Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Riding into the Belly of the MCP - inside finally, and out!

We were very excited when we got up but first things first. Betong is famed for great Dim Sum breakfasts and we were not disappointed. The corner coffee shop just at the exit of the Betong Mongkollit Tunnel was a hive of activity in the early morning, buzzing with hungry customers. Betong has a sizeable Chinese population and this is reflected in its great cuisine. We ordered all our favourites and were pleasantly surprised at the price!


After the wonderful Dim Sum breakfast, we did a bit of a walkabout around town to aid digestion. It was interesting to walk past Holiday Hill, the hotel that took the full brunt of the car bomb in July. Heartening to know that it has been repaired and nearly ready for business.


It was very fascinating too to walk into a Chinese Temple up on the hill where lots of Chinese folk legends were depicted in statures and stories. Our camera had a field day trying to capture the multitude of colours and images before us. Our next agenda was the main agenda - The Piyamit Tunnels. Instead of cycling, we decided to get a 250B rented scooter to make our way there and this proved the wisest thing ever. Located 20+ km away near the Hot Springs, getting there was challenging even for our 125cc Fuel Injected Honda Click that strained and groaned up those mountainous inclines.

Our first stop was the Winter Flower Garden. Located high up in the mountains, it was nice and cool making it very conducive for plants and flowers. There are accommodations here and it is worth a stay with fresh mountain air. We enjoyed a great cup of freshly brewed Cappuccino, on a lovely deck overlooking the lake before riding down to the main attraction.

The Piyamit Tunnels of Betong was the launching point in the late 70s of many attacks by the Malayan Communist Party in their fight, firstly for independence from the British, and later for a communist Malaya. They were driven here from the jungles of Malaysia by the British and I was surprised that this was built as recently as 1976, nearly 30 years after The Emergency. It took only 3 months to construct with numerous tunnels dug in the rugged mountains and it was of course, bomb proof. The tunnels was the food and ammo centre for the MCP Army as well as had a hospital in the caves.

We had the privilege of meeting Ms Chung, a former MCP soldier who lived in the jungles for 12 years. She now works as a guide together with her former colleagues and is a wealth of information. Food was always scarce and the suffering they endured for their cause is truly admirable.


There is a museum too which displays uniforms, weapons, cooking utensil, propaganda materials and even musical instruments. What was really sad was an internal purge that killed off many innocent members. I came away feeling very sorry for the MCP as their struggle since WW2 until 1989 when a peace treaty was finally achieved in Hat Yai, yielded not one square inch of soil for the MCP, and with so many people killed on both sides.

We felt very compelled to help out these ex-soldiers who by the grace of the Thai government, have settled at the border and spend their time seeking a living selling souvenirs and stuff to tourists at the entrance of the tunnels.
Riding back to Betong town, we had to navigate through some very steep descends so much so that the front disk brake of our scooter, with 2 of us on board, struggled to keep us from going off the steep cliffs. It was hairy to say the least. Lunch was taken at the many roadside stalls and once again, we were bowled over by the friendly locals. We did a bit of exploring Betong town and by chance, stumbled upon a workshop specialising in restoring old Mercedes Benz. The mechanic proudly invited us to have a peek inside the bonnet, and behold, these grand dames were replaced by none other than Toyota engines. He swore that these engines were more powerful and more economical than the originals and his happy customers can't be wrong!

As we were all tired out, we enjoyed another massage in town and decided to try the lovely street food outside our Hotel. We were spoilt for choice and we tried everything, this being our last evening. As much as we enjoyed our dinner, I was a little worried.
Our problem was how to get back to Malaysia and thereon to Singapore some 700+km away. There used to be a coach to KL from Betong by Alison Golden Coach but this was unavailable. In fact, there were no big coaches that come to Betong, despite this being a rather prominent border town. Out of options, we had no choice but to cycle across the border into Malaysia once more into Pengkalan Hula where there are buses that went to KL. Thanks to our good buddy and guru KL Mike Khor, a quick call to him got our bus tickets confirmed to KL at 930am and it was so kind and generous of him to treat us.

The next day we left early in the morning for the border after a lovely breakfast in the food court of the town's market. It was then an easy 8km to the Immigration and despite the climb, we felt invigorated and strong. Clearing customs on both sides was a breeze and we stopped at a hot springs resort just 3km after the border as we were early. It was nice to soak our feet in hot mineral water with no one in sight.

Arriving at Pengkalan Hulu, we had breakfast #2 - my favourite Nasi Lemak. If it was good enough for the well endowed local police who were feeding there, it was good enough for us. We had fun exploring the town and cycling around the lake. When our stylish double decker bus finally arrived, we folded our bikes and stored it in the luggage hold. The driver somehow was not happy about having foldies in his bus, but that was his problem. It was not till 5pm that we arrived in KL, all worn out. Thanks to some touts, we got our 2 tickets to Larkin JB and it was another 5 hrs in the bus. We arrived in JB close to midnight and enjoyed supper all red eyed.

When I finally got home at 2am in Singapore, I was totally all bussed out! Next time, cycling to Penang and flying home is a much better idea. But it is through times like these that make our adventures so fun and unpredictable. I slept with a thankful heart, knowing that we have entered the belly of the MCP and came home in one piece. But more importantly, we experienced a part of history in ways that books and videos cannot convey. We stood where the MCP Army once stood, we walked the caves that they dug, we breathe the same musty air that they breathed and saw and heard for ourselves, first hand their struggles and their hopes.

