Bent over my bike’s handlebars, I pedal along a narrow countryside lane connecting clusters of small Malay villages. Tall, swaying coconut trees flank my path.
“Shall we make a stop?” My riding partner Dinesh Thangaveloo asks. A tall, sinewy Malaysian with a thick moustache, the 33-year-old Penangite moved to Kuala Lumpur for work eight years ago and, despite living in Malaysia’s most congested metropolis, fell in love with the great outdoors and long-distance cycle touring.
An adventurous plan
I glance at my watch. It’s only 10.30am – the tropical sun is still bearable and, more importantly, we still have a long way to go: four days in the saddle and 320km, to be exact. “Keep moving,” I call to him. We left Kuala Lumpur yesterday and are headed to Penang, 400km from the capital to the north.
Are we crazy to make this journey on two wheels? Maybe.
Or maybe not. I’m taking the long route back to my home base in Penang, to both honour the promise I made to Dinesh – to accompany him on a long-distance cycling trip – and to test if doing this in Malaysia is as impossible as many of my local friends claim when they scoff at our adventurous plan. While I am moderately fit, I have no formal training and don’t cycle all that regularly.
“I do see people doing inter-city cycling, but they are mostly foreigners and, I assume, tourists,” Nadhrah A Kadir, a Malay lecturer at Penang’s Universiti Sains Malaysia told us recently. Nadhrah fell in love with cycling as a foreign student at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in the US, convinced by her course mates that biking to campus was the best way to overcome the city’s limited public transportation system. Once back in Penang and appalled by its traffic, Nadhrah became a cycling and healthy lifestyle advocate, and is currently the spokeswoman for Bike on Friday. This Penang-based cycling community, which started in July 2015 as a governmental effort to make the island greener and cleaner, organises weekly Friday morning rides with the hope of raising awareness about the island’s comprehensive network of cycle lanes.
We discover what feels like a hidden, forgotten Malaysia
“But I’m not sure I’d consider long-distance cycling a trend among locals just yet,” Nadhrah continued. “I guess the main challenge is safety, as most roads in Malaysia are only designed to cater to motor vehicles.”
I also spoke to Sin Tai Lim, a Malaysian-Chinese cyclist who works with Kuala Lumpur-based tour company Mike Bikes and loves to bring his folding bike to nearby towns like the Unesco-listed Melaka. He has a different opinion on inter-city cycling in Malaysia. “The country might not have proper cycle paths like South Korea or Taiwan,” he admitted. “But the web of smaller village and trunk roads are a joy to ride.”
Sin also believes that, given the increasing number of bicycles of all kinds being imported from as far as Japan and the UK and sold on the Malaysian market in recent years, long-distance cycling is certainly on the rise. “For instance, I was asked by some clients to consider doing a tour from Kuala Lumpur to Melaka and Singapore, returning by coach, but we haven’t started offering it as of yet.”
Taking tips from Sin, we left Kuala Lumpur yesterday, a Saturday morning, at 7am. It was a bit of a nightmare as it’s not possible to bring regular-sized bikes on the local trains that travel from the city’s centre to the outskirts. We had to cycle across town in heavy traffic before following the two-lane expressway towards Kuala Selangor, our first stop. Some 25km later, we reached Sungai Buloh and the high-rises thinned out, replaced by flat, verdant fields. After a series of low hills, we took a long lunch break to stay out of the blistering midday sun. We reached Kuala Selangor by 4pm and spent the rest of our first day exploring the town, famous for the scenic Malawati Hill. At night, we slept extra soundly.
The slow back route
This morning, we’ve been on the road since 7am, enjoying the serene village back lanes that extend all the way along the Straits of Malacca to the town of Sabak. We discover what feels like a hidden, forgotten Malaysia: wooden houses on stilts stand cheek-by-jowl with colourful Chinese temples set along a coastal stretch of empty sand and sea. By pedalling, we have chosen to take a slow backroute that most travellers completely bypass as they speed between cities on the North-South Expressway. In contrast, we make frequent stops at the many coffee shops and simple streetside eateries that make the task of long-distance cycling that much more pleasant.
“Inter-city cycling doesn’t need to be challenging,” Joseph SK Tan said when I contacted him several weeks before to ask whether he thought a long-distance cycling trip in Malaysia was feasible. The sixtysomething blogger started cycling only seven years ago but in less than a decade, has travelled on two wheels in over 20 countries. Tan, who writes about his trips under the moniker Ah Pek Biker (“old man” in Hokkien), never rushes his own long-distance adventures, only covering between 50 to 80km per day. “Riding at a slower pace is best to enjoy each place and savour every moment,” he declared.
Dinesh and I couldn’t agree more. By mid-morning on our third day, we are crisscrossing through Perak state between Teluk Intan and Batu Gajah, completely sold on this more sedate mode of transport. Fresh headwinds caress us, carrying the smell of grass and trees with them. We pedal across a landscape dotted with lakes, coconut trees and paddy fields where water buffaloes graze. Mesmerised by the rural beauty, we wonder why more travellers don’t consider cycling as a means to explore Malaysia.
“Many local cycling groups organise rides to other cities and states, which is proving to be increasingly popular,” Elena Shim has told me. A keen cyclist, Shim has explored the backroads of her native Kuala Lumpur and immediate surroundings, which led to the creation of tour service Bike with Elena, offering guided cycling and walking tours of the city’s less-known nooks and crannies. “Bike tourism has big potential in Malaysia, but we still need better infrastructure, such as proper cycle paths, more bike repair shops and bike-friendly cafés and accommodation.”
A forgotten history
Indeed, on our fourth morning, we set off at dawn on the quiet inner road to Taiping along interstate 73, a beautiful road that nevertheless has nothing to support cyclists in terms of dedicated lanes or convenient places to stop. The road skirts a bend of the Perak River for about 2km after Parit village, and then turns west, cutting through plantations to the small town of Beruas. Approaching it at mid-morning, we roll past the fenced enclosure of Beruas’ old village. It’s a vestige of the Malayan Emergency, a guerrilla war fought between 1948 and 1960, when the British controlled many of the Chinese villages in the interior of Perak, fencing them off to cut support to the communist rebels hiding in the surrounding jungles. Today’s Beruas town developed from that old protected enclosure.
This intriguing part of history, however, seems forgotten by most visitors, who often skip over the region, heading straight for Penang’s George Town. But even Penang has a 200km-long network of cycling lanes, and its residents think of it as Malaysia’s “first cycling state”. Bike on Fridays is just one of many local cycling groups to take advantage of this perk.
“The local cycling groups are our main supporters,” said a representative of the City Council of Penang Island, which curated the cycling lanes. “But in June this year, the Bridge2Bridge Ride will kickstart a series of initiatives to promote Penang’s current commitment to boost cycling state-wide.”
On the fifth day, as we climb one last highway bridge to board the Penang Ferry in Butterworth, we are filled with a sense of accomplishment. Yet, there are no medals or recognition waiting for us – only bored commuters.
It’s a pity to be concluding our trip just when my body is starting to adjust to the long hours in the saddle. Ending it here, on a ferry to Penang, feels a bit too ironic. I wish we had another 10 days or so to keep cycling. Clearly, I’m not alone in my longing. Glancing over with a wry smile, Dinesh asks, “When are we doing this again?”
This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Silkwinds magazine