Touring Malaysia on bicycles may at first appear to be a foolhardy proposition: the trunk roads are death traps for slow-moving two-wheelers, being infested with drivers whose disregard for traffic rules are matched only by their apparent predilection for chaos. But yet the more orderly expressways are off-limits to bicycles. In addition, the equatorial heat can be oppressive at best, and dangerous at worst.
But a careful selection of routes can reap unexpected rewards. The small country roads are quiet and scenic and are also on a "human" scale: your bike becomes a knife slicing through a cross-section of rural society, allowing you to glimpse, and even become a part of, that society for the brief period of your passage. Conventional wisdom has it that the best time to visit Malaysia is between March and September, to avoid the torrential monsoon. But, it's really no fun to be cycling in the hot dry months either. The monsoon rains will cool you down, just equip yourselves with wind jackets and waterproof touring bags.
Applying this bit of contrarian logic, Pat, Sha and I embarked on a tour of some of the roads less travelled in Malaysia. It was December 1999, just after the General Elections, which meant that many rural roads would have been freshly repaved.
Our route took us 800 kilometres in 8 days. The philosophy of the trip was always to take the road less travelled, even if it meant a more undulating route or longer distance. From Kuala Lumpur, we crossed the Main Range twice in a large, inverted "C" and ended the journey in Penang.
On the first three days, we travelled a total of 365 kilometres to Kuala Lipis, stopping overnight in Kuala Klawang and Temerloh. We crossed the southern tip of the main range at the Genting Peres pass, which is a very scenic and lightly-trafficked road linking the interiors of Negeri Sembilan and Selangor. From Kuala Klawang, we headed north into Pahang on equally quiet roads (including a laterite estate road near Mengkarak) before stopping to spend the night in Temerloh. Temerloh styles itself as bandar ikan patin (river catfish town) - visitors should not miss the opportunity to sample gulai tempoyak ikan patin, a curry-like dish made from fermented durian paste. The Sri Malaysia hotel in Temerloh (09-296 5776) makes a surprisingly good rendition of the dish.
In the town of Kuala Lipis, the resplendent Kuala Lipis resthouse (09-312 2599), located at the top of a hill overlooking the town, provides comfortable accommodation at a reasonable rate. This colonial mansion was the former residence of the British Resident, and now houses a small museum on the ground floor. Kuala Lipis was once the capital of Pahang, and even before the arrival of the British was a gold-mining town of some significance. It retains much of the flavour of its rich past. We avoided the heavily-trafficked Gua Musang highway, but instead took the train from Kuala Lipis to Dabong. From there, we cycled 50 kilometres to Jeli, the town that is the gateway to the East-West highway.
Across the Main Range
The construction of the East West highway took nearly twenty years, as it crossed the heartland of the communist guerrillas then operating in the Hulu Perak jungles. Workers, soldiers and equipment were the constant target of ambushes by the communists: a plaque somewhere along the highway pays tribute to the soldiers and workers who lost their lives during its construction. In the end, the construction of the highway was a critical success factor in the war against the guerrillas, as it cut off their supply routes and afforded the army more frequent incursions into enemy-controlled territory. The last vestiges of the Malayan Communist Party surrendered in 1989. Today, the highway affords some of the most scenic roads in Malaysia, and is heartily recommended to serious cycle tourists. From Jeli, the highway climbs for a stiff 10 kilometres, and then passes undulating terrain for another 20 kilometres before making its descent into the state of Perak.
Banding Island Resort (05-7912273), is located on Banding Island in the middle of a man-made lake created when the Temenggor dam was built on the upper reaches of the Perak river in 1974.
Into Thailand and Kedah
From Banding, we made a brief foray into Thailand before continuing our journey across the state of Kedah. Our destination: Gunung Jerai, a 1200-metre mountain that occupies a mythic status in early Malay folklore. Traders from the 5th century plying the spice route have long used Gunung Jerai as a navigational reference. It was also a place of some religious significance to the ancient Hindus, as evidenced by the stone remains once found near the peak, and those of old temples dotting the surrounding slopes. Gunung Jerai, also known as Kedah Peak, is also said to be where Raja Bersiong (the fanged King) used to live. Raja Bersiong was a regular fellow until he acquired a taste for human blood through the carelessness of the royal cook, whereupon the started to feast upon his subjects. The Gunung Jerai Resthouse (04-729 7888) is located just shy of the true peak. The rooms were clean and comfortable.
>The 8th and final day of our tour started with a hair-raising descent of mountain in the rain towards our final destination, Georgetown, slightly more than 90 kilometres away. We headed south along the coast, making short detour to visit Chandi Batu Pahat.
Chandi Batu Pahat, the 1000-year old Hindu temple in Lembah Bujang, is one of the most significant archeological sites in Malaysia, though the displays in the museum could be informative. We continued towards Tanjung Dawai, where we took a boat across the Merbok river. We joined the busy Route 1 about 20 kilometres north of Butterworth, the only truly unpleasant stretch of road in the whole 800 kilometres of our journey. We took the ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown, spending a day there before taking the train back to Kuala Lumpur. The roads on the west coast of the Peninsula are best avoided, particularly the coastal route between Teluk Intan and Kuala Selangor, and the trunk road between Tanjong Malim and Tapah.
Read a full account of this journey here: http://www.matahati.8k.com/monsoon.html
Malaysia as a cycling destination
Ours was a journey that took us not just through 8 states in the peninsula and into Thailand, but also through time to villages and rural countryside seemingly stuck in a sedate past and to places of historical significance. All 3 of us immensely enjoyed the route, which was not bad for a journey that was planned in one afternoon with a map, a piece of string and a calculator! It is entirely possible to plan a good cycle-touring route if you stick to the rural countryside and avoid the major arterial roads linking the larger towns. Also, take advantage of the railway system to avoid the more unpleasant stretches. Good maps are available from most bookstores in Malaysia. The best ones are those printed by the government mapping and survey department that depict all the roads of each state in the peninsular on a separate map.
Because we anticipated some stiff climbs, we all took our mountain bikes and outfitted them with panniers. For versatility, we used knobbly tyres. Tyres with shallow knobs work best, as they do not "squirm" on high-speed corners and have less rolling resistance. You should also consider installing aero- or drop-bars, to allow variety in your hand position to help reduce fatigue. If you don't have waterproof panniers, line your bag with a bin-liner.
Read the full account of "Cycle Touring Malaysia" by Joe Adnan