The good, the bad and the ugly
244km Tanah Rata to Malaka
Beginnings are almost always good and the ride from the gloriously cool Cameron Highlands back down to the muggy Malaysian coastline was a joy. A winding road took us past tea estates, waterfalls and vegetable fields, on one of those downhills that eliminated any need to pedal but stayed gentle enough that we didn’t need to grip the brakes the whole time either. It must go down as one of the best descents the world has to offer.
Better sense prevailed at the bottom and we decided life was too short to ride into Kuala Lumpur. With a little help from the locals, we quickly found the bus station and then the Chinese restaurant around the corner selling tickets to the express bus.
“When does it leave?” we asked the owner, who was already writing out our tickets, even though we’d just asked if any were available.
“NOW!” came the urgent reply. The owner ushered us across the street to get all our bags off and the front wheel. “This bus isn’t going to wait for you,” we were told in a serious tone. What a change from the rest of sleepy Southeast Asia. We were now in a first-world wannabe country with rules and schedules that had to be followed. Well, almost. The bus turned up a good 15 minutes later, which left us with 10 minutes to relax and mop sweat from our brows after 5 minutes of frantic rushing to get the bikes prepared.
A further few moments of chaos ensued as the luggage compartment turned out to be a touch small and we had to perform all kinds of acrobatics to get our bikes in, while the driver tapped his feet impatiently but didn’t do anything to help. We handed over about $3 each for our bulky bikes and breathed a sigh of relief as we climbed into air conditioned comfort.
Two hours later we were dropped off on the curb in downtown Kuala Lumpur. A quick call to Meng, our WarmShowers host, and we were whisked away in his car, with bikes on the roof, for two packed days of feasting and sightseeing. We went up the Petronas towers and walked all around the bustling city. Evenings were filled with huge meals at Meng’s local hotspots, shared with another cycling friend. They were great company and the food was perfect too. We enjoyed these days with Meng – it made a large city feel like home.
After a bit of rest, we were itching to get back on the bikes and really didn’t want the hassle of taking the bus again. Could we bike out of Kuala Lumpur? Meng seemed to think so and volunteered to take us partway out of the city. The first stretch was bliss. Despite our initial terror when Meng turned onto the motorway, the motorbike lane was a dream. It was a totally separate path mirroring the motorway and there were so few motorcycles on it we travelled very peacefully.
Our happiness ended when Meng dropped us off, 16km from his home. The next 16km turned out to be a cycling nightmare. The motorbike lane ended. The shoulder ended. And although the motorway technically ended, it was still three lanes of packed traffic going at highway speeds. We looked at it and thought to ourselves, this is how you get killed on a bike.
By now though we were in the thick of it, with very few options. We hauled our bikes up onto a sidewalk, which ended after a few meters, and then pushed them on the grass, along the quiet side of the guardrail, around drainage ditches and finally into a train station parking lot. Would the train take bikes? Nope. At the other end of the parking lot we found a path and we followed it into an industrial area, still on the motorway with no other way out.
After a long debate, we decided there was no choice but the motorway and took comfort in the fact that traffic had thinned slightly and most cars were very polite with cyclists. We put on our high-visibility vests (bought just two weeks earlier) and headed out with fingers crossed and breath held. The shoulder reappeared soon afterwards, then disappeared again. Exit lanes came and went – dangerous for us because of the traffic veering on and off at high speed – and still the motorway rumbled on.
We were almost 40km into the day at the town of Kajan when a sign appeared for the smaller Route 1 and we jumped. Exit here? Yes, please! But we got no further than the end of the exit ramp because the signs to Route 1 had all disappeared. We were off the motorway, with no desire to go back, but no one could tell us where the mysterious Route 1 was.
To the right, we guessed, and when we asked a petrol station employee he pointed down the road. Great. But down the road led us back to, yes, a motorway. Try again. A policeman confirmed that to get to Route 1 we had to take the motorway. Our hearts sunk and then rose again a few moments later when all the traffic took the first exit, leaving us with six lanes almost to ourselves.
A long rainstorm delayed our arrival at Route 1. At first this road also looked very dangerous on a bike with no room to spare but traffic quickly thinned and around 3pm we felt comfortable again for the first time since early that morning. The afternoon brought plenty of chances to unwind as the rain fell hard and often. We took shelter three times under bus stops, huddled there with every other motorcyclist on the road.
The last rainstorm fell just as we were approaching Seremban, our home for the night, and we waited an hour before deciding there was no end in sight. Out into the downpour we went, getting predictably drenched, only for the rain to stop 10 minutes later. Oh well. We found a grubby hotel room run by a nice Chinese man and we didn’t even care about the mildew on the walls or the saggy bed because it was on the ground floor and we rolled our bikes right into the room. We were exhausted mentally and physically and just happy to have survived the motorways of Kuala Lumpur.
This is more like it
A bowl of curry and noodles got us started the next day for the final leg to Malaka. Now this was the kind of cycling we were after – a little jaunt out of the city and then a rolling country road through villages and plantations. Perfect. Only the hot sun gave us a bit of hassle, covering us in sweat and heat rash. We stopped for cool drinks at every opportunity. Ice coffee. Rosewater. Sugar cane juice. Delicious!
Malaka greeted us with a bustling downtown and the warning from a local not to leave our bikes unattended even for a moment. “I saw two guys just like you. They went into a shop and their bikes were gone in seconds,” he said sternly as we were stopped at a corner. In our hotel room, a sign gave advice on how to avoid having your bag snatched. It seems heavy tourism has brought opportunistic crime to Malaka but with our bikes safely stowed inside we slept well, ready for a few days of relaxing and sightseeing ahead.