Monday, 8 May 2017

Full Circle - KL bound (again)

The relief to be out of Thailand was enormous. We'd both been ready to leave for some time so the second we got on our bikes and rode away, the border disappearing out of sight behind us, our moods lifted ten fold. It was short lived though, because that night we found ourselves stopped in Kuala Perlis in a guesthouse that rivalled some of the worst places we've ever stayed. The place was the cheapest we could find in a very limited town; the room was hot and musty, and springs stuck up through the ancient mattress badly enough to make sleeping on it impossible without laying our bike seat mats over the springs first. The one shared bathroom had no shower, only a single filthy squat toilet and a bum gun. Not even a basin. 

The room next door was occupied by a family whose multitude of children screamed around the place until nearly midnight, after which they would appear in our room periodically after going to the bathroom and picking the wrong door upon their return, which incidentally didn't lock. At first the look of horror on their faces when they opened the door was funny, but it soon got old.

So why did we stay there, you're probably thinking? Well, it was late in the day when we arrived and despite there being a major aerospace and maritime trade show in progress on the island, LIMA 17, we'd managed to secure tickets for the otherwise booked up ferry to Langkawi the following morning. 

After a well organised and pleasant crossing, we arrived in an area of the island with a much more run-down feeling than the rest. Unsurprising really given that we'd taken a chance on a much-cheaper-than-everywhere-else guesthouse, which it turned out despite having booked it the day before through Agoda, didn't actually exist anymore. After some asking around we discovered that another guesthouse some miles away was fulfilling the closed-down places bookings so we at least had a place to sleep, albeit without the decent bathroom, double bed and AC that we'd paid for. On the plus side, it was right by a fantastic little mechanic shop that finally fixed my rattly headlight after many others failed.

Langkawi is an interesting place. It's beautiful, extremely lush and green, with some stunning beaches, yet somehow has avoided being swamped by the influx of mass tourism in the way so many other islands in the region have been. We spent a few days explorin, starting with a trip up to the sky bridge. Accessed via a near vertical cable car up the cliff face, the sky bridge is the world's only single span suspension bridge. An impressive feat of engineering, it towers above the treetops, the ground many dozens of metres below. 

The site also accommodates the usual range of tourist add-on attractions - a sky dome where you can watch short 6D movies and one of the ubiquitous 3D photo 'museums' so popular everywhere in SE Asia. What exactly people did on holiday before selfie-sticks and Instagram were invented, I have no idea.

After a couple of days we fancied a change of scenery and moved to the much more touristy Cenang Beach. From here we rode to random places around the island including a trip up to Gunung Maya tower, a ride reminiscent of that up to Bokor Hill Station in Cambodia. An old, winding road, it leads up to a tower with stunning views over the surrounding countryside. As a nice touch there's free tea at the top and a 'stay as long as you like' attitude from the friendly staff there. We sat there awhile, enjoying the cool breeze and watching the hornbills fly over the treetops.

A downside of being in tourist town was the below par food on offer. Mostly water-juice and western style offerings, it fell well short of the mark on several occasions but these were small complaints and didn't ruin our new found enthusiasm for our trip. A few days of rest under our belts and we were ready to set off again, this time KL bound, but in a roundabout way, our plans being to take in some of the east coast rather than simply retrace our footsteps south. Getting off the island was our first obstacle and after luckily leaving ourselves plenty of time for a detour via the foot ferry docking point rather than the correct car ferry port half an hour away, we set our sights on Alor Setar.

An unremarkable place in many ways, Alor Setar does have a couple of things that I loved about it. One, the Rainbow Hotel, which although average in every other way, had the most amazing pillows I've ever slept on. Unfortunately they had no labels on them so I have no idea who they were made by, but they were incredible. The second thing Alor Setar has is possibly the most beautiful mosque I've ever seen, Masjid Al-bukhary. With a beautiful sunset as a backdrop, we found it quite by chance while we were looking for food and had ended up taking a wrong turn on to a toll road that led us 20km out of our way. We did find a fantastic chicken steak with gravy at a side of the road stand so all in all, it worked out just fine.

Leaving Alor Setar we decided to ride as close as we could along the Thailand border to the east coast. Although these are often areas that you are warned against spending time unnecessarily, I like border zones. They radiate a different kind of energy from the places they are attached to and offer a glimpse into the life of the people who live there. Border towns have a grittiness to them, a sense that there's much more below the surface than first meets the eye. Along this particular road that hugs the border almost all the way were dozens of military checkpoints staffed by heavily armed guards, but none asked us to stop. I'm not sure if this border area is always so heavily policed, or whether it is as a result of the ongoing unrest in the region. We drew little more than curious glances from most, occasionally huge grins and waves. I guess they don't see many westerners on little scooters in those parts.

