By Joleen Lunjew
A childhood dream of businessman Mak Shiau Meng's to cycle around Malaysia came true last April when he and friend Sandra Loh, both in their 30s, pushed off from Langkawi and cycled to the four corners of the peninsula in 37 days.
"Mak had been planning it ever since his school days, but kept postponing due to something or other," recalls Loh, a sales manager.
"He finally found time when he was in between jobs. He wanted to do a solo trip but then asked if I would like to join him. It was the chance of a lifetime, so I immediately agreed.
"Selecting a touring partner is very important. Your partner must be strong in mind as well as body. Mak and I were both physically fit, have similar characters and get on really well. We didn't fight at all!" reveals Loh.
How does one pack for a bicycle trip?
Everything went into two 20-litre rear panniers, a sort of waterproof box that is hooked to the rear of the bike, replies Loh.
"We carried very little clothing. The rest were toiletries, bike tools, spare tubes and a tent, which we only used once.
"That single camping incident was funny. We were on a beach in Port Dickson, and it rained heavily at night, causing water to leak into the tent. When Mak got up the next morning, he said: Thank God I'm still alive!"
"I've been on many jungle camping trips before, so that was really mild for me but it was a good first experience for Mak," chuckles Loh.
The itineraries were planned by Mak, with Loh giving suggestions. The four corners the two visited were Padang Besar in Kedah; Tanjung Piai in Johor; Sg Rengit in Johor, and Pantai Cahaya Bulan in Kelantan.
"Mak wanted to go to Pantai Cahaya Bulan because of its name. It was previously called Pantai Cinta Berahi, the 'Beach of Passionate Love'," Loh smiles.
Tanjung Piai in Johor, Loh notes, is the southernmost tip of mainland Asia and is a forest reserve with a rich mangrove ecosystem and diverse wildlife.
"It's quite a pity that the place is not promoted much. The southernmost tip of mainland Asia is in our own country and most of us don't even know about it!," Loh says, incredulous.
The cyclists at the globe in Tanjung Piai, the southernmost tip of mainland Asia.
"When we were there, we were told to look for a globe that symbolised the end of mainland Asia but it was quite difficult to find. There were no signboards. It took a while but we finally found the globe, and it was worth the picture. It stood majestically at the end of the pier with the blue sea for backdrop. It was just so peaceful and beautiful, and the view was spectacular," recalls Loh.
Wat Photivihan in Tumpat, Kelantan was also memorable because it housed the largest reclining Buddha in South-East Asia - and was hard to locate.
"We had no luck on the first day as there was no sign leading to the temple and we got hopelessly lost. We decided to stay another night to see if we could find the temple the next day. Someone gave us directions, but this led us to a huge sitting Buddha. We lost our way again, but after much miscommunication with the locals, we finally found the right temple. What an elusive Buddha!" Loh sighs.
In Bota Kanan, Perak, the two stumbled upon a sign pointing to a Pusat Pembiakan Tuntung. It turned out to be a conservation centre for river terrapins. "Mak was delighted because he adores turtles and tortoises. He had this big, goofy grin on his face the whole time. He was like a little kid in a candy store," smiles Loh.
"We also loved Kuala Gula in Perak, famous for its 197 species of birds. We met a nature guide, Mr Tan, who gave us a personal tour on bike around the conservation area. That was so nice of him, but Mak was the only one who understood him because he spoke in Mandarin.
"Mr Tan had a beautiful corner house with sprawling gardens, and he rented out rooms to tourists. Since we were the only ones there that night, we had the whole house to ourselves," says Loh.
One thing Loh loved about the trip was that they got to meet many kind-hearted people.
"In Sg Rengit, Johor, while having lunch at a seafood restaurant, we met two strangers who asked about our trip. When we called for the bill, we found out that they had beaten us to it! They said it was just their way of contributing to our trip.
A Buddha in Tumpat, Kelantan the cyclist wasn?t intending to see.
"And then there was the nicest Singaporean we've ever met. We stopped at a petrol station in Singapore to ask for directions, and the owner, Victor Chee, was so nice and helpful. He told us to grab whatever food and drinks we wanted. He even added more items when we were done. He said we had given him the conviction to do the bike tour in Europe which he had always wanted to do," she says.
