Sunday, January 25, 2015

Riding into the Belly of the MCP – Day 2. Gerik, or bus!

Pic KC

Pic KC

Pic KC

The royal town of Kuala Kangsar sits peacefully by the Perak River and has a rich history, especially of British Malaya. It would be a shame if we just pedalled off without at least a quick visit to its historical highlights. After all, KC was born when “God save the Queen” was still sung daily upon this fair corner of The Empire.

It was very kind of the owner, Mr Leong, to share with us critical local information about where to go and more importantly, where to eat for breakfast. Our stay at The Shop was too brief, and certainly deserves a return visit soon. Our first port of call was The Malay College, founded in 1907, pattern after the best of Eton and the likes. 

The Malay elite would send their sons here to receive their privileged education from the British  and perhaps her most famous teacher was none other than Anthony Burgess, the famed author who taught in the early 1950s. We were suitably impressed by its stunning marble white vast building surrounded by lush green manicured greens. The tradition of rugby was still practiced and many of Malaysia’s present political leaders hail from this fine institution. While we were admiring the college, a Malay gentleman man from Termeloh drew along side us to enquire about our folding contraptions. He gleefully accepted my offer of a test ride. He had come to enrol his nephew and shared that entrance was highly competitive. Fees too were not cheap as expected but if I were living here, I too would not hesitate to put my son here.

We stumbled upon a 100 year old Anglican Church of the Resurrection as we cycled further and that stopped us in our tracks. It has truly traditional sharp Georgian lines and certainly captured the days of old where the glory and love of God radiated brightly in Malaya. There is a memorial plaque dated 1908 honouring a certain George Frederick Bird, Sir Hugh Low & Darres Wise, all who worked here and passed on in Christ.

The Sultan of Perak was once given a Skyhawk jet as a gift and it is proudly displayed in the town centre, near the Clock Tower (built 1957 to commemorate Merdeka), among beautiful gardens. We cycled 2km along Istana Drive in the cool morning air enjoying the pleasant river surroundings. The Sultan Azlan Shah’s impressive museum soon appeared and we were blown away by its Parisian designed buildings. It was unfortunate that they were still closed. We continued our climb towards the golden Obadiah Mosque before riding around the parameter of the present Istana grounds. The old Istana just round the corner is now a museum and is built with not a single nail.

Pic KC - New Istana

Feeling rather famished, we glided downhill back to town in search of the famous Beef noodles. This restaurant is housed in a white 1968 Chinese association building and judging from the old Mercedes and Datsuns parked, we knew we were in for a nostalgic treat. Inside, the walls were covered with Chinese writings in scrolls and marble, and we could very well be in a small town in Fijian, China. The piping hot noodles in tasty broth did not disappoint and each bowl was generously filled with delectable ingredients. It was most unnatural to begin our long ride after such a satisfying meal, but we must as it was already 10am and we had 110km to go.

The sun was starting to bake as we serendipitously pedalled northwards, but there was one more British historical icon that I wanted to see – Victoria Bridge. This was built nearly 100 years ago and still standing proudly across the Perak River. It was quite an adventure to get there as we needed to cycle through quiet kampong roads and when we arrived at a bustling small riverside town, there she was. The KTM train now uses its own bridge parallel to Victoria Bridge. It presently is a motorcycle/bicycle bridge and we crossed it, feeling really pleased.

Now across the river, we took the back roads that led to the main highway. It was truly a serene and shady ride, save for 2 hills that winded me. Still, I managed to make it on the Tikit without the use of a granny gear while KC as usual waited patiently for me on the top of each hill. With hills meant great descends and we were not disappointed as we flew close to 50km/h on our small wheels.

At the Souk intersection, we were surprisingly hungry and spotted a Malay eatery offering Roti Pratas and Teh Tariks. We cooled ourselves under the shade of coconut trees and felt immensely revived. We were told that this town is famous for fresh water fish, particularly fish balls but we had spent too much time earlier at Kuala Kangsar. Instead of the highway, we opted for the back roads once again and that seldom disappoints.

Pic KC

Our gamble paid off in spades as we came across a beautiful lake which took our breath away. Nestled between Karst mountain range, the shimmering blue waters plus cool breeze begged to be savoured. We stopped at a small hut overlooking the lake where a few Malay men were fishing, their rods ambitiously waiting for their prize. These young guys were well equipped with ice drinks and food, and they enquired about our adventure. I must admit I appreciated the break as the noon sun was really blazing.

At this time, our plans to cycle another 65km to Gerik was beginning to look like a mirage. With the heat turning on full, we limped our way to Lenggong. Monsoon floods had decimated this area just last week and we saw evidence of that as we cycled past houses, mosques and schools, some still submerged. It was sad but we admired the fighting spirit of the people at rebuilding their lives once again. We wish them well.

