Saturday, December 9, 2023

Finding (the source of) my mojo in Malaysia

I returned from our recent trip to Taiwan feeling like I needed a break, and hoping like hell that a work trip to Malaysia would prove the necessary antidote!  

A decade-long institutional relationship with a private college in Melaka had taken me annually to the region, but this would be my first trip back since the pandemic.  I'd taken a bike with me only once before, and had a wonderful time, simply following my wheel.  I hoped to have a similar experience, and to make space for it, extended the trip by five nights over the much shorter stay of my boss.  

Prep was simple - I unpacked my bike solely to wash it, and pulled together a very minimal gear list, thanks to an incredibly predictable temperature range.  Riding solo, I thought I might want to take a couple of selfies using the drone, so had the Revelate Egress Pocket to stow it and its controller.  Sarah's lower profile seat bag would be more than enough for overnight gear and a pair of jandals, and tools etc were still stowed in my frame and top tube bags.  The necessary GPS base map was simple to download and install from  

The work leg of the trip came first, and it was great to see the folk from KYS in person for the first time in four years, as well as colleagues from UC and UoA.  It was also a real treat to spend a few days "on the road" with my dean - someone I see often at work (and once, randomly, in Raetihi), and have great respect and admiration for.  

Prior to leaving NZ, I'd explored a few route options.  One was to cross the peninsula, riding from the west coast to the east coast and back again.  Another was to ride to Kampung New Zealand, a curiously named place I was aware of thanks to my father, a former NZ High Commissioner to Malaysia.   In the end, the allure of a border crossing into Singapore won out, and as I transitioned from work to play, a southern target for my first "leisure day" of the trip, in the parlance of work's insurance officer, was locked and loaded. 

Day 1 - Melaka to Pontian

After breakfast, I began preparations to leave the hotel.  I'd booked a single night prior to heading to the airport, and they were more than happy to store my bike bag and luggage until my return.  Three nights on the road beckoned.

While seemed to have good saturation in the towns between Melaka and Singapore, there weren't that many towns!  Consequently, I'd decided to give myself a fairly ambitious day, hopefully to enable a bit of sifting once I arrived in Singapore on day two.  I figured that riding alone, on flat terrain, great road surfaces, and a fast bike, would give me a helpful range boost.  

In 2019, I'd ridden as far as Muar, but decided not to fuck around searching out "new roads", and made a beeline for it down one of the main coastal routes.  Despite being on a big road, traffic wasn't an issue, and from time to time there was something interesting to see.

Functional hat sculpture

It wasn't too hot when I set out (mid 20s), and as both my legs and the day warmed up, I enjoyed playing a bit of a game trying to match my speed to the air temperature, occasionally to great success.

After crossing the Muar River, and navigating a strange one-way setup, I decided it was time for a late morning tea stop.  While nutritionally questionable, the "roti canai and teh tarik" combo from the ubiquitous Nasi Kandar restaurants - generally positioned at a ground floor corner of an office block - slipped down very nicely, and cost not even $2 all up.  Paying would often involve the price being displayed on a calculator, and I was now alert to the possibility that there'd be no decimal point (the previous afternoon, I thought I was being charged NZ prices, but 41 ringgit turned out to be 4.10...).  

The region was predominantly palm plantation, and therefore the scenery was pretty uniform,  I try to keep my eyes peeled for wildlife, but sadly roadkill are easier to spot than the real deal.  A top-10 list of exotic creatures which notably includes a French badger and many Tasmanian wombats, had various puny snakes replaced by a whopping and only partially squashed python.

Incredible to think of things like this lurking to my left...

Fatigue, and an ever sterner target had put paid to my "speed = temperature" game, and I started to fixate on my bike setup.  My saddle appeared to have slipped backwards (or had been dramatically aft for a while - who could say).  In combination with sweaty hands, this was making me feel quite uncomfortable when I had my "hands on the hoods".  I stopped a couple of times to faff around with allen keys, but had probably waited too long, so even useful changes weren't having the desired effect.  

