Archive for March, 2009

Up, up, and more up … oh ya, and some down too

Tuesday, March 31st, 2009

58 km, 4.5 h, Max temp 40

We started the day by continuing the climb. We climbed and climbed and climbed. A few km after we started, there was a resort advertised with restaurant and chalets. We pulled in to discover the place still under construction. It seems that the signs for resorts go up well before the actual resort is open. We did not notice any “coming soon” or “opening date” indication, but that may just be a language barrier issue. Either way we were pretty disappointed.

Just before the Perak border, we stopped at the restaurant where Wayne and Kris stayed back in 2005. When we arrived at 9 am, they had no food, and not much in the way of drinks. We were able to get a coffee with no milk and way too much sugar, which did help fuel us for a while. We filled an empty 1.5L water bottle with some of their “filtered water”, but the filter looked a little dodgy, so we decided to use it only as a last resort.

At least every 2-3 minutes, we are passed by trucks either going up or down the hills. There are logging trucks, fuel trucks, and various other trucks carrying freight. Becky was surprised that they did not have any “run-away” lanes for them – so if their brakes fail on the way down, their only choice is to crash into the jungle. The trucks occasionally stop at roadside streams to get water to pour over the brakes to cool them down. Several times today, you could see Becky by the roadside pouring water over her head to cool her down too!

After 3 hours of climbing and 26 km, we arrived at the summit starving and pretty close to out of water. (Yes Moms, we were carrying emergency food, and did have the dodgy water which we could have filtered – don’t worry) Fortunately, at the summit there is a restaurant and a little convenience store. The restaurant had one of the best varieties of Malaysia steam tray that we have enjoyed – this may be related to us arriving at noon, just in time for the best selection.

Once we refueled ourselves and refilled our water bottles, we hopped back on the bikes. The glorious decent we were hoping for eluded us for a few km. We expected it immediately (or at least Becky did), but found ourselves climbing again; however, the hills did not last long. We say a sign for a 10% grade down and knew we were in for some fun. For almost 20 km and 45 minutes, we screamed down the hill.

Unfortunately, the Resort we were seeking was another 10 km along. After the giant decent we found ourselves climbing again. Fortunately, the climbs were offset by some downs which were usually longer than the ups. So, tired and sweaty we arrived at the Belum Rainforest Resort in Pulau Banding (http://www.belumresort.com/). A bit more upscale than our usual accommodation, but we’ve decided that we deserve it after all the work)

Further research shows that we are in for some more hills before we reach the coast. We have decided to spend a second night here and enjoy the resort whilst allowing our muscles to recover at least a little before we tackle two more days of hills (although none as bad as the 38 km ascent we did over the last two days) to bring us to Penang.

Road notes:

  1. 5 km – R&R Rest stop
  2. 7 km – Restaurant with no food
  3. 26 km – Restaurant at the peak
  4. 55 km – Small floating store and restaurant
  5. 58 km – Belum Rainforest Resort

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More than we planned for

Monday, March 30th, 2009

78 km, 5hr, 40 min, max temp 38

The great thing about taking a route only a week after someone else, is that you can learn about great places to stay along the way. With that in mind, we had planned to stay at the R&R Resthouse just outside of Jeli. Unfortunately, when we arrived, it was closed. A nice girl at one of the restaurants phoned them, only to be told that it is a public holiday so they will not be open.

So much for a short 43 km day prior to the hills. We had to make another plan, so pulled out the computer and looked up what others had done. Based on our research, we found others had found no reasonable hotels in Jeli proper; however, Michelle and Dave had found a spot to camp (with water) at about the 75 km mark from Tanah Merah, and we figured we could make that. It had the added bonus of ensuring we did not have to do the entire climb in one day – we could do part of it today and the remainder tomorrow. And with the money we saved free camping tonight, we could splurge on a room at the resort on Pulau Banding if we felt like it {grin}.

