Running On Empty

16th MARCH 2020

The lack of windows in my hotel room means I wake up in total darkness, disoriented and with absolutely no idea what the time is. I feel horribly drained and sluggish too, a direct consequence of not rehydrating after check-in last night. Nevertheless, I’m hoping that today’s flat 75km to Alor Setar won’t prove too problematic, especially with the incentive of a Rest Day tomorrow. I fill my bottles from the hotel’s water cooler, then step outside to find a bakery / cafe on the same block. I’m not sure what to order, so just point at a chap who appears to be eating omelette, and give a Thumbs Up. Puzzlingly, after going through this process, I’m presented with a plate full of freshly cooked flatbread, cut into chunks and served with a trio of curry dipping sauces. Perhaps the owner thought that I simply wanted ‘breakfast’.

After wolfing down my food I head South, over a gently sloping landscspe and past the giant lake I saw from yesterday’s hilltop viewpoint. Within the first few kilometres there’s sweat rolling down my cheeks like I’m exercising in a sauna. I have a little flashback to when I met the Iranian cyclists, Saeed and Sharareh, at Ban Krut beach in Thailand. They had just cycled North from Kuala Lumpur and were able to give me some ominous advice as to what lay ahead – ‘Malaysia is hot. Really hot !’ Unfortunately, their information on scorching temperatures has turned out to be annoyingly accurate. It feels like the heat and humidity from Southern Thailand has intensified even more now I’ve crossed into Malaysia. I’ve been cycling less than an hour when I have to pause at a bus stop for a rest and some shade.

By mid-morning I’ve ridden 30km and made it to the large town of Kangar. I still feel reasonably okay at this point, although this odd sense of well-being is not destined to last. Just past town I stop for lunch at a Plastic Chair Cafe, intending to stuff myself with enough food and drink to raise my depleted energy levels. My food choices are displayed in a dozen metal trays on tables outside the family home. Most trays seem to involve bony fish curries of some sort, but I’m not sure I’m in the mood for that. I show the lady owner my ‘Not Spicy’ translation and she points to what looks like butternut squash in a red curry soup. She tastes a spoonful first, then nods her head to indicate that it’s mild enough for me. Steamed rice accompanies my meal and I help myself to a large glass from their vat of sickly-sweet sugar cane drink.

I sit down beside a table of headscarf-wearing women and get stuck into my curry. At first I enjoy the subtle flavour but, within a few mouthfuls, I’ve completely lost my appetite. I carry on robotically, trying to force the food down slowly because I know I’ll need energy for this afternoon. Despite my best efforts, I can only finish half my meal, which is a scenario that’s virtually unheard of for me. By rights I should be starving after missing out on food last night. I’m not sure why I don’t feel like eating, but I’m sure it doesn’t bode well.

When I go to pay I get chatting to a guy who works on the nearby tourist island of Langkawi. He pays for his food and then tells the owner to add my meal onto his bill. It’s a really nice touch and, once again, I’m left feeling humbled (and pleasantly surprised) by another example of Malaysian hospitality. If these roles were reversed, I can’t imagine someone in the UK buying a meal for a foreigner they’d only just met. My new friend tells me it should take about two and a half hours to reach Alor Setar by bike. Little does he know how slowly I go, or how rubbish I feel.

Weirdly, when I resume cycling I feel as bloated as if I’d just eaten a large banquet. This is such a contradictory sensation, given how meagre a portion I consumed at lunch. It’s not long before I begin to feel woozy, stop again and have to lie down on a bus stop bench for another breather. Most Malaysian bus stops are quite comfortable; made from concrete, with a wide bench to lie on and a solid roof for shade. There never seems to be any passengers waiting at these bus stops either, so I don’t feel so bad about using them to lie down and recover. This is just as well, as I’ll be stopping regularly today.

My afternoon kilometres seem to pass in blurry slow-motion, with each one feeling a few hundred metres longer than it should. One straight, exposed section sees me crawling along beside a narrow canal, into a tiring headwind and with no roadside trees or shade to protect me. The straight seems never-ending, with both road and canal stretching off interminably into the distance. It takes half an hour of snail’s pace plodding to reach the sanctuary of the next town, where I dismount and sit under a tall tree on the canal bank. I look up to see a road sign that tells me Alor Setar is still 28km away. Normally this wouldn’t be a problem, but at the moment I feel groggy every time I stand up.

