Tag Archives: kota baru

Kota Bharu and the Perhentian Islands

62 kilometers cycled

(7 kilometers paddled)

Total Kilometers so far: 1,444

Day 20- June 24, 2015- Day off in Kota Bharu

The oldest mosque in Kota Bharu
The oldest mosque in Kota Bharu

Walking around the streets of Kota Bharu the next morning confirmed our presumption that Ramadan was a bigger deal than either of us had expected. We thought that finding a coffee shop and some breakfast in the provincial capital would be a simple task, but to our dismay we found all of the streets empty and the shops closed. We were lucky to find a Chinese man who made us some soup, but it just somehow wasn’t satisfying.

The Central Bazaar in Kota Bahru- note the many closed shops in the upstairs region
The Central Bazaar in Kota Bahru- note the many closed shops in the upstairs region

In the town center we found the semi-lively (half the stalls were closed) central bazaar that was a joyride for all of the senses – with the exception of taste. The aroma of sweet spices and seafood filled the market air as the women shuffled though the fruits and vegetables and the men chopped raw meat. Although we didn’t find any roasted goat or flattened bread as we had hoped, it was still a fun experience to see how the locals prepared for their evening feasts.

Looking down the wrong way of a one way street in Kota Bharu.
Looking down the wrong way of a one way street in Kota Bharu.

Later in the day we found a restaurant owned and run by a Syrian man who had moved to Malaysia to make pita sandwiches for hungry tourists like ourselves. He probably had a few other reasons for moving here.

Day 21- June 25, 2015- Kota Bharu to Kuala Besut to Perhentian Islands

62 kilometers

An incredibly confusing sign we saw daily in Malaysia. Still not totally sure what it's warning us about..
An incredibly confusing sign we saw daily in Malaysia. Still not totally sure what it’s warning us about..

Today was our day to test out the limits of the Malaysian back road network. We had read that this network was pretty limited and that we should be prepared to spend most of our time here on the highways. But we had a short day of cycling so we allowed ourselves to try smaller side roads and paths that looked promising that we had seen the night before on Google Maps. Many of them didn’t work out and we found ourselves always back tracking to the highway. One gave us a nice private bike path that took us through a thick forest for a few kilometers, another led us to a deserted white sandy beach where we took an hour snack break/swim, and the last attempt was a dead-end forcing us to walk our bikes across a weedy field to get to the road we wanted to be on.

We arrived in Kuala Besut around 4:00pm. We were planning on going to the Perhentian islands for a few days and figured that we would have to spend the night in town before we could find a boat to take us there. Instead we found a travel agency (Seven Seas) that had a boat leaving in 30 minutes so we found ourselves unpacking and repacking our bags on their floor and hastily jumping onto their boat still in our sweaty salty bike clothes. They were also accommodating with the bicycles and allowed us to store them in their shop until we came back from the islands.

July 26 and 27- Perhentian Island Side Trip:

Arriving at Coral Bay in the late afternoon
Arriving at Coral Bay in the late afternoon

We jumped on a boat from Kuala Besut only 30 minutes after arriving in the small town that is the launching point for all trips to the two small yet beautiful Perhentian Islands. We hadn’t made reservations at any hotel or guesthouse so when the boats driver asked us where we were going we kind of stared blankly at him. He probably understood that look and gave us a choice “big island or small island”. Small. And then we named one of the many beaches at random- Coral Bay- where Kiri had read there were many budget options.

We arrived in the early evening, took of our shoes, shouldered our panniers, and set off across the beach to find a place to sleep. We ended up finding Mayas where we got a good priced “chalet” (bare bones wood cabin) with a fan and a mosquito net so we were thrilled.

Sunset on the island!
Sunset on the island!

Now that we were settled in at a beautiful tropical beach, we tried to go swimming only to find that the sea floor around this beach was carpeted with dead coral and squishy sea cucumbers – hence it’s name “Coral Bay”. We walked lightly trying not to stub our toes or squish a cucumber, Mike got bit by a fish, and after walking away from the shore for a few minutes the water was still only up to our knees. We may not have picked the most swimmable beach of them all, but the sunset was still beautiful.

The mosquitoes here all seem to be dosed up on some special mosquito steroid because they were massive and everywhere. When you sleep you can either marinate in your sweaty closed room and mosquito net and only get bit a little bit or you can try to sleep in a hammock outside and get eaten alive. We chose the mosquito net.

Kiri loving getting paddled around!
Kiri loving getting paddled around!

