity to visit Milan, Rome and Venice. Daughter (oldest) is a doctor, then comes a teacher, an army officer, an air force officer and the youngest is a nursing student.

"He was a lovely, warm man and we loved meeting him. He brought out a plastic container of sweet black coffee and we shared it, drinking from the container. 

"We told him about our travels and he quizzed us about our safety in Malaysia. He seemed concerned, then relieved when we told him we felt very safe here.

"When it was time for all three of us to get back on the road, he and I shook hands. He and Judy refrained but touched their right hands to their hearts, which is the custom and felt entirely appropriate.

"Finally, Yahaya and I gave each other a big bear hug. He climbed into his car and drove away. A warm, gentle man."

We resumed our riding, uphill. We need no reminders of the goodness inherent in the vast majority of the people we meet, but Yahaya epitomised it. A different race, religion, and cultural background - it makes little difference. 

Yahaya, and all the others who have shown us kindness, thank you.

The Mystery Remains

Now our riding is over we are temporarily leaving our friends in Penang and escaping the lowland heat for a couple of days by taking a five hour bus ride to the Cameron Highlands, altitude around 1,500m. It's a chance for us to put a full stop to a story that has fascinated us for several years - the mysterious disappearance of the Thai silk king, Jim Thompson.

For those of you unfamiliar with his name, Thompson - an American - pretty much reinvented the Thai silk industry in the late 1940s, 50s and 60s. And then he disappeared. Without trace. One day in 1967. 

He was on an Easter break to the holiday home of friends in the Cameron Highlands, just a few kilometres from where we are staying at Tanah Rata. One afternoon he went for a walk and vanished. A massive search took place but no trace was found. Ever since then, theories have flourished about what happened - most of them bizarre and extremely unlikely. The most popular belief is that he was kidnapped (though no ransom note was ever received). Another that he was murdered (no body was found) and yet another suggestion is that he deliberately disappeared to engage in secret work during the Vietnam conflict.

This morning we took a taxi up the winding road to the house, known as Moonlight Cottage, where Thompson stayed. 

Moonlight Cottage around the time Jim Thompson disappeared.

And as it is now - holiday accommodation.

As the road steepened and narrowed our driver said,"dark" a couple of times and made it clear he did not like the jungle gloom. "Narrower then," he said. "Dark".

Today Moonlight Cottage and its neighbour Sunlight Cottage provide holiday accommodation and the owners do not appreciate gawkers like us. Signs warned we were entering private property and only guests were welcome. 

Signs warned we were entering private property.

We pushed on with our driver giving us a tip. Go to reception, he said, and tell them you might want to stay.

He was onto it. We had not even opened the car doors before one of the staff was speaking to the driver. We couldn't understand what was going on, but it sounded like he was being questioned about why he had brought us.

We made for reception, and did our best to win over a rather stern woman at the counter. She was polite but firm, if not icy. Here was a business card, their rates were on the Internet and we could not go into Moonlight Cottage to look at the rooms as they were occupied. 

We retreated, snapping a few pictures as we went.

It had been a pointless exercise, but having read a couple of books on Thompson and visited his teak house (now a museum) in Bangkok, a spying mission to the place where he vanished seemed like a logical progression.

We strolled back down the long hill to Tanah Rata and ate cake and drank coffee - none the wiser about what happened to Jim Thompson.

East - West Highway Routes
Copy and paste any link into your browser for detailed map routes and stats.

Kota Bharu to Tanah Merah 49 km

Tanah Merah to Jeli 42 km

Jeli to Pulau Banding 90 km

Pulau Banding to Grik/Gerik 42 km

Gerik/Grik to Baling 60 km

Baling to Sungai Petani 62 km

Sungai Petani to Butterworth/Penang 41 km

Tea plantation, Cameron Highlands

The Eastern Dharma Protector. According to a sign nearby this figure in a Buddhist Tao temple in the Cameron Highlands, the protector looks after the nation. The lute symbolises the need to refrain from acting with undue haste and take a middle path. This is like playing the lute. If the strings are too loose it cannot be played. If they are too tight they will break.

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