It’s probably one of the best weeks of my life. To get the glimpse of travelling with the pinch of expedition feel with a blend of uncertainty, yet excitement. Months ago, I was planning to do a 30-days round Peninsula bike tour trip, however due to time constraint and yet promising myself to embark on this journey, I decided to do a 1-week east coast solo bike tour instead. And true enough it was an awesome experience! So much that I am sure my writing here is inadequate to reflect the many plots of the journey and after thought. Touring the east coast, by the means of solo bike tour, gave me what I have expected, to understanding the east coast social culture better. Being a Klang Valley dude who hasn’t exactly been to the east coast many times physically, the experience has indeed rewritten whatever prejudice from media and soceity have given me.
But what exactly hyped me to do this?
It’s seriously intrigued me on how one manages to pen this down into a script that enables non-bike tourers understand the journey. To put it in context, I have been commuting and travelling by bike since my highschool days, university days (which I did a lot of round island Penang solo trips), bike to work trips.. and biking overseas (Sabah, Hong Kong & Myanmar).. Coupled with an interest in urban design and traffic planning, the bicycle is the ultimate ride to understand a city in a glimpse. You get a totally different view of a city by riding a bike compared to in an enclosed steel box. From the many impromptu stops to admire the little wonders along the street, to the secret shortcuts to untouched urbanisation part of the civilisation. There are plenty of physical details of a city that made up my understanding towards it, from the social groups dispersion, the presence of local brands and international franchise, the public spaces, the building architecture, and most importantly, dozens of impromptu chats with the locals that gave me an overall aspiration of the city/town/village. Hence, the east coast trip gave me an express ticket to apprehend a paradigm in society well being, that is testified in the built environment experience. Actually, it’s not much different than backpacking, but when you can cover a larger area each day, that’s quite a lot to experience actually (not to mention saving transportation cost, ok well I ate a lot a lot on the way as well)
Many of my friends might consider that I am a cycling cult perhaps, but it’s also part of my career of greener built environment as it’s proven many times that the 2-wheels is the solution for last mile travelling in any size of cities. With all due respect, I am not as radical as many of the true bike tour explorers outside there globe-trotting currently without technology support. This is merely something very minor with 1-week distance and internet data available to understand the route ahead. Probably looking forward to do a real expedition tour but definitely not alone then. So I started from Rantau Panjang (Kelantan and Thailand Border) to Kemaman. Initially thought of heading down to Kuantan, but last minute realised that I have been there anyways (well that’s the advantage of solo ride right, do anything ride anywhere you like). The distance for each day ride pretty much depends on the destination you want to stop by.. The entire east coast is pretty spectacular actually, compared to west coast where usually huge towns and muddy mangrove line up the coast, the east coast has a continuous white sandy beach and blue coastline throughout, literally!
So there it is, at first sight before the trip, so I thought that I am well equipped! But then realising that I am beyond equipped. One mistake of bike touring is under or over packing your luggage. As this is merely a week tour that does not go off road, the packing load as seen above can be halved actually. Why so? First, I was expecting some nice warm coffee upon waking up with sun rise (hence why I brought my burner), but the entire east coast is actually well equipped with public spaces and food stalls along it! Furthermore with a bike, paddling away <5km isn’t a big deal. I could have gotten rid of the tent and sleeping matt, they only served me for a night. Terribly I would say, because it’s a one door tent where it doesn’t help much to utilise the cross ventilation of sea breeze. However, throughout the trip, the hammock proved to be the best tool when many fishing villages have fishermen huts around.
So where did I sleep?
Yes, I did sleep with the fishermen by the beach! Aside from the many star-gazing nights, it was also the essence of this entire solo bike packing trip to interact with locals. I had many good night conversations with the locals, where one could really feel the spirit of community, trust, simple life by being self-sufficient. Kids played sand castle all night long while fishermen just exchanged stories by the hut while waiting to change shift. It’s an eye-opening conversation to talk about current affairs and to understand their perspectives as much as security for their family needs is assured! And not surprisingly, there were many other bike tourers who had stopped by and similarly spent a night or two, according to them. There are many small communities like this along the coast which remained the favorite of mine, such as Kampung Beting Lintang and Marang where I would just ask for permission by the villagers. There are also public beaches with amenities I stayed such as Pantai Irama, Bachok and Paka. I do stay in hotels in city area, unfortunately there aren’t many decent single bedroom or hostel (not to my hygiene impression) in these east coast towns. However, there is one that I really recommend in Kota Bahru which is My Home Guesthouse (where most tourists stop by before heading to Perhentian for their PADI course)
Observing the Birth and Death of Small Towns
