Tuesday 21 June 2016

Early days in Sarawak

Current Location: Bintulu, Sarawak, eastern Malaysia.
Distance cycled this trip: 312 km.
Fluid intake: impossible to keep track.
Colour of pee: bright yellow.

Ah, Malaysia - where the scooter riders wear their jackets back to front, roosters crow all day long, the dogs are too hot to give chase and whenever the traffic stops for long enough we hear strange stirrings in the roadside jungle.

Noodle maker - Tatau, Sarawak.

We have been cycling - as in proper, hot and sweaty cycle touring - for three days now and feel as though we are almost back in the groove. But I'm going to be the first to admit that it's harder than I expected. Perhaps it's to do with coming from New Zealand in winter to Sarawak where the temperature hovers in the high 20s/low 30s and the humidity is around 70%. Maybe it's the road we are on and the traffic. 
       We are riding the main drag from Kuching in the southwest to Kota Kinabalu in the north east, and we are finding it irritatingly up and down - not big hills but difficult to get a rhythm going on the tandem. The road is also narrow and potholed and with dangerous edges where the sealed surface ends abruptly with drop offs of up to 30 cm to the gravel or mud below. No place to plunge in our desperation to get away from the overloaded logging trucks or the big tankers loaded with palm oil that come thundering up behind us. Having said that, most of the drivers are considerate, but they do travel fast.

Cyclists' staples - water and bananas.

       The scenery has been pleasant without being outstanding - jungle with lots of km between drink and food stops. Plenty of longhouses in various states of repair, some old, timber and dilapidated but others are modern with their own fenced off balconies instead of the communal verandahs we expected. Today we saw more palm oil trees and evidence of deforestation, but so far it hasn't been as bad as we expected.

Worst moment
The worst moment came yesterday afternoon when we topped a hill and gasping, stopped for water in a shadeless spot on the roadside. We both felt giddy when we bent down to retrieve our water bottles. Add to that, I had a tingling sensation in my fingers and feet. The last time that happened was in Bulgaria just before I ended up in hospital with heat exhaustion. We got back on the bike but we were completely knackered. Thankfully there was more downhill than uphill as we cruised the last 8 km into Tatau.

Embarrassing Moment
The day we set off from Sibu. We had only covered 20 km when we decided to use the toilet at a service station. As usual we took it in turns, one went to the loo while the other guarded the bike, answered questions and posed for photos taken by anyone nearby with a phone. One of those who came over to chat was a tidily dressed Chinese man of about 30. As we were poised on the pedals to leave, he prised Judy's hand open and forced a MR50 note into it. Despite our protestations he wouldn't take it back. "Buy some food", he said.

     And today, a Muslim man stopped on the road ahead of us and tried to offer us money. He told us that because it was Ramadan he wouldn't be eating til later but with our cycling we must be hungry. This time we were ready for him and managed to decline his offer without offending anyone.

Most entertaining
Silangau. You won't find it on Trip Adviser, but we were under the mistaken belief it had a hotel and anyway there was no other town for miles around. We pedalled about looking for a sign (it didn't take long) and finally were directed to a bilak sewa - a room to rent. Full. Was there anywhere else? Yes, across the street. I went this time and sure enough there were the words bilak sewa above a door, but the owner was gruff and to the point - full, as he heaved boxes around his store.

Silangau - little more than a truck stop but we were in need of a bed.

Silangau appeared to be a strongly Christian town, probably Methodists. The waiter pictured with Judy is Gabriel, perhaps as in Gabriel the Angel.

      By this stage Judy was attracting a crowd. Among them was a charming Roman Catholic couple who were offering to put us up in their longhouse 20 miles out of town on a back road. It would have been an adventure but the thought of more pedalling ....

      An elderly Chinese with a tuft of whiskers growing out of a mole on his chin joined in and led us around the corner. Another blank. Then he got on his cellphone. Yes. He walked us up the street to his friend the electrician who showed us his bilak sewa - up narrow stairs to the first floor, windowless, dingy, fan only, a rumpty bathroom. "How much?" MR50, he said. "Perfect, terima kasih."

Up narrow stairs to a concrete windowless box - bliss.

Worst meal
At a roadside stall in the middle of nowhere much. We saw chilly bins, a sure sign of cold drinks, so we stopped. On a tiny grill were some chicken wings and something suspicious on skewers. They were being carefully turned over a bed of charcoal by a petite woman who looked like Myanmar's leader Aung San Suu Kyi. We ordered some of each and posed for photos with a couple of tanker drivers who must have been slumming it. The chicken was ok, it had been marinated. After one bite Judy declared the other thing, on the sticks, was liver and was tough as old boots. She refused to eat it, then cheated and exchanged it for more chicken. Not wanting to offend, I plunged on smothering the stuff in tomato sauce and artfully flicking a large piece into the bushes as if by accident. Our hands and faces became smothered in grease. There was no water, no tissues and the sun was threatening to fry us. I didn't want to put my newly washed gloves back on. Disgusting.

Judy rejected the meat on sticks and left it to me to try to maintain friendly relations at this roadside stall. Two of the men were palm oil tanker drivers and all of them had to be in the photo.

Onwards and upwards
So what now? We are booked into our plushest hotel yet. It's in Bintulu, a town still prospering on the natural gas reserves found offshore decades ago. It is 135 km to the next town, and there is no accommodation en route. Tomorrow we are going to check whether there is a bus with a big luggage compartment.

Map links and stats:


  1. Good lord, I think I can safely say this time I'm glad it's you and not me! Hope things improve on the food/accom front! Take care and enjoy x


  2. It sounds less than perfect and you haven't tempted me to dream beyond the EV routes in Europe yet. Funnily enough I came across the term "hitch biking" yesterday in a couple of articles about cycle touring in South America where they made it sound like an honorable alternative to days of discomfort and danger


  3. It sounds less than perfect and you haven't tempted me to dream beyond the EV routes in Europe yet. Funnily enough I came across the term "hitch biking" yesterday in a couple of articles about cycle touring in South America where they made it sound like an honorable alternative to days of discomfort and danger


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