I pulled a U-turn to check out what two young Malaysian women were selling at a road-side stall.  Among the extensive selection was a dessert I recognised from Little Penang's cabinet (one of our go-to Malaysian restaurants in Wellington).  After a short conversation with them, I rolled out with a family pack of sri muka - layered glutinous rice and pandan custard - in one of my pockets.  I dipped into this every once in a while, and enjoyed the taste from home...!

Sri muka was not the only souvenir of this stop!

As I should have expected, the day dragged on and on, but at the pointy end I found my hotel easily enough, about a kilometre from the main road.  There looked to be a couple of food vendors across the road, but by the time I was washed up and ready to eat, both fatigue and a heavy downpour meant the 20 metre walk was a bridge too far, and I satisfied myself with a very unsatisfactory "meal" from the convenience store in the same building as the hotel.  

Malaysia, known for its great food...

Stats: a somewhat ambitious 172km, average speed 27.5km, average temp 31 degrees

Day 2 - Pontian District to Singapore

My room came with free breakfast, which included energy-laden banana-leaf-wrapped nasi lemak.  I spent quite a bit of time messing around with various mapping tools on my phone, but never really got myself completely sorted.  In any case, it would be a ride of two halves: the first to the Woodlands Crossing into Singapore, and the second, from there to my hotel on the far side of the island.  

Having seen no cyclists on day 1, only a few minutes into my ride, I saw a sharply dressed peloton heading the other way.  While a Saturday for me, the locals were enjoying the second day of their Friday-Saturday weekend - not uncommon in Malaysia.  

One of the downsides of route planning on a phone is that the screen doesn't have enough real estate to get a good sense of an area.  Zoomed out, a cyclist tends to get too little information about suitable roads (seeing only major highways), while zoomed in, it is hard to see the wood for the trees, and again, it feels like you're getting too little information.  Target one was a bridge over the Pulai River, and from there I would need sort out how to get to Woodlands.  

South of Pontian really felt off the beaten track, and I enjoyed ducking through a couple of plantation roads, one of which was barely wide enough for a car, despite being beautifully surfaced.  

That spat me out onto a major road, in the form of the not-even-one-year-old Pulai River Bridge.  There, I was passed by a trio of roadies who were really hauling, though I passed them stopped at the "summit" of the bridge.  The bridge itself gave spectacular views, north up the Malay Peninsula, and south over impressive port infrastructure.  

Soon after, I was passed by a group of 8 cyclists, which probably included the threesome.  They seemed happy for me to jump in, and I enjoyed sucking wheels for 10 minutes or so.  Once again, they were moving at an impressive clip, and when I pulled the pin and left them to it, I noticed that one guy was being pushed up the hill by a cobber on an E-bike, shedding useful light on our pace along the flat.  

It was a shame I hadn't been able to hang on, as navigation through to Woodlands was tricky, and at times I found myself on busy major roads.  That said, cyclists were out in abundance, and served to reassure myself that I wasn't breaking rules (or norms, at least) by riding where I didn't belong.  

A common design feature of the three lane roads was that approaching a crossroad, the middle two lanes would have an overbridge bypass of the intersection, while the outside lane would stay low and deliver to a set of traffic lights.  This felt like a damned-if-you-do / damned-if-you-don't decision point, as crossing the outside lane felt dodgy amongst fast moving traffic.  On the other hand, I soon discovered that going "straight through" the set of lights was often not possible (at least for a law abiding car), with left and right turns being the sole options.  Hopping a curb allowed me to pick up the on-ramp, but it started to feel like the greater of two evils.  

The stress of the approach to Woodlands meant the border crossing, which I'd been looking forward to and had been to a great extent the motivation for the ride, was a bit of a blur.  I'd dutifully filled out an SG Arrival Card, though had joined an SG to Malaysia Cycling Facebook group for guidance on how to handle "bicycle" not being an available vehicle option for Land entry.  As a result, my declaration wasn't 100% accurate, but this seemed not to present a problem at the well signposted manual lane, and I was soon through, with a Malaysian exit stamp in my passport as a memento.  

