Malaysia: “The world is smaller than you think, and the people on it are more beautiful than you think”

Malaysia: “The world is smaller than you think, and the people on it are more beautiful than you think”

Travel period from 11-05-2023 to 14-06-2023


From Satun in Thailand we take the ferry to Langkawi in Malaysia. Langkawi is an archipelago of 99 islands in the Andaman Sea, but only four are inhabited. Palau Langkawi is the largest island and we stay there for a few days. The water is crystal clear, the sand is snow-white and the temperatures are still so high that most people are only on the beach at sunset. Then it is a real hustle and bustle. Stalls are set up everywhere, bubbles are blown and children run around the beach.


From Langkawi we take a boat to the Malaysian mainland. We cycle along the coast, it’s windy and the first people we meet are extremely friendly. At a petrol station we asked if we could buy a Malaysian flag for the bike, but they didn’t allow us to buy one and gave us not one but two!

One of our first real encounters is with Farhan, Asmaniza and their 3 year old son Anas. Farhan and Anas are waiting for us together on their bikes. If you look at little Anas’ bike bell, you will see ‘I ❤️ my bike’. He also loves stones and sticks, knows all the parts of his bike by name and has his own tent in the living room. Quite an adventurous boy! Farhan and Ash teach us how to wear traditional Malaysian clothes, introduce us to food and show us the best way to eat breakfast noodles with our hands. The whole family enjoys cycling and Farhan has even made his unique frame bags out of recycled canisters! Both are teachers and teach the Qur’an to schoolchildren at home.

A melting pot of flavours

After this special encounter, we continue towards Penang, George Town. There is a kilometre-long bridge connecting the mainland to Penang Island, but it is forbidden to cycle across. The guards at the ferry almost jump when they hear how we got here, but they don’t know what to do with us as the pedestrian ferry is not meant for cyclists. They send us to the bridge, but that’s out of the question! It turns out we can get on the ferry after all, and the bikes are lifted onto the roof of the ferry.

We are stunned to learn that we have to pay €0.57 for the return trip, for 2 bikes and 2 people in total! Bizarre, because accommodation in Malaysia is much more expensive than in Thailand. On the other hand, food is often cheaper than in Thailand.

All the Malaysians we have met so far have told us to go to George Town: “The food is the best there”, “You can eat all night there”. It is known for its many street foods and special blend of flavours and cultures. So we try ‘cendol’, shaved ice with red beans, green pandan jelly and syrup. Not exactly what you would expect from an ice cream, but delicious. We also have Indian murtabak and Malaysian laksa.

A melting pot of cultures and religions

But beyond the food, there are a few things that immediately stand out in George Town. First of all, the beautiful doors of the historic commercial and residential buildings. There are so many different designs, colours and tiles and elements from different periods in each door. There is a mixture of Malay, Chinese and European influences. The ground floor was mostly used for business and commerce, while the owners lived upstairs. Over the past year, we have often walked behind unfamiliar doors. The doors of strangers opened and behind each door stories were told and memories were made. We can hardly imagine how many stories are hidden behind these often very old doors, incredible!

Malaysia is a country of nearly 33 million people and consists of 2 territories separated by the South China Sea. The country has always been a meeting point for traders from East and West. Just over half the population (60%) are Malaysians, whose official religion is Islam. Malaysians control political power. The second ethnic group (about 24%) are the Chinese, often followers of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism, who have a strong presence in trade and business. A third group is made up of Indians (8%), who are often Hindus. They were brought to Malaysia by the British in the 19th century to work on the plantations. There are also several indigenous groups still living there.

Street art and mosques next to smoking temples

It is nice to get off the bike for a few days and explore the city on foot! The streets smell of Indian, Malay and Thai spices mixed with Chinese incense. There are bicycles everywhere, often for decoration, but also colourful rickshaws. And so much street art!

From the West Coast to the East Coast

It is raining cats and dogs as we try to leave George Town by ferry. For the first time since North Vietnam we put on our rain gear. Back on the mainland it clears up and the air is remarkably cooler, so we cycle hard. We stop for lunch at a buffet restaurant where everything is on trays at the entrance. There seems to be a lot of fish and chicken, but there’s always a big question mark and the heat sometimes shoots through the ceiling.

Later in the cycle, pitch-black clouds appear. We know these by now and they are definitely not good news. We can already hear the thunder and push hard on the pedals, hoping to reach the next village in time, as there is nothing to shelter in between. A few moments after we find an empty shelter, the thunderstorm hits. As soon as the shower was over, we started cycling again, but it didn’t last long. A woman on the side of the road gestures for us to join her. She is packing soda (quite normal in Malaysia) and wants to know all sorts of things. She directs us to the same guesthouse we had in mind and asks if we want to join her for dinner. As it is still a 4 kilometre drive, we say no and cook our own rice. Later she even wants to take the car and bring it to us! The woman from the guesthouse also arrives with leftover rice and eggs to fry with us.

Jungle and road angels

Travelling from west to east in Malaysia means crossing the mountains that make up the central part of the country. The route we take is known as the ‘Titiwangsa route’ and we soon learn that it is not going to be easy. Hot, humid, fast moving traffic (everywhere in Malaysia for that matter) and little to no shade or places to find food and drink. All around us is jungle with monkeys and never before heard sounds from the bushes. Wild elephants also live there, sometimes on or along the road, but we only end up finding their huge piles of shit💩. Wild camping in the jungle is not recommended because of the wild elephants.

As our sweat is dripping faster than we can drink and Audrey is convinced she is going to get sunstroke on this road without (cold) water, a truck driver suddenly holds a big bottle of water out of the window! He does this without stopping his truck, which would have had trouble getting going again on this steep road. Out of nowhere another truck driver gave us 4 sandwiches with corn cream.

A little further on we meet 2 Malaysian cyclists coming down the hill and we stop to talk to them. Further on we plop down on a concrete terrace with a metal roof, cooled by water. Audrey says she is done cycling for the day, but then Subki suddenly approaches us. A keen cyclist himself, he invites us to join him at his home, where he is caring for his needy mother. He follows us on his scooter, making sure we have enough energy drinks to get us to his house, which is about 35 hilly kilometres away. Audrey’s pudding legs have only a short way to go…. On the way, a fruit vendor hands out more Java apples, or ‘djamboe semarang’. They are pear-shaped, red in colour and sour in taste. When we arrive at Subki’s house, we meet everyone and the evening goes by incredibly quickly as we have so much to talk about.

Camping at a roadside restaurant

After nasi lemak and a coconut bapao for breakfast, we say goodbye to Subki and hit the road. There is a petrol station 15km ahead, our last supply for the rest of the day. Slowly and sweatily we move forward. By the side of the road, monkeys meander between the trees. Near an island in a lake, we spot 2 bicycles whose brand name Koga suggests that they are probably Dutch. Not much later we are addressed in Dutch. A retired man has cycled here from Bangkok with his wife. We are amazed and hope to be as adventurous and energetic in our old age.

A few kilometres down the road is the only real eatery along the route. It is a family-run restaurant where most of the truck drivers stop to eat. The restaurant is open until 4am. We eat nasi and are allowed to pitch our tent under a canopy next to the place of worship as we are still in the jungle. As soon as we have set up our tent, a man comes along and asks if he can give us something to eat. We take a drink and answer all his questions. He has been to Nepal himself and talks at length about it. Unfortunately, one of his friends is in the news for disappearing while climbing Mount Everest. We chat for a while and when he leaves he leaves two more bottles of water. Trucks drive back and forth all night. Eloy sleeps like a baby as it cools down more at night than it has in the last few days. Audrey, on the other hand, has seen every headlight shining into the tent….

Hitchhiking en homemade cookies

The next morning Audrey is exhausted. It will soon be hot again and we have to cycle 20 kilometres uphill. We had never hitchhiked before in Malaysia, but this time we decided to try to get over the mountain. After a good hour we manage it, a small truck with six men stops. The loading bay is already full, so we estimate the chances of us getting in are slim. They speak very little English, but it is clear that they want to take us with them. We load the bikes on top of the stuff already in the back of the truck. Then they join us and ask us to sit in the cabin. Once on top, they refuse to pay, but what surprises us even more is that they turn around and drive back in the same direction. It seems they weren’t supposed to be on the mountain in the first place…. Bizarre!

The rest of the day is downhill, stopping in Jeli at a guesthouse next to the huge mosque. In the evening we eat in a tiny restaurant. There are a few plastic tables and chairs under a metal roof. We immediately noticed that we stood out in this place and many people stared at us or greeted us. The family sitting next to us at the small table asked if they could take a picture of us. It turns out that they paid for our meal! And when we got back to the guesthouse, the family said they would like to drop something off at the guesthouse tomorrow morning. So that’s what happened: before the kids go to school, the mother shows up at the door with the kids to give us a jar of ‘homemade cookies’!

3 June: 15,000 km on WORLD BICYCLE DAY! 🚴🏼‍♀️🚴

It’s 3 June! In 2018, the United Nations declared 3 June as World Cycling Day to highlight the importance of cycling for its positive contribution to human and global health. Cycling also contributes to empowerment and improved access to education, employment, healthcare, etc. Cycling brings people together, connects them and brings joy.

We were fortunate to meet extraordinary cycling groups. In Kazakhstan we saw how cycling brings people together. Someone who had just fled Russia found it easier to integrate thanks to the local cycling community. In Iran we also joined a cycling group. One brave woman led a group of 30 cyclists through a city. Cycling in Iran is not without risk for women, as it is not always tolerated by the authorities. There is also a visible layer of air pollution over many cities, and traffic in Iran is far from safe. Nevertheless, women cycle. It gives them joy and courage.

3 June is also the day when our bike computer reads 15,000 km, but no matter how short, far, fast or slow you cycle, it doesn’t matter! A journey of a thousands (s)miles starts with a single pedalstroke 🙂

On the East Coast!

After the spicy mountains, we reach Malaysia’s east coast. This is known as the Islamic side of the peninsula. We stay again in an imam-run guesthouse next to a mosque and are greeted by some curious children during prayers. From Kuala Besut, we take a small, bumpy boat to visit the Perhentian islands just off the coast. My goodness, we have never seen such crystal clear water! It’s like swimming in a pool with a blue bottom 😯.

There are several colourful shrimp boats in the clear water and below us we see turtles and all kinds of tropical fish swimming. We go snorkelling at several sites and won’t soon forget the colourful corals and the black-tipped reef sharks (mostly harmless)! Just like the stinging sea fleas 😉

Would you believe it? 💚

Three months ago, when we were in Laos, we received a message from Azlan on Instagram. He invited us to come to his home in Dungun, Malaysia. He was eager to meet us and host us. At the time, we couldn’t believe it.

But now, three months later, the time has finally come and we arrive at his family’s home. Azlan himself is currently on a motorcycle tour in Thailand with his son, but his daughters and wife are still keen to see us. And how! The eldest daughter, Nurin, shows us around and we are amazed. Azlan himself has built a guesthouse in their garden, all in the theme of bikes, with a bathroom and everything. And as if all this were not bizarre enough, as a surprise they have made a cheesecake with our names on it. They then take a photo together, dressed in special outfits. Even from afar, Azlan calls several times to ask if all is well. Both daughters, Nurin (17) and In (10), have big hearts. At first they giggle when they speak English, because their father usually does, they admit, but during our stay they become more comfortable. The family shows what happens when you believe in the goodness of people. We are incredibly grateful to have met them.

