Week 3 – Continuing up the West Coast of Malaysia

A post by Lucia

Day 15: Taiping to Georgetown, Penang Island

We really enjoyed our time in Taiping. The fact that our hostel, ‘Sojourn Beds & Cafe’ was so comfortable and clean with lovely hosts, meant that we were almost reluctant to leave. Interestingly, the hostel was up for sale. We enquired about the price, just out of interest, and worked out we could just afford it with our savings for this trip. We jokingly fantasised about telling our families that we had decided to quit the trip and settle in Taiping, Malaysia, running our own hostel… Hmmm – not sure how well that would go!

As Adam had been up late editing our third youtube video (watch here if you haven’t already!) we set off slightly later than planned, at about 10.30am. The sun was out in full force, almost not a cloud in sight. Blue sky beamed down on us and we were in high spirits. We would highly recommend Taiping as a place to visit in Malaysia; it has been one of our favourite places so far on our trip.

To be honest, the cycling on day 15 was pretty straightforward with nothing much to report. It was a long day, 112.7km to our hostel on the island of Penang. Had we have taken the more direct route – which was much busier with traffic – it would have been a shorter day. But we always much prefer cycling a few extra km if it means quieter, prettier roads where we have more of a glimpse of rural Malaysian life. 

We learnt that ‘Awas’ must mean slow…

We stopped in a bus stop for a rest and some shelter from the relentless sun. Between us, we demolished a whole bunch of bananas (about 12 in all!), dipping them straight into a pot of nutella (or a Malaysian knock-off nutella). Sugar and carbs: just what we needed to energise us to continue in the heat and humidity. 

We wanted to reach Penang Island and our hostel in Georgetown before nightfall. As we had set off late, we approached the ferry terminal in Butterworth at dusk. I hated the road leading to it; busy, congested, commuter-swamped traffic consumed us. To make it worse, I was pretty exhausted from my second 100+ km ride of the trip (especially on such a hot day), and so my patience was running thin. I got my first flat tyre whilst on the busy road and I found it difficult to manage my stress levels. I really felt the mental and physical strain for the first time on this trip. 

As we crossed the bridge to the ferry terminal, thankfully the traffic thinned.

However, I tried to keep my positive head on with the prospect of a warm bed on the Island of Penang. The sunset views as we arrived at the crossing perked our spirits somewhat

Trying to keep my positive mindset!

The ferry crossing was really easy. We just followed the signs to it and headed along the motorcycle/bicycle lane. It cost just under 4 ringgit for the ferry (that’s about 67p). We didn’t even try to compete at wacky races with the scooters as we left the ferry.

Waiting to cycle onto the ferry amongst all the motorbikes and scooters.

Adam successfully navigated us to our hostel. After the superb Sojourn Beds & Cafe in Taiping, our hostel in Georgetown (Kimberley House) was a bit of a disappointment. We can’t complain though: we have a big enough room with a bed and air-con, what more could two cycle tourists ask for!? 

After a much needed shower, we headed into the bright lights of Georgetown in search of food. Rumbling stomachs accompanied us, begging to be filled as we hadn’t eaten since our banana-nutella feast. Georgetown is incredibly touristy. Food stalls and bars line the streets in the centre. Interesting and often beautiful artwork can be seen on the walls as we pass. 

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One of the main reasons we came to Penang is to obtain a 60 day tourist visa for Thailand. We have decided to apply and pay for a 60 day visa, instead of going for the free 30 day visa waiver as we don’t want to rush through the country. As we wandered the streets that evening, we found a visa agency. We had heard that it is much easier to apply for a visa through an agency. We just handed them our passports and two passport photos and they do all the hard work for us. We have read online that it can be difficult to obtain a visa here as the embassy only accepts 100 applications a day, and they serve all of the visa agents first. The cues are long and if you happen to be the 101st person in the cue or have anything wrong or missing in your application, you have to return the next day.  

So with our visa application submitted (we needed to return at 2.30pm on Tuesday, we gave them our passports on Sunday at 10.30pm) and our bellies full of delicious Malay and Chinese food and a couple of celebratory tiger beers, we headed back to the hostel.

