Still not convinced we wanted to continue cycling in Malaysia we decided to take a day in Kuantan to figure out what our next move would be. And to visit the mini-zoo and beach.
The Kuantan mini-zoo is an awesome place! They’ve got a couple of great exhibits featuring porcupines and geese and ostriches and an island for gibbons. It’s cute, quiet, and free! Right next to the zoo is some sort of bicycle playground. ‘ series of tiny roads with tiny fake traffic lights and traffic circles that you can zoom around in on your bike. Then we made it over to the beach where they’ve got a couple of restaurants set up and a walkway that takes you around some cliffs over to another beach. It was beautiful and the perfect rest day.
To our surprise there were a couple of restaurants that were open in Kuantan. We were able to get breakfast and pick up some sandwiches to take with us to the beach. This was also where we started seeing more Chinese people who seem to be responsible for keeping the non-Muslim population fed during Ramadan.
We decided that we didn’t want to give up on Malaysia yet, especially after this unexpected gem of a day. We figured that we had hit a bad patch of days through industry and destruction, so Instead of sticking to the east coast all the way through Malaysia we would turn inland in hopes of better fortune. We had been wanting to see the famous rainforest national park Teman Negara, so we decided to cycle there and then head south to the south-western coast of Malaysia. It sounded more promising than the potential the find more of the same painful industry and trucks along the coast.
Day 30- July 4, 2015- Kuantan to Maran
This was our first day cycling inland, which was a much-needed break from the same coastline. Today was back to highway cycling, but the scenery was a bit different – mostly rolling hills either covered with lovely forests or endless miles of palm oil plantations. At first glance these plantations are beautiful they’re this luscious shade of green that carpets the hills. But once you spend days cycling past them and realize its just monoculture that is taking over the landscape it loses all of that appeal.
Mike got two flat tires today – both on the rear wheel. Combined with a stomach ache, this didn’t seem like the most promising of days. We still didn’t have any good tire patches, just weak useless ones that leaked. Plus we were heading towards a town that we had heard had NO hotels. So it should have made sense for us to stop when we passed a town that had a hotel right next to a tire shop that was 15 kilometers away from our destination, but we pushed on to Maran.
After biking in circles around the town that is actually pretty big, we had confirmed that there was no hotel. As the day turned into evening and the Ramadan bazaars began to bustle, we were not only homeless, but also concerned that anyone running a hotel would soon be joining the crowds to find food. Some shopkeepers had told us that there were chalets to rent, but we just couldn’t seem to figure out where they were talking about. We eventually found a string of chalets next to the Maran Hill Golf Resort, but there was no one around to help us- not too surprising.
Our last hope was to hike up a pretty steep hill towards the unkept and deserted golf course to try to see if anyone was in the one building at the top – obviously not our first choice at the end of the day. But it was our only choice, and although inconveniently located we had to check since this was our last resort before we hung up Mike’s hammock and squeezed into it for the night.
Turns out the reception for those chalets everyone was talking about was conveniently located at the top of that hill, and we found ourselves sleeping in the only accommodation available in Maran.
Day 31- July 5, 2015- Maran to Jerantut
The day started out beautifully. After climbing through some rolling hills the previous day, we got rewarded with a morning of coasting downhill through luscious shady jungle forests and ended up at a beautiful Hindu temple we got off at to explore.
The afternoon wasn’t quite as pleasant as the highway continues through, you guessed it, more palm plantations. It was an uncovered hot afternoon of highway cycling, but we ended up yet again in a beautiful town.
After collecting some food from the evening bazaar, we found a great park where we enjoyed our Ramadan fast-breaking dinner with the rest of the town. It seemed like we were finally doing something right and figured out how to cycle during Ramadan without being miserable. However, Jerantut was our jumping off point to a big tourist draw in Malaysia, Teman Negara, where Ramadan would no longer be an issue.
Day 24- June 28, 2015- Kuala Besut to Sutra Resort
We took the early boat back from the Perhentians and within an hour we were on our bikes riding south. For the first two hours the road was bordered by palm plantations spaced between dead looking, baran land. There was no breeze and it was silent, ugly, and HOT, so we took a much needed rest at a gas station to take advantage of their air conditioning and pick up some snacks. Since it was still Ramadan, and would be for the rest of the time we were cycling in Malaysia, we weren’t going to be able to find lunch at any of the yummy looking but closed cafes on the side of the road.
