Biking Southeast Asia with Mr Pumpy!


Updated: Dec 02


Photos: under 25 kb

Capital: Kuala Lumpur
Population: 22 million
Language: Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese dialects, Tamil
Religion: Islam (official), Buddhism, Christianity
People: Malays (60%), Chinese (30%), Tamils (10%)

Roads: Excellent
Left/right: Left hand side
Traffic: Light to moderate
Bike shops: In the towns
Food & drinks: Every 15 km
Weather: Tropical

Peninsula Malaysia as the crow flies:
Greatest length: 700 km
Greatest width: 300 km

Thanks to Peter Thidholm for some updates and corrections!


Pumps Up!

Cutting along kilometre after kilometre of road with a light breeze playing in the palm trees, the surf pounding the beach and a blue sky stretching out as far as the mind can see.

Ride 4 Singapore & Malaysia:
Up the East Coast to the Thai Border!

The Ride: A straight forward 700 km ride, from Singapore, up the east coast of Malaysia to Kota Bharu and the Thai border. Safe, flat, good food and accommodation and plenty of beach. It should take about a week to 10 days.

The Road: The road is beautifully paved the whole way and excellent for riding.

Once out of Singapore (25 km of city) and through Johore Bahru (another 10 km) the road passes through palm and rubber plantations, beside forested hills and the further you go north, breaks into long ocean and palm tree vistas. You can count the pot holes on one hand.

The ride in detail: Once out of Singapore, you'll be heading for Kota Tinggi, and the road passes through villages and rubber plantations for a lot of the way. There's no serious hills but a few steady gradients, up and down, all the way through to Mersing.

Mersing is pretty much like the other regional centres up along the East Coast. It's pleasant enough, but somewhat nondescript. Apart from eating, there isn't a lot of night time action.

From Mersing all the way up to Cherating the road is pretty much dead flat and hugs the coast for most of the way. At times it twists and turns through forested areas, and there are some very pleasant stretches of road that will keep you amused.

Out in the small towns the people are at their unhurried and friendly best and will be curious when they see you ride in. Don't expect to be overwhelmed with affection though - Malaysian hospitality is very understated.

Cherating is the "Kuta Beach" (Bali) of Malaysia. There's a surviving hippy feel here, and if you're into guitar playing and smoking the odd reefer, then you might get lucky.

From Cherating all the way up to Kampong Merang there is a swathe of Guest Houses and you can ride along and pick the one you like.

Rantau Abang has the famous Malaysian turtles, and it's maybe worth a look. However, both times Mr Pumpy has been through there's been no turtles to see, so he's a bit down on all things Rantau Abang.

"Did you know, Felix, that Rantau Abang is an anagram of A RABAT AN GNU, so they might have rabbits and gnus, but where's the turtles? Explain that!" said a disgruntled Mr Pumpy.
"Well, I can't!" I said. And so we cycled off...

From Merang through to Kota Bharu it's a 163 kilometre hop along a flat road through a barren landscape, so there's not much joy to be had. (I was told that there is actually a Guest House about 50 kilometres out of Kota Bharu, but exactly where I don't know.)

Kota Bharu is a bustling town, with a great night market and a couple of beaches a few kilometres down the road. The town is also the capital of Kelantan State, which these days has a Muslim State Government and Sharia (Islamic) Law in place.

Kelantan, along with southern Thailand, is the centre of quite a bit of fundamentalist Muslim activity. Although you may come across one or two folk wanting to share their spiritual and political wisdom with you, most of the time you'll be sweet. If things do get boring, do exactly what you do at home: Don't take any shit, say "Good evening!", and walk away.

Remember also that the large Chinese and Indian populations aren't too happy about Sharia Law either, so there's some safety in numbers on this litttle problem..

From Kota Bharu it's a 40 kilometre run up to the Thai border, and if you go via Pengalan Kubor, it's a nice little run. The road twists and turns through coconut groves and wooded valleys, and the traffic is light.

The Thai Border: There are two ways to cross into Thailand from Kota Bharu.

The first, and most common, is through Sungai Kolok, a rather boring run.

The second, and rarely used, is through the Malaysian border town of Pengkalan Kubor about 40 km north of Kota Bharu. This is an extremely pleasant little run through a back corner of Malaysia that has wonderful Mosques and small roadside cafes.

Over the border and another 30 km up the coast will get you to Narathiwat, an interesting little untouristed Thai town, which should serve as your first overnight stop should you be continuing on into Thailand.

(See the Thailand: North to ChiangMai! ride for more details.)

Best time to go: The monsoon pattern is complex and somewhat unpredictable on the East Coast. June, July and August are probably the optimum months to go. There's heavy rains from about September through December, and depending on the year, the rains can come and go from January through to May.

Generally when it rains, it'll be a short and sharp downpour, and you may only have to sit it out for an hour or so.

However, the most annoying bit is that the clouds will often gather throughout the afternoon, and open up around 4 PM. This can really get in the way of the riding, as you'll be attempting to make it to base before dark at around 6:30 PM. It's a problem.

The Towns: There's actually not much to distinguish one town from the next. They're somewhat uniform the whole way, either standard regional towns or small clusters of beach style bungalows.

Rantau Abang has turtles, apparently.

Accommodation: A room in a cheap hotel on Bencoolen St or Beach Rd in Singapore will set you back about 10 dollars in a four bed dorm and 20 dollars for a single/double room, depending on the quality. There's no 'beachy' guest houses here, it's all city accommodation.

Once you cross into Malaysia, the trick with this ride is to time your runs so that you stay in the more 'beachy' style guest houses as much as possible, rather than get stuck in a dive by the bus station in one of the main towns. All of the coastal towns and kampongs (villages) on the map at left have reasonably good accommodations of the former type.

You can get a good room in a Malaysian Guest House for as low as 5,10 or 15 dollars, depending on where it is. There are hotels and guest houses at all major regional centres, and quite a few dotted along the east coast at isolated spots.

Note: Over the last few years, Malaysia's budget tourist industry seems to have taken a dive, and some of the Guest Houses are now closed. Check your Lonely Planet guide for details.

My guess is that most of the tourists have moved to Thailand, which is more tolerant of strange Western behaviour.

Traffic: In Singapore the traffic is solid but reasonably well behaved towards the crazy Western cyclist. A bike is perfect for Singapore, as it's totally flat and everything is within easy striking distance. Singapore is only about 40 km long at it's widest point.

In Malaysia the traffic thins out immediately you leave Johore Bahru, and is steady but constant the whole way north. It's a pretty well behaved society, and the traffic is no exception. I had no scary traffic moments.

Hills: None to speak of, but the road sweeps up and down between Jahore Bharu and Mersing. Not too bad, just enough to keep you honest.

The Bike: A racer would be perfect for the job.

The roads are so good in fact that you could happily keep going north all the way through Thailand on a racer. However, there are a few unsealed B roads in Thailand, so if you intend to do a bit of exploring off the A roads, a tourer would be best overall. I rode my trusty mountain bike as usual, but Malaysia is the one place I wished I was on a lighter framed/bigger wheeled bike.

Ferries: The only one you will encounter is if you cross into Thailand, 40 km north of Kota Bharu at the little town of Pengkalan Kubor.

Other Cyclists: Not many. I ran into a Canadian couple and one Japanese guy (see 'Toshiro's ex-bike' at side).

Peter Thidholm emails (DEC 02): If you thought it was lonely when you went, then don't try it now: I didn't meet a single Westerner between Mersing and Kota Bharu and I ran out of books about half way... (Thanks Peter and oh, dear!)

Up along the coast you will encounter a few locals on bikes.

Lonely Mr Pumpy! Poor Mr Pumpy spent his nights alone and a bit bored on this trip. There's not a lot to do after dark. Sometimes he wished he knew the Bahasa word for 'sin', as in: "Is there anybody sinning around here? Do you mind if I join in?" Poor frustrated Mr Pumpy!

Why the East Coast? Most of the population and bigger cities reside on the west coast of Peninsular Malaysia. It's historically very interesting but the traffic is quite dense and it presents a much more 'urban centre to urban centre' ride. The east coast is a hassle free 'straight through' ride along about 500 km of beach.

Food & drink: Singaporean and Malaysian food is a varied and tasty. Malay, Arabic, Chinese and South Indian foods abound in the market place. Fruit drinks, ice creams, soft drinks and bottled water are readily available. No need to take any supplies.

Mosquitos: There's a lot of mosquitos, so don't leave home without insect repellent. Mr Pumpy recommends 'Rid: Tropical Strength!' Roll on. Big tube.

