Acceptable in the 80s? Cycling (and hairdressing) in Malaysia

After the excitement of the first twenty four hours in Malaysia where we achieved a lot and slept very little, we had a few relaxing days at Pete and Ghill’s place just south of Kuala Lumpur, catching up on sleep, trying different food and getting used to the heat (and sleeping under air con all the time. I find it takes some adjusting). As our passports were with the Chinese embassy for a week (we’d managed to time our visa application with the Chinese New Year holiday, unlucky) we decided to ride to Malacca and back, a popular town south of KL so not on our onward route. As we were returning to KL we could leave everything we didn’t need behind so set off with only two small panniers each and felt like we were riding carbon road bikes.

It was 110km to Malacca and our first test of riding in the heat, and it nearly wiped us out. The sun wasn’t as strong as in New Zealand but the humidity is high and as soon as we carried our bikes out of the house we were dripping with sweat. I didn’t find the riding too bad, as long as you’re not riding uphill there’s the breeze you create for yourself, but as soon as we stopped at traffic lights it really hits you. It’s like standing in front of an open oven door. Standing still, I thought I could feel insects crawling on my stomach but it was just sweat rolling down. And my back. Nice. And at traffic lights there’s the heat of car engines and the exhausts of the hundred mopeds around you to add a few degrees to the temperature. We stopped several times for food or cold drinks. At the 95km point we were particularly weary, after not riding much for the last couple of weeks it was quite a struggle in the heat, so we had a well timed coconut shake stop and mustered up some energy from somewhere for the final push. 

The roads hadn’t been too busy all day, we even rode on a toll road for a bit for the first time ever but nobody batted an eyelid (a police motorbike went past and gave us a friendly toot), the road was smooth with a wide shoulder and low traffic, but the last 15km into Melacca at rush hour were pretty bad. The only bright spot was stopping at Tesco and buying a packet of custard creams for the first time since leaving England. We arrived in Malacca exhausted, soaked in sweat and starving. Luckily an Indian restaurant was two doors down from our hostel and we ordered tandoori chicken, paneer butter curry, nasi lemak (a rice dish), extra veg, extra rice and a couple of naan, and just about squeezed it all in. With drinks this feast came to just under £5. 

Malacca had enough going on to keep our interest for a couple of days, but we didn’t overdo it. A lot of time was spent reading the paper (there is an English version, we haven’t got that good at languages), eating anything we fancied and acquiring an addiction to Malaysian tea (it come with sugar and condensed milk and tastes amazing). The curry served on a banana leaf was a particular highlight. Malacca has experienced British, Dutch and Portuguese occupation and also has lots of Chinese and Indian settlers so there is a real mix of buildings and architecture. 

It’s also on a river, and by the sea, has street art and our favourite thing, decorated trishaws (like rickshaws, but it’s a bicycle with a kind of sidecar). There seemed to be a trishaw driver contest for a) the most cuddly toys and b) the loudest music, complimented at night by c) the most extravagant lighting. Seeing a grown man pedal a bicycle covered in Frozen toys and flowers and blasting out “let it go” is quite the spectacle. Chinese New Year celebrations were in full swing which meant great decorations and an evening of fireworks and dragon dancing. I also had my hair cut. I’ve explained this at the end of the blog post for those who are interested. It’s quite long but I couldn’t leave any detail out…

We didn’t fancy riding back the exact same way and any other route would be more than a day’s ride so we took a train for half of it. KL trains have ladies only carriages, though this rule seems to only be loosely followed. It depends on the presence of a strong willed woman to banish any men who try to enter the ladies carriage (which we have seen on a few occasions). Otherwise men wander on aimlessly, sometimes sitting right under the ladies only sign. It’s a nice idea that worked about 50% of the time from what we saw.

Back at Petes we had another day in the city picking up our passports – and they were handed back to us with Chinese visas inside. Despite not having any tickets booked into or out of the country the visas were granted. Next challenge, Russia. To celebrate we spent yet more time on a train and visited the Batu Caves north of KL, huge limestone caves with Hindu temples and crazy decor inside (and a huge gold statue outside). Climbing over 250 steps was even more sweat inducing than cycling in the heat, but it was worth it.

Passports in hand it was time to finally leave the comfort of friends and hit the road proper, with all of our panniers this time. Luckily it’s pretty flat around the peninsula (we had no intention of going into the hilly interior, riding uphill in this heat would be no fun at all) so the riding was not too taxing. We were heading north for Thailand, via a few west coast island stops. The scenery comprised mostly of palm tree plantations, for palm oil. I do love palm trees, I think there’s something quite exotic about them as a Northern European, they are always associated with holidays, and not just any old holiday to France or wherever but to somewhere considerably warmer and far away. But after a few days of riding alongside them, they lost their novelty a bit. Luckily we passed through towns regularly enough which are interesting. These are not tourist towns, but places where people live and go about their daily activities. The towns that visitors would normally bypass on a bus or a train. We spent our first two nights in the towns of Tanjong Malim and Teluk Intan, not mentioned in any guide books. We were pleased to find cheap hotels with air con in both and the leaning tower of Teluk Intan. 

You learn a lot about a place by riding through on a bike – there’s enough time to take notice of the little things. The moped repair shops, the washing machine repair shops and the sewing machine repair shops. The old men sitting drinking tea, the children playing, the moped riders carrying anything from several children to wheelbarrows to strimmers. The pregnant cats (I have never seen so many). The holes at the side of the road you could just fall down. The fruit stalls selling things we have never seen before. The numerous cafes offering different things at different times involving a lot of guess work and welcome shade. The many mosques, Hindu, Chinese and Buddhist temples. The lizards squashed in the road (and the odd live one crossing in front of us). It’s all new to us and we love it, it’s great fun.

The actual cycling here is pretty good. The scenery hasn’t been spectacular, but the drivers are fairly considerate (there are so many mopeds on the road there seems to be a certain level of tolerance for slow vehicles). Road surfaces are mostly good. On the whole,the road experience is an improvement on New Zealand. But everyone stares at us. Properly stares. This hasn’t really happened since Southern Italy over a year ago. Moped riders in particular slow down and stare, their eyes not leaving us as they ride past. This results in a particularly impressive skill of rotating their heads almost 180 degrees to be able to keep staring when they are in front of us, and somehow maintaining forward control of their vehicle. Most truck drivers that pass hoot their horn and wave at us. Cars with families in the back do the same and there are often several hands hanging out of the back window waving as they pass. Kids by the side of the road stare, we wave, they look even more confused. Who are these people with strange coloured skin, eyes and hair? It’s not surprising really. It would be like someone with green skin, pink eyes and red hair riding an unidentifiable object along Leicestershire roads. Or a driver and his Hello Kitty trishaw cycling in Bradgate Park. People would stare. So it’s ok. It’s strange to think that even in SE Asia, well set up for the tourist, we can ride through towns on our bikes where white people are a rare occurrence. We are getting used to being the only white faces in a restaurant, on a train, in a park. But it’s not a problem – on the whole people are interested, welcoming and want to speak to us (the level of English here is very good which makes life easy). Despite the sweat, it’s all fun so far.
The hairdressing incident

It was time for a hair cut. The New Zealand supercuts job wasn’t so super and I was getting hot and sweaty under the helmet. How bad could an Asian hairdresser be? I’d seen a sign for 20RM (less than £5) ladies cuts at a salon the night before so got Debs settled with the bikes and some tea in a cafe and I went in search of my new stylist. It turned out she had trained in London in the 80s, had good English so could understand my request for ‘short please’ and wanted to charge me 30RM. The sign from the night before had disappeared so I agreed and sat down. Straight away I was brought two satsumas and a bunch of hair magazines. “Find one” my stylist said. I had a flick through. This was super trendy styling, way too trendy for me, and looking around the salon at the rest of the clientele, way too trendy for Malacca. But my stylist came over with great expectations, so I pointed at a style that was relatively short at the back and longer on the top. I explained I didn’t want to be sweaty under a cycle helmet all day. “I know what you want. I know what is good for you. A fresh style” she said. And proceeded to shave the back of my head. Now I don’t care so much about my hair, and it’s under a helmet most of the time, so I wasn’t fazed by this. She spent ages on the back of my hair. “Your hair line is like a fountain” I was told. Followed by “you have a nice shaped head. You should have a style to show it off”. The shaving continued. She didn’t show me what was going on. The top of my hair was cut normally (well normal for me, others might say it’s a bit Backstreet Boys these days, but I’ll repeat, I don’t care), I even asked for it to be a bit shorter around the sides only to be told “I know what is good for you. Fresh style. Very fresh”, so I left it at that. Finally the shaving and chopping was complete, and I was shown the back with a mirror. I didn’t know what to say, she had given me what I can only describe as a wedge cut, that I think was popular in the early 90s (I’m not sure, I had a mullet at the time). Maybe it was just coming in when she did her training in London in the 80s. “Do you like? Very fresh eh?” I agreed. It’s great, thank you. I went back to find Debs who looked like she wasn’t sure whether to laugh or cry. My approach to hairdressers has always been ‘how bad can it be?!’ – as I said, I once had a mullet – but I think I now have the answer. Sorry,no pictures… you’ll have to use your imaginations …
Thanks to Pete and Ghill, and my stylist.


The Twin Coast Cycle Trail and some other roads North

Choices for riding out of Auckland: Heavy traffic, less hills; less traffic, extremely hilly. We went for option two, Dairy Flats Road (nothing flat about it) then Highway 16. The highlight was an excellent strawberry ice cream made with real strawberries and a brick sized ice cream block mixed together. This is not to say the road wasn’t pretty. Anywhere else it would probably have been a scenic drive. But this is New Zealand, scenery standards are high. 

Best Strawberry ice cream IN THE WORLD

After Wellsford we headed NE on some smaller roads. This should have been pleasant, especially when we got to the coast. Unfortunately it was mainly scary. Traffic passed us close and fast continually. NZ drivers do not give any consideration to waiting for a gap in the oncoming traffic to pass cyclists. Brill. The real low was a white truck that passed me very close in Waipu Cove. I was about to give some inappropriate had gestures, stopping myself just as I saw the logo note side – Police. What can you do when even the law enforcers don’t know how to safely pass a cyclist? Luckily, we met some extremely lovely kiwis over these few days, great warm showers hosts, and kind people that let us camp on their land. Their warmth and enthusiasm really helped us. We were also thinking happy thoughts about the two days we would ride traffic-free on the newly fully open Twin Coast cycle route, recently listed as one of the top five cycle rides IN THE WORLD by the NZ Herald.
Top: Biggest disappointment of the trip. L: Cicada skin. C: It’s a national pasttime to throw beer bottles out car windows. i got a puncture. R: Jo appearing on Waipu women’s hour. Bottom: Langs Beach

Meanwhile… In December we had treated ourselves to some new cycling shorts (Merry Christmas). Mine seemed to be causing some problems. After a particularly hilly ride between Whangarei and Russell (don’t take the unsealed road, I know it saves 16km, but it’s a beast) I developed a new type of saddlesore. I had full-on blisters on my sit bones. How this is possible after 14000+ miles on the same seat I do not know. Anyway, my backside benefitted from a day off in pretty Russell and some salt water bathing in the sea. On our day off we got a local walks leaflet from the museum and selected the coastal walk, along the beach at low tide. Just in case you are choosing a walk in the Bay of Islands area, please bear in mind that this is more accurately a scramble, sometimes a wade, and occasionally a climb over rocky outcrop. Seaside stroll it is not. It is incredibly beautiful though and we even got the 4th biggest cruise ship IN THE WORLD out of our eyesight.

From Russell we took a ferry to Waitangi and headed via Paihia (very busy) to Opua, the start of the Twin Coast (TC) bike ride, one of the top five routes IN THE WORLD. In Paihia we stopped at the tourist information to ask about the bike route. We asked “Are there any campsites on the route?” They said “No. Maybe there will be in a year, when more people use it.” I asked “How will people use it if there is nowhere to stay?.” Then I let the nice lady off the hook, asked her about fish and chips instead and decided we would just wing it later. 

Beautiful Bay of Islands, a scrable and a ferry ride

There was a hairy moment with a pick up truck and coke lorry on one of the 3 very steep difficult hills between us and the TC trail, so we were even more excited to reach Opua. The first obstacle was a man made structure designed to keep motorcycles off the bike route. Very valid installation. Poor design. Irrelevant of any panniers, our handlebars wouldn’t fit through. It required lifting the curly bar over the first bit of metal, keep bike lifted whilst you edge around the outside now lifting front end of approx 40kg bike in a reached-over position, then drag your bike through as your rear panniers barely fit between the metal uprights. A couple just finishing a short day ride told us there would be five or six more of these. Super.