Scott spent a bit of time correlating the reports from Wayne and Kristina , Michelle and Dave , and Kat and Mike, and from that, we thought we had a pretty good idea of what to expect. From the R&R Resthouse:

  1. 7 km to Jeli
  2. 20 km to a town with roadside stalls for food
  3. 33 km to an abandoned rest area with a stream, and Michelle and Dave’s campsite
  4. 39 km to the “Restaurant 70”
  5. 59 km to another restaurant at the top

The reports we had led us to expect all 59 km would be up hill, starting from Jeli (or R&R Resthouse). Unfortunately, the first 20 km lulled us into a sense of complacency. Nice rolling hills, making good time, lots of time until sunset, things were going very well. We stopped at the south turnoff to Batu Melintang, at the 20 km mark, to grab dinner. Prior to the town, there were many roadside stalls selling food and drinks (at least one every 2 km). Fortunately, we stopped where we did, because there was absolutely nothing except steep climbs afterwards.

It was here that the hills began in earnest. We started climb and climb and climb. It was pretty slow going, and we started to worry about losing the daylight. Just at dusk, we pulled into the old rest area. We had climbed almost 400 meters since our dinner stop – our first real climbing in months!

The rest stop had a few roofed tables and platforms, a nice clean stream, and a whole lot of garbage. We setup camp just outside the main building – originally built as a Surau (place for prayers, but smaller than a mosque). At one time it had working toilets and running water, but those days were long gone. Unfortunately, although we searched for Dave and Michelle’s magic camping spot we couldn’t find it before full dark. Never mind – we had a nice cool stream for washing and a spot to set up the tent. What more could we need?

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The kindness of strangers

Sunday, March 29th, 2009

100 km, 5h 20 min, max temp 41

It felt like a long ride today, as the distance was long, but we were moving pretty fast throughout the day. Even after entering some small rolling hills (not much really), we still maintained our almost 20 km/hr average. For us this is pretty good.

The riding itself was pretty uneventful. We decided to take the shorter highway route, which was a likely less interesting than the coast route, but saved us 7 km. Given the state we were in when we arrived, it was the right decision.

We left the province of Terengganu today – one of the more conservative Muslim provinces in Malaysia. One of the things we noticed about Terengganu was a distinct lack of Malaysian Chinese. It appears to us that there are fewer of both the minority groups in Malaysia present in Terengganu.

Shortly after entering the province of Kelantan, we pulled over at what looked like a fruit stand. In the end, they had very little fruit and the things Becky thought were mangos turned out to be raw chickens (she must have been pretty tired at that point!). One of the customers asked us if she could help, and we asked if there were oranges. She thought we were asking for orange juice and said there was none, but we could get some at a store up the road. We got back on our bikes and soon discovered that they had hopped into a van and drove ahead of us. They bought a couple of Tropicana Twister Orange drinks and presented them to us when we caught up to them. It was such a kind gesture we had to drink them up immediately (BTW, Tropicana Twister doesn’t have much orange juice in it, but this was at least fortified with pulp). We were very touched by her kindness to these strangers on funny looking bicycles.

We are staying at the Medina Hotel in Tanah Merah. We tried to find the Muy Jaya hotel that Kat and Mike stayed at, with no luck. The first room we took had good working AC and enough space, but had mould on the ceiling and the walls of the bathroom. We also saw mouse (or other rodent) droppings on the headboard of the bed. After trying to nap and listening to Becky coughing due to the mould, Scott suggested we look at other options. Becky checked out the other hotel we could find in town – the Tanah Merah, but was not too impressed, so we asked to see another room at our hotel. They have a second section that is further down the building and the room was in much better condition – so we moved to it. It seems to be much better.

