17th MARCH 2020
It’s March the 17th, which means my Rest Day in Alor Setar will coincide with St. Patrick’s Day celebrations in Ireland. Nonetheless, piss-ups and pints of green Guinness are the last thing on my mind. All I feel is an overwhelming sense of relief that I won’t be cycling. I’ve spent the last six days riding in humid, mid-thirties heat and now I just want to rest, unwind and recuperate. As it turns out though, my Rest Day will be far from relaxing.
One thing I do want to get sorted is my broken wheel spoke, so I trundle off slowly to the nearest bike shop. When I speak to the owner I’m told he can’t help as he doesn’t have the tools required to fix spokes. I’m pretty sure he’s lying – I think it’s more because I’m a foreigner and he’s worried about catching Coronavirus. He directs me to an alternative shop, who say they’re able to help and for me to come back in one hour. I kill time in a Chinese-owned cafe across the road, where a noodle dish with anchovies becomes my lunch. When I return to the bike shop I get chatting to an English speaking assistant who’s protecting himself behind a face-mask. He tells me that from tomorrow Kuala Lumpur will be ‘closing down’ in an attempt to combat the Coronavirus. What ? I’m also told that Malaysia is going to restrict travel between states, which means I won’t even be allowed to cycle from here to the capital. What the fuck ?
I’m a bit stunned by this information, but I’m still not fully convinced that it’s accurate. I go back to my hotel, get online and try to search for some confirmation. Bloody Hell, it IS true ! Malaysia is going into Lockdown. From tomorrow no foreigners can enter the country and all ‘non-essential’ businesses have to close. Amazingly, hotels and guest houses have been put into this ‘non-essential’ category, which means they’ll have to ask all their guests (including me) to check out tomorrow. Even if someone has just arrived in Malaysia for a two week holiday, they will still have to leave their hotel.
This changes everything for me. I knew that Singapore was inaccessible, but now Malaysia’s Lockdown means I can’t even cycle to Kuala Lumpur any more. Although I’m in denial, I know deep down that my trip is over. Consequently, my intended day of leisure turns into an afternoon on the internet, frantically trying to work out my next move. The conclusion to my scrambling research is that I should probably get out of the country as quickly as I can. If I don’t move rapidly there’s a danger that borders will close and I’ll be stranded in Malaysia with nowhere to stay. Therefore my simple plan is to get to an airport ASAP.
I discover that my nearest airport is 120km South on the island of Penang, but there’s no way I’m going to cycle that distance in one day. Let’s face it, the heat and humidity had me struggling to cover 75km yesterday. Instead, I’ll have to try getting the bike on a bus or train tomorrow. My main task tonight is to book a flight. Skyscanner are showing some cheap-ish flights to Glasgow via Kuala Lumpur and Dubai, but all through dodgy-looking third party travel agents. The airlines themselves have prices ranging from an expensive £800 to an eye-watering £2,000 for a one-way flight to Glasgow. Even though I need to get home, I can’t bring myself to spend that amount. I decide to sleep on it.
When I wake the next morning I have a flash of inspiration. Somewhere in the back of my mind I remember that accommodation site Agoda now offers flights as well. I manage to find a one-way ticket to Glasgow, leaving tomorrow night, for a slightly less painful price of £440. I’m also aware that Malaysian Airlines are allowing customers to change flights for free at the moment. So, now my plan is to get to the airport today and see if they’re able to transfer me onto tonight’s flight.
After checking out I ride along a series of eerily deserted streets towards the train station. Nearly every business I pass is closed, their shutters pulled down as if it were Sunday. Normally I’d appreciate a quiet city road, but these abandoned streets feel somewhat unsettling. When I reach the train station I’m given a simple ‘No, you can’t take your bike on the train’, without much empathy or the offer of an alternative. My only other option is to try the bus station. As I make my way there, I’ve almost resigned myself to abandoning the bike in order to get the bus on my own.
I needn’t have worried though. An aging ticket seller at the station finds me a bus to the charmingly named city of Butterworth, which is my jump off point for the ferry to Penang. When I ask the bus driver if he’ll take my bike he says ‘No problem. You put bike under the bus. Plenty room !’. My ticket costs the equivalent of £3, whereas it costs me £10 to put my bike in the luggage hold. I have a feeling that I’m being scammed on the bike price, but figure that a total of £13 really isn’t too bad. At least this way I get to keep my bike. The bus itself is almost luxurious, with ice-cold air-conditioning that chills my sweaty torso within minutes. Before we depart the driver walks up the aisle with a bottle of hand sanitiser, squirting it onto the hands of anyone who wants it. The bus is maybe half full.