I was elated when we finally arrived in Lenggong in the 34c heat. By this time my head was throbbing in pain, a rather unfortunate thorn in my flesh when it gets too hot. This small town is reputed to have great Wanton noodles and we hoped to sample it. I pull beside an old Chinese lady to enquire and she said those noodles are long sold out by mid morning, surprised that we did not know this. We had to settle for another Malay eatery, but they had Nazi Padang and the life saver Ais Batu Chumpor – shaved ice in colourful, sweet syrup with goodies like beans, jelly etc inside. 

The ABC did its job to cool us down quickly, in addition to the splashing of ourselves with tap water. Feeling a bit cooler, we had a light lunch of malay rice and curries. By this time, we both had no mood to continue. Doing so would be suicidal as we would be well and truly baked by the scorching sun.

A quick enquiry saw us folding and covering our bikes, all ready for the Perak Transit coach at the bus terminal. Unfortunately, it was a long 2 hour wait for our 530pm bus to Grik and we got comfortable, and even caught a snooze under the shade of the hot and humid afternoon. When our bus finally came, we were elated.  

The Chinese driver and his able conductress welcome us onboard and told us to put our foldies up first. The fare for the 50km journey was only $7RM and what fascinated me was the tickets given. It was just like in the 1970s when I was a high school student!

The ride in the aircon bus was oh so comfortable, taking a mere 45 minutes. Looking at the terrain, we did not miss it one bit as it was just a boring smallish highway. At Gerik, we were dropped at the bus station and assembling our foldies, as usual, attracted the attention of the local cowboys. "How much did you buy that for?", "Where do you come from?", "Do you need a taxi? (duh!)"...

Gerik is a pretty small town and it took all of 3 mins to ride to explore it. We decided on SML Hotel as it looked clean and was near the eateries. It helped too that they were bike friendly. They wanted $60RM for an aircon room and we were more than happy to check in.

There were plenty of Indian and Malay restaurants plus a KFC but we wanted wok fried Chinese food and KC's sharp eye spotted a rather crowded Che Char stall. We obediently followed the recommended pork and chicken dishes, and that did not disappoint. Downed with ice cold Shandy, it doesn't get better than this. When the bill came, it was much less than I expected and the theory is that the further you are from Johor/Singapore, the cheaper it gets.

It had been a most satisfying day, experiencing a bit of Kuala Kangsar's heritage and enjoying beautiful rides along the Perak River. Though we had to bus to Gerik at the last bit, there were no regrets and this is why we ride 16" foldies. The priceless ability to hop on any transport when the fun stops and the need arises! Needless to say, we both slept soundly, very soundly indeed thankful to God for such a special and wonderful day.

Crossing Victoria Bridge on our foldies...

Monday, January 19, 2015

Riding into the belly of the MCP - Day 1, The Longest Day


Pic KC

My little space for 13 hrs on the long train ride! Note missing tray table.

Pic KC

Pic KC

Pic KC

It's always hard to sleep the night before an adventure as the excitement and anticipation were just uncontainable. As I woke up really early, I decided to go to our usual meeting point, Kranji MRT to meet Uncle KC and wait for him there. Although we were supposed to meet at 715am, I was there 10 minutes before time, and so was KC! He had ridden all the way from the East, while I must sheepishly admit that I just hopped on a bus, as I felt a bit lazy.

We rode smoothly across the Causeway into Johor Baru, Malaysia and headed straight for Johor Sentral, the train station. It has been more than 10 years since I boarded a train from here and was very impressed by the amazing 4 year new building that resembled a modern airport. RM$50 was the fare to Kuala Kangsar and since we had more than 50 mins before our 850 train, we got comfortable and enjoyed a nice breakkie.

Just to make sure we won't have any trouble with the railway officials, we bagged our foldies as we boarded the train and acted as normal as possible. Somehow, it felt like we were carrying onboard some illegal cargo as trains here are not exactly bike friendly, and it is often a touch and go situation. Stepping into Carriage #5 was like stepping into a time tunnel, from 2015 to 1970s as these 20 year old Hyundai carriages have certainly seen better days. Although our tickets said "Kelas Superior", there was clearly nothing superior about our abode for the next 12 hours. Frayed curtains, broken plastic seat casings, dirty windows, unworkable auto electric door, smelly toilets, dangling wirings etc plus a darty welcome from the resident roach all made for a grim journey. This was really in stark contrast to the Thai trains we took in August. We placed our foldies at the corner of the carriage where it was out of everyone's way, and settled bravely into our worn out seats.


As our diesel train chugged away northwards, it was lovely to see the green Malaysian countryside whiz past. Passing through small towns, some which I recognise, it was interesting to see it from the train. Although this was Express Rakyat, it stopped very frequently and I can only imagine how much longer a normal train would take. At least the airconditioning was cold and at times, too cold and that meant more trips to the awful loo.

Pic KC

The rotund conductor in his blue uniform came around to check out our tickets and much to our dismay, asked for RM $10 each for our compact foldies as in his eyes, they were considered extra large luggage. I pointed out to him that our backpacking Portugese fellow passengers had packs that were as large as coffins and made our covered foldies look like peas. But this fell on deaf ears as he coldly brush that aside and said it was company policy.