When looking at the Tanah Merah Hotel, one of the issues Becky noticed was the smell. It was situated right next to a building being used for swallow nesting, and the rooms they had available were indoor courtyard – which opened onto the swallow building leaving the area smelling just a little off. Tanah Merah seems to have several buildings in the downtown core where the upper floors are used for swallow nesting. The swallow nests are used for birds-nest soup, and are quite valuable. Still, it is very odd to see this form of “agriculture” right in the middle of the town. We notice a slightly unpleasant smell, and the sounds of hundreds of chirping swallows, whenever we get close to a nesting building. Strange!

A huge swallow nesting operation in the upper floors of the first two blocks of this new building.

A huge swallow nesting operation in the upper floors of the first two blocks of this new building.

We also saw a larger Malaysian Chinese presence here than we’ve seen in a few days, with several stores containing small shrines, and a Chinese restaurant. We ate dinner at the Chinese restaurant – a nice change from the Malay food we’ve been eating the past few days. We also experienced our first gender-separated check-out line at the grocery store. Each check-out had a picture of either a woman with tudung (head scarf) or man with Muslim hat. We just went to the closest one without issue. This is apparently a legal requirement now in Kelantan, which has been ruled by the conservative Islamist PAS party for many years. We still saw some women wearing a tudung with tight jeans and a shirt or sweater, and women continue to smile and wave – even in this province Muslim attitudes seem much more relaxed than we experienced in the Middle East.

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It began with a crash

Saturday, March 28th, 2009

84 km, 4h 45 min, max temp 42

Today began with a crash! As we were riding into Kuala Terangganu we heard a collision in the traffic right behind us. We immediately slowed down and pulled over. We could see someone’s side mirror in the middle of the road, and Scott saw the van belonging to the mirror, with a big crease in the side, but still driving. Shortly thereafter we heard another crash up ahead. We can only guess that the cause was someone staring at us and not watching the traffic. We continue to be popular attractions with both drivers and passengers – it’s especially entertaining to watch scooter drivers try to mimic our pedaling.

The road was quite busy at the time, and we were very glad for the shoulder, despite the cars frequently parked in it. After taking a deep breath and we started riding again, we got a better view of the three vehicles involved. They were a little dented, with a pile of glass on the road, but nothing too major and no one appeared injured. We were both a little rattled, so we quickly turned off the highway and found a spot to have second breakfast.

After breakfast, we jumped back on the bikes and were soon crossing the long bridge across the Terengganu River. We first noticed a couple of very pretty mosques, so we stopped to take a photo. As we progressed along the bridge, we discovered that it wasn’t two mosques, but three, no four .. at least six that we could distinguish, each with different architecture. Becky thought maybe this was the place where Mosque builders stored their templates, and as it turns out, she wasn’t too far off. According to our map, this is the “Scaled Model Mosques Complex”. It turns out this is actually the Islamic Civilisation Park with scale models of 21 famous Muslim buildings.

We continue to enjoy looking at the mosques we pass. Becky reflected that in Rome the churches are all fascinating on the inside, but often not that exciting from the outside. Mosques are the opposite, often really cool from the outside, but the inside architecture is almost always simple and clean.

We spent most of the day on the coastal road, rather than the main highway, but since it was Saturday, even the coastal road was fairly busy. When we could, we made detours today onto less busy roads. The first detour was very peaceful, and we were joined by some kids on bikes for a portion of the ride. The second one qualified as “the road less travelled” when it turned into a dirt track and then a sand and dirt track. The soft sandy bits were a little challenging, but we survived. Scott defended his directions by saying “The GPS said it was a road, it didn’t say anything about the surface!”

We are staying at the Penarik Inn, which is not an Inn at all, rather a bunch of chalets. We opted for the mid-range chalet, as the least expensive one (40 RG) would have been too small for the bikes and had a squat toilet. We chose a slightly larger chalet instead. It fit our bikes, and has a nice bathroom with two showers (cold and hot) for 70 RG. It is also brand new (we are only the second people to stay in it). The room does not have AC, rather it has a fan. This is our first experiment with ocean side accommodation without AC. Hopefully the cooling ocean breeze will mean we sleep OK. We definitely enjoyed our swim at the end of the day – just what Becky always imagined Malaysia was like!


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Resting and planning

Friday, March 27th, 2009

14 km around town shopping for food

We planned today as a rest day, but also as a day to make our plans for SE Asia in light of the latest changes with the freighter. The operating company’s agent (NSB) insists that we require a business visa to board the ship in Shanghai. In addition, they have no way to issue the necessary letter in order to get a business visa.

This is very frustrating, especially since other freighter companies don’t seem to have any problem boarding passengers from Shanghai with a standard tourist visa. Fred, our travel agent, has been exceedingly helpful through all this, but if this were our first freighter voyage, we probably would have given up and asked for our money back (or switched to a different freighter company) by now. As it is, we’re sticking with NSB and the Hanjin Madrid. Unfortunately, we’ve broken the cardinal rule of freighter travel: “Be flexible about timing”. A few days either way still don’t matter to us, but we want as much time as possible in Asia and to get back in time for Becky’s high school reunion in Kitamat. There appear to be no other ships with timing as good as the Hanjin Madrid.

Although we might be able to board in Shanghai with a tourist visa, in order to prevent possible problems, we have decided to embark in Pusan, South Korea instead. This has the benefit of allowing us to ride across South Korea before getting on the ship for a week and a half, and add one more country to our cycling itinerary.

This means less time in Thailand than we had hoped for, so we’re having to make some choices. Thanks to Freidel and Andrew, Bill Weir, Chris Wee, and a bunch of trip journals we’ve read, we know what other cycle tourists consider the high points, and will try to skip some of the less exciting areas. This is turning out to be much more a cursory survey of Asia than we had originally thought, but hopefully it will give us a flavour, and help us decide where we’d like to go when we come back for a longer visit.

For now our schedule looks roughly like this:

  • 28 Mar – 5 Apr: Finish cycling the east coast of Malaysia, cross over to Penang and take a ferry from Penang to Lankawi.
  • 6 Apr – 13 Apr: Bus and cycle the southwest coast of Thailand (bus Satun to Phang-nga, ride to Chumphon via west coast)
  • 14 – 16 Apr: Train into Bangkok, visit Bangkok
    ** We will be playing this by ear due to the Thai Songkram (New Year) holiday
  • 17 – 27 Apr: Ride Bangkok to Chiang Mai
  • 28 Apr – 1 May: Ride Cheng Mai to Lao border (Chiang Khong) – if anything before this is late, we’ll bus this portion to get back on schedule.
  • 2 – 7 May: Ride Ban Houayxay Laos to Ban Bortin (sp?) at the Laos-China border
  • 8 – 12 May: Ride Mohan to Simao (Yunnan province China)
  • 13 May: Bus Simao to Kunming
  • 16 -18 May: Train Kunming to Beijing
  • 20 May: Bus to Tianjin
  • 21-22 May: Ferry Tianjin, China to Incheon, South Korea
  • 23 May – 1 Jun: Ride Incheon to Pusan
  • 3 Jun: Board ship Pusan to Seattle

A sea of colour

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

Since the Angullia Beach Resort is so nice, we immediately decided that we would take a rest day here. Then, Becky started to get a scratchy throat and awoke to a bit of a cold – so we decided to stay for a third night. With lots of Cold FX and some rest, hopefully she’ll be ready to roll again on Saturday. Staying the third night also means we will not be looking for a place to stay on a weekend night. (The province of Terengganu is strongly Islamic, so the weekend is Friday/Saturday.)

The very colourful girls

The very colourful girls

On Friday afternoon a school group arrived. Tourism in this area declined drastically after 2001. As a result, the resorts that are able to stay in business are those that cater to the different school groups. So, at about 4 pm on Thursday a bunch of teenagers in school uniform arrived. The girls uniforms made them all look like nuns to us – it is not surprising that the origins of the Islamic headscarf are the same as those of Christian nuns. Once the girls changed out of the uniforms, they became a beautiful sea of colour. Their non-uniform dresses make them look like they are dressed for a formal outing – not an afternoon at the beach! Interestingly enough, after a few hellos from the boys, they pretty much disappeared. It seems that even from a young age, the girls in Malaysia are much more social.

A touch of paradise

Thursday, March 26th, 2009

61 km, 3h 30min, Max temp 43

We planned to make a shorter ride today and splurge a little tonight – on a hotel with a pool, which turned out to be a good thing, since neither of us slept particularly well last night. We had a room that only had an inside window, and the hallway light was on all night. We’ll know better for next time.

Since our distance wasn’t long, we made a couple of short detours off of the highway. We were quickly reminded why we like riding on the small side roads, when we saw some people working a small piece of farm land. We rounded a corner and our way was blocked by a herd of cows taking advantage of the shade on a tree. With a quick whistle from somewhere, the cows moved over just enough to allow us to pass by.

Further along down the road, we noticed some giant spiders on the telephone poles. They were quite beautiful, but Becky would hate to encounter one whilst stopping for a pee break or inside our hotel room! They were at least the size of a hand.

Shortly after rejoining the main highway, the Kelulut Beach appeared. Scott noticed a beachside road, so we hopped on. It turned out not to last long, but we were well rewarded for the detour. Scott stopped to take a picture of Kapas Island, and Becky paused in the shade. Just as she stopped, she noticed and odd bird … a horn-bill of some kind. It was quite spectacular and not too shy, so we were able to get a couple of photos before moving on.

Our original plan was to stay at the Hotel Seri Malaysia in Marang; however, the beach was looking quite fabulous and we kept seeing signs for the Angullia Beach Resort. We decided to check it out and discovered a small piece of paradise that would cost us less than the Hotel. When we found out they had Internet, we were sold. We quickly got settled in our beachside chalet and jumped into the ocean for a swim. The shallow water is so warm it might as well be a hot tub! We waded in, and the deeper water was a little cooler and refreshing after a few hours on the bikes. We definitely could get used to this!

We were originally planning to take a boat out to Pulau Perhentian once we got further north for some quality beach time and snorkelling, but our week in KL has left us feeling some time pressure. Instead, we may spend another day here, then head directly across to the west coast, without an island break.

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Another day on the highway

Tuesday, March 24th, 2009

79 km, 4h 45 min, max temp 43

We awoke early and were doing yoga when we were reminded that we are Terengganu, one of the most strongly Muslim provinces of Malaysia. The muezzin here are much louder and more prominent than we have heard elsewhere in Malaysia. In other provinces, we have only noticed the noon prayers being called, not the other four. It didn’t help that there was a mosque right behind our hotel. Fortunately, we were already awake when the call began at 5:45, and we enjoy the poetry and music of the call to prayer.

The highway was much busier today, starting as soon as we left the hotel. With cars bumper-to-bumper and scooters and motorcycles zipping around us, it felt like rush hour in a major city. We guess that the refineries and industrial plants along this coast do a shift change between 0800 and 0900, so everyone was on the road with us at 0730. Fortunately our GPS map highlighted an alternate route (highway 145) not on our paper map, and it had much less traffic. By the time we rejoined highway 3 north of Kijal it was after 0830, and the road was much quieter.

We found this section of the coast was quite industrial, including a huge Petronas refinery complex. The towns nearby were much bigger, and included many more facilities, including the first McDonalds we’ve seen outside KL. Scott found the refinery complex quite fascinating, and would have stopped to take photos, but the prominent “No Photographs” signs along the highway deterred him. Gas flames on top of flare stacks can look very pretty if you forget about the environmental impact.

