In what seems to be becoming something of a habit of late we’ve been doing relatively little pedalling and rather a lot of lazing around, snorkelling and diving. It’s a hard life! We made amends in the last few days though by taking a route across the mountains that form the spine of Peninsular Malaysia. Despite having spent several months in the tropics it turns out that we (OK, me – Tamar) still can’t handle the heat when called upon to exert ourselves and consequently we’re extremely pleased to be back on the flat again on the west coast.
Before embarking on our cross-country traverse we decided to spend a few days in Kota Bharu getting our new Thai visas, sampling the culinary delights of the day and night markets, trying our hand at competitive top-spinning at the cultural centre, and marvelling at the variety of pointy or serrated implements on display at the Istana Jahar (Royal Customs Museum). No matter which country we visit in the world we always find evidence of human pride in its weaponry. It’s a bit depressing really. We also decided to take advantage of the relatively affordable diving prices on the nearby Perhentian Islands. Plan A had been to cycle down the coast from Kota Bharu to Kuala Besut from where we could get the speedboat for the Perhentians, but our research soon established that the speedboats will not take bicycles and in any case once on the island there are no roads and we’d have to push the bike along the beach to get to our accommodation. Other cycle tourists have reported leaving their bikes safely with the speedboat ticket sellers in Kuala Besut, but we weren’t keen on that plan so were very grateful when our host at the Ideal Travellers’Guest House in Kota Bharu suggested we leave our bike locked securely in his back yard and also offered to look after any kit we didn’t need to take to the islands.
The 639 bus runs several times a day covering the 65kms from Kota Bharu to Kuala Besut and only costs 6 Ringgits (£1.20) for the hour and a half journey. The journey began rather weirdly when a man ascended the bus steps and started shouting what sounded to our ears very much like the call to prayer from the mosque. I ignored him but Keith caught his eye and was immediately subject to a barrage of shouted questions about his name and heritage. When shouty-man finally departed we established that he wasn’t, as Keith had assumed, the local Imam blessing our journey, but simply some odd bloke who liked standing at the front of buses shouting. The journey, after that, was uneventful and we passed the time sneaking surreptitious glances at the praying mantis that was hitching a lift on the headscarf of the old matriarch sitting across the aisle from us.
We decided to head for the smaller of the two islands, Perhentian Kecil, and stayed on Coral Bay, the smaller and quieter of the two beaches. Our little chalet was basic but functional and afforded us a particularly good view of the favoured watering hole of two huge monitor lizards.
Our main priority on the island was to continue our dive education by taking a Rescue Diver course (and Emergency First Responder course which to be honest was pretty cr*p but as our first aid qualifications were all out of date the EFR course was a necessary evil). Luckily the Rescue Diver course made up for it by being extremely useful albeit hard work. We both passed but definitely need to hone our skills for towing someone whilst giving rescue breaths in the water.
We spent slightly longer on the island than anticipated, firstly because Pablo, our instructor, wasn’t free to start the course immediately, but that actually suited us quite nicely, as, clumsy doofus that I am, I’d slipped and twisted my ankle whilst scampering to get the speedboat and spent the first three days on the island lying with my foot in the air waiting for it to stop hurting enough to contemplate putting a fin on it. After the delayed start to our course, a second distraction popped up to prevent its timely completion as we kept overhearing comments along the lines of “It’s the end of the season and we don’t know if the weather will hold much longer so this might be our last chance to visit xxxx dive site”. We fell for it every time and had some memorable fun dives at T3, Sugar Wreck, Temple and D’Lagoon and a day’s snorkelling trip out to a number of sites. Two moments really stand out for us: at T3 we dived with bumphead parrotfish (huge, misshapen, coral-munchers that weigh in at up to 45kg/100lb each but are completely placid and benign) and at Shark Bay, on the snorkelling trip, we swam with agile, muscular, metre and a half long black-tipped reef sharks. Eventually though we completed our Rescue Diver course, passed the exam, handed in our sample emergency plans and were rewarded with the appropriate paperwork to confirm we’re now qualified to drag you bodily from the water should you so desire.
One unexpected side-effect of diving and snorkelling has been its impact on my diet. For dinner we usually went to one of the cheap and tasty barbecues on the beach, but after spending a day in the water being delighted by sightings of barracuda, squid and sweetlips, I just couldn’t get enthusiastic about seeing the very same names listed up on the barbecue menu. Keith happily selected and devoured whichever chunk of fish looked biggest. I plumped for squid on the first night, but a nagging feeling of guilt meant I couldn’t really enjoy it. On days two and three I switched to chicken, which was delicious, but I couldn’t help but feel it was a bit of an empty gesture, so by day four I was relieved to discover chick pea curry on the menu which sustained both body and soul for the remainder of our stay.
Back on the mainland we were re-united with the Pino and made arrangements to have dinner with some local college students. Before heading to the Perhentians, we had been cycling around getting information from various travel agencies when we were hailed by a young woman who had stopped her car as she simply couldn’t believe her eyes and just had to ask us who we were and what we were doing. She later posted a comment on our blog, which gave us her email address, so, when we were back in Kota Bharu we decided to get in touch to see if she was free to continue the conversation we’d started at the roadside. Although it was ridiculously short notice, Mudrikah confirmed she’d love to meet up with us, and was also able to rustle up some friends to come along too. They could only stay for an hour and a half as they had exams coming up and were supposed to be studying, but we had a really lovely evening with them comparing life in the UK and Malaysia. To our utter embarrassment the girls insisted on paying for our dinner, which we felt terrible about as we had been the ones to invite them out, but they absolutely insisted as we were guests in their country, so, once again, Mudrikah and friends, thank you very much for a fantastic evening.
