Wednesday, 10 December 2014

The Malay Peninsula (Part 1)

The Malay Peninsula

Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, 1300miles, 16 days. 


On the 20th November, Harriet and I spent a long morning pedalling our way through the dense, urban extravaganza of Singapore and onwards towards the Malaysian border. 

I knew Singapore was unlikely to compare to any of its neighbouring countries in so many ways, but from the moment I received that Malaysian stamp of approval on my passport page, the change was almost immediate. This was more than just a stamp of legal recognition, this was a stamp marking my entry to the craziest party in town. In student terms, I had left the swanky, sophisticated bars of Singapore and just entered the downtown disco tech of Malaysia, ‘Cotton eyed Joe’ blaring out the speakers. A party filled with light, vibrant colour, a buffet of exquisite flavours, smiling locals, laughing children, palm trees in every corner, waiters whizzing round on mopeds and sporadic downpours of confetti. This was the Asia I had anticipated. No, it was better. 

My first afternoon cycling the roads of Malaysia, I could barely take the smile of my face. I couldn't help but drink up this new found pace of living. I was immediately engulfed in life. The regimented, corporate ways of Singapore were a far cry from the lively, carefree way of life here. A state of living which is so rarely captured in the western world these days. Upon Harriet and I warily making our way up somewhat of a busy highway away from the border, we hastily asked someone if this was ‘allowed’, whether it was legal to ride a bicycle on such a busy main road? To which the nonchalant gentleman amusingly replied “you’re in Malaysia now, of course you can!”. Words that rang in my ears throughout my stay in the country.


Malaysian route
Over the following week, we cycled our way up the west coast of country, passing through the old town of Malacca, stopping by Penang Island before heading over to the tropical island of Langkawi for a well deserved day off.  

We made our best efforts to map a route which allowed us to gain good ground whilst avoiding too many of the busy, tedious highways. We also made sure to incorporate the typical ‘tourist spots’ into our adventure too- yes, our daily dose of maps, hats and practical footwear was never far away! 

But, without doubt our favourite days were those spent exploring the sleepy back lanes far away from the main roads. Narrow roads, brightly coloured houses, little fishing bays, quiet ‘shack-like’ cafes, all against this constant sound track of supportive ‘hellos’ from kids, workman, parents and fisherman…..And when that quaint little road suddenly comes to an alarming halt on the banks of a river? And that ‘bridge’ you were referring to earlier didn’t actually make it past the ‘planning’ phase after all? Well fortunately a small fishing boat shows its bow before boarding your bikes and you onto its stern transporting us the short ride across the river to rejoin the road on the other side. Nothing beats life on a bike on days like these!

Having said this, not all of Malaysia offered such tranquil scenes. Sadly, vast areas of the natural vegetation have been stripped away to serve the palm oil industry offering us nothing more than dull, monotonous landscapes. Furthermore, upon entering the towns of Malaysia, so many dealt us charmless, characterless settlements- the majority felt thick with industry and a heavy smog to match. 

The cost of living
Having spent 18months living in Australia, I could barely wait to venture into a more reasonably priced environment and Malaysia didn't disappoint. This allowed us the comfort of staying in ‘hotels’ for our nights kip (although we soon realised theres a fine line between identifying a budget hotel and a brothel…) and we rarely spent over £1.50 on a meal. If we did, we’d almost simultaneously give one another this look of ‘well tonights a one off special, if we continue to spend so frivolously, we’ll be 50p down by next wednesday’

The food
Food is something that neither Malaysia or Thailand lack. Cycling for over a few km’s without passing a street stall was somewhat of a rarity. But I cant complain because the food has been truly wonderful…if not a little spicy for my uncultured taste buds. In fact, yes, often too spicy for my pathetic “only a spot of french mustard on the sunday roast” taste buds. 
Im not sure if its getting lost in translation, but my request for ‘not too many chilli’s’ seems to get received as ‘hot, hot, hot please. I’d like the culinary equivalent of the Spice Girls meets Red Hot Cilli Peppers mash-up gig in my mouth. Ideally I’d like that all sinus clearing, lips swelling, eyes watering experience, if thats not too much trouble?!’ 

A ‘cultural difference’
As a foreigner making their way through a new part of the world, you inevitably lack all the local knowledge, customs and skills to fully ‘fit in’ (however many pairs of ‘hippy’, ‘i’m at one with the earth’, ‘where soil sits, I survive’ trousers we might fashion) and in particular, us Brits especially have this real knack for being particularly awkward and useless when attempting to adopt foreign behaviours- its in our DNA. But over time I have come to realise that the ‘cultural difference’ can so often work in our favour. We can and should embrace the cultural difference where possible. 

For example, Harriet and I are unsurprisingly sporting some silly looking cycle tan lines. On the one hand, you could put this down to a limited wardrobe, lack of suncream and ever thinning Ozone layer or you could convincingly wear those stripes with pride and insist they’re simply the beautiful tribal markings from the native Shropshire clan, better known as ‘The Farmer Stripe’. No Thai would think otherwise. I have no doubt we’ll be in Thailand’s equivalent of ‘National Geographic’ in no time at all. 

If its broken, why fix it?
So not everything is working like clock work on this trip- over time, naturally things wear, things tear and things need replacing. Or do they? 

Im not sure how or why this trait has developed in so many of the human race, but we do have this tendency to adapt instead of making rational, sensible changes when necessary. Changes to improve situations.

Here’s an example; The remote control for your telly has been playing up, its becoming incredibly temperamental, slow, and inconsistent with its functionality. Its pretty clear what the problem is; the batteries need replacing. But no, instead of making a simple change, taking just a few minutes out of your day to re-boot this useful device, you’ll instead spend the following 6 months painfully squeezing the buttons so hard in the direction of the tv, trying from each and every angle with unhealthy levels of wrist rotation until the damn think beats one more heart beat out of its lifeless soul. 

Well, similarly, I think its probably time I invested in a new pair of cleats. ‘Cleats’ are a very handy device which allow you to clip your shoes onto the pedal making the whole task of pedalling all the more efficient. At present, mine are efficient, too efficient, so efficient that once I'm in, I'm never coming out- at this rate i’ll be home by Christmas. Whether they have become a little worn down, rusty, or weathered over time, I can't be sure, but the result is that upon stopping I have now found myself, on more that one occasion, in that panic situation, rapidly eyeing up a suitable ground surface to graciously unite myself with Malaysia’s hard stuff. Once horizontal, its just a case of easing myself out of the shoes still attached to the peddles, standing up in my socks, brushing the gravel off myself and hoping that the puzzled onlookers put it down to a ‘cultural difference’ (You can just see their thinking- “Ah, so thats how they disembark bicycles in England- how very extraordinary. Really quite remarkable”). Indeed, though I appear to have mastered the art of falling with style on a bike- this is definitely not an ‘adapt and continue’ situation- I value both my bicycle and my right arm.

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