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

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