Whenever we leave a country, we usually turn to each other and say “that’s definitely one of the top countries of the trip”. This was no exception, and Malaysia has certainly edged into the top 5 (we just can’t narrow it down more than that!). We were treated to breakfast by strangers, hosted by locals, camped on beautiful beaches, saw sunsets and sunrises aplenty and said hello to huge range of wildlife.
Malaysia had an amazingly respectful mix of cultures, each of which we managed to witness and be a part of. Chinese and Hindu areas in every town offered great food along the way and the Muslim community continue to be one of the friendliest we have met. It was particularly special to be there in Ramadan, the calls to prayers were longer and louder than ever before and the special nightly markets of festive treats were full of welcoming people ready to break their fast.
We even managed to sample the expat lifestyle in KL, staying with university friends and getting spoilt rotten by them for a few days. In our experience of Malaysia the culture mix seem very segregated, but very content. Within towns there seemed to be hardly any socialising between ethnicities but equally very little hostility or animosity.
Our route can be divided into three parts: west coast, central jungle and east coast.
We took a wiggly line through the west coast – dipping into the tourist hotspot of Penang, climbing up into the Cameron Highlands, popping over to the unexpectedly hilly island of Pangkor and into the metropolis of Kuala Lumpur.
There were a number of local cyclists on the road, with shiny bikes and fresh lycra kit, who were always friendly and this was one of the few countries where everyone seemed happy to talk to Verity without getting prior approval from Joe, or simply ignoring her. We were frequently joined for a few miles by locals out for a ride, often being guided to back roads and bought roadside treats we otherwise wouldn’t have come across.
We were lucky that our time in Penang coincided with a street food festival. Georgetown is world famous for its street food, and so we were able to sample an even wider range of snacks and foods! Highlight was a sweet dessert of shaved ice, kidney beans, peanuts, jelly noodles and condensed milk. Sounds odd but it works!
We had some time before wanting to reach KL, so decided to take a detour to Pangkor Island – which looked the perfect size to loop and be back on the mainland in a day. After somehow managing to lift our heavy bikes onto the small boat, we landed on the island. We obviously had forgotten to check the inclines of the single road. It was a real rollercoaster of searingly steep inclines and white knuckle winding descents. As we wiped stinging suncream out of our sweaty eyes, it seemed we would never make it back at the jetty in time! However we just about managed it, and also saw an enormous monitor lizard saunter across the road (we were obviously moving so slowly up the hill it wasn’t bothered my us!).
The climb up to the Cameron Highlands was a steady slog but the 40 degree heat made it harder and we had to stop whenever we spotted a roadside spring to fill up our bottles with the fresh mountain water. The top of the Highlands is a clash of pick your own fruit and flower farms and huge commercial expanses of polytunnels of perfect planted lines of vegetables. At the top, we asked in one of the farm shops whether we could camp on their land. We were ushered in and shown a spot inside one of the polytunnels amongst rows of strawberry plants and pomegranate bushes. We soon met the young Bangladeshi gardener-come-security guard who lived on the land. Once the shop shut and the owners left, this cheeky chappy gave us a nighttime tour of the farm and gave us handfuls of fruit to try! We even facetimed his family and friends in Bangladesh who were equally excited to see two foreigners camping in the greenhouse!
We took two days to descend down away from the day-tripper filled garden centres and through hills covered in beautiful working farms towards Kuala Lumpur. On the way we camped in a friendly police station and the officers took it in turns to come over and hear our story. Late in the evening, one of the officers’ wives excitedly came over with freshly made salty “fish sausages” (deliciously moreish!) which are a delicacy in the North West region of Malaysia where she came from. Another example of humbling hospitality.
The night before we arrived in Kuala Lumpur, we had one final climb to conquer and camped in the forest on the outskirts of the city and enjoyed a much needed wash in a waterfall before spending a lovely few days staying with friends, having more great food and enjoying the views from skyscraper-topping swimming pools. We made sure to pop into the colorful Batu Caves and get a selfie in front of the Petronas Towers on the way (even if we got kicked out of the park for having our bicycles!).
Crossing over to the east coast gave us a chance to see another side to Malaysia, and we loved cycling through jungle and following a wide brown river.
Although Malaysia had already won us over, the east coast was a real highlight. We wild camped on the beaches and saw some picture perfect sunrises. Every day we seemed to be riding through our very own safari – with monkeys dangling in the trees and hornbills flying overhead. One evening a tapir family happily trotted by the tent!
In just over a month, we stayed in paid accommodation only twice. Every other night we camped (mainly in mosques or schools, once a library!) or were hosted. One night whilst staying in a mosque – having been brought a floor fan to keep the tent cool in the heat and seen the gate locked – we were woken up at 1am by the noise of a truck and didn’t think much of it. Five minutes later, the truck was at the foot of the tent and twenty army recruits were jumping out of the back with big bags and big rifles. Joe reluctantly got out to find out what was going on and found the cadets very cheerful and just as confused as to why we were there as us them. It turned out to be the end of a week’s exercise and they had cheated – managing to catch a lift to cut off a day’s walk and needed somewhere to hide and sleep! All was well, they slept on their roll mats or army jackets next to us until the early morning when they waved us off.
Malaysia had some brilliant Warmshower hosts, seeing us stay in a traditional Malay wooden stilted house and an idyllic beach camp. As ever the hosts were generous opening up their homes and teaching us about local life and customs in their communities.
No blog on Malaysia would be complete without mentioning roti canai, a buttery flatbread served with various dahl dips. This became our firm breakfast favourite and/or afternoon snack. It would be embarrassing to admit how many we ate but safe to say we will definitely be attempting to recreate once we have a kitchen!
Our time in Malaysia came to an end with a wonderfully weird border crossing into Singapore. Everything we had read about cycling into Singapore sounded busy and scary, so we were happy to stumble across a rumour of a boat. When we arrived at the tiny port, the border staff were happily watching cartoons on their phones and seemed bemused that anyone had turned up at their desk. We were ushered to one side and told to wait… It transpired that local boatmen wait until they have a full boat, or when they feel like sailing across the small chanel. Eventually, when it was accepted that no one else was joining us, we wheeled our bikes onto a small tug boat and set off towards country number 21. Even though everyone we had asked had quoted us wildly different prices for the boat, luckily our final few Malaysian ringgit were accepted and we breezed through passport control queue free!
What followed was the easiest and most stunning entrance into a city that we have had all trip. Beautifully manicured cycle lanes right I to the heart of the city, along the beaches and weaving through the StarTrek-like Gardens by the Bay. We found Singapore amazingly green, clean and vibrant. Whilst perhaps this country isn’t as polished as it would like you to believe, we were surprised by how liveable it seemed and were incredibly impressed with everything it offered.
Even better, we had somehow managed to arrive in time for Magic Bus annual gala in Singapore. Once again, Magic Bus looked after us – finding us suitably glamorous outfits fitting the “Indian royalty” dress code and letting us talk about our trip. It was a brilliant evening, if a little surreal to find ourselves dressed up and looking smart after months of ponky lycra. We’ll talk about that a little more in our next blog post that will be all about the great work that Magic Bus does.