The TC trail is mostly on an old train line and the first section was very flat, firstly through mangroves and then through some average countryside (for NZ). We got though the five or six bike gates and reached Kawakawa, home of some famous fancy toilets. We used them (rude not to), ate some fish and chips and refilled our bottles at a handy water fountain. 
Evidently the couple on the bikes had only been to Kawakawa and back. There were loads more gates on the next section and for the first 15km or so it was very dull, almost all on a just ok gravel surface alongside a gravel road. It was 6 or two 3s as my friend (a maths teacher) says… Either the ok gravel, have to keep stopping and lifting bikes (did I mention there was a new type of bike gate with bollards and cattle grids that required a two person lift?) OR the gravel road which had an appalling surface and threw up loads of cough inducing dust. At least it was good training for SE Asia. In the end we did a mixture of the two and got increasingly frustrated at our lack of progress. We wondered how this had got into a top 5 bike rides IN THE WORLD list which included ‘Mountain bike the world’s most dangerous road in Bolivia.’ I don’t want to name drop, but we have done this, and it is awesome. 

The obstacle course

Just when we were considering sacking the route off, there was a good bit. Back on a train line, away from the road. Where we had been trapped between hedges there were now sweeping views. The hills looked beautiful in the soft evening light and we loved cycling again. There was even a new infrastructure challenge – we had to post our bikes through gates. The only downside was that it was getting towards sunset, we had hardly any water, hadn’t seen a stream for ages and there were no campsites.

We struck off the route and onto the Kaikohe road. We picked a house with hanging baskets and pot plants (always a good bet). You would not believe whose house it was. It was Bruce and Shirley’s. You don’t know them? Well you might soon, because we had knocked on the door of people who wanted to set up a campsite for cyclists on the TC trail. What are the chances. They were great to chat to and I hope we were able to assist with the needs of cyclists. Good luck with the campsite guys.

The next morning, the TC wooed us with a good stretch where there was information signs, good scenery and a MTB skills area. Obviously there were still a lot of infrastructure obstacles but we tried not to get too angry at these. Okaihau won points by having a place you can stay in railway carriages (cool) but lost points when a cafe didn’t want to fill our water bottles (not cool, though they did eventually). This type of contradiction sort of sums up the TC trail. If you want a bike trail to bring tourists to the area, local businesses need to be prepared to supply their needs. This applies to getting to the start and end (if you are not like us crazies riding everywhere), getting drinking water, and the route itself being suitable. I mention the latter because the entire trail is graded at 1 or 2 by NZ cycle trails, that’s Easiest and Easy. From Okaihau there was a very steep descent. On loose gravel. With hairpins. Tight Hairpins. I ride my bike nearly everyday and I found it tricky. It would be tough for families or irregular cyclists. 

After this the trail undulated along a river. We had lunch and paddled. Then there was a boring bit alongside a road. (It’s in a top five with the North Sea Cycle route. The whole 6500km thing). The road was gravel. The bike route was slightly better gravel but kept going up little hills. Things improved when we hit the longest bicycle boardwalk IN THE WORLD. Actually, the brochure didn’t say that. It is the longest one in NZ though, and it was a brilliant finish to the trail riding through the mangroves on it. Hopefully the trail will provide a tourist boost to the towns along it, like the Otago Rail Trail. If people are as enthusiastic as Bruce and Shirley I’m sure it will be fantastic long term. In the meantime I suspect Vietnam’s coast road and the Tour de France mountain stages still edge it.

From Horeke we headed West to Opononi. Thumbs down to the horrible gravel road at the start. Thumbs up that it only lasted for about 10km before the seal started. The massive sand dunes were awesome and the fish and chips the best of the trip. We had got to town early enough to be smugly in our tent reading when heavy rain hit in the afternoon. It’s a good job we were well rested because the first half of the ride to Dargaville was hard, as in 800m of climbing in 30km really hot day hard. The big trees were very nice though, and so was the flat bit towards the end of the day. 

Jo and the biggest kauri IN THE WORLD

We made it back to Auckland in one piece, and rested up before our flight to Kuala Lumpur. We squeezed in two more fish and chip suppers, a trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi Island, plenty of Whitakker’s chocolate, a walk around an old volcano, the baking of a coffee cake and some time hanging out with our fave New Zealanders in Hillcrest. Oh, and about 2 litres of Hokey Pokey ice cream. Which is definitely the best IN THE WORLD.

Thanks to: Steve & Lynda; Roger & Laurie; Kathryn & Family; Christophe, Heidi & Carol; Lisette & Eoin, Bruce & Shirley, Fami-Lee.

Beautiful Tiri Tiri Open Sanctuary. Shows that a group of committed people really can change the world.