The ‘ safety film ‘ on the ferry had nothing in it that I could recognise from our surroundings. We had caught the ferry from Kuala Perlis and were heading to Langkawi. Sun faded life jackets were tied in bundles in the rack over our heads. The safety film was followed by the ‘ in flight movie ‘. Rambo, whose first 40 minutes played to a tightly packed family holiday crowd. A few dozen of the hundred islands of the Langkawi group went by. On none of them would it have been possible to squeeze even one more tree or fern.
We had decided to have Christmas off, on the holiday island of Langkawi. It sits in the Straits of Malacca off Malaysia’s N.W. coast, where its main draw is stunning scenery and perhaps more importantly, tax-free shopping.
It had only been a few days since we had thrown a tanned leg over the top tube of a touring bike, and pedaled under grey skies to the Penang ferry to the mainland. Turning left off the ferry we were straight onto an almost deserted four lane highway to continue our travels North.
Within 5km, on the other side of the road is a mountain bike. Within a few moments we are shaking hands with the guy that is riding it. Chew See Lim had cycled from here to the velodrome in Manchester, for the start of this years Olympics. Whenever we mentioned what we are doing, there had always been the standard reply, ‘ like the guys that biked to the Olympics? ‘. If we had tried to meet him we would not have managed.
The main road North starts to get a bit too busy for our nerves. We take the P1 left towards the coast. Straight away things are calmer. There are rice fields and Egrets as we head towards Penaga and the usual ‘ Hello ‘ and ‘ Good Morning ‘, from the people at the roadside.
It is these joyous greetings and smiles that lift your spirits when you have just gone past the tenth rank pile of trash in a few hundred metres. Every Malaysian sees it as being their duty to make sure you are happy for the time that you are in their town or on their stretch of road. If someone in government could clean up those streets, it would be even better.
We end a short day in the town of Sungai Petani at a budget hotel. The mosque is right next door, but even over a bad PA the call to prayer is performed by a man with a gift. His performance is sublime, and I score 9 out of 10.
Good food, a good nights sleep and the morning is a relatively cool 27’c. We are going a bit out of our way, to look at an archeological site at Lembah Bujang. It is up an unexpectedly short and yet very steep hill. It may still be cool compared to what it has been, but it is still almost 10’C hotter than we have our flat back home. I am as slippy as a bar of soap by the top. Sweat runs down my legs and pools in my socks as I straddle the bike and try to regain focus.
It is only 9.30, we have had some culture and are now on second breakfast at a Chinese stall back down in the village. We go to pay, but the bill is picked up already, ‘ Welcome to Malaysia’.
We continue around the peninsula, on the K1 and along to Yan. This stretch between the hills and the sea is a choice spot, perhaps the most beautiful stretches of road for some time. To our right, the last of the morning mist is being held by the jungle covered hills. In front the land is now flat and palms have given way to Paddy fields and bright farm bungalows.
It is 2.30pm and the sky has never become completely clear. Without full sun, the temperature has still managed to climb to 36’C. Big threatening brutes of anvil headed clouds are building to our right. We have less than 20km to go, much of which may have to be done in a downpour.
We get to the town in the dry, but by less than a 10 minute margin. Most border towns are difficult, edgy places and we know to expect that. This town is a ferry terminal, and shares much of that feeling. Kuala Kedah is busy, very busy indeed. It is beyond busy, it is hectic with a very big slice of just plain old grim.
The vague idea had been to catch the ferry to Langkawi, but we are too late to get there at anything like a reasonable time. In amongst all of the chaos of cars, mopeds, market stalls and hundreds of people all trying to get away for the holiday weekend. It is now starting to rain. It is blindingly obvious to the least street smart hotel owner that we are in desperate need of the one room he says is left in the stinking town. We are Royally Ripped Off.
The room has the smell of humanity, and a decade or more without recourse to any cleaning products or even the most casual of wipe downs. The decor is garish and not improved by two grease smeared strip lights. At first the ammonia smell grips the back of your throat, but some happy accident of evolution makes this fade after the first half an hour. The mosque is quite near and scores just 6 out of 10 for its call to prayer performance.
We try to settle down. Our heads are now next to a very thin wall that separates this shabby building from an even shabbier one. Hundreds of Starlings have taken over the abandoned shell and are going to spend most of the night making sure that we have trouble sleeping. It sounds as if the universes one thousand least serviceable wheel barrows have been gathered together. Just the other side of this paper-thin wall an unknown number of cursed individuals are compelled to walk in circles, pushing as many of them as possible at once. It is impossible not to focus on the noise.
It is a bright morning, and we are up early and sharing the road with the commuting mopeds. You have a choice of thirty or more breakfast stalls. We try to judge which will produce the perfect Roti with banana that we have come to enjoy. Todays is a good size and well filled with banana. The stall is busy, full of cats and people keen to talk.
We turn left, onto the 7 towards Kangar. We have been on quiet roads so far, but now for no logical reason, everyone wants to be on the 7. It has a section zoned for mopeds, which only encourages them to do even more insane under cutting moves. I think the weight of a touring bike would right off a moped in a one on one crash, but I do not want to find out.
We take a right and head for quiet roads and the coast. We have turned too early. But we are in luck and our navigational blunder takes us to a world of thirty years ago. We ride through fishing villages where we may be the first touring cyclist to have ever been. ” Good morning”, “Where are you from”, ” Merry Christmas “, it is all wonderful. ” You should have turned left! “. Kuala Sanglang, and we stop for a tea and to take in the view.
These are people living hard lives. None of them looks at the view. The women fall around laughing as they try out their school English for the first time as they serve us. Fish are out to dry in the sun and the narrow streets are playing field, kitchen, theater, living room and garage all at the same time.
Continuing along the coast we are riding next to ‘ Agfa Green ‘ paddy fields into Kuala Perlis. It would not be a terrible idea to catch a ferry to Langkawi after all, where I learn that Rambo’s first name is ‘ John ‘. I like trivia.