General/Social: Singapore gets maligned sometimes by Western tourists as a boring, over controlled, spiritless city (have I left anything out?).

However, things have changed in Singapore over the years, and if you know where to go, it pretty much rocks, for a few days at least.

And there are a few big plusses: It's extremely safe, everything works, the locals don't hassle you, the food's good and you can happily spend a few days getting into shape for the tropics by zipping around on the bike from fruit drink stall to noodle shop.

Post, telephone and email communication is inexpensive and works a treat. Well worth a few days.

On the surface of it, Malaysia is a safe and orderly Asian society with its own unique mix of Malay, Chinese and Tamil cultures.

It pays to be aware that underneath the apparent Malaysian calm there are intense social, racial and religious tensions beating away, checked only by a repressive government and an explosive growth in the economy over the last fifteen or so years.

Malaysia is officially a Muslim country and like Singapore, often gets a serve from tourists as "repressed and boring". However, Malaysians, on the whole, practice a liberal form of Islam and it's a very Western friendly place. But Las Vegas it's not, so demure dress and behaviour standards apply.

Where Malaysia comes into it's unique best is in the small kampongs and towns. The pace of life is slow, and the locals are sensitive and non-intrusive. Because of this, it's perhaps not the best place to go by yourself as it can get pretty quiet at night. Mr Pumpy recommends taking along a couple of big books.

However, if you're new to Asia, then cycling Malaysia maybe a good option. It's extremely safe and very beautiful.


Toshiro's ex-bike!
Toshiro, a Japanese cyclist, and Mr Pumpy were having a slap-up meal in Kuala Terengganu (near Marang). Meanwhile, someone was helping themselves to Toshiro's unlocked bike.
Next morning Mr Pumpy cycled off and Toshiro caught the bus. Mr Pumpy called out: 'Lock up, Toshiro! Be vigilant!', but it didn't seem to help.
Poor Toshiro!

Happy Mr Pumpy!
The 40 km of winding tree lined road past Kota Bharu leading to the Thai Border is untouristed and unspoiled. It's a little bit closer to the 'kampong culture' of old and Mr Pumpy stopped and had tea with some old men in a cafe. It was one of those quiet times when not much needs to be said.

These days there's some fundamentalist Muslim activity around Kota Bahru, and although it won't present any problems for the cyclist, maybe take the inflatable kangaroo off the handlebars for a couple of days. US and British flags also, maybe.

The locals and security: The locals are easy to get along with, helpful and generally trustworthy. Take care at bus stations and markets though; it's often those young blades hanging around looking alert who are up to no good. Always lock your bike, and park and lock it somewhere safe at night, preferably inside your room.

Language: English is spoken by almost everyone you're gonna deal with in Singapore.

In Malaysia, the official language is Malaysian Bahasa, but English is widely spoken, and you shouldn't have too many problems making yourself understood.

However, it pays to get a little of the local lingo under your belt for when you get out into the boonies. It's an easy language to learn, actually a strange Creole, originating as a trading language between Malaysian, Chinese, Arabian and European traders some four hundred years ago. It's almost identical to Indonesian Bahasa, with only a few pronunciation differences to tell them apart.

Transport: The local transport is good, however, as things have modernised over the last few years, they've got a little more 'thingy' about what you can and can't do with your bike.

Buses: On the buses, which these days tend to be all modern air-con jobs, you may have to strip the wheels off before they'll let you pack it into the luggage compartment (not like the old days when they'd just throw it on top with the goats!).

Hitchhiking: If you need a lift whilst out on the road, the best bet is to just hitch. With a little luck, you'll score without too much trouble, as long as your bike can fit in the trunk of the car. I've done this a few times, and it's been stress free and efficient.

Aeroplanes: You can take your bike on Singapore Airlines and Malaysian Airlines (international and domestic flights) unpacked for no extra charge.

I've flown on both airlines often enough, both domestic and international, and have had no hassles at all. They're very bike friendly.

Be aware that if you enter Malaysia at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) it's a one and a half hour, 60 km trip into downtown KL. The cheapest way into the city is by train.

Trains: Be aware that there are special luggage trains, separate from passenger trains. If you take the Kuala Lumpur-Singapore train for example, your bike will come on a separate train the next day. Strange but true.