Satun, Thailand our 18th country.

Confusing drink.
Confusing drink.

There is little in the way of certainty when ordering a drink in Malaysia. Well, not for the hapless linguistically challenged touring cyclist that is. The concept of what constitutes a hot beverage and a cold one, has managed to get itself in a muddle. To add to the fun the recognised idea of sweet, sour and savoury, have also managed to acquire more than a bit of ambiguity.

Rambutan still our favourite fruit.
Rambutan still our favourite fruit.

A cup of hot tea comes surrounded with a saucer full of ice cubes. No explanation given, other than trying to make it more difficult to put the cup down and 100% certain of dripping tea stains onto your clothes. The drink in the photograph is the compromise we got when they had not got Lychees. We were after a cool, sweet refreshing drink. The top third of the drink is cold and the bottom third is hot and has ingredients that belong in a soup. There is of course a strange transitional zone where your taste buds are challenged to the maximum.

That is an extreme example with drinks in Malaysia, but you can conclude. If it is a hot drink, they will put ice cubes in or near it, and a cold drink will be made with at least 10%  hot water. It keeps you on your toes that is for sure.

Water Buffalo, Langkawi.
Water Buffalo, Langkawi.
View from Seaview Hotel, Christmas day.
View from Seaview Hotel, Christmas day.

Chris Boardman, British Cycling’s head of ‘ secret squirrel ‘ technology, and one time hour world record holder always trained on Christmas Day. It is the one day of the year when you can get a competitive advantage over your opposition. Back home, if there is not snow on the ground or horizontal rain, we will try to get out just for the feeling of superiority and smugness. A Christmas Day ride around the island of Langkawi on touring bikes without the bags, made the day memorable.

Non-Vegetarian.
Non-Vegetarian.
Road 100 from Kuala Perlis to Kangar.
Road 100 from Kuala Perlis to Kangar.
$40 bikes.
$40 bikes.

A further day of R&R, and then it was back onto the ferry and back to the mainland at Kuala Perlis. It is Esther’s birthday, hurrah and quite different to any previous. We do a laughably short distance of cycling and end the day in Kangar, in a pleasingly cheap hotel. It is strange what you can and can not sleep through. Dog barking or baby crying and you will spend an unhappy and frustrated night. Drunks fighting or Crack Cocaine use outside your window with police helicopters and searchlights, and you are not getting much sleep that night. Constant heavy traffic outside and we sleep the restful sleep of the blessed.

Little cyclist.
Little cyclist.
Street blacksmith in Kangar.
Street blacksmith in Kangar.

We are up early enough to clearly see stars against a sky with just the merest hint of dawn light. We have our Mojo back and that is just as well as we have a long day ahead that includes a climb and a customs crossing. We have been toying with the Thailand border for some time now, off to the east of where we have been riding. We had been advised to head for a crossing point as far West as possible. There is unrest in Thailand in the south East and it is a good idea to give it some space. We could have taken a ferry direct from Langkawi, but wanted a couple of days more touring in Malaysia, just to say farewell.

Quiet roads in the morning.
Quiet roads in the morning.
A144, Malaysia.
A144, Malaysia.

With a low sun turning the horizon a milky wash of colour and temperatures in the mid twentys, we were on our way, linking the roads on the gps until we made our way towards Kaki Bukit. Passing through even small towns in Asia is an absolute riot of sensory stimulus. In the heat and humidity, ever molecule of air carries a duty free allowance of aroma. Often there is my favourite smell, Sandlewood, in heavy saturated clouds. There is wood smoke, diesel fumes, incense, hot food and frying. Times when you try not to breath, Dorian, car tyres burning and filth of over flowing drains.

Big lake in morning light.
Big lake in morning light.

There is a stiff headwind today. It remains a headwind as we turn through 180*. I will give it the benefit of doubt if it does not get stronger and call it cooling. 45Km into the ride and it is  33’c as usual which is a bit of a bugger as the first major hill since Cameron Highlands is just around the corner. This had been described to us by our friend Meng as ‘ Chicken feet ‘. He had got the wrong hill. This starts at 10% and then within half a dozen corners throws a 17% incline. It does this several more times, but never goes under 10% very often.

Climbing Kakit Bukit.
Climbing Kakit Bukit.
View from Kakit Bukit, Malaysia.
View from Kakit Bukit, Malaysia.

We walked, of course we did. We cycled where we could and we sweated in such profusion that it ran down our legs and squelched in our Sidi bike shoes as we walked. In an undertaking often devoid of glamour, this is one of the less glamorous parts of cycle touring, of that there is little doubt. The decent is glorious of course. Monkeys are crashing through the trees next to us and we have smooth tarmac under wheel. I am thankful beyond words that it is dry today.