At this point we were both struggling with coughs and colds and feeling in need of a little luxury. When we reached the coast we decided we'd splurge, find a nice resort type place with a pool to stay a night or two. Unfortunately it turned out we'd arrived in the middle of a school holiday week that meant everyone had jacked their prices to ridiculous levels and with the thought of paying a fortune to share a pool with a bunch of screaming kids not at all appealing, we continued on down the road instead.

Over the previous few weeks my rather old, but trusty long sleeved shirt that I wear to keep the sun off while riding had begun to show signs of imminent death when it came back from the laundry full of holes where the clothes pegs had been. Reaching out to squish a mosquito one evening I heard a loud rip as the back tore clean down the middle. For days I searched for a replacement but to no avail until one afternoon we were riding along a coastal road and happened upon a second hand clothes stand run by two lovely ladies. Despite having no common language it wasn't hard for them to ascertain my need and immediately shirts were pulled from piles for me to try on. I chose one with a small hole in the back for 5 ringgits, but upon spotting the hole the ladies were horrified and insisted I take another one too for free. This was typical of the interactions we had in rural areas. Beautiful people, beautiful country.

Tired, we rolled into Kuala Besut, a small, scruffy town housing the port for boats crossing to the Perhentian islands. Unlike just about everyone else we've met along the way since, we'd never heard of the islands, let alone considered visiting them, but after hearing about the stunning reefs and high quality snorkeling and diving available there we decided on a day trip to check it out.

I have to admit I wasn't a huge fan of Kuala Besut when we first arrived, but it grew on me. Although the town isn't much to look at, the locals were exceptionally friendly, none more so than the owners of Nan's hotel where we took a room for a few nights. Next door a restaurant newly opened by a young girl served better than average food and a cafe a few doors down served above average coffee. We picked at random one of the dive shop representatives at the dock and booked a days snorkeling at the islands.

The following day bright and early, but still a little snuffly, we boarded a boat to the island, having been told that Mr Zaidie would be there to meet us. This would have been fine had the dive shop told us where exactly we should be dropped off. It turned out there were two islands and maybe a dozen different jetties spread around them. Going by our blank looks, the boat captain decided we probably wanted to go to the Marine Park and this is where he dropped us. We waited. And waited. No Mr Zaidie. We asked the rangers there but no-one has any idea who he was. Eventually one used his phone to call the dive shop for us who confirmed that we were in the wrong place but that they'd arrange for us to be collected.

For the rest of the day we hopped between various snorkeling sites with a group of about 8 other people. Most were local tourists, almost all snorkeling fully clothed. We didn't follow suit but later wished I had as I suffered the effects of very sunburnt buttocks and backs of my legs, the only place I'd forgotten to cover in sun cream.

Snorkeling in the Perhentians was much like so many of our experiences in SEA. Disappointing and sad. Not because of false advertising though, but because yet again it highlighted the horrendous destruction of the natural environment that has taken place. The reefs around the islands are in the worst condition I've ever seen, the coral dead and broken; all that remains are grey skeletons laying on the ocean floor. Forlorn looking fish scratch around looking for food as twenty or thirty boat loads of snorkelers arrive every day to splash around, hapless tourists stand on what little coral is left and pick up starfish to pose for photos.

In one area named 'Turtle Beach' a sad, solitary turtle swam around while dozens of snorkelers chase it, excitedly shouting to each other every ten minutes as it surfaced for air. Its shell showing obvious signs of a battle with a boat prop, the poor creature quickly returned to the sea bed to scavenge for food. We did see some interesting fish and even reef sharks, but really the whole experience was thoroughly depressing and not one I'd have signed up for if I'd known just how bad the situation was there.

Eventually the day came to an end and we were dropped off at the correct jetty to catch our boat back to the mainland. After the snorkeling boat had left we realised that we had not given the envelope containing our payment to the boatman as requested by the dive shop. Luckily the company's office was only across the beach from where we were. Upon arriving there and asking that they pass our envelope along to Mr Zaidie when he returned, again we received blank stares. They too had no idea who he was. Defeated, we returned the envelope to the dive shop when we arrived back on shore. We'll never know who the elusive Mr Zaidie was.

The following morning we set off again, this time in torrential rain. It had been a long time since we'd encountered any rain at all, let alone having to ride in it. At least it was warm I guess. A short distance further along the coast we turned inland and began to head west in the direction of the Cameron Highlands, an area we had missed on our way north. The road was smooth and curved gently through dense forest. The rain cleared to a light drizzle and for a while we started to enjoy the ride.

