Thursday, February 21, 2008

East-coast and up. Mainland Malaysia.

After leaving Singapore, we headed up the East coast of Malaysia. After spending almost a month already in Malaysia (Borneo), and with it being the wrong time of year to visit some of Malaysia's diving destinations on this coast, we decided to "cane it" up the coast. Both Tintin and I had visions of Thailand in our heads. The beaches, a rest from biking, Diving, and of course, cheaper beer. We wanted to get there. Fun in the Sun was waiting for us.

We made the trip from Singapore to the boarder of Thailand in 10 days time, taking one days rest in the small surfing, ex-hippy, town of Cheriting. The riding started off okay, but by the last half of the trip up the coast the scenery began to really become impressive, and we finally started biking through smaller, back water, villages. All that I had hoped the bike trip would be was arriving.

In the city of Terengganu we came across a gorgeous Mosque. It was made of glass and shimmered off of the water. It was by far the most impressive religious structure I had yet to see in Asia and Tintin, who has spent plenty of time in the Middle east, said it was the most impressive Mosque he had ever seen.

Malaysian food isn't my cup of tea, however Indian food is everywhere here, and I absolutely love that! I think for most my time through Malaysia I must have eaten at least six roti canis each day, an Indian flat bread that is crisp and fluffy all at the same time. You get a side of curry sauce with each one to dip it in, I could simply live off these without every complaining. They are pure bliss. Below is a number of them being prepared. Before they are cooked on the stove they will be thrown in the air, much like pizza dough is. It is fun to watch but better to eat.

We did however discover Kickapoo Joy Juice. Its impossible to describe, but it is an excellent soft drink/juice. However it has devilish influences on Tintin.

Riding up the coast, we really got into a groove of biking. Day in and day out. It went smoothly and we had little to no problem with either of our bikes. The heat and rain stayed at bay for the most part. I really feel that on this stretch I became truly bike fit. I would find myself tired at the end of each day, but far from exhausted. As I mentioned in previous blogs, our daily routine is rather mundane, however I love it. It is the first time since High School that I have done this much exercise day in and day out and it is having a fantastic effect on my energy levels and my state of mind. I just feel good. I wake up each day genuinely excited to bike. I couldn't ask for much more from the trip thus far...

Singapore with no Slings.

The scariest two hours of my life on a bike occurred while I was in Singapore. It was beyond intense, however while I was in the mix of it I was so focused on living that I didn't realize how scared I was. Once it was over, my hands shook, blood slowly crept back into my knuckles which where white from gripping my handlebars so hard and I took my first deep breath in hours.

The day started off pleasantly well. Flying from Kuching to Johor Bahru was painless, with the Airline giving us absolutely no hassles with our bikes. Once landing in Johor we than biked 40 kilometers to get to the Malaysian/Singapore causeway to cross into Singapore. Easy enough. We had directions to a couchsurfer's house, Pontis, where we were staying for three nights.

Our directions called for us to go on the Singapore expressway. I thought nothing of this, I had been on the Malaysian Highways, they weren't pleasant to bike, yet they were like all other highways I had encountered in Asia. I was yet to learn that Singapore is not Asia.

It happened without me consciously noticing it. Next thing I knew I was on an eight lane express way with cars, simi-trucks, buses, and motorcycles flying by me at 120 kph. This wasn't that bad. But when we had to cross four lanes of traffic for on and off ramps, or simply bike by an off-ramp or on ramp when previous stated vehicles were exiting and entering, all while we were cruising at a speed no faster than 25kph. It was not safe. We only had 20 kilometers to travel, but we quickly found ourselves lost, missing our exit as only we can do while going so slowly. We ended up on the wrong side of Singapore, finally leaving the express-way to ask directions. It was only than that Tintin and I looked at each other, I could see the wear, fear, and stress in his eyes and I knew he could equally see it in mine. We vowed not to return to the expressway no matter what. We ended up paying a taxi to take us to Pontis's house, and than finding detailed directions online to leave Singapore by a different route.
This experience, like so many others, was a cheap lesson. Before getting to Bangkok, I will take train from about 100 km before the city. I have no desire to ever return on my bike to a road even similar in nature to that of Singapore. For those of you in the Midwest, it would be like biking on I-90 leading into Chicago, but not at rush hour when its bumper to bumper. Only there someone would probably run me over with road rage before I made it 2 miles.
Once safely there, I loved Singapore. If only I had more money! It is the consumption capital of Asia! I saw more cars that cost over 6 figures in an hour than I saw in 3 years working at the Pfister Hotel. I also enjoyed the most expensive beer I have bought in Asia, at $10 USD for a single Budweiser. It was good, and I drank it slowly, thinking of Derek Reinke while doing so. This took place in the court-yard bar of the world famous Raffels Hotel. It was fun to sit and try to imagine what that bar, the original location of the first Singapore Sling, had seen throughout the last century. It was an unchanged oasis from the rest of the bustling city outside.
We also went to the roof of the Swiss Hotel to have a drink and look out over the city. From there you could see the sprawl that has become Singapore, creeping further into the distance, and higher into the sky.
I look forward to returning to this city, for the few liberties its citizens give up, they gain so much in cleanliness, security, comfort and order. I could see myself happily living there. However upon my next return, whenever or however it happens, I will not be on a traveler's budget, and I will enjoy what is perhaps the most unbelievable cluster of bars I have ever strolled through in my life. By cluster I mean hundreds! Just walking through on a Saturday night left me with an urge to throw caution to the wind and have a blinding night out. If I had done so, I may have been returning home a month sooner at the cost of one night. I kept telling myself, "Next time, next time." Indeed.

Borneo by Bike

After Mt. Kinabalu I was ready to begin biking. Yet after two days of rest I still had a hard time walking down, or up, any set of stairs, or curb, without the helpful assistance of a handrail. In the cases where no handrail presented itself I had too improvise by attempting to walk like a decrepit, elderly athlete that had had nine too many knee operations. This worked well. Yet in comparison to Tintin I was hopping around like spry young tot. I took joy in this, also in nudging him over the edge of six-inch high sidewalk curbs, which seemed to cause him a large amount of pain and discomfort.

Regardless of our pain, on the January 3rd we were on our way, biking through Borneo. I was excited for this stretch of the trip. It was the least “biked” of our route, we could find little information on the route, helping to give it the feeling of true adventure; added by the fact it was our first bit of biking outside the Philippines. I had envisioned biking through long costal stretches and zigzagging along rivers and passing deep into rain forests.

Nothing of the sort occurred.

Malaysian Borneo, at least the coast, is barren. With the, now obvious and glaring, exception of mile after mile of palm tree plantations for the profitable industry of cooking oil. It must be profitable; we saw little else in the 1000 kilometres we biked in Borneo. Neatly planted rows of palm trees going on forever, on what used to be the lush rainforest I had envisioned myself biking through. While we were in Borneo there were rations put on the use and purchase of cooking oil. Apparently demand is very high and supply is not. I guess this means goodbye to the remaining low land rainforest. One Malaysian paper had pictures of the police raiding a Chinese grocer who was smuggling cooking oil. The article’s wording and pictures gave the impression that 300 boxes of pure cocaine had been seized, but instead it was cooking oil. Much more serious.

So the scenery wasn’t the best, but as with all else, we made the best of it. We did see some great scenes, however short, along the road. The best was the hundreds of monkeys we saw on a daily basis on the few stretches of road that had regular vegetation (non palm tree). Some would jump and play, others just meander along the road, some would yell, growl, and show their teeth, and yet more would be on random, man made gyms, such as electrical poles and lines. We saw a pair of large, endangered, Hornbill birds. While biking you see lots of Mother Nature’s roadside causalities, things that many US Southerners could probably make into a tasty stew. Tintin, while biking by what he assumed was yet another snake killed while sunning itself on the road, was quite surprised to have it pop up and flair its hood out before making a run for the grass. It was a cobra.

Besides Mt. Kinabalu national park we also stayed at two more for a few days each. One, Niah National Park, contains some of the world’s biggest caves. The oldest, to date, human skull found in Southeast Asia was found in one; it was carbon dated to be at least 40,000 years old. We spent my 27th birthday exploring these caves and they were truly aw-inspiring. It is hard to estimate, but I figure that in two of the caverns you could fit at least 3 to 4 football fields in each. They were massive, and cross-ventilated, providing natural housing for what could be thousands. I got lost in my own daydreams thinking of what these walls had seen; possibly the first forms of civilization for modern man. The third, and last, National Park we stayed in was Kubah. We went there after arriving in our final Borneo destination, Kuching. It was located about 50 kilometres from Kuching and was home to Matang Wildlife Center. A fantastic volun-tourist orientated and funded program working on rehabilitating orangatangs, sun bears, gibbons, and other native Borneo species. We received a very warm welcome and personal tour by the very interesting and informative managers. We also managed to find time to take a hike to one of the park’s three waterfalls.

On the biking side of things, all went fairly well. Most days found us up early, around six or seven, to avoid the heat and rains. We would bike anywhere from a minimum of 50 kilometres, to a maximum of 163 kilometres (101 miles). We stopped every hour or two for food and/or drinks, which worked out to every 20-40 kilometres. When we got to our destination of the day we would find a place to sleep, mostly in small guesthouses or Chinese hotels. Some were fantastic, others quite shady. We would shower, find food, wander around town a bit and go to bed fairly early, normally before nine at night. Its not a crazy lifestyle but it is very rewarding. We see life go by in places that you wouldn’t normally find yourself on vacation or while backpacking. This is what I like most.

Malaysian Borneo was not at all what I had envisioned it to be. I didn’t get to make it far inland to the well-known and fabled long houses, nor did I get a chance to dive one of the world’s top dive spots, Sipidan. While on a bike, and with a budget (both for time and money), you can’t do everything. However we did spend 25 days there, and even if it wasn’t what I expected I enjoyed it tremendously. I would be lying if I didn’t admit my excitement for the remainder of our trip. Mainland Southeast Asia will prove to be very different, especially once leaving Malaysia. It’s nice to have 2,000 biked kilometres done. I was concerned I may bore of it, but I am not, and with what is to come I don’t foresee that I ever will. I’m more excited now for the remaining 4,000ish kilometres than I ever was before!

Friday, February 8, 2008

Blogs to come soon....

Sorry all, I've been a busy boy. Fun in the Sun is hard work; diving, biking, hiking. You know the drill. Anyway I got blogs written but they are on Tint's cpu, which isn't with me. We split paths for a week, him to do some chillaxing on the Gulf of Thailand coast and for me to go dive at Sipidan Islands. In a week or two I'll have blogs up on Borneo, Singapore, mainland Malaysia and southern Thailand (where we are now). We're over 3,000km now on bike kilometers. So about half-way. It looks like I may be heading home from Hanoi instead of Hong Kong; for a multitude of reasons. Sometime the last week of April or first week of May. Hope your all well!