The next day we woke up and ate breakfast- something we didn’t think we’d be enjoying during Ramadan. Turns out you can avoid Ramadan by going to any of the big tourist spots! We rented a kayak from our guesthouse and paddled to the northern tip of the island, stopping off at small relatively abandoned beaches along the way to swim or nap or just sit in the water and cool off.

The day after we did the classic Perhentian full day 6-stop snorkeling trip for only $10 each! We saw reef sharks and a single sea turtle and schools of fish and even real clown fish living in real anemones just like Nemo!

When we arrived we heard about a woman who had shown up at the guest house and had stayed for three months. A woman we met there had been there for two weeks already and had no intention of leaving. So this place obviously has the power to suck you into the crystal clear water with the rest of the scuba divers and snorklers. But we resisted, as we had two bikes waiting for us on the mainland!

Costs

  • DCIM100GOPRO
    DCIM100GOPRO

    Boat ride from Kuala Besut- 70rm each (round trip ticket)

  • Room- 55rm per night at Maya’s Guest House
  • Meals- ranged from 40rm-60rm for two people
  • Kayaking- 20rm for a full day rental from Mayas
  • Snorkling- 30rm each for a full day 6-stop trip

DCIM100GOPRO

DCIM100GOPRO
Fishy feeding frenzy

DCIM100GOPRO

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Deep Southern Thailand- Songkhla to the Tak Bai border (Thailand) into Kota Baru, Malaysia

(once again this map doesn’t show our exact route since google maps can’t be that precise. There were tons of unmarked back roads through this section and they were incredibly enjoyable!)

Distance– 287 kilometers

TOTAL distance of the trip 1,372 kilometers

# of flat tires still only 1 this entire trip (….annnnnd we just jinxed it)

The “deep south” of Thailand is quite a bit different from the areas that we have traveled thus far. For starters it is a more politically charged region. There are a couple of separatist groups that want various degrees of autonomy from the Thai government and law. Over the years this region has seen its share of conflict amongst the Thai authorities and the mostly Muslim population. There have been attacks across the region to create chaos and make it difficult for the Thai authorities to control the region, but these attacks haven’t been targeted at tourists. Still the presence of military tanks and regular police checkpoints gave this area a different vibe than anywhere else we had traveled through in Thailand. In fairness many of these checkpoints were unmanned painted blockades made of old logs.
All of the people that we met along the way were very friendly and very curious about our journey. They were excited to see foreigners traveling to this part of Thailand. Even those who spoke no English were able to express their amusement with our trip. We even got to take part in a couple of photo shoots with women working at our hotels who all  on us wearing our helmets and standing with our bikes  for the full effect.

They're all matching! Mikes photo shoot with the women working at our hotel in Yala.
They’re all matching! Mikes photo shoot with the women working at our hotel in Yala.

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Day 16- June 20, 2015- Songkhla to Sakom

Distance: 49.3 km

Since the real bridge was out we got to use this alternative route instead.
Since the real bridge was out we got to use this alternative route instead.

We woke up this morning to heavy rain storms, which was a great reason to extend our rest day for a few more hours. By the time the storms cleared up it was nearly noon, so we got some delicious sandwiches from a shop as we headed out of town. The ride was unremarkable and uneventful – flat and hot. The sandwiches were the most remarkable thing about this day actually! We knew that we were not going to be able to make it to our intended destination because of the late start, so we started to look for hotels on the side of the highway.
During this ride we started to notice that many of the road signs were now marked with another language in addition to Thai characters and the rough English translation we were now seeing Arabic on many signs.

The welcome sign at Leela Resort- seemed pretty self explanatory
The welcome sign at Leela Resort- seemed pretty self explanatory

We ended up staying at a Muslim resort that was not only welcoming and comfortable but also quite conservative, another reminder that we had entered a new region of Thailand. Our room was discounted because of the Ramadan holiday, which coincidentally started on the day that we started cycling in a Muslim region (more to come on this in Malaysia but suffice it to say that we will be spending ALL of Ramadan cycling in Muslim areas). We shared the empty beach with a lost herd of cows that afternoon as we enjoyed one of our first days on the beach.

Day 17- June 21, 2015- Sakom to Yala

Distance: 83.7 km

One of the first roadside tanks we saw outside of Yala
One of the first roadside tanks we saw outside of Yala

Today we made a game-time decision to change our route and head inland for a bit towards the land-locked province of Yala. Coming off of the large highways we were able to stay on back roads almost the entire day. These roads wound over and around farmlands and past the bases of some beautiful hills. The best part was we didn’t have to share them with any other vehicles for most of the day.
We chose one of the first decent looking hotels when we reachedYala. As we began to do some long-overdue maintenance on the bikes, we came across our first big technical challenge of the trip – one of the spokes on Mike’s rear tires had broken!

