Globally, we each consume an average of eight kilogrammes of palm oil a year. 85 % of palm oil is produced in Indonesia and Malaysia, so it’s not surprising that a lot of the landscapes we passed through when cycling across the Malay Peninsula from north to south was dominated by oil palms. It’s a complicated issue, but while it would be wrong to ignore it completely, Malaysia of course has much more to offer than oil palms: kind and generous people, a variety of delicious food from different cuisines reflecting the country’s cultural diversity, marvellous beaches and desert islands.
20th April – 24th May 2019
We didn’t even make it one kilometre from the border before being invited for coffee by a local family. Mohammad, Rose and their daughter Sofia had been driving past us and decided to welcome us with the kind of hospitality we’d been met with in other predominantly Muslim countries on our route. After a chat, a drink and some snacks at their home, we were ready to hit the road and start exploring Malaysia. They wouldn’t remain our only benefactors of the day: when trying to pay for our mee goreng (fried noodles) at a roadside restaurant at lunch, the owner told us it had already been paid by another customer whom we hadn’t even met, and when we camped at a shelter next to a mosque that night, the imam’s family brought us big plates of rice and chicken, a little later some other villagers brought us cake, and then another guy came with more rice! Welcome to Malaysia.
When entering Malaysia, a few things that had been absent from our daily lives for a long time reappeared, such as drinkable tap water, the Muslim call to prayer and a Latin alphabet. After leaving Europe in summer 2018, we had realised how much we had taken potable tap water for granted, and now appreciated its return all the more; after spending a month in Turkey, we had missed hearing the call to prayer five times a day; after being fascinated with the Georgian alphabet, fairly quickly mastering the Cyrillic one, struggling with Chinese characters and all but resigning to Lao, Khmer and Thai scripts, it was amazing to be able to read everything again. As a cat-lover, Linda was also delighted to notice an abundance of felines as we hadn’t seen it since Turkey, resulting from the fact that the majority of Muslims see dogs as impure, whereas cats are admired for their cleanliness as well as for being loved by the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
The first part of our route through Malaysia would take us along the west coast to the capital, Kuala Lumpur. After our unlikely reunion with Pablo and Guillaume in Thailand, our plans aligned with another “old” friend – “old” in terms of people we hadn’t known before starting the trip. Like Pablo and Guillaume, we had first met Katie in Turkey, about nine months prior. Our planned routes had been very similar, so we had stayed in touch and made an effort to meet up again in every consecutive country until China. The last time we had met until now had been on the Tibetan Plateau, after which our detour through Northern Vietnam and Guangxi had meant that Katie would be ahead of us. She would finish her trip in KL, as Kuala Lumpur is commonly called, so she had been taking it slowly recently, which allowed us to catch up with her and accompany her to the finish line.
We rode as a team of three for nearly a week, along roads lined with coconut trees and palm oil plantations, exchanging stories of everything that happened in the six months since we’d last seen each other, indulging in Chinese or Indian buffets for lunch and upping our dinner game through the glorious luxury of having two saucepans and two stoves. We mostly camped at beaches; one afternoon’s endeavour of going for a swim in the sea was quickly abandoned when we discovered a swarm of jellyfish and Katie stepped on a crab, while another evening’s entertainment consisted of watching a sheer endless stream of squid fishing boats with their brilliant green lights head out to sea. Once we arrived in KL, Katie prepared for her flight back home to England, and we celebrated the end of her journey with pizza and beer, before saying our goodbyes and bequeathing her our beloved thermos which we wouldn’t need any time soon and didn’t want to keep carrying around with us – bought in China, inscribed with the poetic phrase “FRSHION – Give me sweet time”.
We were lucky to be able to stay with Tim’s cousin Andrew and his son Alexander in an apartment with a view of the KL Tower and the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. Being allowed to stay in Malaysia for 90 days visa-free, we were in no rush and stayed with Andrew for over a week, during which we took time to relax, work on the blog, do some sightseeing and apply for 60 day visas at the Indonesian embassy – successfully. Our stay in the Malaysian capital overlapped with a business trip to Singapore that our friend Stephan was on, so he took a coach up to KL for a weekend, we caught up after about one year and explored some areas of the city together.
While hanging out at the pool that Andrew’s apartment block shares with the adjacent hotel, Linda noticed that the tall, elderly gentleman in the lounge chair next to us bore a remarkable resemblance to English actor Charles Dance, OBE, known to Game of Thrones fans as Tywin Lannister. Not wanting to disturb him on a possible holiday, we decided to refrain from asking for any selfies and to be content with the mere memory of this epitome of how different and luxurious our time spent in KL was compared to our usual routine of camping and, if we have to, staying in the cheapest accommodation we can find.