We left Kota Bharu with fond memories and made our way south then west and onto Malaysia’s East-West Highway. Prior to the highway’s completion in 1982, the journey from Kota Bharu in the northeast to Butterworth in the northwest involved a southerly detour as far as Kuala Lumpur. The mountainous highway not only shortens the journey but rewards you with beautiful scenery and thrilling descents. Its appeal is not lost on local motorbike riders. In the cafe at the top of the main climb we met a group of bikers from Kota Bharu who were out for their weekend ride.
The road goes through a National Park and roadside signs tantalize with the promise of exotic beasties…but we saw no elephants or tapirs, just a glimpse of some monkeys leaping away through the trees.
Between Jeli and Gerik we saw just one hotel so it was back to wild-camping for us. Thankfully the altitude took the edge off the overnight temperature and on our first night it was actually cool enough (23 degrees) to make us slip into our silk bag-liners…normally we just lie on top of them sweating miserably. That said, whilst air conditioning and showers are very nice, you can’t beat sitting out watching the sun go down and the next morning waking up with the rainforest. We optimistically chose sites with liberal dollopings of elephant poo, but naturally no elephants came near us. We were, however, treated to a morning chorus of rising and falling, swannee-whistle whoops that we think might have belonged to some kind of monkey. Or possibly Clangers.
Dropping out of the mountains we began to come across small villages and towns again, and although Islam still predominates there is more of a mixed community here on the west coast. We’ve seen a number of shrines with prancing horse statues in front of them that we’ve been told are Indian, and many of the businesses advertise in Chinese characters.
On the roads there’s a mix of cars and motorbikes. We’ve noticed fewer Toyota Hiluxes than we saw monopolizing Thailand’s roads and there seem to be as many small and medium sized cars (often Malaysian built Protons) here as SUVs. And although not nearly so numerous as in Vietnam and Cambodia, the ubiquitous SE Asian motorbike remains a popular transport choice for many: growing families crowd onto the family work-horse, toddlers dangling at alarming angles; moustachioed middle-aged men proceed at a stately pace, paunches proudly leading the way; and skinny teenagers hunker down low over straining 50cc engines.
One thing we’ve found slightly frustrating about Malaysia so far is the hotels. In Kota Bharu there was an abundance: every street seemed to be lined with hotels, inns and guesthouses. On the Perhentians, there was a glut of chalets. But once we hit the road….nothing. On our first night out of Kota Bharu we eventually found a building labelled as a ‘Homestay’, but it was all shuttered up. A woman in the house next door told us we needed to phone the number given on the sign, and when we explained we don’t have a Malaysian SIM card she kindly phoned for us. 10 minutes later the owners arrived and for 45 Ringgits (only £9 but to our frustration the same price that we’d paid for a room in city centre Kota Bharu) we got one of six double rooms that opened on to a communal dining room with a shared shower and toilet. We had the place to ourselves and were able to park the bike in the shop below so that was all fine. We spent the next two nights happily wild-camping as we traversed the mountains but were looking forward to a shower in a guesthouse again on the other side. We saw nothing for miles but felt confident the medium-sized town of Kuala Ketil would have something so pedalled on. It was 6pm as we hove into town and spotted the first of several ‘homestay’ signs, pointing from the main road down residential side-streets. We pedalled in the direction of the arrow, but found no evidence to suggest which dwelling might be the homestay. A local couple suggested we try closer into town. At the next homestay sign we had the same problem. We pedalled aimlessly up and down residential streets searching for the homestay that had been promised on the sign back at the main road. We asked around and were told to go back to the main road, go to the traffic lights, turn left, left again and then right. We found yet another homestay sign, this time clearly pointing to a building, but the building was locked. Neighbours asked if we had a booking, we said ‘no’ and they told us we’d have to phone the number on the sign. They phoned for us, but for some reason the owner didn’t want to let his room that night. The helpful neighbours suggested where we might find another homestay, but we had no luck finding it so returned to the main road and carried on. At the next random homestay a neighbour told us the office was closed. It was now just half an hour to sun down. We already had 100 hilly kilometres in our legs and did not relish the idea of a further 20km to the next big town. Grudgingly, we gave up on our search for a shower and air-conditioning (or at least a fan) and trundled out of town to find a quiet spot in a palm oil plantation. Away from the cool mountains we were back to sauna-temperatures in the tent and the small USB-powered fan that Keith bought back in Thailand was humming away at full-throttle.
We’re having a rest-day today (what turned out to be an excellent decision as it’s been lashing with rain since shortly after we arrived here). It was less than 10km from our palm oil campsite to the outskirts of the large town of Sungai Petani where we found a hotel with wifi and Keith bargained the room price down from 75 to 65 Ringgits – considerably more than the 45 we paid in Kota Bharu. Clearly we need to do a bit more research on how to find cheap accommodation in Malaysia…last night’s fruitless search is not something we want to repeat on a regular basis.
As usual, we’ll finish with some random pictures from the last couple of weeks: