15th MARCH 2020
My planned route for cycling Bangkok to Singapore was always going to be somewhat flexible, even though the general direction is South. The real options lie in choosing whether to travel down the West or East coast of Thailand and Malaysia. In Thailand I was able to start at the Gulf of Thailand on the East coast before deciding to cross over to the Andaman Sea on the West. With Malaysia I have similar options – I could cycle down either the West or East coast, or I could even choose to ride through the mountainous interior. As yet I’m undecided. The only certainty is that I need to cross the Thai / Malaysia border as far away from the East coast as possible. Since 2004 there has been a jihadi-type insurgency in Thailand’s four South-Eastern provinces, resulting in over 6,500 deaths. All travel advice encourages tourists to avoid these provinces and especially their overland border crossings. Consequently, I’m not going to take any chances – the checkpoint I’ll be using today is the most Westerly crossing point between the two countries.
The remnants of last night’s bakery goods provide a little snack before leaving Khuan Pho, but within a few kilometres I’m hungry again. I stop at a Plastic Chair Cafe that forms one corner of the owner’s house, with chairs and tables spread out cosily on the driveway in the front garden. With my ropey language skills I order a plate of fried rice. This is one of the easier meals to request in Thai as ‘Khaew Phad’ can be ordered by simply asking for ‘Cow Pat’. The owner lady sits down next to me and starts to show me all the Western names and faces in her Facebook friends list. We both end up just pointing at things on our phones because neither of us can understand what the other is saying. It’s frustrating that communication is such a problem as I think we’d both fancy a bit of a chat.
When I resume I have about 30km left until the border. At the town of Chalung I buy my last bottled water in Thailand, turn North for a few kilometres and then double back through a forested valley that will take me South to the border. The road slopes gently uphill as the valley narrows, and the jungle-covered hills on either side seem to be crowding in around me. As I gradually lumber upwards I hear a single, clear ‘Ping’ from the rear of my bike. I swear out loud, realising that my slow, weighty pedal turns have caused yet another spoke to break. Bollocks. I’ll have to get that fixed in Malaysia.
Nearing the border a ten year old local kid is jogging towards me on the roadside. He spots me approaching and reacts like he’s just seen a zombie, dramatically pulling his t-shirt up over his nose and mouth so that he won’t catch Coronavirus from this strange Westerner. He looks genuinely nervous. It’s sad how this virus has made some people so mis-trusting and afraid of foreigners.
The final kilometre to the border is a hot, steady uphill past a throng of messy market stalls. A number of tour buses sit parked between the two carriageways, having released their passengers on cross-border shopping sprees. It’s a wonderfully chaotic scene, with people milling all over the road and families eating lunch in any shady spot they can find. This colourful, bustling, disorganised scene seems quite a fitting way to ride my last kilometre in the country. Thank-You Thailand ! You been an absolute pleasure once again !
After me fretting so much about border closures, the checkpoint itself is a real anti-climax. My passport is nonchalantly stamped out of Thailand, before a two hundred metre walk takes me to the near-deserted Malaysian border post. The official stamps me in without a fuss and I now have permission to stay here for three months. How long I’m actually going to get, though, is anyone’s guess. Compared to Thailand, the Malaysian side of the border is completely dead. The market stalls and hordes of people have been replaced by virtual silence and a desolate forest road. The contrast is remarkable. Within a few kilometres I cycle through my first Malaysian Police checkpoint, where four officers are standing under a temporary archway that sprays a fine mist to keep them cool. I look at their device enviously as I ride past, with a constant trickle of sweat running down my forehead.
I already know from Google maps that a steep hill is imminent, the twisting contours and tight hairpins being a dead giveaway. When I reach the first slope it’s a long, gentle uphill through farmland, before the road steepens sharply and begins to zig-zag up a sharp, jungly hill. By the third corner I’m off my bike and pushing. Tackling this steep ridge in thirty-five degree heat and humidity is proving to be a problem. I’m dripping sweat like a squeezed sponge and it feels like my lungs are only working at half their capacity. Because I’m gasping so badly for oxygen, I take to simply pushing the bike uphill from one patch of shade to the next, then spending the next five minutes recovering at my roadside rest spot. My God, this is a struggle ! On a couple of occasions I even wait for clouds to cover the sun so that I dont have to continue pushing in direct sunlight. I feel so weak and drained that I twice resort to sitting on my arse at the roadside just so I can get my breath back. I’m not even sure why this feels so difficult, as I felt fine at the border half an hour ago.