While cycling from the Thai border to KL, we had started to experience the diversity of Malaysia: about half the population is ethnically Malay, while Malaysian Chinese make up about a quarter and Malaysian Indians, most of whom are descendants of those who migrated from India during the British colonisation of Malaya, about 7 % of the population. Much to a cycle tourist’s delight, this diversity also manifests itself in a variety of Malay, Chinese and Indian restaurants. The capital embodies this multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society and feels like a melting pot in which people from Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu cultures seem to peacefully coexist amidst traditional, colonial and modern architecture – mosques and temples, an Anglo-Asian style train station designed by a British architect in the early 20th century, modern apartment blocks and skyscrapers like the aforementioned Petronas Towers, the cross-section of which is based on the Islamic Rub el Hizb symbol.
The end of our stay in Kuala Lumpur coincided with the beginning of the Islamic holy fasting month of Ramadan, during which Muslims abstain from eating any food, drinking any liquids and smoking cigarettes between dawn and sunset. In a survey in which Muslims from different countries across the globe were interviewed, 93 % stated that they adhere to the practice, which is one of the Five Pillars of Islam. Considering there are currently around 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, the sense of unity from knowing that one’s own struggle is shared with over a billion other people must be incredible. For Muslims, Ramadan is a time of increased spiritual reflection and devotion, the fast intended to bring the faithful closer to God and to remind them of the suffering of those less fortunate. For us, this meant no more Malay food for lunch and therefore, no more Roti Canai, a delicious and incredibly cheap flatbread dish, mostly served with daal, which had become one of our go-to food options. Roti Canai could usually be found at either Malay restaurants, the majority of which would now be closed during the day, or Indian restaurants, of which there aren’t many outside of sizable towns – and we were bound for the less densely populated east coast. Chinese for lunch it would be from now on.
Malaysia is separated into two landmasses: West, i.e. Peninsular Malaysia, and East Malaysia, i.e. Malaysian Borneo. To get to the east coast of West Malaysia, we had to cross the Titiwangsa Mountains, a forested range running through the middle of the peninsula, separating the two coasts. To get to Borneo, we would have to cross some water, which was starting to look like a problem as the ferry we had been hoping to take didn’t seem to be operating, so we would have to wait and see nearer the time. The roads we took to get to the east coast and along it were fairly quiet, sometimes there would be jungle on one side of the road and palm oil plantations on the other, often it would be a sea of palm trees on both sides, as far as the eye could see. A large proportion of vehicles on the road would be lorries transporting palm oil fruit or crude palm oil, exuding a distinctive musky, sweet smell. Huge, dead pythons on the side of the road periodically reminded us to choose our camping spots with care. Posters were advertising a palm oil cooking competition.
The ubiquitous vegetable oil has been criticised in recent years for being a significant source of deforestation, leading to an increase in greenhouse gas emissions and habitat destruction of critically endangered species such as the orangutan. But the bad reputation that palm oil has acquired is only partly justified – yes, our dependence on palm oil has devastating environmental consequences, but there’s no simple alternative. Palm oil is so widely used because of its versatility and combination of desirable qualities: its cultivation is up to ten times more productive per unit of land compared to other vegetable oils – oil palms therefore manage to produce 38 % of the world’s vegetable-oil output on 5 % of the world’s vegetable-oil farmland; it can handle frying without spoiling; it’s semi-solid at room temperature so can keep spreads spreadable; it’s resistant to oxidation and can give products a longer shelf-life. So it’s no wonder – but nonetheless mind-boggling – that an estimated 50 % of products on supermarket shelves contain some form of palm oil. Apart from being an ingredient in food products and used as a cooking oil in Asia, it’s also added to many personal care products and converted into biodiesel.
Vegetable oils are undeniably needed, and even the WWF writes on its website that “to get the same amount of alternative oils … you would need anything between 4 and 10 times more land, which would just shift the problem to other parts of the world and threaten other habitats and species.” Considering the advantages of palm oil over other vegetable oils and the fact that its production has been shown to improve infrastructure, social services and reduce poverty – in Malaysia and Indonesia, smallholders account for 35-40 % of the total area of planted oil palm – calling for a ban on palm oil or trying to exclude it from one’s diet can’t be the answer. Instead, efforts should be supported to make the production of palm oil more sustainable, and despite difficulties due to the complicated nature of the supply chain of palm oil, some steps in the right direction seem to have been made. A certification for sustainably produced palm oil has been introduced by The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO), which involves growers, processors, food companies and NGOs, research is being done on how to further increase yields, and the Malaysian Government has committed to retaining natural forest cover on at least 50 % of its land. These days, most new palm oil plantations in Malaysia aren’t created through deforestation, but by converting rubber and coconut plantations.