After another couple hours of cycling, we did find one restaurant right on the beach that had an “open” sign hanging in front of it. False advertising. We were planning on only staying for half an hour to eat our snacks and rest, but a quick moving monsoon ended up trapping us there for three hours as it blew through, changed directions and blew back for a second go-around, then finally stopped. The storm was so strong that it not only effectively ended our chances of going another 40 kilometers in the remaining two hours of sunlight but also broke the false “open sign”.
We started to realize another difficult thing about Ramadan was going to be finding accommodation. Many towns we rolled through appeared completely closed, maybe for the entire month, which limited our hotel selection. As the sun was setting, we were becoming more desperate to find a place to sleep and ended up seeing signs for some beach side resorts. The first one was stuffy, damp, and infested with mosquitoes and equipped with no mosquito nets. The second one seemed a bit fancier, but it appeared closed since the receptionist had probably gone out to break his fast. After briefly considering squatting in the room he had carelessly left unlocked we moved on to find a legitimate room at a neighboring fancy resort. It was so far outside our price range I don’t even want to go into it. So we chose to focus on the beach side pool and the bottomless buffet. This was truly our last option, and our last resort.
Day 25- July 28, 2015- Sutra Resort to Dungun
We started our day by stuffing our pockets and bike shorts with leftover bacon and jelly and butter packets from the breakfast buffet where we ate alone. All the Muslim guests had gotten up at 4:15am to eat their fill before the sun rose, so we pretty much had the restaurant to ourselves.
We spent our morning riding around town looking for a place that could help us patch our tires that had punctures. Up to this point we had only had two flats which were easy to fix in Thailand. Any guy who has a tire shop was willing to fix it. But in this town, and seemingly the rest of Malaysia, the mechanics complained they didn’t have the correct patch for a bicycle tire. After a couple hours we had found a bike store and bought a really cheap (and ineffective) patch kit.
By midday we had made it to Kuala Terranganu- a large town that is probably happening when it’s not Ramadan. There is a large Muslim “edutainment” park there we had read about and seen as we crossed the long bridge into the town. It features a giant crystal mosque and a park with miniature models of famous mosques from around the world. We figured that if anything were going to be open during Ramadan, this was surly it. Wrong. We got climpse of the model mosques through a locked gate and wandered around outside the crystal mosque before giving up and heading back to town which also seemed abandoned.
We were still 80 kilometers away from our destination, it was already 2:00pm, and the sun was starting to come out. But after spending a morning getting disappointed by closed mosques and restaurants we had no desire to stay in this town that Ramadan had also closed, so we put on some more sunscreen and set off down the road. Even though we made great time down the highway for the rest of the day, the lack of food, slight dehydration, and the fact that Kiri was coming down with a cold, made these 80 kilometers completely exhausting.
As the sun was setting, the roads completely emptied out as everyone in the town was probably getting ready to eat. We were hungry and tired too and the thought of missing any food that night was a daunting one, so we picked up whatever was available as we rolled into the quiet, empty town of Dungun. By the time that we arrived at the hotel we had booked the night before, we found that it was temporarily closed because people were out eating – which is what we should have been doing too. For the second night in a row we were forced to stay at a hotel that was overpriced but was the only one open. We ate the cold rice and chicken we had picked up on the side of the road and collapsed on the bed. Ramadan had won that day.
Day 26- June 30, 2015- Dungun to Kerteh
At this point we had learned a couple of lessons from Ramadan. First you need to have substantial snacks on you at all times because you should not expect breakfast or lunch anywhere. Cup of noodles and yogurt cups from 7/11 worked also. Second- you have to show up at your hotel by 6:00pm otherwise everyone working there will have left to start gathering their fast-breaking meal.
We were still exhausted this morning and Kiri’s cold had kicked into full gear with the stuffed up head ache sore throat symptoms. Still we wanted to go somewhere else that day.
This is the point where we stopped struggling because of Ramadan and started struggling because our route was bringing us down the most miserable stretch of road that exists in north-eastern Malaysia:
We spent thirty minutes cycling past a massive power plant right next to the ocean- one of the biggest power plants in Malaysia. Before and after this power plant we were also surrounded by other industry- factories, large lorries rumbling past, etc. It was ugly, destructive, and potentially unsafe.