Stress levels rose soon after, as it became apparent I'd missed a bicycle-friendly exit ramp on the Singapore side.  I managed to get off the fantastic but illegal shoulder of a freeway, by jumping first an armco barrier, then a deep gutter, then a small fence, and riding out of the road reserve on a small path.  

The difference between Malaysia and Singapore was stark, and I mistakenly thought supply stops would be abundant.  The first was easy to find, and was a hub of various fast food options.  I made do with a seat in a drinks bar, from which I could both enjoy some air conditioning, and keep a close eye on my bike.  Their specialty gula melaka drink took me a great step further towards sugar overdose - I quite enjoy teh tarik once a fortnight or so, but the overly sweetened drinks were rapidly pushing me towards my threshold, and a different approach was beckoning.  

As somewhat of an av-geek, I was keen to ride around Changi Airport perimeter, and keeping the water on my left also made for simple navigation.  En route (having done very little homework), I was surprised to find another airport - Seletar - and a dearth of shops.  In the end, needing both food and drink, I asked a young couple for directions and deviated from the Round Island Route that I'd stumbled upon (and was proving to be nice cycling, lo and behold).  After the best part of ten minutes, I noticed a supermarket, and duly raided it.

Without retracing my steps, I tried to hook back into the cycle path.  A promising sealed track through a river-side bush reserve had regular public service announcements on "what to do when you encounter wild boars".  Literally 20 seconds after stopping to photograph one, I encountered none other than a wild boar.  In my surprise, I both struggled to remember the instructions and was unable to capture the moment for posterity, failing the latter completely, and the former somewhat.  

For whatever reason, I was not having good sensations, and to break things up I stopped often, both giving a chance to recover physically and to observe the weekend in action.  The downside of the regular breaks was that the ride duration began to mount up, thus adding to fatigue and the inclination to stop.  A couple of bad turns didn't help, and the day was slipping by.

An interesting ship at the Loyang Jetty

At Changi Village, an ice cream and coke supplemented my usual convenience store purchases of 100-Plus electrolyte drink and cold water.  From there, the ride to my hotel looked simple, but while "around the airport and along the foreshore" were quick to say, they still represented 30km on the ground.  

The airport was huge, and while I was momentarily in the flight path at the northern end of the runway (and got to enjoy some departing planes overhead), much of the perimeter could have been big, straight, flat road in an industrial area anywhere in the world.  

Approaching the runway axis again, I left the roadside and entered a lovely parkland, which was full of people walking, riding, and whatnot.  I was delighted to discover that a big plane overhead was none other than an Air New Zealand flight landing, though didn't have the wherewithal to wipe down my camera lens before taking a snap through the trees.  

NZ284, almost done for the day

By this stage, it was 5pm, and I was well and truly ready to stop.  Despite the many potential customers  and yours truly craving a pick-me-up, I was unable to spot a food or drink vendor.  On the positive side, the busyness of the park kept me entertained.  One of the more interesting sights was the Singapore Wake Park, with a collection of overhead tow ropes providing forward propulsion for people on boogie boards.  Some runs were a dedicated out-and-back type arrangement where the sole rider was responsible for sweeping U-turns at each end, while others were a big loop, which a rider did as one of many on the minute-long circuit.  Recovering from a crash on the latter involved a long swim, whereas the former was a relatively simple recovery as your tow rope came back to you - I presumed there was an operator tasked with helping a fallen rider get going again, but perhaps it was an automated system that returned to where sensors told it things had gone pear-shaped! 

I arrived at my hotel to discover I'd stayed there before en route to Malaysia!  Once showered, I paid crazy money to use the guest laundry (to the extent that the attendant seemed amazed that I wanted to proceed), and while I was waiting for my wash to finish, the heavens really opened!  The rain was of biblical proportions, and while I may have been able to borrow an umbrella, I didn't feel like aquaplaning in my jandals, so made do with a simple meal from the mall below the hotel.  I had enough Singaporean cash to cover a somewhat eclectic combination of laksa and fries before heading up to bed.  

Stats:  147km ridden, moving time = 7h22, elapsed time = 8h46 (which came as a great surprise to me when I looked it up just now - was expecting to find at least 2h of sitting around...).  