Clambering to my feet like a ninety year old, I carry on. God, I feel rough. I’m getting hand cramps now too. Every time I apply sunscreen or check my phone, a couple of fingers clamp together and have to be physically prized apart. It’s more uncomfortable than sore, but still a definite sign of dehydration or heat stress. It’s thirty-six degrees out here ! The kilometres drag on until a petrol station brings the relief I’ve been longing for – a 500ml Gatorade and a similar volume of water are downed in seconds. This perks me up briefly, although it’s not long before I’m back into slow plodding mode. I continue inching forward in small increments, stopping to rest in bus stops and then struggling to get going again. After a hazy hour of cycling I notice a milestone on the opposite side of the road saying it’s now only 8km to Alor Setar. The milestone sits under a huge shady tree, so I cross over to shelter from the sun for a few minutes. I’m unable to find a comfy sitting position, and consequently just lie down on the dirt by the roadside. To passers by I must look like a tramp, but I couldn’t care less. I’m ruined.

The fact that I’ve only got 8km to cycle is probably the only reason I get back up. I wobble off dizzily, stop at one final bus stop and fuel myself with more juice from a corner shop. I’ve drunk like a camel today, yet it feels like no amount of liquid will quench my thirst. As I near the city, traffic lights on red mean I have to stop repeatedly while waiting in direct, blazing sunlight. I’m so light-headed by this point that standing upright takes enormous concentration. I feel like I could topple over at any second.

Thankfully, the city itself has enough tall buildings to provide shade and makes my final kilometres a little easier. I reach my accommodation in the most sweaty, exhausted condition and am greeted by three receptionists, all of whom are wearing face masks. They remain professional, but do look slightly unnerved by my bedraggled appearance. The accommodation turns out to be part hotel, part leisure centre, it’s drawcard being a large outdoor swimming pool on the ground floor. Of course, my room is up on the second floor. I trudge heavily up the stairs with my pannier bags, moving like one of those ancient tortoises you see on documentaries about the Galapogos Islands. My feet are so heavy that I manage to bang them into the face of nearly every step on the way up. In my weakened state I can’t even contemplate carrying my pannier bags to the end of the long corridor at the top. I just place them on a cleaning trolley and push them to my room instead.

Once in my room I’m straight into the shower, sitting on the floor with early-morning stares while soothing water cascades over my head. I’m absolutely wrecked. I work out that I’ve drunk TEN litres of water and juice over the course of today and haven’t once needed to go to the toilet. When I do eventually pee, it comes out as nothing more than a dark yellow trickle. How the Hell can I have drunk so much and still be dehydrated ? I’m hoping that it is only dehydration. Any little health issue these days and you immediately start worrying about Coronavirus.

I’ve perked up somewhat by the time evening arrives and take a walk to Subway. I know I’m in Asia and could have my choice of exotic foods, but right now I just fancy a plain old Subway sandwich. The most exotic thing I’ll be consuming tonight is the purple Fanta that accompanies my foot long seafood sub. I can tell I’m starting to feel better as my normally voracious appetite has returned, although I still remain unbelievably thirsty. I book myself an extra day in Alor Setar to give me a chance to relax and recover tomorrow. In all honesty I know I should have rested today. At least now I’m certain I was suffering from dehydration and not coming down with Covid-19.

However, this bloody virus is starting to have an affect on my cycling route and possibly my final destination. It looks like Singapore will be closing their borders or quarantining any new arrivals for 14 days. This requires a change of plan. I’m not so desperate to get into Singapore that I’ll wait two weeks for the privilege. I’m also not rich enough to stump up for long term accommodation in such an expensive city. I’ve accepted now that I’ll probably have to end my trip somewhere in Malaysia. Realistically, my new target has to be Kuala Lumpur, as flying back to the UK should still be easy enough from the Malaysian capital. I will have to keep a close eye on border closures and travel restrictions though. I might end up stranded here otherwise !





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