A few days after reaching the east coast, we arrived at Tanjung Gemok, from where we had decided to catch a ferry to Pulau Tioman, a sparsely inhabited island located 32 kilometres off the coast and surrounded by numerous coral reefs. We had considered taking the bikes with us to the island and cycling from the jetty on Tioman over to the other, quieter side of the island, on which we had booked accommodation, but looking at the elevation profile, decided to leave the bikes on the mainland instead and getting a taxi across the island – an extraordinarily wise decision, as it would turn out, when the 4×4 taxi huffed up some of the steepest roads we’ve ever seen. We’re not sure how accurate the road signs were, but some of them declared gradients of 45 %. To put this into perspective, we struggle to ride our fully loaded bikes up anything above 15 %, so we may not even have been able to push our bikes up these slopes. Once we had arrived in the village of Juara, we checked into the chalet by the beach that would be our home for three nights. Our desert island getaway couldn’t have been much more textbook – we swam in the sea, went for walks along the beach flashing our ridiculous cyclists’ tan lines, drank coconuts and relaxed on our veranda. Cats would join us in our life of tranquility during the day, slouching in outdoor furniture or in the sand, giant fruit bats would fly past in the evening. But the highlight of our stay was going snorkelling: we found a cheap place to rent the gear from and spent several hours immersing ourselves in the wondrous world that lies beneath the surface of the sea. We saw vibrantly, neon coloured fish, corals of all different kinds of fascinating shapes, stingrays, clownfish in anemones, hundreds of silvery fish glittering in the afternoon sun like sequins, and swam with a sea turtle for a few minutes. Exploring this underwater metropolis was an amazing experience and one of the most awe-inspiring ones of the whole trip so far.
Back on the peninsula, the previously gentle rolling hills turned steeper. We camped on another beach inhabited by dozens of cats, looking out to the islands off the coast, before arriving at our first and only Warmshowers host’s place in Malaysia. Bob, a retiree with two wives, neither of whom live with him, a big garden and lots of projects in planning, had also hosted our friend Alice two years ago. He was one of those hosts who give you the perfect amount of space – we spent time with him over meals, during lunch he would sit with us while we ate and drank despite the fact that he himself was fasting, had intriguing and frank conversations, such as about cultural and religious differences like polygamy, which would seem outlandish to many people from Christian cultural backgrounds, and had a fun evening using his very elaborate karaoke system; but he also gave us plenty of time to withdraw into the room he had provided us with, rest and plan our next steps. We were especially productive in the planning department, as we finally solved the getting-to-Borneo conundrum and found a Warmshowers host in Singapore. As there was still no schedule for the ferry we had originally planned on taking from a small island south of Singapore, and the distance between us and the city-state – the world’s most expensive city and therefore not somewhere we’d want to linger for an extended period – drew shorter and shorter, we decided to book our first flight of the trip from Singapore to Miri on Borneo.
When we left Bob’s place, there wasn’t much of the Eurasian continent left going south, so one and a half days later, we arrived at Tanjung Pengelih, a small ferry port from which a so-called “bum boat” – a boat that leaves when all 12 seats are filled with bums – departs for Singapore a few times a day. After about an hour of waiting, it was agreed among the passengers that had arrived up to that point to split the cost of the last remaining seat between all of us and we set off. A short boat ride, a delicious Indian lunch and a cycle through Singapore’s traffic later, we arrived at our Warmshowers host Rama’s place. Rama lives with his wife Jan, their maid Anna and their two adorable dogs Hero and Twinkle. An avid cyclist who has himself travelled throughout Southeast Asia by bike on several trips, uses his bikes as his main mode of transport in the city and often goes on multiple-day rides with friends, Rama took us around Singapore by bike, using some of the excellent cycle highways to get into the city centre. He showed us some panoramic views of the skyline with the Marina Bay Sands hotel, known for its distinctive SkyPark shaped like a ship on top of its three towers, past the Gardens by the Bay, a futuristic nature park in the bay area, and took us to get lunch at a Sikh temple, the first and so far only one we’ve been to and a very interesting – and tasty – experience.