One of the things we are finding interesting is the variety in architecture for mosques in Malaysia. Some are similar to those in the Middle East, but others have shorter rounder minarets, and some look very similar to churches with only a single minaret to indicate a mosque.

We took it easy and tried not to strain, as Becky’s knee was still a little sore. Before 11 am, the sun went behind a cloud and remained there for a couple of hours. It was a nice break from the heat, as the temperature dropped from 38 degrees down to 33. It did not get really hot until after we got to town and were searching for hotels.

We chose the Hotel Sri Gate on the main street in Dungun – off the highway. They only had an interior room left for 65 RG, which was adequate for us, especially since they had a place we could store the bikes on the main floor underneath the stairs. The room was not big enough to fit us and bikes. The hotel IPM on the highway had slightly bigger rooms, but they were carpeted and more expensive. This place was clean and it wasn’t too close to a mosque, just in case we want to sleep in tomorrow {grin}.

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Farewell Kuantan

Monday, March 23rd, 2009

3h 15min, 59 km, Max temp 43 degrees C

After a great visit with Jon, Chin Chuin and family, we left KL and returned to Kuantan, a bit later than we had hoped. Unfortunately, our selection of bus turned out not to be ideal. The bus did get us where we wanted to go, it was just 30 minutes late leaving and the seats were not as well designed as many of the other buses that we saw leaving on time! Oops. Yew Kong picked us up again at the bus station, and took us on a quick tour of Kuantan, including the State Mosque, the largest mosque on the East Coast. It was quite spectacular at night.

Masjid Negeri (State Mosque) at night

Masjid Negeri (State Mosque) at night

In the morning, after a wonderful breakfast with Yew Kong (thanks again!) we packed up and hopped on our bikes. We were surprised to see that despite slow packing and breakfast, we still left before 9 am (yay). That meant that by 12:30, we had arrived at our planned destination.

The roads were OK, with good shoulders but more traffic, and our ride was fast for the first 45 km – so fast that we did not take any pictures. The road followed the coastline, and we saw an interesting mix of beach resorts, small villages, and heavy industry – sometimes all at the same time. The industry included a small container and bulk cargo port, a biodiesel plant and a fuel storage facility among others. This is much more industrial than we’ve seen previously on the East Coast.

We stopped for a brief rest in Cherating, a town filled with many beach resorts and what looks like a beautiful sand beach. We were happy to not feel at all affected by the rise in temperature. Most of our ride in the morning was at around 32 degrees, but by the time we stopped for lunch the thermometer was hovering around 40 in the sun. Cherating is a beach hangout on the backpacker circuit, but was pretty deserted when we arrived. Neither of us were particularly tempted by the long list of activities or the opportunity for beach lounging though.

Just after returning to the bikes, Becky discovered that her knee was sore. It is a different kind of sore than she has experienced before, and we suspect it was a mal-adjusted cleat (she lost a cleat screw on our afternoon ride into Pekan, and after replacing the screw we haven’t managed to get the cleat back into the ideal spot yet). Scott made a minor adjustment, and with a night of ice and advil (ibuprofen) hopefully the knee will settle down.

We are staying at the Tiara Hotel in Chukai for 50 RG a night ($18 CAD) – our usual one-star (or zero-star) style. The folks running the reception are Muslim women, which is a little different from our previous hotels, where reception was run by Chinese men – very similar facilities though. It is one of the many budget hotels near the river, and the best of the few we looked at. The air conditioning works and the room is clean, so we are happy.

Yew Kong testing out Becky's bike

Yew Kong testing out Becky's bike

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Too much food

Sunday, March 22nd, 2009

In the end, we had to leave Kuala Lumpur because we were being fed too well. Our hosts loved to show us all the different types of food available, so we often found ourselves eating and eating and eating. The food was great, and we were delighted to experience it all, but now we need to get back on the bikes and work off all the extra calories!

Here are some pictures with names and brief descriptions for some of the yummy treats: