Tuesday, January 28, 2014

KL, yes and no.

In a way Kuala Lumpur and New York City are comparable. The skylines are similar, a forest of skyscapers. But that's it. Whereas it is nice to walk around in Manhattan this is next to impossible in KL.
On a first visit of New York City one is surprised by the relative calm and organised atmospere in Manhattan. It is easy to roam over the pedestrian sidewalks and, though there are many people everywhere and the traffic is busy, the level of noise and the nervous hustle are much less than you would expect. And a stroll, or a bikeride, in Central Park can even be romantic. Or nostalgic, as we experienced once in Strawberry Fields, a section of Central Park opposite of the block where John Lennon used to live. When we walked there we found a band playing Beatle songs. Elderly men of course (my age) and it was so moving to see and hear them play the songs of our youth.
It's hard to imagine such a thing to occur in KL. There are some parks and in certain parts there are sidewalks, but as usual in this country these sidewalks are not level, there are dangerous holes in it, there are shop racks, parked cars or motorbikes blocking it. In other parts there are no sidewalks at all. In the part where we stayed, near Raja Chulan-Jalan Ismail it was much better, but this is a good part of the city. China Town and Little India can be done on foot, these are the older parts of town. But try to visit the Museum of Visial Art, or the Botanic Garden without using a car. You'll have a hard time. Very often you are confronted with this spaghetti of motorways (and railroads), all very heavily used and built only for the automobile and motorbike. All other creatures are more or less forgotten. Not completely of course, but for them there's not much pleasure. Cycling is horror. Dave, our host, had sent his road bike back to England. Useless. We had been warned and hence our decision to leave our bikes somewhere else and travel into KL by train.
There are some sights to be seen, but spending more than 2 days is otiose. You need not put KL on your priority list. We managed to have some pleasant days here though. We went around, saw the Museums of Islamic Art and the one of Visual Art, Eveline did her jogging in the park of the Petronas towers and ticked KL as the next number on her list of world capitals where she has ran.

An ancient Koran in the Islamic Arts Museum

The greatest contribution to the pleasant stay came from our host Dave, in whose house we very comfortably stayed and with whom we had a good time. Warmshowers is wonderful. It seems that, being cycle tourers among each other, you're on the same mind level. Each time we have no lack of topics to talk about and this time our Warmshowers stay made KL a very good experience.

Monday, January 27, 2014

From Penang to KL

In 6 stages we cycled from Georgetown to Klang, near Kuala Lumpur. Mainly remote countryside. No tourists, basic facilities. Sometimes very hilly roads, sometimes very beautiful with oil palm plantations, rice paddies and many blue flashing kingfishers.

In Taiping we stayed an extra day. This is a former tin-mining town and the places where they dug for the ore have now been converted into a large lush green park, with trees hanging over ponds, walking paths and a zoo. There's also the stop for the 4-wheel drives that take you up to Bukit Larut or Maxwell Hill. This is a so-called hill station, founded by the British. On an altitude of 1050 meters there are houses and bungalows where the early colonizers used to go in the hottest period of the year. The road uphill is unbelievably steep and has 72 hairpins. They only way up (10 k) is on foot or by jeep. It takes the jeeps half an hour. Indeed it was nice and cool up there, and very quiet. I can't help thinking how akwardly boring it must have been to live up there for a couple of months. (No internet in those days and all that :-) ).

Kuala Kangsar is the capital of Perak, one of the five sultanats of Malaysia. The sultans palace is situated in the so-called royal district and is beautiful and luxurious, as is the whole royal district. Green parks, well kept, clean and quiet. A gem. Currently the sultan of Perak happens to be the king of the whole country. Every five years another sultan is chosen to be the king. Beatrix wouldn't have liked such a system, I think.

In the not very nice and big port city of Klang we stayed in the Prescott hotel, where we left our bikes and some luggage behind and took a train to Kuala Lumpur. Mostly they just say KL. The reason why we didn't cycle into Kl is because this city is so designed (better: not designed) that pedestrians and cyclists are absoluely ignored. It's many lane motorways, fly-overs, railroads, monorail, fences, concrete walls, absent sidewalks, blocked sidewalks etc. all over, moving as a normal human being on foot or two wheels is crazy, impossible and very dangerous.

In KL we stayed with Dave, our Warmshowers host. He works for a French company building a huge powerplant on the coast here. He lives in a high rise building on the tenth floor in a gated community with all kinds of facilities, like gym, swimming pool and military dressed guardsmen all around. We have keys with sensors the guards greet you with a military salute: “Morning sir”. Quite nice actually :-), though I never heard them say “Good morning sir, madam”. (In public life in certain societies women are simply ignored by the male part of the population). The building is located between the two highest buildings of KL (and there are very many high buildings here), the telecom tower (432) and the Petronas towers (452) and we have a view on the latter. We feel privileged.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

There's a first for everything

Do pigs ride on motorbikes?
Not an obvious question. Let me explain. We were riding on a normal two-lane through road south of Kuala Kangsar. The road was quiet, some cars, the usual small motorbikes and us. It happened on a slope, we were riding uphill, slowly. I was 100 meters ahead of Eveline and had just rounded a corner, when I thought I heard her shout. Because of the corner I could not see her and I feared that she had fallen or something. I hastely turned and while doing this I saw a man on a motorbike in a green shirt do the same. I thought that he had seen what was going on with Eveline and wanted to help. A second later I saw Eveline standing along the roadside, not hurt or anything. I felt releived but wondered what had happened. The man on the motorbike had disappeared. Then Eveline told me that the motorbike-man, when he passed her, had grabbed her breast, and quite hard too. What you feel at such a moment is immediate rage. What the f….., the pig. And then the man on the motorbike passed again, and he took the time to have a good look at us. It was good that he didn't stop ….
Eveline was rather shocked, when it happened she was mainly concerned not to fall, which she fortunately didn't. Then her reaction was the same as mine, anger, disbelief, outrage. For the rest no real harm was done.
I tried to imagine what must have gone on in this man's head. A normal day, he is riding his motorbike going for an errand or so. Then he sees a woman on a bicycle. Not a normal thing to see here, especially dressed like this, bare arms, bike shorts. In a second he must have made up his mind: “I'm going to slow down, grab her and see what happens. Haha!”. Something like that. And he even returned to see the result (or continue with the next step?), psychopat. So yes, in this country there's at least one pig that rides a motorbike.

On all our bike tours over so many thousands of kilometers, this is the first time. Most likely the last, I'm sure.

Later in KL we saw these train carriages. Is it that bad?

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Pedal Inn Penang

Every now and then you find a guesthouse where you really feel at home. Pedal Inn is such a guesthouse.
Cycling is becoming more and more popular all over the world and also in Malaysia. Although infrastructural circumstances are by far not as good as they are in western Europe gradually more and more Malaysians take to the bike for excercise and for fun touring. In Georgetown on the island of Penang there's is a group of such bike fans and one of them is Steven. Steven decided 2 years ago to make it his living and opened a guesthouse in a rented old Chinese shophouse in Lorong Macalister in Georgetown. The house was redecorated and it is now a cosy and quiet place where you as a guest can be yourself and where Steven has created an atmosphere of a living room. Breakfast and coffee are free, cold drinks can be bought and Steven is always there for advice, for a chat and for serious discussions on all that keeps us busy. The neighbours walk in in the evening, as well as friends, and they all contribute to the homely ethos.

The house has 3 4-person dorms and a room with a double bed. If the double is occupied cycling couples get a dorm for their own. Bathrooms are shared, there's a personal locker for each guest, everything is clean and tidy. There is place to park the bikes and there are tools and buckets for cleaning and maintenance. Food courts, the typical Malayan, but certainly Penang, way of having your meals, are close, as is the old historic centre.
We came in as guests, we left as friends.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Langkawi and Penang.

We got into Malaysia by ferry. Ferries here are only for passengers, they are fast, not expensive and run pretty frequently. Often they have closed cabins where as an extra service very loud karaoke is played from big screens in front and where the aircon is working so hard that people put on jackets and all they have in order not to freeze. Not completely unneccesary, though they are a bit soft on that here.
(In the streets you see many riders of the small motorbikes wearing a jacket with the back in front to protect themselves from the 'cold' wind, while temps are well over 30. Makes me smile.)

In the modern terminal on Langkawi pier we went though customs, bought a Malaysian sim-card and then we rode the 25 k to Pantai Cenang, where we found a not too nice bungalow. On the other side of the street there was the beach, behind an almost closed row of little shops, guesthouses and restaurants. Pantai Cenang is a tourist hotspot on this island and indeed, it's more or less crowded. We spent a couple of days there, lingering on the beach that, unless the many people, water scooters, air-bananas with people or parapents behind motor boats, is reasonably calm. Enjoyable, especially in the evenings, sunset over the beach, a drink on an easy chair in the sand, we did not complain.
By ferry we went back to the Malaysian mainland in order to ride to Penang island and the interesting city of Georgetown. It was a 3-day ride through a poor region. The villages were messy and dirty, and the people looked similar. Alor Setar though, where we stayed, is a city with a pretty centre and there were a couple of nice beach resorts along our way.

These days taught us how different it is to travel through this area. This region clearly is not set on receiving foreigners.u You may know how much we appreciate a cool beer after a hot riding day. And hot the days are, 35˚C is no exception. In these regions this comfort is not easy to be found, it's a pure muslim area. And the 7-Elevens that we so appreciated in Thailand are scarce here and they just don't have what we need. There are no things like a terrace to sit and have a drink on, only food stalls. These sell drinks as well (juices and when we're lucky they have ice-coffee), but it's not the same. Besides that all the women are wearing scarves and we hear imans chanting through strong loudspeakers in many places. The people are friendly and open, still it's different from elsewhere, less easy.

Another ferry took us to Penang island, right into the city of Georgetown. This place is an old settlement where once the Portugese, then the Dutch and after them the British ruled. All of them left their traces. But most of all the Chinese immigrants made this place whta it is now. Now there are clearly three major communities, the Chinese, the Indians and the Malays, and they live well among each other. They have their own cultures, often their own language but they work together in many ways. No ethnic problems here. (Though the government clearly favours the "original" Malay, who are muslims). English seems to be the lingua franca, certainly in commerce. The streets in the old centre are characterized by the Chinese shop houses. These are two story houses in rows along the street, with the roof beams parallel to it. Often they are combined with a similar house in the street behind, so that a long space is created with an opening in the middle. This allows a cooling airflow and such houses feel rather comfortable.

We stayed in (a not enlongated) one, Pedall Inn (more about this in a later blog). We roamed the streets, visited some museums, a grand temple, some well preserved clan houses and two houses of very rich old families, that in the past had been of great significance for the city. Streets are named after the group of settlers that used to live and work there, so there's Armenian street, Little India, Burma road etc.There's a creative spirit which shows in the remarkable street art on walls here and there. It's an agreeable spot on the globe, we felt comfortable here.

As an extra we witnessed the first day of Thaipassum. This is an annual Hindu celebration during which they have a long 2-day lasting procession through Georgetown and where all Hindus seem to gather in their best clothes, with gifts for their deities, with burdens carried and coconuts smashed on the streets. An event!

Friday, January 10, 2014

Exit Thailand

We spent 55 days in Thailand this time. We travelled south from Chiang Mai in the very north to the southern border with Malaysia in 40 stages and covered 2600 kms.
Thailand is a very easy country to travel in. There's a reasonable or good system of public transport, that we hardly used. We just used some longtail boats and (very fast) ferries. In general there is always and everywhere a motorbike taxi, a song thaew, mini bus or bigger available to bring a tourist to any destination.
Prices are very affordable, food, transport and accommodation are cheap compared to most other tourist countries. No wonder that Tailand is a backpacker's favourite. Low prices are not the only reason for this though. There's is the climate, always warm to hot, with a well defined rainy season, during which travelling is still very well possible.
In our opinion though it's the people that is the most important reason for this country being so easy. People are gentle and kind, they welcome you with a welcoming smile that in the beginning you must get used to. It's just so uncommon for a European. Maybe it's because we're on bikes that makes people even more friendly. Very, very often we are loudly greeted from far in a field, from within a house or a yard, from passing motorbikes and pick-up trucks, and don't forget the children. And then there often is this smile, displaying a genuine happiness to see us.
The main religion is Buddhism, and this certainly contributes to this open attitude towards us as farang (westerners). We tend to feel very positive about Buddhism and the effect that it seems to have on the people. Though there is another side to it. We spoke a young American, who had lived abraod many years and had now been a teacher for three years in this country. He told us that he had the same same feeling initially, but now he could hardly stand it any more. People are very superstitious, believe in the silliest tokens and act accordingly, don't learn to think for themselves, just reproduce. And are thus vulnurable for deceiving politicians (cf. our populists and the tea part in the usa) who make them scared and angry. The man was very dissapointed. On the other hand we spoke with a Thai who was very active in the current opposition demonstrations against the Taksim clan, who more or less owns and corrupts the country to the bone.
In the south part, the last app. 500 k, it was mainly Islam. Generally we noticed less acceptance and openess, even a kind of suspiciousnes in such regions, though we must say that we didn't feel that now.
The countryside is mostly beautiful. We rode past the endless and immaculate green of rice paddies in the north, through amazing Karst rocks and mountains, dense jungle, coconut and palm tree plantations, rubbertrees, fish-nurseries, fishermen's ports and white sandy beaches dotted with waiting long tail boats with the many coloured cloth wrapped round the bowsprit, there were hardly any stretches that we did not like.
Roads are mostly good, with side strips to cycle on. Sometimes busy 4 lane high roads, mostly two lane and more quiet. There are reaonably many newer cars on the roads, recent models, mostly smaller types as Mazda 2 and Toyota Yaris. This gives reason to believe that prosperity is spreading in the country and that a new middle class is developing. There's nobody who doen't use a mobile phone.
We stayed in the most beautiful and romantic accommodations to the most basic ones. The older hotels sometimes give you the idea of being in a prison. Prices varied roughly from € 8 to 35.
We spent time on beaches, snorkled, swam through caves, visited lots of lovely temples and musea if there were any and did what all tourists do. Besides that we enjoyed the Thai food, which is delicious and light, and mostly had it accompanied by well cooled beer.
Being bike-travellers gives us just that different touch with the land, the culture and the people. We loved it and enjoyed it.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014


The last couple of weeks we passed through a countryside that is characterized by a mono-culture of rubber trees. It's the main agricultural activity in the utmost south of Thailand. Miles and miles of rubber trees, with the typical slanting cuttings in the bark. Through the bark runs the latex, a white syrup-like liquid that is freed through these cuttings and slowly flows into a cup via a little hanging gutter. It's important to realize that it's not the tree's sap that is taken from the tree. This sap runs through the cambium, just under the bark, so the tree is not harmed in it's growth.
The trees are up to 10 meters high, have a stained bark and are not thicker than 20 centimeters in diameter. The plantations have the trees in regular rows in a monotonous line-up. It looks like it's the business of small local farmers and that there are no big industrial and foreign owned plantations. Sometimes you see a farmer, or often a child, walking through the plantation and emptying the cups in a bucket or other plastic container. They then take this to a collecting point, of which there are many. Dirty places! It's then a liquid, and from there it's transported further in a tank on a pick-up truck.
But more often we saw the latex in a dried, solid form in the cups and being collected in big dirty lumps on pick-ups. Why there is this difference we don't know. We do know that formic acid is used as a collagen, but if that is the case here? Maybe it is in the cases when we saw that some farmers proces the crude latex themselves. The result we saw hanging on racks to dry, as if the towels of a hotel have been washed. Sometimes these 'towels' are white, sometimes brownish, or a dirty white.
Once or twice we passed a big rubber factory. We think that here the locals work ends and the big industry does the rest.
We made some pictures of this form of agriculture and loaded them up in this little album.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Koh Lipe

We're just a couple of days away from Malaysia and we did not stay on a single Thai island. So in Pak Bara we decided to give it a try and we booked a ferry to Koh (=island) Lipe. This was an “uninhabited” island until some years ago. It's a tiny island surrounded by coral, app. 1 k long, with jungle and three or four pristine beaches. Some 60 k out of the coast. The only residents living there were a group of so-called sea gipsies, more or less nomadic fishermen's tribes. But then it was discovered, among others by a Thai investor. Now there are a number of resorts, most of them very pricy. There's a concrete 2 meter wide street called Walking Street with some little shops and coffee bars. The street is completely covered by sand, like everything else on the island and is only 200 meters long. No cars, just a few motor bikes. Most transport is being done by longtail boats.

Though it was still high season we didn't book ahead, we were assured by the lady of the ferry ticket office that we would be able to find affordable rooms. We left our bikes and most of the luggage behind and landed, via a floating platform and longtailboat-taxi, on the main beach and checked. The first possibility was 3 times more expensive than we ever paid before during this trip. So, with our basic luggage we dragged on in the heat of the day. By accident I took a wrong path between two houses and we climbed a hill and after 15 minutes we found our sweating selves at Art Garden, a tiny resort on the slope. From there we could see the other side of the island through the trees, just 100 meters away. There was no room available in Art Garden, but the very kind Argentinian young man who worked there took us to the resort down at the beach that we could see (named Porn resort). There was one free bungalow, very affordable and on the beach. For us!! We were extremely lucky. The bungalow was just a bamboo shed, less than 4 x 4 m, with a toilet (no flush but bucket and pan), cold shower, a mattres, mosquito net and fan, but our own balcony was directly on the beach. It was the most quiet side of the island, Sunset Beach. We stayed in these Bounty spheres for two days, enjoying to the full the crystal clear water, the fresh fish that was delivered directly on the beach, reading, swimming and brushing the sand from our feet. Then, after two days it was enough and we longtailed back to the platform to board a very fast ferry. Five Honda engines, 70 k/hr, back to Pak Bara and the day after tomorrow we will be on a boat again. This time it'll take us to Langkawi, Malaysia!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

New year 2014

After having said goodbye to our Australian friends we left Khao Sok in southerly direction for the coast. Here we were confronted with the high season in the for western tourists most popular region of this country. For a week or more we had difficulties in finding a place to stay. So we started to use the inernet to find out in advance if accommodations were avalailable. Until now we have never needed this method, we just stopped somewhere and got a room, or something like that :-).
New Year's eve we thus arrived in Sabai Resort, some 4 k away from Pak Meng Beach, were we initially intended to stay, but full. We learned that during these specific holidays each Thai takes his picknick basket, loads his family on a pick-up truck and goes to a place like Pak Meng. When we had taken our bikes to see the beach boulevard, we returned earlier than planned. The road was congested and the beaches crowded. Thai families seem just to sit down somewhere, rocky or sandy ground, beach, shaded roadside, who cares, unpack their loads of food, eat and drink, sleep, sit, talk, let their children play, and at 17.00 hrs they leave. What stays behind is what they didn't eat and the plastic where it was all packed in. A big mess. We cycled back home to our remote resort, feeling happy that we needed not be a part of this. The resort was an oasis of quietness, with cold beer, good food and interesting conversations with the Italian-Thai owners.

On New Year's day we made a 4-island tour, starting from Pak Meng Pier. We were the only falang (westerners, white people) among app. 60 Thai. The boat first took us to an island, actually mainly a big limestone rock standing out in the Andaman sea. There all the passengers hadt to put on a life jacket, then we all got off the boat into the sea. It was too deep to stand and I think that there are hardly any Thai who can swim. But we were all kept afloat by our life jackets, and we were told to hang on to the one in front of us. Thus we were pulled by the guides, who obviously could swim, into a cave in the huge wall of rock. Far beyond all ISO-standards I'm sure. It was a app. 80 meter long tunnel and it was fun, this train of people, clinging to each other and floating in the water in the pitch dark cave, shouting and cheering (of fear?) and then arriving in an amazing open space with daylight through an opening high above. Aswesome!
Then we had a big lunch on board, we stopped on a pristine beach of another fairy-tale island, we snorkled and saw multy coloured fish in all sizes and after seeing flying dogs hanging from a rock we returned to the pier, to be picked up and taken back home to Sabai Resort.
Then it was, due to the time-differences, the right moment to make phone calls to our beloved at home.
A lovely new year's day!