Apr 10 2012
Things change the minute you get into Malaysia. For one thing, most of the roadside food stalls disappear, as do the paved verges. In Thailand, almost every road we were on had at least half a metre of paved verge — a sensible road building policy in Southeast Asia, where many of the vehicles are two or three-wheeled (or just completely homemade, like a motorised fried chicken cart, or a side-car for a motorcycle built out of bamboo, both of which I have seen on this journey). Malaysia doesn’t have any verge. Often, it’s just you and the transport trucks barrelling south on an expressway, centimetres from each other. Not the most pleasant cycling, but you do eventually get used to it.
We crossed at Sadao, directly south of Hat Yai in Thailand and were allowed to use the motorcycle crossing lane. We had forgotten to fill out any of the necessary paperwork, but the immigration agent was so excited that we were on bicycles that he ignored the fact and printed us stay permits anyway — taking less than a minute to clear immigration — and the gentlemen at customs waved us by laughing at the fact that we were going to ride bicycles to Singapore. Foreigners, it was widely acknowledged, are kind of crazy.
We headed south towards Alor Star, our first port of call. It was our first day in Malaysia, and it was almost comical to see the reaction to my cycling companion Gaby, who was wearing a modest pair of cycling shorts, a black vest top and tennis shoes. Men almost broke their necks craning to catch a view of her uncovered gams, motorcycle drivers wobbled, helicopters fell from the sky, their pilots eyes bugging out like cartoon characters. Okay, so the last part didn’t happen, but that was the general feeling if the situation. Lesson learned: rural Malaysia is much more conservative than rural Thailand. No one told us that Gaby should be wearing more clothes, but she decided longer shorts were in order for the remaining ride.
There isn’t much to do in Alor Star; we did discover that Malaysia might not have verges, but they do have Magnum ice cream bars in different flavours than they do in Thailand. It’s a point of cultural difference, and since this trip has been partially fuelled by ice cream, a boon to our nutritional needs.
The next morning we rode south towards Butterworth, passing through rubber plantations alternating with palm oil plantations, arriving at the ferry terminal as the sun began to set over the Straits of Malacca. We paid our 1.75 ringgit and wheeled our bikes onto the ferry, watching Penang loom larger before us. It was Saturday night, and after a shower, it was time for beers and food.
Penang is a joy to visit — a UNESCO World Heritage site, its melange of Indian, Chinese and Malay elements packed into a city that drips with British colonial architecture is intoxicating. The food is fantastic (dim sum for breakfast, char kway teow [noodles fried with pork fat and cockles] for lunch, and dinner served smoking from a tandoor oven? YES. NOW PLEASE.) and Georgetown is a fun place to explore on foot or bicycle. Our evening ended, unexpectedly (or not really, since we did order a tower of cocktails at a Penang bar), with a ladyboy chanteuse, a handsy gynaecologist, and an angry Serbian bar owner. Enough said, but cycling through Southeast Asia unearths the best/weirdest people.
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