Saturday 23 July 2016

The Hotel Negotiator

Current Location: Kuantan, capital of Pahang and Malaysia's second biggest port.
Distance Cycled This Trip: 1,198km.
Hotel Room Prices: RM50 to RM115 (NZ$17.60 to NZ$40.48)
Hotel Costs in Sarawak, Sabah and Brunei tend to be at the higher end of the range, with peninsula Malaysia lower.

So far we have met four other touring cyclists on this trip, and they were from Auckland, NZ. Tristram, Wayne, Paul and one other (whoops, forgotten name) were following a similar route to us up the east coast of peninsula Malaysia.

"How do I look," asks Judy the Stoker.

"Fine," I say. "Oh no, bit of loo paper on your cheek."

Judy has been using a scrap of toilet paper to wipe away the sweat. She brushes her cheek with her hand and smiles. "N.G. for G.G. (Governor General)," she says referencing the Australian comedian Norman Gunston who famously stuck toilet paper on his shaving cuts. 

"How's my hair?"

"Fine," I say, both of us ignoring the stripe down the middle. Judy badly needs a hairdresser but is determined to hang on till she can go to her favourite in New Zealand.

She tucks her cycle helmet under her arm and heads for the swing doors to the hotel lobby, to find us a room.

One of our favourite places on this trip. The Chief's Rest House in the Royal town of Pekan, Pahang state, Malaysia. Built in 1929, the wooden bungalow creaked with atmosphere. In the picture, our tandem is parked on the verandah but there was plenty of space to put it inside our room.

It is a familiar routine. I put the tandem on its side stand, pull a water bottle from its rack and stand guard over the bike to wait.

A few minutes later Judy emerges, giving me a discreet thumbs up. That means a lot of things - she has found us a room for the night, the price is right, it has air conditioning, there is somewhere to store the bike and wifi is available. All of them are crucial.

Judy conducts research from our room at the Chief's Rest House, Pekan. Wooden floors where guests and staff all walked barefooted - as good as summer grass between the toes. Room to move, a kettle, a bathroom with a resident snail for company and air con which only stopped working for a couple of hours. Bliss. All this for just RM55 per night.

We do not (generally) book in advance, which some people might think strange. Why not make it easy for ourselves by going online the night before?

The reality is that we often don't know where we will end up - road conditions, sights along the way, a puncture, even our own energy levels can all force us to change our plans. We do not want to be locked in.

Sometimes we are unaware if a town on our route even has a hotel. So far on this Malaysia trip we have only been caught out once and instead we found a (pretty dreadful) room to rent (a "bilik sewa"). 

One of our less satisfactory stays. We went looking for a "local" beach resort instead of one overrun by foreign tourists. Sadly, we chose a village called Air Papan, north of Mersing. One resort was too expensive, another was full and we ended up in this place for a night. It may look romantic, but rain was destroying the wall linings, the loo smelt and the air con was locked on 16 degrees and poured buckets of frigid air on us until we finally turned it off. RM80 a night. 

Another advantage of just turning up is that it gives us the opportunity to check out our chances of storing the bike. One way or another, we always get it off the road but a hotel with a ground floor reception makes life a lot easier. Once Judy has sweet talked the person on the front desk, we roll it in through the front door and park it in front of them, or in a corridor not far away. 

Often the really cheapest hotels have their reception areas on the first floor and the bike has to be person-handled up stairs and around tight bends  - not much fun when we are hot and tired. 

This hotel in Kuala Rompin has a key ingredient - reception on the ground floor. We were able to push the bike through the swing doors and park it in a huge storage area out the back. Our room was up on the first floor and it had another important ingredient - a window.

Almost as bad are hotel lifts. If there is no room downstairs, we can at a pinch get the tandem in a lift. But it means removing all the panniers and making sure they are safe while we angle the bike into the lift so that the front wheel is jammed against the roof and the back wheel is stuck in the far corner. It is harder than it sounds. As we try to get the bike in, the lift doors will be trying to squash us, the bike or any onlookers who get too close in their enthusiasm to capture our strange behaviour on their camera phones.

So when Judy emerges from a hotel and gives that discreet thumbs up, it is a heartening moment. We can both look forward to showers, time to relax and maybe even a beer if we can find one in this predominantly Muslim part of Malaysia.

Judy's Quotable Quotes
"So much goes on in a day, you get up, cycle and have no idea where you are going to stay that night."

Maps & Stats - copy and paste links below into your browser.