Stephan, who had visited us in Kuala Lumpur, was still in Singapore on business, so we met up once more, walked around the hypermodern metropolis together and visited the Gardens by the Bay. In the evening, we watched a stunning light and sound show that takes place daily at the Gardens’ Supertree Grove, a forest of up to 50-metre tall artificial trees. On another day, we explored Little India, got lunch at one of Singapore’s many hawker centres – a complex of many stalls that sell a variety of inexpensive food – and visited a Hindu temple, just in time to witness one of the daily Pooja prayer rituals. Brass trumpets were being blown, drums were being beaten and worshippers performed rituals we didn’t understand; the whole ceremony was fascinating and served as a reminder that, after spending a year travelling through regions culturally shaped by Christianity, Islam and different schools of Buddhism, we know very little about Hinduism. Despite the regret of not having been able to visit India on this trip, we were happy to get a glimpse of it through the religious customs of this group of Indian Singaporeans.
As the date of our flight to Borneo approached, we picked up two large cardboard boxes from Decathlon, disassembled our bikes as much as necessary to fit them inside the boxes and protected all fragile parts with bubble wrap. For both of our bikes, the procedure took up the best part of a day. The flight itself was uneventful but provided an opportunity to reflect on how far we’d come: we had managed to get from the very north-west of the Eurasian continent to its very south, through 25 and 27 countries, respectively, without taking a single flight. It had been a difficult decision to end the no-flight portion of our trip after one year of travelling together, but it’s one we’re happy with, considering our ferry route of choice wasn’t being serviced, changing our route would have entailed taking busy, dangerous roads on the Indonesian islands of Sumatra and Java, and the fact that we’d had to come to realise months ago that we wouldn’t feasibly be able to get to Australia, our next destination after Indonesia, without flying anyway.
Upon reclaiming our luggage, we discovered the bottoms of both of our bike boxes to be open. We’re not sure if they were purposefully opened to be searched, or if all of the thick metal staples on both boxes failed, but nothing was missing, even though some loose items were in the other box than we had put them into. We didn’t even make it a hundred meters from the arrival gate until someone once again brightened our day with a small act of kindness: a man handed us a couple of cold cans of energy drink while we were reassembling our bikes. Welcome back to Malaysia.
* * *
Thanks to our hosts in West Malaysia and Singapore: Mohammad, Rose and Sofia in Padang Besar, Ahmet and family in Simpang Empat Semanggol, Andrew and Alexander in Kuala Lumpur, Bob in Tanjung Sedili and Rama in Singapore.
- We cycled 1,400 km through West Malaysia and Singapore, making a total of 24,200 km for Tim since leaving England and 23,700 km for Linda. Between blog posts, you can check our current total distances on our Stats page which we update a bit more frequently.
- During this segment, our average distance on cycling days was 77 km, compared to 83 km for the whole trip since Germany.
- During this segment, our average day-to-day spending was 6.48 € per person per day, compared to 6.60 € for the whole trip since Germany.
- We camped on 13 nights (of which 1 in a driveway and 1 at a mosque), stayed with Tim’s cousin for 10 nights, stayed with 2 Couchsurfing/Warmshowers hosts for 7 nights and at paid accommodation for 4 nights. From Germany to Singapore: 160 nights camping/empty buildings/places of worship, 99 nights WS/CS/friends/family, 90 nights paid accommodation (hotel/hostel/guesthouse/homestay), 15 nights invited into people’s homes/places of work, 4 nights ferry/train.
- Puncture score: Tim 1 – Linda 0. Total from Germany: Tim 13 – Linda 5.
- Bike and equipment problems:
- We both replaced our chains and cassettes in Kuala Lumpur.
- Tim had been looking to replace his notably worn chainrings for a while but no bike shops sold the right items, so he had two chainrings sent to his cousin’s place from the UK. However, the smaller one of the two is still bigger than his previous small chainring, making very steep climbs more difficult (and leading to some pushing).
- Linda replaced her jockey wheels.
- Tim replaced his pedals, as the old ones – bought in China – were quite small and while they worked well with his previous pair of shoes, had started being a constant source of discomfort once he bought new shoes.
- Tim replaced his front inner and outer gear cables after the outer cable wore out and didn’t allow for the inner cable to move freely anymore. Linda replaced her brake cables as a precautionary measure since she had never done so since the beginning of the trip.