Tag Archives: wild camping

Kota Bharu to Sungai Petani 22 September – 13 October

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.

The larger of the two neighbourhood monitor lizards, stalking across the grass outside our chalet.

The larger of the two neighbourhood monitor lizards stalking across the grass outside our chalet on Perhentian Kecil.

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.

Our dive school on Perhentian Kecil.

Our dive school on Perhentian Kecil.

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.

The pier at Coral Bay.

Coral Bay, Perhentian Kecil

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.

Dinner with Mudrikah and her friends in Kota Bharu.

Dinner with Mudrikah (3rd from left) and her friends in Kota Bharu.

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 view from the top was a nice reward after a long hot climb.

The view from the top was a nice reward after a long hot climb.

Kota Bharu bikers on the East-West Highway.

Kota Bharu bikers on the East-West Highway.

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.

Empty promises!

Empty promises!

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:

A fancy boat at the Istana Jahar (Royal Customs Museum) in Kota Bharu.

A fancy boat at the Istana Jahar (Royal Customs Museum) in Kota Bharu.

Malaysian ladies do Islam with a little more panache.  Unlike the drab, utilitarian head coverings we've seen in other Muslim countries, the hijabs here in Malaysia are gorgeous.  If I was a girlier kind of girl I'd want one myself.

Malaysian ladies do Islam with panache. Unlike the drab, utilitarian head coverings we’ve seen in other Muslim countries, the hijabs here are beaded and bejeweled and range from the pretty to the exquisitely beautiful. If I was a girlier kind of girl I’d want one myself.

One of the cats at the Ideal Guesthouse helping Keith pump up the trailer tyre.

One of the cats at the Ideal Guesthouse helping Keith pump up the trailer tyre.

There's some kind of genetic weirdness going on in the Malaysian cat population.  At least half the cats have tails that are either truncated, crooked or both.

There’s some kind of genetic weirdness going on in the Malaysian cat population. At least half the cats have tails that are either truncated, crooked or both.

Today I will be mostly wearing lime green.

Today I will be mostly wearing lime green.

SE Asia = Ants (and dodgy electrics)

Southeast Asia = Ants (and dodgy electrics)

Cute little froggy in our bathroom.

Cute little froggy in our bathroom.

Couldn't finish without another pic of that magnificent monitor lizard.

We couldn’t finish without another pic of that magnificent monitor lizard.

Phnom Penh to Bangkok 19-27 June

Tyres and tribulations! After putting new Schwalbe Marathon Plus tyres on the Pino in Phnom Penh (the ones we’d been carrying for 6000km since Chengdu) we thought we would easily make it to Bangkok before needing to think about buying new spares. Even taking the longer route via Siem Reap to see the sublime temples at Angkor it’s only 720km. Oh how the god of cycle touring inconveniences must have laughed at our naivety!

We got to Siem Reap just fine (albeit rather damp as the rainy season is well and truly upon us with torrential rain most afternoons) but as we left Siem Reap we noticed the front brake pad needed replacing (worn down by the gritty muck that’s thrown up off the drenched road every day). The terrain was very flat so we didn’t need to brake much that day and decided to defer replacing the pads until the following morning, at which point Keith spotted a couple of bulges on the front tyre. Yup, after just 300km the brand new tyre had begun to split where the sidewall meets the bead. Keith finished changing the brake pads and I, almost on a whim, checked the rear tyre. Surely the problem with the front tyre was a fluke, a freak occurrence….er, no. The rear tyre was bulging ominously as well.

We have been carrying a lightweight folding rear tyre as a second spare since setting off on our first Pino tour in April 2011 and had actually been thinking of sending it home as in almost 30,000km we’d never come close to using it….until now. How glad we were that we still had it with us and didn’t need to worry about what we’d do when the bulge in the rear tyre eventually blew. However, we definitely needed to do something about the front tyre. In the first town we came to that morning (Sisophon) we got chatting to a school principal who said we might get a tyre in the market (a 6km detour) but we’d do better if we could wait until we were in Thailand, which was only 45km away. As the bulges in the front tyre weren’t getting any worse we decided to keep going towards Thailand, but on the way we passed a bike shop and bought a cheap front tyre for £3. The Schwalbes were still holding up so rather than fiddle around changing them we decided to push on for Bangkok, secure in the knowledge we now had replacements for both front and rear. We crossed into Thailand (quickly noting that we needed to switch to the left hand side of the road as we watched the trucks ‘do-si-do-ing’ on the no-mans-land between the two border points) and as the day wore on it started to rain (of course) and then, BANG! If you’ve had a sidewall blow out you’ll know the sound.

It's the end of the road for this barely-used tyre.  Look at that pristine tread.  Heartbreaking.

It’s the end of the road for this barely-used tyre. Look at that pristine tread. Heartbreaking.

It was the rear one so out came the spare folding tyre and after some deliberation about whether there was any chance of fitting it inside the Schwalbe for extra puncture protection (no there wasn’t a chance, but it was a nice idea Keith) we were all fettled and off we went again. We’d hoped to get 120km done that day, but what with hunting for tyres, crossing the border, replacing the rear tyre, and battling with a headwind, we weren’t going too well. We decided to push on until as close to dark as possible…..but as time ticked on towards 6pm, BANG! Ah. That’ll be the front tyre then. At least it was only drizzling rather than bucketing down. Keith quickly switched it for the one we’d bought that morning and we gave up on the idea of trying to get much more pedalling done that day. The light was starting to fade, the road was pretty busy and visibility wasn’t great due to the rain. We reckoned we’d pushed our luck far enough and as there hadn’t been much sign of places to camp we treated ourselves to a guesthouse for the night.

Not much dry land for erecting a tent on.

Not much dry land to be seen for erecting a tent on.