Biking makes you aware of the scale of things😯

After 2 days with Azlan’s family we say goodbye and cycle on. First we cross a beautiful bridge and pass a turtle sanctuary, which we visit. But as we continue, we suddenly see lots of men and women in overalls of all colours riding around on scooters and bicycles. We are heading into an area completely occupied by the huge Petronas oil and gas industry. For a whole day we cycle in a surreal environment, with flames burning on both sides of the road, oil tankers and pipelines. The workers even have their own health facilities, which we see along the way. For the Dutch: DSM x 10! Petronas is owned by the Malaysian government and has about 47,000 employees, making it one of the 500 largest companies in the world! We didn’t take any photos, it was forbidden and too hot 😅.

Today we also failed to find enough shade. It feels like we are being baked alive, reflecting the heat from the asphalt, the traffic and the industry. So when the only sign of hope appears on the horizon, a yellow M of another multinational, we take shelter there for a while to cool off. The restaurant is filled with even more men and women in overalls!

After replenishing our energy and fluids, we cycle on. We reach the city of Kuantan during rush hour, something that should not happen again. There are better, safer and more beautiful cycling days and roads, but days like this always make us think. It increases our urge to keep cycling, to see, feel and learn more.

At lunchtime the next day, as we sit down to eat in an Indian restaurant on the corner of the street, the iron shutters suddenly come down. We had just ordered and were still waiting for the order, but it was Friday afternoon and it was time for the important prayer of the week. All the men go to the mosque and most of the restaurants close. They gesture for us to stay a little longer, but we don’t want to keep them waiting any longer and slowly the temperature in the shop rises to record levels through the closed shutters. When the food arrives, we work it in as fast as we can. Enjoy the colourful city of Kuantan through some photos. A mixture of Chinese, Indian and Malay culture. And Eloy got a haircut. What do you think? 😏

DAY 416? What a day!

We drive along a fairly busy road and stop for lunch at the only roadside eatery after 30km. We eat some rotis and drink something cold. Two men sit at another table. They were talking and we had no further contact with them. When we went to pay later, the waitress said via Google Translate: “The other man paid for you. He had already left, but the unknown man was an acquaintance of the establishment, so we left a message for him on a card.

Later, just before entering a larger town, we stop again for a cold drink, as overheating is still lurking. Suddenly Mat appears at our table. He waves some money around and tries to make it clear that he is happy to pay for our drinks. Out of the blue, as he doesn’t know us and hasn’t spoken to us before. We say we don’t have to, but he makes sure we pay before we know it.

Then we cycle to a beach near another town. There is a public campsite, so we decide to camp there. As soon as we reach the beach it starts to rain a little. Iena and Yan, who run a DJ and entertainment company near the beach, spot us and wave to us to use their shelter. Yan immediately says we can shower in his trailer, sleep on his DJ stage and stay as long as we want 😯.

Ten minutes later, we are invited to take a ride around the area on a train made of recycled oil drums that Yan built himself 😯. You’re never too old, are you? Afterwards he gets food and drinks and Eloy tries all kinds of other means of transport (see photos).

At night it rains and a thunderstorm rolls through. We lie awake in the tent, happy with the canopy of the DJ booth. We smile at each other as a day of cycling on busy and boring roads turns into an unimaginable day. Unexpected encounters with these people who are so incredibly warm 💚.

As we dozed off we heard a loud bang. We jump up, thinking someone is standing next to our tent with a gun, but as soon as our heartache subsides, we realise it’s nuts falling from the tree onto the corrugated iron roof. Good night!