Mersing to Air Papan 16 km

Air Papan to Kuala Romkin 65 km

Kuala Romkin to Pekan 88 km

Pekan to Kuantan 52 km

A few old Chinese shop houses remain alongside the river in Pekan.

Reflections of wooden sculptures outside the (closed) museum in Pekan.

We met these two when we stopped at a roadside stall selling fresh pineapples and preserved fruit. They were particularly interested in the bike and spun the pedals til we got bored. We figured the one on the right was going to be up to all sorts of mischief when he's older.

One of the gold domes on the Abu Bakar Mosque in Pekan.

Another mosque, this time in Kuantan. Completed in 1993, it reflects some of the architectural style of the mosques of the old Ottoman Empire. 

We took off our shoes and were taken on our own guided tour of Kuantan's mosque. It wasn't as long as we would have liked, but we saw enough to just about satisfy our curiosity.  One of those quirky bits of information we gleaned - new to us at least - was that the hats worn by men are to stop their hair falling forward over their faces during prayers - an absolute no no. Our guide laughed and showed us his bald head. He just liked his headgear.

Street scene, Kuantan.

Saturday 16 July 2016

The Day the Beast Disappeared

Current Location: Mersing, east coast of peninsula Malaysia
Total Distance on Tandem: 24,431km
Total This Trip: 961km
Health Status: Chaffing in all the wrong places, both of us with one bung knee.

Was it resentment at being stored in the left luggage room at the airport's frozen fish shop? Was it the final ignominy when I reached into his cardboard box and let the air out of his tyres so they wouldn't burst in flight? Or was it simply carelessness on the part of the Air Asia ground staff at Kota Kinabalu airport?

Whatever the reason, the Beast of Bridgwater (BoB for short) failed to board our plane to Senai, the airport that serves Johor Bahru, near Singapore.

We collected our panniers off the baggage carousel and waited expectantly at a door where we figured the oversize baggage would emerge. 

An hour or so later, our fears were confirmed - the Beast never made it onto the flight. Worse still, he could have been put onto another flight, perhaps to Kuala Lumpur. 

Instead of cycling to a hotel, we caught a taxi and waited. At 12.30 am, the phone rang and I slipped downstairs where the Beast was being delivered. It took three of us to extract him from the car, he had been wedged in so expertly by the driver.

It has taken two days ride to get from Senai to Mersing, on peninsula Malaysia's east coast. The first day's ride was a straightforward 49 km. This photo was taken on the second day when we had to knock off 92km. To avoid the worst of the heat we set off in darkness shortly after 6 am. We were at our destination by 2 pm having averaged 16.8 kph. We were pretty pleased, especially as we avoided an afternoon downpour.

Early morning breakfast stop - buffet style, sausages, fried eggs and vegetables. 

We shoved him behind the reception desk and I went back to bed. But sleep wouldn't come. It's the first time the tandem has gone adrift in our travels and although we had been confident of getting him back, it was unsettling.

It took Judy and me two hours to reassemble the bike on the footpath, and the sweat was running off us by the time the job was finished at 9.30 am. We needed showers and a change of clothing before we could face breakfast.

Our plan was a short ride of 45 km to Kota Tinggi, but our start was delayed even further by one of those delightful meetings we have learned just to accept and enjoy. 

The kopi kedai (coffee shop) where we had breakfast has been run by the same family since 1972. Mum and Dad started it, and now all these years later several of their 14 children are involved. They were delighted to show us old photos and their pride in the business was obvious.

For 44 years the same family has run a coffee shop in Senai. Like so many people in this part of the world they were welcoming, especially when they learned we were a couple of kiwis riding a weird bike.

Mum, Dad and 13 of the 14 children - several of whom are working at the coffee shop.

By the time we emerged, the rain had stopped and it was nearly midday. Fortunately, the ride was straightforward and by mid-afternoon we were checking in to a newly opened hotel with gleaming tile floors, a tv with hopeless reception and a windowless room.

That was three days ago, and now we are in Mersing on Malaysia's east coast. The town and the faded Empire Hotel where we are staying are our kind of places. The town has not undergone the mall makeover that seems so common in Malaysia. The hotel is rumpty but clean and comfortable and we have big windows that let us watch the weather and the street below. The tv doesn't work. Perfect.

Windows on the world. Many of the cheaper rooms in budget/midrange hotels are windowless boxes.

The perfect hotel room. Air con, own bathroom and room to spread our gear - a shelf up high for the helmets and coat hangars for our rinsed out clothing. 