One of the more endearing visitors to our tent on the occasions when we can find a place to pitch.

One of the more endearing visitors to our tent (on the occasions when we can find a dry place to pitch).

As well as being able to dry out comfortably in a guesthouse, having wifi also came handy for letting our friend in Bangkok know that we were a little behind schedule.  The next day we set off feeling re-invigorated and had a much better day, pushing out 150km to bring ourselves back on target. We camped about 55km from Bangkok and if it hadn’t been so damnably airless and sticky in the tent we would have slept well in the knowledge we’d got an easy day ahead of us. We were on the road by 7am, somewhat itchy and uncomfortable after a night drenched in sweat, but hey, we’re drenched in sweat (or rain) when we’re on the bike so whilst it’s not pleasant in the tent it doesn’t make too much difference in the grand scheme of things. The first 20km of the morning disappeared with satisfying alacrity but then, BANG! B*gger, b*gger, b*gger. The rear tyre had blown. We knew a lightweight folding tyre would never hold out for long against the abuse that a loaded tandem dishes out, so we’d never intended it to be used for anything more than a means of getting to the next place where we could buy a better tyre…in this instance Bangkok, but clearly even 200km was too much to ask of it. Keeping a lid on our frustration we put a new inner tube in and used a piece of truck inner-tube (that we’d picked up in China as it looked like it might come in handy) as a tyre boot to cover the split in the sidewall. We didn’t trust it to carry our weight but we could at least now push the bike (for 5km) to a bike shop where were able to buy a rear tyre (for £4). Pedalling once again we made short work of the remaining kilometres to Bangkok, where we’re staying with a friend of ours and looking forward to a few days off the bike.

Our friend in Bangkok is heading back to the UK soon, which is why we’ve been in a bit of a rush to get here, but we’ve still managed to fit in a couple of nice days sightseeing on the way. The day before we left Phnom Penh we rode out to the Killing Fields of Choeung Ek. Of course, ‘nice days sightseeing’ is not the right way to describe this place. A harrowing journey into the darkest recesses of the human condition is probably more accurate. But, as we have when visiting places like Auschwitz and Matthausen, we felt compelled to go. The only way for there to be a positive outcome from genocide is for it to be kept in the public conscience in the hope that it will never happen again. Sadly, at some point, I expect it will.

The memorial stupa at the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre.

The memorial stupa at the Choeung Ek Genocide Centre.

The stupa is filled with some of the thousands of skeletons they've retrieved from that one site.

The stupa is filled with some of the thousands of skulls and bones they’ve retrieved from that one location.  There were many other ‘killing fields’ all across Cambodia.

Decades on and the ground is still giving up fragments of bones, teeth and clothing during the rainy season.

Decades on and the ground is still giving up fragments of bones, teeth and clothing during the rainy season.

The brutality of the killing was hard to stomach.

The brutality of the killing was hard to stomach.

Keith exploring Angkor Wat.

Keith exploring Angkor Wat.

The other place we really wanted to visit in Cambodia was the temple at Angkor. We’d heard of Angkor Wat as a ‘must see’ tourist attraction, but knew little about it and it was only when we delved deeper into the guidebook that we realized that Angkor Wat itself is just one of over 100 temples in the area that lies to the north of the town of Siem Reap and which the Lonely Planet describes as there being ‘no greater concentration of architectural riches anywhere on earth’. Angkor Wat is listed as the largest religious building in the world, and it is certainly impressive, standing isolated in the centre of a huge moat almost 200m across and measuring 1.5 x 1.3km. Like all of the temples we saw almost every surface is engraved with pictures or patterns. How many stonemasons worked there?

Some of the miles of bas relief at Angkor Wat.

Some of the miles of bas relief at Angkor Wat.

Restoration work is an endless job but Angkor Wat at least has the advantage of being protected from the encroaching jungle by its huge moat. The same definitely cannot be said for the temple at Ta Prohm which was used as a location in the Tomb Raider movie. Enormous boles rise up from the crumbling masonry and roots like giant serpents ooze over and around every wall. It was like walking into a legend. If you blanked out the thronging tourists you could almost envision sword-wielding warriors swinging down from the trees or charging from behind an ornately decorated wall.

Jungle versus Temple at Ta Prohm.

Jungle versus Temple at Ta Prohm.

I think our favourite temple though was the one we went to last: Bayon. Built later than Angkor Wat, in the late 12th or early 13th C, and certainly not as large as Angkor, nor as excitingly jungle-wrapped as Ta Prohm, Bayon is nonetheless, quite simply, sublime. A pyramid of towers dominates your vision as you approach, then once inside, a maze of rooms and corridors confuses the senses and heightens the sense of mystery. Finally, climbing steeply to the upper levels, you come face to face with the huge stone visages which beam beatifically from the four sides of each of the multitude of towers. All around is sky and jungle, and before you are lichen-mottled faces, smiling at you over the centuries. There’s something special about Bayon.

Cycling through the East Gate of Angkor Thom on our way to Bayon.

Cycling through the Victory Gate of Angkor Thom on our way to Bayon.

 

The extraordinary, magical, Bayon temple.

The extraordinary, magical, Bayon temple.

 

Being smiled on across the centuries.

Being smiled on across the centuries at Bayon.

 

So many faces.

Faces, faces, yet more faces.

Siem Reap itself is a fun place to hang out in and we were sorry we didn’t have more time (although with food, drink and accommodation all significantly more expensive than in Phnom Penh perhaps it’s as well we didn’t). We had little time to wander the enticing markets but did treat ourselves to a pizza and a traditional dance show, and, best of all, we enjoyed a cold beer whilst a tank full of hungry fishes made short work of any dead skin on our feet. Our tootsies have never looked so beautiful! Hopefully our time off the bike here in Bangkok will be just as relaxing.