All in all four days passed very quickly and all too soon it was time to say goodbye and continue on our way. Christine’s parents left early on the 29th to fly home, and we left later that morning with the intention of taking the ferry back to the mainland (rather than cycling a road we had already cycled down to get here). We had been told that there was a ferry at 13.30 leaving from the pier near to Phuket town, around 20km from the resort, so we left in plenty of time. As we got into Phuket town no signposts were evident so we asked a guy on a motorbike, who kindly volunteered to show us. He seemed sure of himself, so although we were confused when he pointed us back the way we had come, we concluded we must have been given mis-information to start with, and willingly cycled back to Chalong, less than 5km from where we had started. We got there to be told that no, the ferries did leave from Phuket town after all – where we had been directed to was just a booking office. Very annoying as by now we did not have time to get back to Phuket town in time for the ferry. We decided to go anyway, and to book our tickets for the sailing the following morning (the booking office in Chalong could, rather unhelpfully, only sell us a combined bus transfer/boat ticket, not just the boat ticket, so we figured we would buy our ticket straight from the pier). So another 15km back to Phuket town, where again we struggled to find the pier. An expat, also on a bike, asked us if we needed directions so we we explained what we were looking for. He looked puzzled and said he was certain the pier was not in Phuket town, but 10km north instead. He said he had lived on Phuket for three years and had never heard of there being a ferry port in Phuket town, he was 100% certain it was north of there.
Again he seemed so certain we went with his advice, heading up to the boat lagoon marina, only to find that it was a private marina full of yachts! The only way to leave from there on a boat was to hire a yacht – not quite what we had in mind price-wise. We were, naturally, quite annoyed by this stage. After all boat is a very popular way to get to and from Phuket so why does no-one on the island seem to know where the flipping pier is?!! It seems they are just not used to independent travellers in this part of the world; most people take a transfer to the pier from their hotel, which may help to explain the confusion. Anyway back to Phuket town we went, this time we eventually found a sign to the pier we were looking for and hey presto we found it ourselves. Quite a big place with lots of boats and lots of passengers! Having bought our tickets for the following morning, we returned to Phuket town to get a hotel – all in all we had cycled some 70km, to travel just 20km. It had to happen at some stage on the trip we guess!
After a pleasant enough but uninspiring night in Phuket town, we headed to the ferry port nice and early for the boat to Ao Nang beach on the mainland. We contemplated getting the boat further south to Koh Lanta and cycling from there, but that would have involved changing boats and would have felt like cheating a bit too much. In hindsight perhaps we should have done that as we ended up being a bit pushed for time, particularly as the boat took somewhat longer than scheduled. It was a pleasant trip though, certainly a nice way to travel. From Ao Nang we cycled to Krabi, where we had a quick lunch, beforecontinuing south. Our original plan had been to get to Krabi the afternoon before, then to spend the next day cycling as far as Trang, 130km away. Because of the delay with the ferry, we weren’t able to start cycling until 1pm, so there was no chance we were getting all the way to Trang. Instead we made it to a small town around 60km south of Krabi. There was only one small guesthouse in town, and it was quite basic, but it was cheap so that was fine by us. A big thunderstorm started shortly after we arrived, good timing once again!
After an early night we headed off south, deciding to bypass Trang in favour of sticking to quiet roads near the coast. Unfortunately this area does not appear to be very well mapped and it was quite a bit further than our map suggested, so it took longer than anticipated, and we only made it as far as the small town of Yan Ta Kao. Again there was only one hotel in town, again basic but clean and cheap. The twist on this that we subsequently realized is that the hotel appears to double as a brothel – there were lots of skimpily clad ladies hanging around, and each motel style room had a parking spot in front of it with a curtain that could be pulled across to conceal the car behind it. New Year’s in a Thai brothel, memorable for all the wrong reasons! Figuring there wouldn’t be much happening (the Thai new year, in April, is a much bigger celebration), and tired from our cycling, we had a game of scrabble, evicted two enormous cochroaches that invaded the room, then went to bed – very rock and roll! We were wrong about not much happening in town, in fact we might as well have stayed up and joined in as we certainly didn’t get much sleep – fireworks and loud music all over town lasted until the wee hours.
The town certainly looked quite sleepy when we got up earlythe next morning. Our plan was to get as close to the Malaysian border as possible, and after 120km of hot, hilly and headwindy cycling we called it a day in a small town about 20km shy of the border. Southern Thailand is heavily Muslim, which is great as far as we are concerned as Muslims are always really hospitable. Indeed that morning we were called over by the traffic police, only to be offered a cup of coffee and some biscuits! And whenever we were looking for a hotel, rather than just vaguely pointing in the right direction, the person we had asked would almost always get on their moped or bike and show us. Very kind and most appreciated.