Along the sides of the road we saw all manner of exotic wildlife, some things we had no idea what they even were. The creatures were easy to spot though, all of them neatly squashed on the tarmac by the huge logging trucks carrying felled teak that thundered past us at regular intervals. A binturong, a small ocelor-like cat, lizards - the roadkill was a veritable A-Z of peninsula Malaysia's forest wildlife. Suddenly dense forest gave way to vast clear-felled areas of land, freshly planted with row upon row of oil palms as far as the eye could see. In many places the recently laid road had completely washed away as there were no longer roots and vegetation in place to keep the banks from collapsing. What had begun as a beautiful ride had turned into another thoroughly depressing example of human destruction in pursuit of money.

Later on riding through the Cameron Highlands the type of commerce changed to horticulture and mile after mile of hillsides clad with polytunnels growing tomatoes, strawberries and cacti. Although industries present here for decades, it certainly makes you think about the real cost of providing for the demand of certain countries for these things to be available all year round. One brief respite in an otherwise bleak couple of days was riding through the tea plantations with their intricate swirling terraces and contours. Although still planted on what was originally jungle, the sight of tea fields is at least quite beautiful.

A short way further down the road and late in the afternoon the trip took another unexpected twist. Having just got underway again after stopping several times at a quirky museum, a waterfall and then again to admire a particularly beautiful piece of surviving forest along a winding road, we were heading for the next town when out of nowhere my back wheel kicked out at about 50kph, I lost traction and next thing I knew I was sliding down the road on my side. Luckily the road was wet and I was wearing jeans, boots, long sleeves and full waterproofs which absorbed most of the friction so I escaped relatively unscathed in terms of skin loss, but I had landed hard on my right shoulder and knee, hit the back of my head on the ground and had badly bruised my other leg too.

Feeling more than a little shaken, I sat by the side of the road for a few minutes while Evan retrieved my bike. Confirming that apart from a spinning head and a fair amount of pain, nothing appeared to be broken or dislocated, I carefully lifted my right arm which took the force of the impact on to the handlebar and we crawled the final 16km to the next town. There I dosed up on painkillers and hoped that I wouldn't seize up too much overnight. Amazingly, my bike survived unscathed apart from a bent footpeg. I'm still not entirely sure what caused me to lose the rear end, but can only assume it was an oily patch on the wet road.

The following morning it took me a fair while to make it out of bed. Unsurprisingly, everything hurt. My right knee had ballooned and my right shoulder barely moved at all without a pain shooting down my arm. Figuring that my bike was overdue a new rear tyre, which may or may not have been a factor in my off, Evan kindly took my bike to find tyre shop while I got myself moving. At this point we were only about 180km from reaching KL, where we would be selling our bikes. Nearly 9,000km on those bikes and I had to fall off on the home straight.

With much pain and discomfort, we wended our way back to KL, arriving at a cheap hostel in Brickfields around mid afternoon. There we sat for best part of a week while we dealt with various enquiries about our bikes which we had decided to advertise privately for sale in the hope of getting a better return on them. This partly paid off. I ended up selling my bike for a reasonable amount more than I'd have got from a dealer to a Bangladeshi student studying in the city. However, this meant that neither of us had much idea of how to change the registration over and this resulted in us running around all over the city to different offices, but we eventually succeeded. Evan too found a private buyer who cruelly backed out of the deal at the last minute, admitting he just didn't have the money he'd agreed to pay. With the costs of spending an extended period of time in KL stacking up, Evan decided to return his bike to the dealer for the agreed buy-back price and we split the extra I'd made.

With bikes sold, we had just enough time to catch up with Amir, a local guy who had previously been so helpful when we'd asked for advice on our Thai paperwork issues on a Facebook forum. We first met for a tea tarik late one night and then Amir generously invited us to dinner with him and his wife and another friend at a wonderful satay stand on the outskirts of the city. We ate, talked bike trips and shared tales of travel in SEA late into the evening. It was the perfect end to our time in Malaysia.

Our vague plan at this point had been to head to Laos and rent bikes for a few weeks to see what we'd missed on our previous attempt. However, with my shoulder showing little sign of improvement this was now an impossibility for me. In addition Evan was keen to find somewhere he could go kiting and with the end of the season already upon us, he would need to do this immediately if he wanted any chance of finding wind. The only logical place he would be able to do this was Hua Hin back in Thailand. Less than keen to sit around on a beach in the blazing sun, we agreed that the best thing to do would be to go our separate ways for a week or two. 

The following day, I jumped on a flight to Borneo.

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