Finding the broken spoke in Yala
Finding the broken spoke in Yala

We knew that this was an issue that had to be fixed before going on any further. However that evening as we read the recent news in Yala and learned of explosions that had been going off last month in the town we were a little wary of venturing around the town to fix it.

But as we had said before, these smaller attacks weren’t new to the region, we knew what we were getting into, and across the board our experience in the region had been positive. In general world news tends to focus on the negative and scarier aspects of a region, and those stories end up overshadowing the many bright points of a place and the people who live there. That’s not to say one shouldn’t be wary of these reports, as we obviously were. It is to make a point that if you go into a place with a sound knowledge of the recent events, and the underlying tensions with the understanding that events like these are out of your control and shouldn’t control your actions (and don’t stay in the sketchy areas of the city) you could end up coming out with some really wonderful experiences.

Day 18- June 22, 2015- Yala to Narathiwat

Distance: 79.8

A view of downtown Yala from the hotel room
A view of downtown Yala from the hotel room

We identified some good cycle stores in Yala that would hopefully be able to fix Mike’s broken spoke so that we could get back on the road today. Mike rode Kiri’s bike around town with his wheel looking for cycle shops. He passed by people casually opening up their shops as pickup trucks carrying armed policemen whizzed by. Although most of the cycle shops weren’t open at 9 am, he was able to find one later in the morning – and the mechanic did a great job fixing the spoke! Turns out that absolutely no English is needed to get such a job done, cyclists all over the world are always willing to help out.

Our hotel for the night. When we checked in we were asked how many hours we wanted the room for.
Our hotel for the night. When we checked in we were asked how many hours we wanted the room for.

Once this was fixed we were eager and ready to get on the road so even though it was noon we loaded up the bikes, took some pictures with the excited hotel staff, and cranked out 80 km in the afternoon! The ride was scattered with some gentle hills but was absolutely beautiful, minus the military compound that was directly outside of Narathiwat. For our last night in Thailand we stayed in one of the Thai “24 hour” hotels that was on the outskirts of town – clean and cheap!

Day 19- June 23, 2015- Narathiwat to Kota Bharu

Distance 74.4

Our last breakfast in Thailand was yogurt, peanuts, and a pastry on the side of the road- in honor of Ramadan.
Our last breakfast in Thailand was yogurt, peanuts, and a pastry on the side of the road- in honor of Ramadan.

Our last day in Thailand was filled with mixed emotions. We were sad to leave a place that had been so hospitable, friendly, and even forgiving in the most difficult of situations (rainstorms, broken spokes, etc). Regardless, we were excited to experience a new country. The ride to the border brought us through a series of police checkpoints along a highway and was pretty unremarkable, as we were pretty used to seeing these by now. The border town of Tak Bai seemed pretty interesting and we stopped for our last Thai iced coffee 😦

The border at Tak Bai was not only extremely easy and straightforward, but was also lots of fun! But when you get to take a ferry to cross a border and don’t have to pay anything to enter a country, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be a great experience.

Exiting Thailand for the first part of what we agreed was the easiest border crossing we've done.
Exiting Thailand for the first part of what we agreed was the easiest border crossing we’ve done.
The ferry border crossing that connects Thailand and Malaysia
The ferry border crossing that connects Thailand and Malaysia
Enjoying the ferry ride
Enjoying the ferry ride
The big buddha statue about 10k in from the Thai-Malaysia border
The big buddha statue about 10k in from the Thai-Malaysia border

During our ride to Kota Baru we found ourselves passing more buddhist temples than we had seen in our last three days in Thailand, which we hadn’t really expected since, you know, Malaysia is known for being a pretty highly Muslim country.

Later that evening once we had arrived in the conservative Muslim city of Kota Baru we found ourselves at a night bazaar that, despite the different food, looked suspiciously like the night markets in Thailand. Starving from a long day of cycling where we hadn’t been able to find too much food we bought all the new treats we could find-  murtabak (a malaysian stuffed pancake), fried noodles, blended drinks, grilled fish, stuffed squid- all ours for the buying! But unlike in Thailand, people just seemed to be sitting down and staring at their food. So we settled in and joined them in the countdown to sundown when this Ramadan fast-breaking session could finally begin. No we certainly weren’t in Thailand anymore.

Some Malaysian treats at the Bazaar
Some Malaysian treats at the Bazaar
Counting down the minutes until we can break the fast
Counting down the minutes until we can break the fast

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