Day 16 & 17: Two days off the bikes in Georgetown, Penang Island

As I mentioned, Georgetown is very touristy. I’ll sum up our highs and lows of this place:

Highs:

  • Food: We had heard that Penang is a haven for amazing food, and we were not disappointed. A fusion of Malay, Malay-Chinese and Indian foods can all be found within easy walking distance of one another. Although slightly more expensive than in the rural areas on mainland peninsula Malaysia, we enjoyed some of the best meals we’ve experienced so far in Malaysia. 
  • Hustle and Bustle: An eclectic jumble of three distinct and ancient cultures make up the vibrant hustle and bustle of Georgetown. We enjoyed walking through the maze of chaotic streets; one minute meandering past sizzling plates of fish-head curry and Chinese lanterns, the next strolling by shops blasting out Indian music, selling brightly coloured saris and flower garlands. 
  • Street Art: Unexpected, stylish street art decorates the capital of Penang. Apparently, this dates back to 2010 when the government of Penang commissioned a studio to create a series of cartoon steel art pieces to decorate Georgetown. But more spectacular than these, is the artwork of Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic. For the 2012 George Town Festival, Zacharevic was commissioned to do a series of public paintings in the capital. We didn’t look for these specifically, but instead enjoyed being surprised by these huge, dramatic pieces of art looking down on us as we made our way through the city. 

Lows

  • Bad Hostel: To put it bluntly, the hostel we stayed in had the feeling of a cheap brothel. Paper thin walls actually swayed as we leaned against them; broken toilets and sticky showers that hadn’t been cleaned in weeks; no ‘atmosphere’; but worst of all, the staff were unfriendly and unhelpful. Bossy signs all over our room, threatening to throw our clothes away if we were found to have left washed clothes to dry in our room. We were very happy to cycle far, far away from the place. (Although we know we will have much, much, more worse accommodation to come in other places!)
  • Busy Roads: As the capital of Penang, it’s not surprising that Georgetown is incredibly busy. That being said, the narrow, maze of roads really do not lend themselves to a fast flow of restless traffic. I’m sure when Georgetown was first built up, it was not designed to accommodate motorised vehicles travelling at 40mph, swerving and dodging around bewildered tourists. It makes it difficult that the ‘pavement’ is most often used as the front of people’s shops – resulting in stepping into the hectic road to get around a local man fixing their motorbike right in the middle of the path. Again, I’m sure we will encounter much busier places during our time in SE Asia, but two days off the bikes in this non-stop city was plenty enough for us. We feel much more content in the quieter towns and gentler cities, such as Taiping.
  • Unfriendly: We have found that whenever we travel into a touristy place or city, the locals are not as friendly or welcoming as we have experienced in the more rural areas. I imagine this is due to the high influx of tourists visiting there, and therefore those indigenous to Penang may become tired of the constant selfie-takers and drunken ‘gap yar’ travellers. As mentioned, a day or two in these areas is always more than enough time and we always look forward to getting back to the smiles and waves of those we pass by in the sticks.  

There is more to Penang Island than just Georgetown. A quick look online will provide an extensive list of other interesting things to do and explore out of the city on the island, however, we take our ‘rest days’ as just that: our time to rest. So we decided to stay in the city and enjoy a much slower pace for two days.

Day 18: Georgetown, Penang to Sungai Petani

With a short 59km day ahead, we took our time checking out of our hostel this morning. We were glad to leave and really looked forward to getting back on the bikes. Cycling away from the hostel almost felt liberating: the sun was shining and, once again, we were in high spirits. Despite the crazy traffic, we weaved in and out of it with a clear destination in mind – a quick stop before we got to the ferry. After the amazing roti we had yesterday for breakfast, we knew just how to fuel ourselves for the day ahead. Roti canai with chicken; it makes me hungry just typing about it!

The ferry crossing from Penang to Butterworth was easy (you don’t need to pay for the journey back to the main land). Understandably, we had some busy traffic leaving Butterworth, but for the majority of our cycling today we had quiet roads through sleepy Malay villages. It was on these roads that I had my first cycling accident. As we had turned into a peaceful, narrow road we were cycling next to each other. A police car approached and I pulled on the brakes to let Adam go ahead so we were in single file. Unfortunately, I misjudged how close he was and our panniers knocked together, which made me lose my balance. I careered across and cycled straight into a thick-branched hedge, with quite a thump! I peeled myself out of the hedge, off the bike and – to my embarrassment – started to cry. More from the shock, but as I looked down a huge bruise emerged on my upper, inner arm, plus lots of scratches and a grazed stomach from where a thick branch tried to impale me. Adam sat me down, calmed me down and attended to my scratches and scraps. The kind Malay policemen picked my bike up from where it lay wedged, thankfully unharmed, in the hedge. After a few minutes, we were back on the bikes. 

Feeling a little sorry for myself!