Lord Action once said that History is not a burden on the memory but an illumination of the soul. By that token, our souls have indeed been illumined and for that, we are humbled and grateful. Thus, may we always challenge ourselves to discover the rich history of the places we tour. My appreciation goes out to KC for his partnership in yet another successful Lovethefold Adventure and of course, to Almighty God who protects and provides for us so faithfully!
Pics fm KC and Al

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Riding into the Belly of the MCP - Day 3. Crossing the Border into Betong


We had a good sleep at SMZ Hotel and getting up at 7am was easy. I opened the window and was greeted by a lovely cool early morning mountain breeze. We wasted no time to check out as we wanted to ride in this perfect weather. Only 55km awaited us today. After cruising around the 2 street town of Grik, we found a Chinese coffee shop selling curry noodles and nasi lemak. The friendly lady invited us in and the meal turned out very satisfying indeed. Seated below a no smoking sign at the far end was an old lady, probably the Grand Matriarch of the shop. She was busy smoking.


It was great to be out riding again in the cool morning breeze. As we rode out of town, the traffic got lighter and it was special to be spinning our small wheels with the mountains in sight.


Our destination initially was to ride to Pengkalan Hulu and then hang right northwards along Highway 67 towards the Thai border. However, there was a back road (1157) that begged to be explored some 27km before PH. I have read earlier that it was a shorter route ending north of Pengkalan Hulu along Highway 67, saving a few kms. A quick look at the terrain map alerted us to hills but KC and I are always game for a challenge and our gamble paid off in spades.

Highway 1157 to Betong turned out to be a most beautiful route on newly surfaced roads. Yes, it had some climbs, 3 steep ones in particular but nothing to really be worried about. Traffic was almost non existent and the scenery was breathtaking. It felt special to be skirting the border of Malaysia and Thailand and to know that this was formerly the home ground of the Malayan Communist Party. 30 years ago, we may have very well been caught in an ambush!


Our breakkie was soon gone and it was a good thing I had energy gels. 1157 is a relatively quiet road and we were very glad to come across some shops towards the end of this highway. A quick dart for ice milk tea, with an ant thrown in for extra taste, brought quick relieve for us.


It was great to have a chat with the local boys who enquired where we were heading. "Betong!" we said, and somehow, that led to them sharing all their blokey advice about where to get the best "after dark" entertainment. One chap was singing praises of Betong and bemoaned the lack of such offerings in conservative Perak. KC and I nodded politely and thank them for their kind concern for our manly "needs"...


It was so encouraging to see road markers showing us that Thailand was getting nearer and nearer. 1157 soon ended with a steep descent and I managed to hit 52km/h before turning right at the T. Here, it was a mild but long climb to the border. I always enjoyed crossing borders and this was the first time I was crossing into Thailand from Malaysia, and felt elated doing it on my Bike Friday Tikit. Clearing Malaysian Immigration was a breeze and the friendly officials were quite curious at seeing 2 small wheeled circus bicycles turning up at their post.


200m into no man's land we stopped at the border marker to take our inaugural photo together. It was very special to ride this adventure with my faithful riding Buddy KC and to do it on our city folding bikes. Crossing into Thailand, we could not contained our excitement. The Thai side was a bit more informal and we all had to pay an immigration official RM$2 to fill up our white immigration card. Felt this was a bit odd as we always filled this ourselves but I guess this sort of "supplemented" their wages.



The whole process was very smooth and easy and this is something we dare not take forgranted. Giving thanks to God, we were soon on our way in Thai terra firma flying downhill to Betong. The ride to town was only about 8km on very good wide roads. Many of the Thais here dressed exactly like the Malaysian locals and spoke Malay too. This is understandable as the southern parts of Thailand - Pattani, Narathiwat, Songkla, Satun and Yala were once a part of Malaya. The Anglo Siamese Treaty of 1909 saw these states ceded to Thailand by the British and today, it continues to brew the seed of discontentment with the occasional unrest. I was a bit concern when I later discovered that just 7 months ago, a car bomb went off in Betong town killing several people and injuring many. Which explains the lack of tourists I supposed... but we were not complaining.


Upon arrival in Betong, we were welcome by the sight of the Clock Tower. This small border town in itself is quite charming and quaint. We had a delicious lunch at a famous noodle place and was surprised that many people here spoke Mandarin. People here also seemed to be very friendly but that is to be said for Thailand in general.



There are quite a number of hotels catering mainly to Malaysian tourists but the largely reliable Tripadvisor pointed us to Modern Hotel and we were not disappointed. At 890B for the standard room, the location was very good just 100m from the Clock Tower and surrounded by eateries and shops.

Pic - Tripadvisor

Just outside the hotel had lots of street vendors selling amazing food at even more amazing prices. The rooms were clean and spacious, with some touches of modernity. But most of all, they were bike friendly so we cannot complain. Just make sure you get rooms that are far enough from the noisy Karoke.


There are enough attractions to keep one busy in Betong for a day or two. There are silly ones like the World's largest post box but the reason for my coming here is to experience the Piyamit Tunnels. These were constructed in the mid 70s by the Communists in their fight for a Communist Malaya. This we will do tomorrow not by bicycles, but by a rented moped as the hills there are not for the faint hearted.

Dinner was enjoyed at a lovely local Thai restaurant about 2.5km ride out of town, near the junction and opposite a petrol station. The Kra Samui restaurant was discovered by a blogger and it proved to be the best meal we had ever. The deep fried fish served with Thai spices and sauces floored us not only by its size, but by its quality and very reasonable price of about US$8. Pics don't do justice to this incredible dish!



After dinner, we finished off with a traditional Thai massage, had our 3rd cup of  Chai Ron (amazing hot milk tea) by the dark alley beside our hotel and that got us all ready for a well deserved snooze.


What a day it has been. We can't believe we are finally here in Betong Thailand! As always, I am grateful to KC for accompanying me for yet another crazy Lovethefold Adventure.

Photo credits - largely KC :)