Two hours later I’m in the port of Butterworth, a journey that would have taken me two days on the bike. At the city’s ferry terminal I’m pleasantly surprised to find that my boat ticket costs a modest 30p, which makes up for being overcharged by the bus driver. Along with a horde of scooters, I board what seems like a floating metal car park for the twenty minute crossing to Penang Island. Being out on the water feels good, with the vessel’s open sides allowing a fresh sea breeze to blow right through the car deck. Across the turquoise channel I can see the tightly packed buildings of George Town, the island’s normally bustling capital, sitting below a range of steep, rainforested hills. As we cross I take the opportunity to apply sunscreen, for what will undoubtedly be the final time on this trip.
Disembarking in George Town I see an old colonial clocktower, painted brilliantly white, and a relic from the bygone days of British Empire. I turn South and start heading down the coast towards Penang airport, a 17km jaunt that is ridden mostly on cycle paths. On the way I pass two giant road bridges that link Penang Island to the mainland – the first measuring 13km and the second a whopping 24km. In old Imperial measurement, that translates to a bridge that’s fifteen miles long ! Both would be amazing to cycle across, but unfortunately both are off limits to bikes and pedestrians. I continue riding South through built up areas that have now fallen spookily silent. It seems the only businesses to remain open are supermarkets and petrol stations. Even the Plastic Chair Cafes and food stalls have had to close, which leaves the roadsides looking quite sad and empty.
When I reach Malaysia’s third busiest airport I discover that (bizarrely) there’s no Malaysian Airlines ticket office or help desk. This means I’m unable to change my flight time and can’t travel until tomorrow. This also means I’m going to struggle with finding accommodation tonight as hotels and guest houses are now in Lockdown. Luckily, staff at the airport’s information desk seem to know somewhere that’s still accepting guests. They phone a place called the EST Hotel, about 2km from the airport, who tell me just to come on round. When I get there, the woman who greets me says they have no rooms available because of the Lockdown. I’m puzzled and pissed off by this. I tell her I phoned from the airport ten minutes ago and was informed that they did have a room. ‘Ah, you mean the other EST Hotel !’ she replies, before pointing to a hotel with the same name at the opposite end of the block. I push my bike to their sister hotel, where the owner bloke ushers me in the door quickly and without any fuss. It looks like my overnight stay will be strictly under the radar.
My room is small and bare, with more of a prison cell ambience than a hotel room. It’s not much bigger than a single bed and quite a depressing space in which to spend my last night in Malaysia. Still, with hotels under Lockdown, I should probably count my blessings that I found any sort of accommodation. I’d be spending the next twenty-four hours at the airport otherwise.
The following day I arrange a late check out as my flight isn’t until the evening. A big chunk of my morning is then spent sourcing bin bags and packing tape to package my bike for the journey. Not having a bike box should be excusable on this occasion as every bike shop in the country is now closed. By mid-afternoon I’m back at the airport, spending the first forty-five minutes outside while I wrap up my bike. I’m temperature checked before I can enter the building and make my way to a departures board that shows fourteen out of twenty-three flights have been cancelled. At check-in, Malaysian Airlines will only accept my bike as luggage after it has been professionally packaged by the guy who normally wraps suitcases in cling film. I’m happy enough to oblige as it’s the only way they’ll allow my bike on the plane.
The departure lounge is surreally quiet, with barely any passengers and only food outlets permitted to open. It’s around dusk when we take off for a one hour flight to Kuala Lumpur. As our plane gains height we fly over the enormous Penang Road Bridge, lit up like a long, glowing snake in the waters below. At Kuala Lumpur I then board a jam-packed Emirates flight bound for Dubai. The airport in Dubai is slightly busier but, even here, it’s only the food outlets that are allowed to open. A further seven hours later I touch down in Glasgow on a cloudy and unremarkable Friday morning. I simply scan my passport and stroll back into the UK. Our entire flight does the same, which is a bit of a worry as we’ve all just arrived, squished together like sardines, from Asia and the Middle East. No temperature checks, no questions, no advice or mention of Coronavirus. It’s like I’ve landed in a different world where no-one has to worry about the pandemic. Every shop in the airport is open and the only people wearing masks are a handful of passengers who have just landed. I clearly remember being surprised at how lax the UK attitude to Coronavirus was, especially when I’d just spent weeks in countries who were taking it far more seriously. This little episode should have been an insight into what was coming. Still, at this point I didn’t think the UK Coronavirus response would end up being such a shambles.
And then I realise that my cycle trip is over. The past forty-eight hours have been such a blur that I haven’t really had much chance to think about the demise of my journey. This is the first time that I’ve set out on a long cycle trip and failed to complete the challenge. Overall, I’m left feeling frustrated that I wasn’t able to reach my destination. I also feel cheated that I only had two days of cycling in Malaysia, when there was still so much more to see. Mostly though, I feel sadness about not getting to see my kids at the end of the trip. This virus has had far-reaching consequences I would never have imagined three months previously. Part of me thinks I might get back to Malaysia next year to complete the journey, but who knows what will happen with this bloody Coronavirus. Like everyone else on the planet, I really have no idea what the next few months might bring …