Mersing is the jumping off point to Pulau Tioman (anyone old enough to remember the Hollywood musical South Pacific? It was filmed on Tioman). Since before we arrived here, we have been talking about going to Tioman, or one of the other 63 volcanic islands that make up the Seribuat Archipelago. 

Backpackers converge on a ticket office for ferries to Pulau Tioman.

But we just can't generate the enthusiasm. Tioman in particular is backpacker territory, and while the resorts on some of the other islands look attractive we just can't see ourselves lounging around a pool.

So tomorrow we are going to unshackle BoB from the handrail by the stairs and point his front wheel up the coast to a Malay settlement where we know there is at least one very small, local resort. It sounds more our style.

Brosnan Lookalike

"What are you doing," asked Judy lifting her head from her phone and her game of Words with Friends.

"Um, just looking, googling Pierce Brosnan actually, to remind myself what he looks like."

"Not like you," said Judy returning to her war of words with someone 8,000km away.

Pierce Brosnan - actor

After a while she peered over my shoulder to look at the picture I had up on screen - Brosnan in one of his more recent acting roles in The Ghost Writer.

"It's the hair, you've got lots of it, just like him."

I felt slightly miffed.

"What about the face? The bone structure?" 

But she wasn't buying into it. She'd already returned to her game.


This attempt at a comparison came about because we met a modern young Muslim couple in the street recently. As we drew nearer, we acknowledged each other and fell into conversation. 

They were married, he had moved from KL so they could be together and he was researching various trees for their potential use as a source of scent for cosmetic products. He dabbed some samples on the back of our hands and looked pleased when we said one reminded us of pine resin.

It was about then he said,"I thought you were Pierce Brosnan walking down the street."

Judy laughed. She can be so undermining at times.

"Don't tell him that. He'll want a movie contract, and the money."

I noticed his use of the past tense, as if saying "I originally thought you looked like Pierce Brosnan but now you are up close, I don't anymore."

We chatted some more and they headed off hand-in-hand, she in her fashionable clothes and colourful tudung (headscarf), he with his bag of samples over his shoulder. Both of them with their hopes for the future.

I went off to check bone structure, but I fear Judy is right.

Maps & Stats - copy and paste link to your browser.

Senai (nr Johor Bahru) to Kota Tinggi 49 km

Kota Tinggi to Mersing 92 km

Roti telur maker, Mersing.

Fabric shop, Mersing.
Breakfast, Mersing.


Sunday 10 July 2016

Lightening the Load

Current Location: Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, eastern Malaysia.
Distance Cycled This Trip: 810km.
Weather: 35 degrees C, but feels like 47 according to weather office.

Judy's quotable quote as she peers into a bakery while wearing sunglasses at dusk, "I can see a woman behind the counter in that shop, or is it just a cake."

Butterfly at Poring Hot Springs, on the lower slopes of Mt Kinabalu. Keen walkers scale the 4,000m peak. We chose to spend the afternoon in the butterfly enclosure.

Lightening the Load
Judy still refuses to hand over the first aid box and I am convinced there must be something in it we could discard. For example, how many packets of diarrhoea stoppers do we really need? Admittedly they don't weigh much, but every gram counts and now is the time to review what we are carrying on the tandem. We head to peninsula Malaysia on Tuesday.

A small army was roped in to store our bike at the left luggage at Kota Kinabalu airport. The Left Luggage Department doubles as a frozen fish shop, inside the terminal.

     So far the pile to be posted home includes our air mattresses and a silk sheet, and some warm merino clothing we brought in case we go to the Cameron Highlands. Now we have decided that if we do go, we will just buy a couple of extra t-shirts at the time. Right now, we want weight off the bike.

      I am sacrificing the electric water heating device I bought in KL. It enables us to make a cup of tea first thing in the morning, but we hardly use it. It can go home. There is my Buff neck warmer (what was I thinking) and a map of eastern Malaysia that we have finished with.

       It may not sound a lot, but it feels a lot when we pick up the plastic bag.

Loaded up and ready to leave Papar, on the road to KK. We are offloading a few things and can get rid of the small blue bag on the rear rack.

       There is an added benefit to lightening our load. We have made so much room in our panniers that we can dispense with the bag on the rear rack. And that helps get the bike's centre of gravity lower and make it easier to manage. Now if only I could get into that first aid box.

       We are enjoying our time here in Kota Kinabalu, or KK as the locals call it. It's yet another town that was bombed to bits by the Allies during WW2, after the Japanese invaded. So there's not a lot character. It's a concrete jungle. Much of the downtown area is built on reclaimed land, but that's allowed room for a pleasing mixture of produce markets, hotels, a few waterfront restaurants and big shopping malls.

The Atkinson Clock Tower is one of the few old buildings that remains in Kota Kinabalu.

       We have been resting, walking, eating and doing a few necessary chores such as booking our flights to Johor Bahru, on peninsula Malaysia, and researching our route from there on.

Camouflage butterfly pretending it's a leaf.

Same butterfly reconciles personality issues and displays true colours.

        The cycling has been quite challenging, especially until we realised we were just physically incapable of doing the kilometres we had expected and reduced our daily target. 80km is the maximum for us in this heat, and several days we have only done half that. However, we are acclimatising and by setting off early in the morning before the heat builds up we are coping better as the days go by.

Taking a break in the shade of a bus shelter as we approach KK.

       We always attract attention on the tandem and here in Malaysia there has been even more focus on us than usual. We have had offers of money, been photographed countless times by drivers who take both hands off the wheel to steady their phone cameras, been tooted at, cheered at and forced to stop by people who just want to talk. We have been interviewed by the local newspaper and Judy was given a red rose by a driver. He drew alongside and stretched across to pass the rose out the passenger window, while all the time nudging us ever closer to the edge of the sealed road and the gravel. Somehow we and the rose survived. 

Even without the tandem, people seem to want to take our picture. Are we freaks? 

      We have been woken before dawn by the call to prayer. In the town of Beaumont it wasn't just us. Every stray dog in the neighbourhood leapt to its feet and started yelping as if in pain. It was 4.45 am and all we could do was laugh. Sleep was impossible.

       We find we are laughing a lot. Today we cycled out to the airport and spent several hours in a quiet corner of the terminal packing the bike. When the job was finished we took the two boxes to the left luggage area, which is run in conjunction with a frozen fish shop in the terminal building. The room out the back was stacked to the top with cartons and a few items of passengers' luggage. It was hard to see where the bike would fit until the manager was called in.

Two bike boxes wedged in a corner.

        "Can do, can do," he repeated as he threw his small army of staff at the task of making room. We counted six of them. The breakthrough came when the second most senior man took one of the boxes and balancing it on his head, scrambled onto a bench and into a far corner.

        Clapping broke out, we shook hands all round and promised we would be back in two days.

Squirrel at Mt Kinabulu Park. So tame they eat peanuts out of people's hands.

Judy on a canopy walk. Much the same as crossing any swing bridge on a kiwi tramping track, except here you pay MR5 if you want to take a picture.

       While we have been in KK I have had a birthday - my 66th. We went to the waterfront for dinner. It was one of those beautiful tropical nights, a Somerset Maugham moment, with the slightest of cooling breezes and lights flickering in the soft darkness from the fishing boats at anchor. 

       It was a pity the Filipino waiter didn't know how to pour beer, and forgot the order for the next table. We felt sorry for him, he was just a kid far from home and trying his best. But the manager was on to him and he wasn't going to last long.

        We left him a decent tip. It was the least we could do considering all the kindness we have been shown.

Market entrance, KK.

Sipitang, Sabah, east Malaysia. The sun sank behind 27 oil tankers and several oil rigs.




Friday 1 July 2016

A Spring Roll in my Cap

Current Location: Lawas, Sarawak, Eastern Malaysia.
Distance this trip: 625 km.
Weather: 32 degrees C, humidity 70%+.
Comfortable max daily distance: 70 km

As a couple of cyclists who enjoy our food, we thought we might starve while cycling in Malaysia during the month of Ramadan - when good Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset.

No problems, our KL friends assured us. There will always be Chinese restaurants open and anyway, people are a bit more relaxed about Ramadan in Sarawak, in Eastern Malaysia - our starting point for this ride.

Our friends were right, but we forgot to ask them about Brunei - the oil-rich Sultanate which describes itself as a "Malay Islamic Monarchy" and takes its religion seriously.

Masjid Omar Ali Saifuddien Mosque in Brunei's capital is stunningly beautiful at night. A sign on the gate politely said that during Ramadan it was closed to non-Muslims. A pity. We would have loved to look inside. 

After a couple of weeks in Sarawak we crossed the border into Brunei and the next morning went looking for breakfast. The first restaurant we saw refused to serve us, but we managed to find a place selling takeaways. We bought Nasi lemur (chicken, rice, sambal, anchovies, peanuts and cucumber) and went back to our hotel room feeling a bit guilty, but not guilty enough to stop us scoffing the lot.

Glug, glug, glugging on a quiet backroad in Brunei.

And it's been a bit like that for the last few days. No eating or drinking in public between sunrise and sunset. In the last two years the laws of Brunei's 
Syariah Court have been toughened up so anyone caught breaking them can by fined 4,000 Bruneian dollars (BND$), which is about the same in NZ dollars. Oh, and you can go to jail for a year as well. Doesn't matter what religion you are.

This may not sound a big deal, but just try riding a bike in 32 degree temperatures for 30 km or so. Chances are you are going to want a big glug out of the five litres of water stashed in plastic bottles on the bike's frame. It's tempting, too tempting.

We visited Kampung Ayer in Brunei's Bandar Seri Begawan, said to be the biggest water village in the world, housing 20,000 people. Not many of them were around. We went unescorted, but we saw tour guides knocking fruitlessly on doors having promised tourists they would share a cup of tea with the occupants. We felt strangely uncomfortable about the whole thing, like bringing in international tourists from Auckland airport and inviting them into people's homes in Ponsonby.

We have taken to pulling off the road and gauging the gaps in the traffic so we can grab our water bottles, take a slurp from them and then put them away before the next car. 

It's not just the Syariah Court that worries us. We strongly believe that as visitors to other countries we should abide by their rules, whether we like them or not. But sometimes it's not easy.

Basket weaving materials, Kampung Ayer.

The other day we spotted a rural roadside restaurant and bought a couple of cans of coconut juice, hoping we might be able to bend the rules and sit down to drink them in such a quiet place. But it was a no, so we cycled down the road 200 metres and stood behind a tree - our backs turned to the stream of traffic.

Judy was feeling peckish as well, so pulled a couple of spring rolls out of a pannier and hid them in her cap, eating them surreptitiously.

We rode into Brunei's capital, Bandar Seri Begawan, gasping for water. We stood on the Esplanade, baking in the heat. Only a couple of people around, so we did some quick glug glugging and got away with it.

Boatman, Bandar Seri Begawan.  Need a fast ride across the river? He's your man. 85 horsepower on the back and not a life jacket to be seen.

Things improved at our hotel in Bandar. For an extra BND$5 each, they served us a western style breakfast of scrambled eggs, baked beans, sausages and toast. Perfect. We went sightseeing on full stomachs but left our drink bottles behind, knowing they were likely to be a problem. 

We have met some delightful people along the way. This couple own the Brooke Inn, where we stayed in Miri, Sarawak. We hope we will see them when they visit NZ next year.

This group from Guangzhou, China, were on a package tour and staying at our hotel in Bandar Seri Begawan. They spotted the bike as we were about to leave and were fascinated. One of them insisted on draping the flag over the handlebars, but we don't know its significance. 

These women offered us shelter inside a Shell service station while we waited four hours for the rain to stop. They fed us coffee and biscuits and sent us on our way with small gifts of drinks and more food.

Judy waiting out the rain on the outskirts of  Miri. We have had very little rain, but when we have it's been heavy and too dangerous to ride.

This afternoon we cycled out of Brunei and back into the Malaysian state of Sarawak. I was promising myself a beer at the first Chinese restaurant we spotted. But Limbang seems to be a dry town, almost as dry as Brunei. No sign of beer anywhere. One local I asked pointed to the market and said I could get smuggled beer there, but I would probably have to buy a box, and he indicated a size big enough to hold a couple of dozen cans.

I wanted a beer (or maybe two) not a party, so have had to make do with (more) canned coconut juice. Sometimes it's tough being a cyclist.

The Beast of Burden has been getting used to some pretty flash surroundings. Here he is at the Halim Plaza Hotel, in Tutong, Brunei. Six floors up. He had a carpeted corridor all to himself.

Judy's Quotable Quotes

Feeling hot and sweaty while trying to negotiate a hotel room:"There I was trying to negotiate with four disinterested women, unaware my new fuchsia  trimmed sports bra was leeching bright pink into my shirt."

On being passed by the Sultan of Brunei's motorcade: "I just made eye contact with him. He was wearing a very striking outfit. (pause) Why wasn't I invited in for coffee? Maybe my wet weather overshoes weren't stylish enough."

This afternoon we were stopped as we approached Lawas by three men in a van  (one is taking the photo). We met a cycling friend of theirs several days ago in Tutong, Brunei, and they knew to keep an eye open for us. They insisted on giving Judy a gift of a hi viz top, to keep us both safe on the bike. They are lovely guys and we wish them all the best with their own cycling adventures.