Hungry and tired we rolled up to a McDonalds around 3:30pm- way earlier than any other restauraunt would be open- and to our delighted surprise it was open! There we feasted on the best big macs and french fries we’ve ever had. They tasted exactly like they do in the U.S….suspicious…? However small, this felt like a much needed victory over Ramadan.
Day 27- July 1, 2015- Kerteh to Chukai
We woke up this morning to the sound of rain pattering down on our patio. It rained all morning, so we decided to scrap our plan of a 100+ km ride to Kuantan and instead stayed holed up in our hotel room/apartment unit. Kiri still wasn’t feeling great, even after Mike made us some home-made noodle and egg soup in the electric kettle in our room.
The ride today was just more of the same. Same highway. Same ugly industry. We started to see a ton of mining here as well- mountaintops that had been stripped and trucks rumbling back and forth to carry those goods to port.
So you can blame the sickness for our slow moving efforts, or the lack of food, or the ugly, uninspiring scenery. Either way we were definitely taking our time through the ugliest stretch we had biked so far.
Day 28- July 2,2015- Chukai to Kuantan
From the start of today we had trucks and lorrys rumbling past us as we hugged the narrow shoulder on this road. As the day went on these just got worse, we couldn’t even find a decent place to pull over to make a peanut butter and jelly.
Eventually we hit a large dusty junction where there were just trucks as far as the eye could see. This was the end of the line, we had arrived at some hellish nightmare of a junction where trucks and lorries will spend the rest of their days trucking large mounds of dirt and minerals – and we had to bike through it all. We went the direction that looked less miserable which still took us riding along a million trucks up a hill that was getting mined away.
The thing about the trucks is they’re huge, especially next to our bicycles. When they fly by us the after-breeze shakes the bikes and they dump a mound of dust all over you. They’re loud- you can hear them coming from a mile away but they still feel the need to honk really loud as they can as they blow past you. They’re ugly- they carry rocks or trees or minerals and are a hideous reminder of the man-made destruction that comes along with industry and development.
The one part about cycling this stretch that made us feel better was pretty simple. Just before we hit the highway from hell truck junction we saw a family of four biking the opposite direction. Although they gave us no warning signs or indication of what we were heading towards, their stern faces and dusty bikes should have given it away – we just thought that Ramadan had gotten the best of them. To us, this is all that it took. It was enough to let us know that we wern’t the only ones who thought that cycling this stretch of Malaysia would be a good idea.
This day was the climax of all the pretty miserable days of cycling down this highway, it was literally the highway from hell. We had spent three days biking through a countryside that had been manipulated, overused, abused, and destroyed. We were cycling through an area that used to be lush jungles and gorgeous coastline but the massive industry that had found it’s way into Malaysia in the last ten to twenty years had destroyed it. While this industry has certainly been a contributing factor to the rapidly growing economy in Malaysia, we did not expect that we would be biking right through it all. None of the blogs or stories that we read before this stretch made it sound as miserable as it truly was, so the unexpectedness of what we were to bike though made it even more unpleasant. Still, as we rolled into Kuantan we were genuinely questioning if we wanted to continue cycling through this devastating landscape in Malaysia or if we wanted to throw our bikes on a bus and get to Singapore as quickly as possible.
Still even up to this point we had not had a single day where there wasn’t at least on redeeming or enjoyable event from that day. Whether that was getting to nap at an abandoned seaside restaurant or eating a real meal at McDonalds or a great view from a national park we had stupidly walked into, there hadn’t been one day that was irredeemable. And today was no exception. Kuantan has a massive night bazaar at the base of a beautiful mosque that comes to life in the evening during Ramadan. Inside are people selling wonderful homemade Malaysian delicacies like grilled lamb and chicken and rice and thin pancakes stuffed with chicken and vegetables. All of this comes with some of the most amazing sauces you’ve ever had – curry, peanut, spicy, you name it. As we were very hungry from the long day of cycling, we bought enough food to feed a family and found a spot on the adjoining lawn next to the lit-up mosque where we sat with the rest of the families at this massive fast-breaking picnic and watched our food until the clock struck 7:30pm.
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.
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.
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
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:
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.
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.
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!
Boat ride from Kuala Besut- 70rm each (round trip ticket)
(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.
Day 16- June 20, 2015- Songkhla to Sakom
Distance: 49.3 km
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.
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
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!
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
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.
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
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.
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.