The next morning was a Sunday and when we reached the relatively remote border at around 10am we were surprised to find it heaving with activity – it turns out there is a cross-border market on Sundays, which is popular both with tourists and locals. To be honest it didn’t look very inspiring to us – a bit like a car boot sale – so after getting the requisite stamp in our passports we moved quickly on. A big steep hill on just the other side of the border provided a bit of a shock to the system, but we were pleasantly surprised that we seemed to make much lighter work of it than a group of local cyclists – complete with fancy bikes, lots of lycra and no bags – all the cycling over the last year is definitely paying off! We were quite hungry but had no Malaysian currency, and had to cycle 40km to the town of Kangar before we got to an ATM. Because we were so hungry, and we had a bit of a tailwind for the first time since leaving Phuket, we made short work of the ride. After several days in real backwaters in southern Thailand we were delighted to find a KFC, complete with air-conditioning, hooray! After two combo meals each we felt a little more human and carried on with gusto to our destination for the night, the pleasant town of Alor Setar. Again we appreciated the benefits of a more developed country as we were able to find a hotel that was cheap but nonetheless offered air-con and hot water – we hadn’t had a hot shower since Phuket so this was certainly welcome!
We were also pleased to find that English is very widely spoken in Malaysia, making asking directions etc a lot easier. Plus the roads are in good condition and well signposted, so we had no problems the next day covering the 100km to Butterworth, the jumping off point for Georgetown on Pulau Penang. While we would have liked to visit Georgetown, we really didn’t have time (we only had another 4 days to get to KL to meet Pete’s sister Sarah and her friend Becky), so we spent the night on the mainland. Butterworth is a very uninspiring place, your typical seedy port town, with a bit of a nasty undertone. To us it was telling that this is not a Muslim town, which generally feel friendlier and safer to travellers, but a predominantly Chinese one. Malaysia has a fascinating mix of cultures – due to the British (who colonised Malaysia until 1957) encouraging mass immigration of Chinese and Indians into Malaysia in the 19th and early 20th centuries, indigenous Malays only make up around 55% of the total population – quite remarkable when you think about it, especially when you consider how culturally diverse the three (Malay, Chinese and Indian) populations are. Malaysia has had its fair share of ethnic tensions in the past, but currently it seems that people here live at ease with each other. What is noticeable though is that they don’t appear to mix that much, to the extent that some towns are clearly Malay, others Chinese etc, and in towns that are more mixed you can easily tell when you are in the Malay versus the Indian section etc.
Anyway, back to Butterworth. We felt sufficiently uneasy in this clearly slightly dodgy town that we decided that Pete would go and get a take-away KFC to eat in our hotel room, so we didn’t have to go out. This was actually fine as we had National Geographic on the TV so were very happy to have a TV dinner! The next day we kept on Highway 1 – which was getting busier and busier as we headed south, until the town of Taiping, where we decided to branch off onto Highway 5 through what looked like a quieter, more rural area. Indeed for the next couple of days we saw far more wildlife (in particular monkeys, birds and malaysian ‘dragons’) than humans as we passed through either rainforest jungle or palm oil plantations, which cover huge areas of land in Malaysia. The only downside to this was it was hard to find places to stay, as it was quite remote – on the first night we even had to double back 5km to stay in a fishing ‘resort’ in the village of Treng as there was nowhere else. It was fairly basic but comfortable enough, and it was really nice sitting on the jetty watching the wildlife in the adjacent river as we ate dinner and breakfast. A particular highlight was when a family of otters suddenly appeared and swam in circles around the bay chasing a shoal of flying fish – a quite spectacular accompaniment to breakfast.
The next day was quite long, largely due to some poor directions from a local that we asked that resulted in us doing two sides of a triangle unnecessarily to reach the town of Teluk Intan. As we had already cycled for 8 consecutive days (normally we would only cycle for 5 days or so at a time at the most) we were pretty tired, and were happy to find a decent hotel just as a huge thunderstorm was getting going. A nice thing that happened here was that as we were parking up in front of the hotel, a guy driving by stopped and asked if we would like to stay at his house. Unfortunately we were exhausted, hot, sweaty and starving, and as churlish as it sounds all we wanted was a shower, comfortable bed and big dinner – rather than trying to navigate to someone’s house to be sociable for the evening. So we politely declined and plumped for the hotel instead. We certainly appreciated the offer though, very kind.
From Teluk Intan we charged down Highway 5, reaching Kuala Selangor (about 60km from KL) by 4pm. As Sarah wasn’t due to arrive until 3pm or so the following day, we could have (and perhaps should have）stayed in one of the several hotels there, but we decided to keep going in the hope that we would find a hotel in one of the satellite towns closer to KL. This was a mistake, as we ended up doing another 40km, the last 10km of which were horribly busy, before finding a cheap but nasty hotel on the outskirts of KL. Still, the more we did then meant the less we had to do the next day, so although we were exhausted and starving after 150km of cycling that day, it wasn’t a disaster. The suburb we ended up in was Indian, which was absolutely fine by us as it meant we could have a great curry feast for dinner, just what we needed. Incidentally we were expecting Malaysia to be significantly more expensive than other SE Asian countries, due to its greater level of development and westernisation, but we haven’t really found this to be the case. Cheap accommodation is harder to find – but not impossible – but the food is cheaper even than in Thailand. Typically, for a big plate of rice with curried vegetables, along with two or three iced drinks (such as ice lemon juice, or ice coffee), we have been paying around 1 pound each, sometimes even less – bargain!
After a long sleep (we overslept the alarm by 2.5 hours! Not a problem though as we had such a short ride to do) we headed off around 10.30am, and had no problem navigating to our hotel (the wonders of our Garmin sat nav!), arriving before midday, leaving us a few hours to sort out our things, catch up on some errands etc before Sarah and Becky arrived. It was a long ride to get here – almost 1000km in 9.5 consecutive days – so we are definitely ready for a rest!