Loh comments that drivers in Singapore are much better behaved.
"They were very courteous and always gave way. I felt so safe even though we were between buses and cars. The riding experience there was unlike here.
"Our worst experience here was along the Sg Buloh-Kepong highway. It was raining quite heavily, and the lorries were just flying past us during rush hour without a care in the world. It got to a point where we had to stop at a petrol station for three hours to wait for the rain to subside. That was the most frightening experience of our trip," says Loh.
There were a few other scary incidents as well. Cycling the lonely road from Sg Rengit to Desaru, Johor was a bit disconcerting.
"It was supposed to take an hour but we were taking longer than that along this very lonely road with jungles on both sides. It didn't feel right, and we couldn't ask anyone for directions. It was getting dark and we were wet, cold and hungry. Luckily, it did lead to Desaru, and we quickly found a hotel to stay in.
"The other incident was in Jeli, Kelantan. We arrived on a Friday evening, so almost everything was closed. All we could find was a guy in charge of some eerie, run-down shack. We were so tired that we didn't care, but the room was really something! The bed sunk in the middle, we had boards for windows and had to shower using our 1.5L water bottle because the water pressure was so low!
"Mak couldn't sleep much and I didn't help by telling him about this firefly in our room. Next morning, he told me that the presence of a firefly meant the dead soul of a relative was visiting. He was so spooked, poor guy."
Although Mak and Loh got along very well, there was one time when Loh lost her temper.
Loh with petrol station owner Victor Chee, "the nicest Singaporean she has ever met".
"We were supposed to stay in Banding, Perak but Mak suggested we cycle to Grik, an hour plus or so away. An hour plus was fine, so I agreed. It turned out to be two hours on a steep, rolling hill. I had to push my bike because I was so exhausted, and that was when I took it out on him. He was a real gentleman and didn't retaliate. I only apologised after thinking long and hard about it in the shower," she remembers.
During the long journey spent together, the friends learnt a lot about each other.
"We discovered that communication, respect, understanding and being sensitive to each other's needs were very important. We were very open and would let each other know how we were feeling each day. We encouraged one another when either of one of us was feeling down."
A sense of humour was also handy.
"We always managed to find something to laugh about and maybe that was why we never argued. Both of us love food and would try anything! We are very simple people. It takes very little to keep us happy.
"I discovered that me, being a "banana" (white inside, yellow outside) and him, "a typical Chinaman", could still get along well despite having different ideas and opinions," she smiles.
Loh says she would recommend cycling around Malaysia to anyone who is adventurous and able.
"We travel so much outside the country but we haven't even seen our own. There is so much to discover, especially the delicious food! Everywhere we went, people shouted out: "Welcome to Malaysia!" They thought we were from Taiwan or Hong Kong. No-one ever thought Malaysians would do such a thing.
"I was able to see Malaysia in a whole new light, not being confined in a vehicle - with the sun, the rain and the wind in my face. It was such an exhilarating freedom! The beautiful people we met along the way showed me that there are still a lot of wonderful and helpful people out there. It is an inspiring thought in this cold, hard world."
Does she have tips for someone who wants to embark on a similar journey?
"Never take things for granted and make sure your bike is in top form. We had few problems with our bikes because Mak took care of them right from the beginning. Good equipment is very important as well. I loved my Ortlieb panniers. A good buy indeed. Your bike should also have a stand, side mirrors, a bell, lights and a speedometer," she advises.
Being more prepared is also essential.
"We learnt it the hard way, especially during the Jeli-Gerik route. We didn't ration our food and water as we took for granted that there would be shops along the way," cautions Loh.
"The personal satisfaction I felt was amazing. It was an experience of a lifetime and I have Mak to thank for it. I would never have done this tour on my own. Many have told me that they wish they could do what we did. Well, don't wish, just do it. Life is too short," she urges.
Read all about their journey at www.sanz-bike-tour-msia.blogspot.com
-The Star/Asia News Network