Day 3 - back the way I came

Reflecting on my lack of energy and enthusiasm the previous day, I'd drawn the conclusion that I hadn't eaten nearly enough and tried to force myself to go a wee bit overboard at the breakfast buffet.  Fearing more of the same nonetheless, I plotted a fairly direct route back to the Woodlands Crossing, and picked a destination which would cut the 270km back to Melaka almost exactly in half.  

I hadn't rushed out of bed or away from the hotel, but soon concluded that most of the city-state was still slumbering.  The roads were very quiet, despite being engineered for a lot of traffic!  

As I neared the bridge back to Malaysia, I was fortunate to catch a sign reading "Motorcyclists to Woodlands Checkpoint use BKE via Turf Club Ave", which I took to apply to me as well.  Had I re-read this blog, I wouldn't have left this to chance, but suffice it to say, the route got me there in one piece (albeit wondering if I was turning a blind eye yet again to freeway rules).  Cyclists were definitely less well catered for on this side of the border, and I didn't see any bicycle signage at all, more's the pity.  

At the Malaysian border control, I had to wait in a 15-minute queue for a manual counter.  There, I struggled to hear the fellow behind the heavy glass, but after showing him outbound flights on my Air New Zealand app, he, apparently begrudgingly, let me back into the country.  

My accommodation at Ayer Hitam was on Route 1, which runs north parallel to AH2 (Asian Highway Route 2).  By this stage, I was in the "are we there yet" frame of mind, so made no attempt to find a more interesting route through Johor Bahru, or beyond.  

Slowly but surely, I sensed the city coming to an end, and traffic thinned considerably when the road intersected for the first time since Woodlands with AH2.  I grabbed a service station pick me up, and enjoyed a bit of shade half an hour later just outside a Hindu Temple.

I made do with some snacks for lunch at yet another service station, favouring the air conditioning (and predictability) over local food.  In the face of "better to regret something you did, than something you didn't", I'm still kicking myself for not stopping for afternoon tea at a place I passed later, which was teeming with people.  The queue looked to be a good half an hour's worth, and it seemed absolutely certain that something delicious lay in wait, not to mention a nice cultural experience...

An hour later, I was desperate for a break, and settled on the first Family Mart I'd seen since the thousand or so Sarah, Brendan, Viv and I had passed in Taiwan a few weeks prior.  As a tip of the hat to them, I decided to brave the dreaded door chime, only to find that this venue was bucking chain policy by not having one (or muting it!).  Despite having tables for eat-in, my request to have some instant noodles there seemed to elicit confusion, but we got there in the end.  

A messy and unmemorable day, mostly due to my headspace, had a messy ending thanks to my accommodation's location in the system being completely wrong.  Thankfully, the incorrect location was en route to the actual location, and a hotel with a vaguely similar (but not identical) name was searchable in Google Maps.  It was on the far side of Ayer Hitam, so I rode past very many restaurants to get to the hotel.  

There, I was relieved to be able to check in, and after stashing my bike in the staff area, and then showering, I stumbled down to the next door Nasi Kandar for dinner.  I ordered a mee goreng, which was tasty, but a fried chicken wing had been chopped with a cleaver before being stirred into the meal, so I had to eat more carefully than I'm prone to do.  A shame, as I was well and truly in the mood to wolf my food down.  (Anyone who's ever seen me eat would be forgiven for wondering if that is ever not true...!!!!)  

Stats:  134km at an average speed of 21km/h, a far cry from Day 1's pace of 27.5km/h.  Are. We. There. Yet...?

Day 4 - back to Melaka

I started the day with a very nice nasi lemak and a couple of roti canai, determined to have a better ride, energy-wise.   

Breakfast of champions? I hoped so

After a short time on Route 1, I turned off and took relatively minor roads to hook into Route 24 which went all the way to Muar.  The spell away from the highway had been nice, and returning to it (and its traffic) not so much.  In my eagerness to take another back road, I didn't do as much due diligence as I should have, and a "parallel route" turned out to add quite a bit of riding.  Despite that, it was nice to be on smaller roads, and between the occasional stops for shade, or at stores for a pick-me-up, good progress was made.  