We will always remember this day for the amazing Warmshowers hosts we stayed at near Sungai Petani. I can confidently say it has been the best experience we have had so far in Malaysia. We stayed with the generous, kind and friendly couple, Farhan and Ash. They both made us feel so welcome. They have been hosting cycle tourists for 2 years now; Farhan is a keen bicycle tourist too and as a couple they have some exciting plans for the future to travel as well. Farhan and Ash were incredibly considerate and hospitable: they lavished us with the most delicious, traditionally Malaysian food; they took us to a night market to see the locals selling amazing fresh produce: fruit, vegetables, so many different types of fish, chickens (alive and dead!) plus clothes and other things. They took us out for a delicious meal (refusing to let us pay for anything!) and then went back to their house to eat what we had bought at the night market, staying up until the early hours, with the most interesting and often humorous conversations. We learnt so much from them about Malay culture, and we left with a deeper understanding of this varied, friendly and fascinating country. They offered for us to stay a second night, however as we had already had 3 days off the bikes this week, we politely declined and decided to cycle the following day.

Farhan (left) and Ash (with her niece at the front) and their family just before we left in the morning.

Day 19: Sungai Petani to Alor Setar

It was not easy saying goodbye to Farhan and Ash this morning! They treat us to a delicious breakfast of roti canai (our favourite!) and other delicious delicacies, to fuel us for the 80km day ahead. With a final family photo, we cycled away – I was choking back the tears to be honest! Genuinely amazing people who have had a positive impact on our lives. When we return to the UK, we can only hope to be half as hospitable as those guys when we become Warmshowers hosts ourselves. 

Today was incredibly hot but we were grateful for some fantastic back-road routes to keep us off almost all the busy roads to our next stop. We just love cycling off the beaten track; small (although preferably still tarmacked!) roads with very few cars and towering palm or coconut trees on either side. Again, we cycled through peaceful villages and even alongside the sea for a while. If it had been a few degrees cooler, it would have been the perfect cycling day.

Blue skies and quiet roads = happy bicycle tourist!

We considered camping this evening, finding somewhere to wild camp or asking at a temple or fire station or something (places we’ve been told are often happy to welcome bicycle tourists a place to pitch their tent). But as the day wore on, I said I would prefer to find a hotel for the evening. I still like my shower at the end of a long, hot day cycling and a room with a bed and air-con. I will need to bite the bullet and camp more often soon, preparing myself to go to sleep without a nice shower to wash the day’s sweat and muck off… but I’m not quite there yet! It is very cheap to stay in hotels, hostels and guest houses here in Malaysia – and I’m sure there will be lots (and lots) of camping to come in other countries on the trip, so it’s probably best to make the most of this now! 

Tomorrow (Friday) will be our penultimate day in Malaysia. We are planning to cycle to a town close to the Malaysia/Thai border, so on Saturday we will cross over into country number 3! 

Day 20: Alor Setar to Kangar

With a lovely, no pressure 50km day ahead, we had another slow start morning. We like to vary the planned distance for each day: sometimes it’s nice to have a bigger distance target (80+ km), something to really put your mind to achieve and push myself; other times, it’s great to know that you have a accommodation booked for only 50km away, so it’s a nice ‘no pressure’ day. It’s all about balance and variation. Although we stayed in a budget hotel last night, there was a Warmshowers host in that city, but unfortunately he was unavailable that evening. However, he very kindly offered to meet us for breakfast the following morning, which we gladly accepted. It was really great to meet Firdaus. He very generously bought us breakfast (more roti canai! We can’t get enough of it!) and we discussed our experiences in Malaysia so far. As a bicycle tourist himself, he shared some stories with us and gave us some worthwhile advice for our future routes. 

We haven’t even set off cycling yet and already looking pretty sweaty!

We had the most glorious cycling day: my favourite day so far. We managed to stay off almost all the busy roads. Quiet, peaceful, rural Malaysia blessed us with amazing weather (although very hot!) and mostly all tarmacked roads. We spent a long time cycling past paddy fields; it’s really interesting to observe how the landscape has changed as we have travelled further north.

The view from our hotel room on our final morning in Malaysia. 

It has been the perfect final day in Malaysia. Tomorrow, we cross the border into Thailand! Thank you Malaysia – you have been the absolute perfect country to begin our cycle tour. I could not have asked for a better introduction for our Cycling Two Adventure, and cycle touring in general. Your amazing food, generous people, beautifully stunning landscapes, lovely flat roads (along your west coast anyway!),  intriguing and cheeky wildlife and bustling cities will always hold a special place in my heart.

Next post – our first week in Thailand!

Thanks for reading,

Lucia xx

 

4 comments

Granny Grunt and the lovely Paul’s

We both loved reading your lovely,interesting ,reading Lucia our sweet grandaughter.Poor love having your first little accident,could have been worse,but a shock to your system eh?Enjoying all your video’s and readings.Fantabidozy.xxx

Thank you Grandma! Sending you both lots of love. xxx

Granny Grunt and Paul

Toad int’thole for tea,smells lively.Paul doesn’t feel good so I might have to post it to you two 😀🤣😍 hehehe

We do miss a good old toad in the hole, especially with gravy. We both hope Paul feels better.

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