At noon, the sudden arrival of the food cart manned by 2 young gentlemen in red sporting punkishly cut hair brought quiet satisfaction to our growling stomachs. We ordered Bee Hoon Goreng that was served in a white disposable box, and was grateful it was still warm. That with a piping hot 3 in 1 coffee drank from a straw due to the rocking of the carriage, was our simple lunch, eaten with a good dollop of faith. KC pointed out a vomit bag dangling from his broken seat table in case of any "disagreements" with the menu and that got us laughing!

I put on my music and drifted into another world but woke up at 2pm when the train stopped again. It was 2pm but we were only at Tampin, not even at the halfway point. With the soothing strings and rhythm of Deep Purple's Temple of the King in my ears, it brought me to the days of my youth that has passed by so quickly. This time of "forced" reflections is truly good for one's soul. I felt a great sense of thankfulness at the many blessings poured out generously to me, and said a grateful prayer to God. Truly, we should all count our blessings because gratitude brings about contentment.

I recalled the immense joy I had when my Aunt Ruth unexpectedly bought me a orange red German made Cito bicycle when I was 10. Riding that bike with my brother and the neighbourhood boys brought endless fun. I later upgraded that to a Raleigh Chopper GT. This had drop bars and skinner tires and that took me on my first solo touring ride from my home in Bukit Timah to my grandma's home Pasir Ris, a respectable 30+km. I sort of snucked out early in the morning as a 13 year old without my parents' permission and instead of scolding me when they found out, mom marvelled at my achievement! I supposed that encouraged me on to be a bicycle tourer, and I am very pleased bicycle touring still thrills me to bits.

It was good to finally see the tall buildings of KL as we approached the Malaysian capital city at about 4pm. KC and I were trying to capture the iconic Petronas Twin Towers and this was easier said than done as the background changed ever so quickly. As we pulled into the new KL Sentral as well as the old 1910 Railway station (built when the country was known as the Federated Malay States - FMS) , many passengers left only to be replaced by even more passengers heading north.

Our boys in red appeared again, this time serving dinner and that was very appreciated as our stomachs were starting to growl. They recognised us and were surprised we were still on the train! Freshly cooked Mee Goreng was recommended and although it was very ordinary, it was good to have something to eat.

At about 6pm just after Tg Malim, our windows were suddenly sprayed with black oil. Something had exploded in the front engine and we soon found ourselves coming to a grinding halt in the middle of nowhere. I was glad this happened on a train and not on a plane. Everyone was curious wanting to know what had happened. But there was no annoucements whatsover and soon, we disembarked to stretch our legs and to check out the situation. If ever an organisation needs to learn how to communicate with its passengers, KTM really should take note. After all, we were in Kelas Superior and entitled to know what went wrong, and what is being done. Also, how long the repair would take. Their silence was defeaning, to say the least.

The good part of this was we got to see the beautiful setting sun and that made for beautiful pictures. All the smokers were out in full force as they lighted up, compromising the fresh country air I was enjoying. Salvation came 1.5 hrs later when KTM sent another engine to pull the long train, and it was wonderful to be moving along again but we still had 200km to go.

As night fell, the rains came down and we were glad to pull into the beautiful British Colonial designed Ipoh Railway Station. Apparently, the movie Anna and the King shot some scenes here, a testament to the majestic architecture. It seemed that the train travelled faster at night and at 10pm, we arrived at the new Kuala Kangsar Station feeling a little bit worn out. Quickly, we got out carrying our foldies and panniers, and waved goodbye as the train disappeared into the night.

Apparently, we were the only ones at the station as we assembled our foldies and put on our raincoats. The security guard was waiting patiently for us to leave before he locked up the deserted station.

Our hotel for the night was the brand new The Shop, which truly stands out with its coffee cafe theme and bright lights and neon name. Riding through the rain, it was refreshing and the hotel was just 1km away. Though we looked rather wet and tired, the hotel staff gave us a very warm welcome and checked us in efficiently.

They recommended us to a very special Chinese eatery about 2km away just after the hospital and when we got there, we were very pleased it's signage proudly proclaimed it was appointed by the Royal Danish Court. How can this go wrong?

The customers there were also very curious at our small wheeled bicycles and our obviously out of town look. The owner suggested his signature dishes - a tempura style kway teow noodles with chicken and vegetables, as well as a stewed pork sauce yellow thin noodles. Both were absolutely delicious, and truly perked KC and I up to the heavens.

Going back to The Shop hotel, we got waylaid by their excellent cafe and despite our full stomachs, had had to order their excellent coffees, cake and ice cream. Enjoying these in warm, soothing surroundings with music from the 80s really was worth every mile of the difficult journey. 

We were so ready for bed when we hit the sack and were very grateful to arrive in Kuala Kangsar safely. The words of William Shakespeare, all's well that ends well, could not ring more true as we drifted into dreamland.