Beaches, mosques and torrential rain – Bangkok to Kuala Lumpur
21 October, 2011 11 Comments
The road is a blur, my eyes are half-closed and my soaked shirt sticks to my back. Water runs down my nose, stings my bare arms and covers every surface. It’s wet season in this part of the world, and when it rains it really, really hammers down.
Local moped drivers shelter under bus stops, staring in bemusement at the crazy foreigners cycling through the storm, but our clothes will dry out quickly once the sun returns so we see no point in stopping. And anyway, the cool rain is a nice change from sweating in the sun.
We’ve had a few of these downpours since we left Bangkok, heading due south towards various big name tourist destinations and the Malaysian border. Cycling out of Bangkok was predictably bleak, but within 5 days we’d reached the ferry port for Ko Tao, an island off the east coast renowned for diving. We spent an excellent few days relaxing on the beach, snorkelling amongst colourful fish and bursting into laughter whilst trying to remember what it felt like to slog through Chinese deserts for weeks on end. Times have changed!
After catching the ferry back to the mainland we met with Mark & Hana (two Kiwis cycling from China to Indonesia) in the port town of Chumphon. We’d met in Bangkok and were all keen to cycle together for a while, so we joined forces and continued on our way.
To avoid the flat busy highway that runs down the east coast we followed a small road over to the west coast and spent the next 4 days cycling through areas struck by the Boxing Day Tsunami of 2004. Since then, evacuation routes have been signposted and warning sirens constructed in an attempt to protect people should another tsunami happen in the future.
Those 4 days were the wettest yet – it barely stopped raining! Apparently it was a particularly dodgy weather system, but in any case it was great to have the company of a 4-man peloton for a change to keep morale high.
Mark is a professional photographer and his collection of shots from their cycling trip are superb and well worth a look. I must’ve asked a million questions over the few weeks we spent together trying to garner as many tips as possible – thanks for being so tolerant Mark! Although he’s a few weeks behind in processing his photos, we’ve seen a few sneak previews of the shots from our time together and they look great – hopefully we’ll be able to post links to a few of Mark’s photos in our next blog.
We took a longtail boat to Railay Beach, a peninsula framed by huge limestone cliffs which make it inaccessible by road. It’s a famous spot for rock climbing and the cliffs create an incredible backdrop. Wild monkeys stormed the beach to steal bananas from sunbathing tourists, and bats raced laps around a circuit of trees as night fell.
As we reached the far south of Thailand, mosques started to pop up in amongst the Buddhist temples that have been a daily feature throughout Laos and Thailand. The last day or so in Thailand felt like a completely different country, with most communities being entirely Muslim.
This change was a prelude to the border crossing to Malaysia, where Islam is the dominant religion throughout the country. Like the other Muslim countries we’ve visited, the vast majority of women (in rural areas at least) wear headscarfs, every village has a mosque and our wake up call is the distinctive call to prayer.
Well it would be, but with only minor whimpering from Bex we’ve slipped into Mark & Hana’s cycling regime which involves a pre-dawn alarm with the aim of being cycling before sunrise. This lets Mark get the best light of the day for photography, and also gives us most of the afternoon ‘off’ in whichever town we end up in. In Alor Setar we arrived for a late lunch at one of the ubiquitous large Indian cafes, eating biryani and roti, before an evening photography session at the awesome Zahir Mosque.
The roads in Malaysia are noticeably busier, and it’s become harder to find the quieter back roads that make cycling so much more fun, whilst still heading in roughly the right direction (i.e. south!) On the rare occasions we have found nice quiet roads we’ve been rewarded with road-side stalls selling bananas, wild monkeys jumping from tree to tree and thick jungle scenery, although unfortunately much of the natural wild jungle has been chopped down and replaced by palm oil plantations.
We caught the ferry across to the island of Langkawi and cycled 25km to the far side to spend another few days relaxing in the company of Mark & Hana and enjoying a few killer sunsets. Having travelled in Southeast Asia before, Bex always said she was looking forward to this part of the trip, and now I can see why! The number of spectacular sights and relatively short distance between them makes it perfect for travelling by bike.
What suprised me, however, is that we haven’t seen a single foreigner on any of our cycling days between the well known spots. Even in Thailand & Malaysia, it seems it’s incredibly easy to see local villages and normal rural life from the saddle, just by cycling anywhere.
The last few kilometres into Kuala Lumpur were relatively relaxed, aside from one particular 4km stretch. While Bex hates it, I usually enjoy riding into massive cities as the busy traffic keeps the adrenaline pumping and all senses alert. But when the 4 of us popped out into the middle lane of a 5 lane motorway a bit too much adrenaline was involved even for my liking! It felt like we were lacking a few wheels and a seatbelt to be mixing it with the cars.
We turned onto a smaller road at the first opportunity, before saying goodbye to Mark & Hana. We ended up cycling 1,400km together in total, but they’re now flying to the northern tip of Sumatra for the epic next leg of their adventure. It’s been really great having some fun and interesting company for a few weeks, and having some other people to share experiences. Thanks for an awesome time guys, and see you in NZ!