Continuing camping in Malaysia

It is noticeable that many Malaysians spend their weekends on the beach, sometimes pitching a tent. Some spend the night there. On one occasion there were dozens of tents scattered a few hundred metres away, near a mosque. We pitched our tent in the middle of them and heard everyone cooking and the children playing until long after sunset. The nearby mosque has a toilet, so many people use it. Using a few pieces of wood and a pallet, everyone climbs over the wall to the toilet building. And as usual, the muezzin calls the Muslim prayer five times a day. So at 4.30am, in the middle of the night, the sound (this time, unfortunately, very bad singing) comes out of the loudspeakers. Afterwards we turn around.

Coconut water and diving

We decide to spend a few days on one of Malaysia’s many islands, but first we need to get some money from an ATM. There are no ATMs on the island. The ATM on the street does not work with foreign cards. So Eloy uses one 2 km away. Inside the bank, a few street vendors look at him curiously. Inside, many people are waiting to withdraw money. When he runs out of money at the first ATM, Eloy is afraid. He quickly finds a second one and luckily manages to get enough money to last him the next few days on the island. Back outside, he is about to get on his bike when a street vendor gestures to his stall and asks if he wants some coconut water. He hesitates for a moment and then the real questions come. ‘Where are you from?’, ‘What is your Facebook name? When he answers ‘Eloy’, he sees the stray glance and asks if they have Instagram. The neighbour comes over with his phone and Eloy types in the name. Then they look at the photos and shout, ‘Selfie, selfie! Then the other street vendor arrives and this one has already poured a cup of coconut water. Eloy went to the ATM and is now sitting with some street vendors drinking coconut water ….

We continue to prepare for our trip to Tioman Island by shopping and when we are done and in bed we hear the loud chirping of birds. It turned out to be the loudspeakers of a nesting house between the other houses. The phenomenon, which we have seen in Thailand and Cambodia, has been adopted here by the Malaysian-Chinese. The nests are sold for a lot of money and exported to China, where they are used for soup and alternative medicine.

The island we are going to is best known for its beautiful underwater world with lots of coral and tropical fish. And there are no cars on the island as the roads are not suitable for them. Eloy wants to get his 2nd diving certificate. Together with 2 Malaysian women and 1 Singaporean young man, he passes the diving certificate. He does a night dive, a navigation dive with a compass and a deep dive to a shipwreck. The latter is challenging due to strong currents and limited underwater visibility.

Last days in Malaysia!

We are about to finish our journey through Malaysia, but not without meeting Amy. Somewhere in Laos we met a group of Malaysian and Singaporean cyclists, including 55-year-old Amy. She gave us her phone number and told us to drop her a line when we reached Johor Bahru, the southernmost city on the Malaysian peninsula. A keen sportswoman herself, Amy has just taken up cycling in Taiwan. She works as a guide for cycling groups.

Amy takes us for a typical local breakfast and a walk around Johor, including a visit to a famous Chinese bakery in the city. But she doesn’t stop there. She takes us in her car for the day. We drive to the southernmost tip of mainland Asia! From this point you can see 3 countries: Singapore, Indonesia and Malaysia. We walk through the mangroves and see lots of monkeys, a jumping snake that jumps right in front of us and mudskippers (crawling fish). We also visit some government buildings and a fishing village with some typical Malaysian wooden houses, and she lets us try all sorts of new things, like jellyfish and other jelly products. Even after almost a month in Malaysia, there are still so many unfamiliar things! At the end of the day, we eat phở (noodle soup) for the last time and visit friends of hers, the owners of a bicycle shop in Johor.

We don’t spend our last day in Malaysia cycling, but we are once again amazed at how cycling brings people together. How a spontaneous meeting of cyclists in Laos led to an unforgettable end to the Malaysia trip.

“The world is smaller than you think, and the people on it are more beautiful than you think”

Bertram van Munster

Travel period from 11-05-2023 to 14-06-2023: 1060 km in 34 days

Comments (1)

  • Henk 26 November 2023 at 11:46 Reply

    Wederom een prachtige route , inspirerend avontuur met hartverwarmende ontmoetingen. Erg uitnodigend om straks per fiets op weer reis te gaan.

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