World by Bike 19: Malaysia
Singapore's farewell was a road sign instructing all vehicles to fill up with fuel before crossing the border, or face a $500 fine. To me, I initially read that as unnecessarily restrictive, and a good representation of how strict Singapore culture can appear. However, after fumbling my way across the border, I understood why.
The Malaysian side of the border was chaotic, and the roads were immediately dirtier, the sewage smell prevalent and litter everywhere. Things were much cheaper, and there seemed to be a lot fewer rules about what was permissible on the roads - I think you can start to understand Singapore more from the Malay side of the border. You start to understand why Singapore is structured in the way that it is. Singapore has no natural resources whereas Malaysia has rich oil reserves, and yet Singapore seems much more developed from a Western perspective than its neighbour does. In theory, with a natural resource like oil, you could argue Malaysia should be doing better economically, and yet as soon as you cross the border you can see it is behind Singapore in many ways. I supposed that comes down to Singapore's strict rules, and a stark reminder that not having such a structure could make things much worse, like the poverty in areas of Malaysia.
The contrast between the countries, the language barrier and the odd sight of someone touring on a bike did make it hard to relax into South East Asia. I was invited to stay on the floor of someone's café in my first evening, but upon my arrival was told that their house would be better. However, this meant another 30 minute ride after dark. I'd hoped to avoid riding at night in Asia, but I'd already failed on day one. Although I was given a bed for the night, showering from a bucket and having noodle soup for breakfast was a big change to the system, I could already feel a build-up of new stresses to the body, over and above riding and surviving this far into the trip.
I headed up the coast through Malacca and into Kuala Lumpur. The whole way was on small highways with just a single lane of traffic each way. There were mangrove trees surrounding the road, stray dogs hiding from the sun, food stalls lining the villages and people just getting by with incredibly humble lives. It was pretty flat riding all the way to KL.
I arrived on the outskirts of KL as sun faded, and traffic was building up. Endless junctions and traffic lights, and the inability to cycle on the highway made an incredibly slow last 10 miles, meaning I didn't arrive at the bottom of Petronas Towers in downtown Kuala Lumpur until well after dark. What struck me was how the wealth and luxury of what was formerly the tallest buildings in the world, and the centre of commerce in Malaysia, was to such relative poverty. From the top of the tower you could look down into streets where people sit all day selling fruit, seemingly surviving day to day, in homes without running water, or toilets more developed than just holes in the ground. Considering the Petronas company is state run it's an interesting insight into how the country would appear to be run.
I stayed in KL for a couple of nights, staying with a young French expat who was working with the World Scout Organisation. They'd put him and a bunch of other twenty-somethings from around the world in a luxury apartment block with a restaurant downstairs and rooftop pool and gym, all as part of the contract when working with the Scouts. I was informed that part of the reason one of the main Scout offices is in Malaysia is for the cheap living and office space. It was an interesting insight into expat life, and although I thoroughly enjoyed my time eating out for less than £1, and glimpsing the city from rooftop pools, I did feel a little uneasy about this luxury compared to what I’d seen in the rest of Malaysia.
The ride north out of the city was a little hairy on the main expressway for the first 30km, but traffic quickly thinned out and I was back to winding roads meandering up the western side of the Malay peninsula towards Thailand. Scenery quickly changed outside of KL with huge limestone cliffs lining the road before staying the night at a fire station with some friendly firefighters. I'd heard rumours that sometimes you can ask people at police stations and fire stations if they have anywhere you can sleep, but it didn’t make the process of asking seem any less weird. In my head, the hierarchy of places to call upon when looking for somewhere to sleep would likely be a friend, a hotel, then likely a religious building known for hospitality. A police station and fire station would be very far down on my list, but to my surprise, they did take me in and had a couple of spare rooms - presumably for when they have excess night staff. They were a welcoming bunch, after initially seeming confused by my arrival (understandable as it was well after dark), and they insisted on taking many photos of me and waving me off as a team.
The push towards Thailand headed back to the west coast where I was put up in a hotel by a friendly local, who then put me on the back of his motorbike and rode 15km south on the highway to show me a restaurant, because apparently the tens of restaurants on the street we already were on weren't up to scratch. It was quite alarming as this person I'd just met drove me further away from my possessions without explaining to me where exactly we were going, and weaved rapidly between traffic on the highway, The only other time I've been on the back of a bike was with my brother in our little village back home, and I was wearing full leathers and knew where I was going. On this ride in Malaysia I was just in a t-shirt and shorts, but thankfully my new friend had found a spare helmet for me. It was an alarming but rather comical experience (upon reflection).
The border to Thailand quickly approached and with one final stay at a fire station in the border town it was time to leave Malaysia. It'd been an entertaining initial insight into life in South East Asia after leaving the haven that is Singapore. Seeing a little part of the expat lifestyle versus staying in rural areas with locals made me grateful for the luxuries I am afforded in everyday life back in the UK, and how grateful I am that there isn't such a dramatic income inequality. However, it did show how much fun you could have if you were being paid your wages in sterling or dollars, but only spending Malaysian Ringgit - the expat lifestyle is certainly intriguing.