It’s always my curiosity that brought me here. To observe the activity nodes, to ride through the town and outskirts, to feel the atmosphere of whatever the place has to offer. Well I suppose I have adopted the curious mind of town survey from my architecture university years. Yes I am one who goes to museum and hence why I appreciate the comprehensive history shown in local town museums like the ones in Dungun and Kemaman. Though I won’t go into details and highlighting each, but briefly, the ride from North to South transcends from fishing villages to Oil and Gas hub towns. Towns like Marang, Rhu Sepuluh, Bachok. Besut and Rantau Abang region depend on fishing activities while towns from Dungun onwards, such as Kijal, Kemasik and Kerteh are satellite towns from the OnG hub in Paka, also known the home to the largest power plant in Peninsula. There are many interesting landmarks along the way such as spotting a huge mall that has cinema and bowling valley in Kerteh, assuming that it is to fulfill the entertainment needs of the many expats. There are many expats living in Paka, which is also the 3rd highest cost of living town in Malaysia. Also, Dungun is more likely to be an education hub now with Mara and Polytechnic intentionally placed there to keep the town alive, after the downfall of the iron ore mining of Bukit Besi in 1970s. Also, observing the birth of Kerteh new town and Kuantan China Industrial zone so on…
Food Food Food. Fuel of Journey
The beauty of solo bike touring is to stop anywhere and detour anytime to take time to observe the little wonders. Such as walking into the many small grocery stores along the trip and studying the locality of the brands (you don’t find gardenia or massimo bread there etc) . Choices of groceries are often limited and localized, home made ice cream etc with no brand wrappers etc). To put it simply, it’s simple and not subjected to industry regulations in most cases. I spent a lot on food, way too much I suppose. One would realise how personalized the Nasi Lemak and many other dishes there are. Some food has great influenced by Thai cuisine and vice versa. Trust me that Kelapa Jelly is often the saviour of my long scrotching hot ride where I wouldn’t mind paying rm5 instead of rm1.50 during that time. I had many Nasi Kerabu and Lekor, the ambassador of food for both Kelantan and Terengganu respectively. But also did try a few dishes like the stuff crab in Kemaman and damaged my wallet wit RM20 for a single dish!
Had a great time of eating many locality specials such as the hainanese chicken fillet rice in Kuala Terengganu and many Nasi Dagang, Nasi Minyak and Nasi Tomato along the way. Of course, colorful drinks are the must too! And it’s true that Lekor in east coast has a way different benchmark than that of West Coast. Some people told me it is due to the different fish paste being used (which I forgot the names).
Also took a visit to Siti Khadijah market. As the name suggest the wife of Nabi which brings a great characteristic of entrepreneurism, only women can be seen here. It is right middle of the town and to my surprise, yes I found turtle eggs sold openly! Later I managed to check with the Rantau Abang turtle santuary and it seems that there are limited permits to allow turtle eggs trading. Well, I thought it has been completely banned!
Among the noticeable landmarks across these small towns, one can realize the few familiar shops such as RM2 (their ‘daiso’), Kasut U (shoe shop), tenten (supermarket), thestore, harihari (clothes shop). And it’s always a pleasant surprise to cycle through remote roads and find big warehouse store like the one below! with some attractive names that will just suck you into it.
I can’t deny that the entire week was under a hot sun. Unlike what I thought to avoid 11am-3pm hot sun, it seems that it is just simply hot whenever the sun it out! And If I am to wait till it’s cloudy to cycle on, I wouldn’t hit my 60-100km mark for the day. So the only way is to… embrace the heat and say thank you to Petronas for drenching myself with water and stocking up soya drinks.
Here’s to the many selfies along the way, with dozens of great impromtu chats with locals and similar travellers. I actually did record plenty of video, just not sure when do I have the time to do such compilation.
Among the many highlights of the 1 week trip is the Tamadun Islam in Kuala Terengganu (where you visit 20+ islamic monuments in miniature form), Rantau Abang (turtle sanctuary and acquatic research education centre), Wat Phothikyan in Bachok (longest dragon wall in ASEAN) and crossing the border to Golok!
Thirst for Diversity
But what made this trip so fruiful is the companion of this book. Where it spoke about how our human minds evolve through society changes and formulates stereotype among us, where it helped me a lot in trying to open up with many deep conversations with the locals. I guess the most meaningful thing of travelling is to open up conversations with strangers with no prejudice and fear of judgement towards yourself. The entire trip was actually pretty much safe, it has helped me in terms of intuitively distinguish risk and trust. One instance was finding the right place to overnight as it’s out in the public, on one hand you want to be sure to be not too public to draw attention, on the other hand not too secluded from anything else. For example, if people are to approach me and ask what I am up to instantly, I will take a step back of precaution, such as an uncle wanted to know where I was staying put for the night. Thanks to Mosque, where I showered most of the time and refer to families for their opinions on safe place to camp out. And I suppose, it is because that I am a on a solo bike tour trip with a relative small bike wheel size, many have shown their compassion to me? haha.
And yes here’s to the post of few local girls who insisted a selfie with me! and then they added me on Facebook too! (which I didn’t approve lah!). This trip has of course gained me interest in trying to explore other many small towns around Malaysia with similar way, or via KTM bikepacking instead. It is an eye opening trip to experience first hand on the diversity of society within Peninsula (not even whole Malaysia yet). Many that know me would know that I am not your typical tourist that checks in popular places and countries. For the essence of travelling is to experience and talk to locals to see how different we are in human beings, the next paradigm shift could take place literally by travelling to the other nearby town within your country. So far the best experience I had was India and Myanmar, well it’s all about the people anyways, not shopping malls nor scenery (for me at least).
Welll, who wants to join me? 😉