Sluggishly, by moving up the hill in tiny sections, I eventually make it to flatter ground near the summit. I’m able to get back on the bike, slowly freewheeling until I find a track that branches off to a viewpoint car park. I pass a roofed platform beside the track, pull over and just lie on the wooden floor for the next ten minutes. I’m fucked. When I get back to my feet I resume pushing and trudge my bike slowly up to the viewpoint. I’m glad I made the effort though. I can see for miles, over wetlands, forestry and a series of small, rounded hills. There’s a huge lake off to my right and a brief, localised rainshower falls in the distance to my left. I think I’ve also worked out which town is Pedang Besar, my destination for today.
While I’m taking pictures, a young couple in a car start chatting to me. They’re both in their twenties and surprise me with their near flawless English. The guy offers to take my picture and then gives me a leg of chicken from his KFC takeaway. This is my first impression of Malaysian hospitality, and it’s overwhelmingly positive thanks to this chap. As we’re talking, I’m amazed to see another cycle tourer trundling up to the viewpoint. It turns out he’s a twenty-something Swiss guy called Marcus who left home in 2015 with the intention of cycling round the world. He cycled through North and South America first, before heading to New Zealand and then onto Australia for a two year working holiday. Now he’s riding through South-East Asia and will find his way back to Switzerland at some point in the future. The bloke in the car thinks we must know each other already because we’re both cyclists, but our meeting is pure coincidence. Marcus is heading into Thailand today, so I’m happy to tell him he’s got an easy downhill all the way to the border.
The guy in the car is a top bloke, giving both myself and Marcus a small drink carton before we all head off in our separate directions. On the way down I’m treated to a lovely, twisting descent that goes some way to making up for the awful climb on the other side. Unfortunately, my speed means that I’m unable to swerve when a stony pothole looms large on the road ahead. All I can do is hold on tight and crunch through the middle of it. My spokes will end up wrecked at this rate. The road flattens out and I turn left towards my accommodation, whilst also cycling straight into the path of a heavy tropical downpour. I take shelter under the roof of a Plastic Chair Cafe that looks like it must be closed on Sundays. For five minutes the rain pelts down violently, with the cafe’s tin roof exaggerating the noisy battering. Then, just as suddenly as it started, the deluge ends and the sun reappears.
I reach my hotel to find that I’ve not prepaid online like I thought I had. Nor does the hotel accept payment by card. And, of course, I haven’t got my hands on any Malaysian currency yet either. Bloody Hell, this isn’t going particularly well. The bloke at reception tries to help by walking me round to an ATM at the college next door, but it’s a machine that’s not compatible with my UK bank. What this means is a 14km round trip to the next town to find a cash machine that will let me withdraw some Malaysian Ringgit. It’s not a huge distance, but I really don’t need the extra kilometres after today’s heat, hills and humidity. At least I can leave my panniers at the hotel while I plod off into a hot headwind. An hour or so later I’m back at the hotel, relieved that I have a wad of Malaysian money in my pocket and can now pay for tonight’s accommodation.
My bike is stored in an unused function room downstairs, while I head upstairs to a small, standard room with no windows. I’m so weary that I just peel my clothes off, have a shower and then barely move a muscle for the rest of the evening. I don’t even make the effort to pop out for food and drink, which is a pretty foolish decision when I’m so dehydrated. Because I feel so drained, it barely registers that I’ve beaten the border closure that would have stopped me getting into Malaysia. My plan now is to ride 75km to Alor Setar tomorrow, where I’ll stop for a much needed Rest Day and try to work out how to tackle the rest of the country.