The curry came on a banana leaf. No cutlery to be seen Bollywood songs drowned out the din of traffic, and, when the wind blew, incense wafted through the restaurant from the sari shop across the road. I had Chinese for lunch, just five hundred meters down the road in a neighbourhood that was another world to this one. Little India in Georgetown, Penang – and indeed every Little India in every Malaysian town I visited – will be the closest thing to the Subcontinent I would experience on this trip. Thanks, continuing regional instability in the Myanmar-India border area…But that’s OK. New plans have been laid and a new red line now zig zags half way across an old-timey map of the world in my mind, because I watched some Indiana Jones films recently.
Georgetown was an old British Free Port during the 19th Century and boasts an ethnic patchwork of Malays, Chinese, Indians, and so many more. You just have to look at the street signs, like Lebuh Armenian, to see that this old town boasted the diversity of a modern day metropolis and when it comes to the diversity of food, it really gives any big city a run for it’s money. Throw in some old and mostly tastefully restored Chinese Shophouses and British colonial buildings and you’ve got the perfect destination for a hungry history nerd. It was my favourite city eight years ago during my last trip to South East Asia and on my return visit it seems the relentless march of development has been merciful, so far.
I eventually stopped eating and resumed cycling but, unfortunately, as I didn’t have enough time to go around to the East coast of Malaysia and I resigned to cycle down route 1, the old main road. While there is a new highway that takes the bulk of the traffic, this was not exactly the leisurely ride that Thailand spoiled me with for over a month. The road was never consistent; sometimes there was a hard shoulder but it would abruptly disappear, forcing you into the main stream of cars that, I’m sorry to say, really are contenders for South East Asia’s worst (for cyclists, at least). I have had more near misses in this country and anywhere else as impatient drivers just could wait until there was enough space to safely overtake. On one occasion some inpatient driver lost his wing mirror to oncoming traffic. It almost made me homesick for the UK. It’s a shame, because the people here have been so nice; the guy that cuts you up could be the same guy that rolls down his window at the next set of traffic lights, hands you a bottle of ice cold water and some words of encouragement.
I decided to do one last climb in this part of the world and spent a day climbing up to the Cameron Highlands – the old British Hill station that is now the destination for local weekenders wanting their fix of tea plantations and mock-Tudor architecture. The reward for this climb was that it confirmed my suspicions that I am cursed: every time I venture above 700m elevation in South East Asia I am doomed to see nothing and get drenched, thanks to the torrential rain that I seem incapable of escaping. As the rains eventually subsided but the road looking no better all the way to Kuala Lumpur, I decided just to get there as quickly as possible and hang out for an extra night in a forest park for an extra night before entering the alleged bike-hating metropolis.
In the end, entering KL wasn’t t that bad, if you go via Batu Caves and follow a dead straight road that takes you right into the middle town. Oh, and get up at 4:30am to do so. KL was nice at first and involved rooftop bars, fancy restaurants and time spent with old friends. The second half involved boxes, bikes that were too big to fit in them, and a lot of swearing. After two days I eventually beat mechanical and spacial ineptness, checked in the bike and sit here in the airport, writing this.
Because I’m off to Japan!
For three months!
After Japan I’ll be…dare I say it….cycling elsewhere….somewhere I don’t know much about except for mid-afternoon soap operas and animals that are good at high jump and boxing.
The bike is at the mercy of baggage handlers now and my flight boards in an hour. See you for the next adventure.