Our last tea stop in Malaysia. A grandfather is bouncing a giggling toddler on his lap. Both are enjoying the process. He pays, gathers the child under his arm and straddles a moped with the child still under his arm. As he starts the bike and turns it around, the child is playing with the strap of his crash helmet. Back home, not having his crash helmet done up, would be the start of a very long list of offences committed. Both child and septuagenarian are beaming smiles of pure joy.

Getting the visa stamped.
Getting the visa stamped.

We get to the border having done 842 Km of touring in Malaysia, most of which were fun. Border crossings are never fun, but some how this is quite low-key. I have flown into Edinburgh, with a valid UK passport and nothing to declare, and been more anxious. A smiling Thai border agent tells us to go back down the road and sign out from Malaysia and ‘ leave the bikes here ‘. Then there are confusing forms to fill out and more smiles. Finally it is back to border guard number one for final smiles and entry stamp. Hello Thailand. We descend some more, through thick forest with occasional settlements. Alarmingly, there are far more squashed snakes littering the shoulder on this side of the border. There are also many more wild dogs, all harmless cowards and not squashed as yet.

Contrasting homes.
Contrasting homes.
Market stall cat.
Market stall cat.

The road becomes increasingly hectic as we near the town of Satun. I come close to issuing my first single digit gesture of the Asian trip. Dreadful driving, simply dreadful. Waves and shouts of ‘ Hello ‘, manage to keep me chilled out. There is giggling from many a moped, as three young girls who are passengers on them try out their English. Eventually we arrive in the outskirts of Satun. We then have a big chunk of good fortune. The hotel that we booked on the internet in Starbuck’s in Berlin is just ahead. We had chosen it at random just to fill in the visa application, never thinking that we would be in Satun. It is of course not the day we booked, but we can do something about that.

Thai signs are gonna be challenging.
Thai signs are gonna be challenging.
Chinese Temple guardian.
Chinese Temple guardian.
More fish.
More fish.
Tropical fish for sale.
Tropical fish for sale.
Satun market, Can you name any more than one fruit?
Satun market, Can you name any more than one fruit?

So, we are in the Hotel Pinnacle, in the town of Satun. Which is as friendly as you could hope for, and also surprisingly clean for a €15. The town is a frenzy of colour and sound but the usual nightmare of broken and missing paths. I can not begin to understand how it must be to be blind in Asia. To add to my problems, most of the stalls have canopy’s that are about shoulder height for me. We see our first fat dog in Asia. You might have guessed it would be a Labrador. We have lost one hour, as the clocks have gone back as we crossed into Thailand. This will mean getting up at an even more ludicrous hour if we want to catch some cool temperatures for riding. This is a significant challenge.

Is this Thailand's fastest 70 year old?
Is this Thailand’s fastest 70 year old marathon runner ?
Sacred tree.
Sacred tree.
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The island of Langkawi, for a holiday.

Leaving Georgetown, Penang.
Leaving Georgetown, Penang.

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.

Putting the bikes onto the ferry.
Putting the bikes onto the ferry.

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.

Getting off the ferry in Kuah, Langkawi.
Getting off the ferry in Kuah, Langkawi.

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.

Chew, who wrote to London Olympics.
Chew, who rode to London Olympics.

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.

A first class Roti Pisang (banana)
A first class Roti Pisang (banana)
Muslim Cemetery, Malaysia.
Muslim Cemetery, Malaysia.

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.

Canal.
Canal.
Rice fields.
Rice fields.
Hard to know when the dry season is.
Hard to know when the dry season is.

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.

That will be 4 teas, te-tarik (tea with concentrated milk).
That will be 4 teas, te-tarik (tea with concentrated milk).
No Durians, no pets!
No Durians, no pets!

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.

Crossing the big river of Sungai Petani.
Crossing the big river of Sungai Petani.
Typical tea stop.
Typical tea stop.
There are many types of bananas and broom.
There are many types of bananas and broom.

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.

One of the oldest Hindu temples in Malaysia, Lembah Bujang.
One of the oldest Hindu temples in Malaysia, Lembah Bujang.

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’.

K1.
K1.

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.

Traditional Malay House.
Traditional Malay House.

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.

Paddy fields and storm clouds.
Paddy fields and storm clouds.
Some shade.
Some shade.
A gentle beautiful road.
A gentle beautiful road.
House in rice field.
House in rice field.

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 last room in town, Kuala Kedah.
The last room in town, Kuala Kedah.

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.

Traditional fishing vessel, Kuala Kedah.
Traditional fishing vessel, Kuala Kedah.

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.

Dozing cats.
Dozing cats.
Homes in Kuala Sanglang.
Homes in Kuala Sanglang.

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.

Drying fish in the streets.
Drying fish in the streets.

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.

View from K1.
View from K1.
Still along the coast.
Still along the coast.
Massive tree overhanging the path.
Massive tree overhanging the path.

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.

"Agfa Green" paddy fields
“Agfa Green” paddy fields

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.

Patriotic Hotel, Langkawi.
Patriotic Hotel, Langkawi.