I probably should have found a decent meal at Muar, but continued to make do with service stations, where I was guaranteed cold air and cold drinks.  I began tipping cold water down my back and over my head, which was refreshing, but I made the mistake of stowing my cap in a pocket.  A couple of weeks on, a strip of badly sunburnt head has both stopped hurting and stopped peeling!  I've thanked my lucky stars for my height, presuming that from above and behind, I've looked bloody silly!!

I think through a combination of motivation-to-finish, somewhat better attention to what I ate, and the physical and psychological effect of the cold water, I managed a higher average speed back to Melaka.  I spotted another dead Malaysian Civet, the first of which I'd ridden by without stopping a couple of days prior.  Sad, but fascinating.  

A Malaysian Civet, a touch smaller than a labrador dog, at a guess

Nearing Melaka, I took a series of back-roads to Ayer Keroh, where my hotel was waiting!  After a wash, I decided that I couldn't be bothered with an outing, despite again having access to a proper pair of shoes.  In any case, the hotel restaurant made a mighty fine laksa, which marked a happy ending to a surprisingly unenjoyable cycle tour.  

Stats:  137km ridden, average temperature 35 degrees.

* * *

The solo cycle tour was something I was craving, and yet it was an experience from which I came to a surprising realisation.  

Harking back to the VORB days, I had a thread titled "Sifter Goes (Bike) Riding", in which I used to say something about almost every ride I did.  When I shifted to this blog, I documented a lot of racing and exploring, but when I look back at recent years, almost every post describes a trip with Sarah.  This year alone, we've ridden in Tasmania, Thailand, Mongolia, South Korea and Taiwan - latterly joined by Brendan and Viv.  In 2022, we did a mix of domestic and overseas riding (South Island and Coromandel, Fiji and Australia).  I have to go back to an Easter 2021 ride with Brendan to find a cycle tour I did without Sarah, and to June 2018 to find a cycle tour I did (mostly) alone.  

Le Cycle Tour de France, ridden back in June 2013 and described via daily posts in June 2018, remains a period I vividly remember as one of great calm, great enjoyment, and encompassing 4800km over a period of 29 days, a ride in which I devoured kilometres without ever feeling sated.  

I think my lack of enjoyment of the roads between Melaka and Singapore was a combination of many factors, all pushing in the same direction:  

  1. a lack of fitness had me poorly prepared for 590km in four days;
  2. I didn't fuel well, with low appetite and poor choices both contributing;
  3. my route choice was not great, focusing on the destination (i.e. border crossing) rather than seeking interesting terrain.

But, I think the single biggest factor was that I was not in the company of my dear wife.  I set out thinking that this was a feature, and that I wanted to be alone.  But I finished knowing it was actually a bug, and discovering how much she's become a factor in making a good ride just that.  

On reflection, I realise how much less I stress about her now - every pothole, or car, or bit of debris in the road used to trigger a fear reflex as I hoped that Sarah would notice it and successfully pass it by.  That is a wasted reflex nowadays, such is her level of experience - touch wood, gone are the days of phone calls from roadside or emergency rooms reporting another silly crash.  

I also realise how much Sarah entertains me when we are out on the road.  When she's ahead of me, I enjoy watching her pedal, and full of admiration, the hours fly by.  At other times, I constantly have my eyes peeled for opportunities to take photos of her in a way that showcases our surroundings.  We stop more deliberately, enjoying food, drink, and conversation.  In trying to ensure she has a good time, I ensure I have one myself. 

In the bike racing scene, you often hear that "you're either winning or learning", but this trip was both.  I did get some solid exercise, and enjoyed eating some great, cheap food.  The ride wasn't fulfilling in the way I expected, but I would argue that it was much more than I could have hoped for.  Far from returning to say "I really must do that more often", I think I'll be hesitant to ever do it again!  Instead, I will make damn sure that Sarah, my riding-super-power these days, is part of the plan. 

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