- Meeting old friends for the first time
-- Story by Erin --
We left Ko Samui in Thailand on June, 19th and
successfully found our way to Penang, Malaysia by nightfall. The trip consisted of a
pleasant one-hour ferry ride from Samui to the mainland, and then several hours on a very
good motorway all the way to Penang. The border crossing was a non-event and we
breezed passed immigration. The customs officers had no interest in looking at our
carnets even though we asked them too, and they waved us through. We didn't think
much of it at the time since we had fully expected to ship our bikes out of Singapore.
Our motorcycle insurance had expired during the previous week so we bought
insurance for Malaysia at the border for $11/bike. We were told this insurance
should also be good for Singapore as well (but we're not sure we believe the agent).
To get to Penang, a good size island, you have
to either cross by ferry or take the 9 kilometer bridge. We opted for the bridge and
were very glad we did. The sun was setting behind the island just as we were
crossing the middle of the bridge. What a beautiful introduction to Penang!
For more than a year now (in fact
before we ever left the states) we have been communication with a couple who live in
Penang, Anouk and Simon, by email. We finally got the chance to meet! It's
always interesting meeting for the first time the people we communicate with by
email. We thought Anouk and Simon were going to be an older Malaysian couple.
How wrong we were! They are two young, well-traveled, Aussie's who are stationed in
Penang with the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF). We have a lot in common, which is
why our 3-day stay grew to 9 days! Well, that first night they picked us up in the
center of Georgetown, the major town on this big island. We spent the next nine days relaxing in their
condo, sightseeing and running errands. The condo where Anouk and Simon live in like
being in a 5-star resort. They have a guard house at the front of the building,
underground secure parking, a huge pool in the central courtyard, and right out their back
door, a gym, etc., etc. What luxury for us after staying in mostly budget
guesthouses and hotels.
While we were there we managed to see Anouk run
and complete her first half-marathon, take a walking tour of Georgetown with our biker
friend Liam, Chris played rugby with the RAAF team (Simon was out with a broken finger and
they beat the English Navy!), had my bike's radiator fan checked out by a friendly local
mechanic, met some wonderful bikers from the local big-bike club, get new stickers made of
our logo, drove around the island with Simon, and eat loads of wonderful food.
Chris is #11 on the left -- No, he didn't have to pay for the jersey
We really like Malaysia for many
reasons. But what makes Malaysia so interesting is the different populations of
people. The three largest groups in Malaysia are the Chinese, Indian's and Malays.
Then there are the indigenous Orang Asli on the peninsula and the various tribes of
the islands of Sarawak and Sabah. The mixture of these groups is strongly apparent
in everyday life. Many of the Malays are Muslim and follow it fairly strictly.
Most Muslim women wear a scarf on their head and keep their bodies covered.
There are a million Chinese and Indian restaurants and "hawker" stands serving
delicious food. A couple of our favorites are roti canai (fried bread and curry
for breakfast), chicken and rice (for lunch), and mee goreng (fried noodles). There
are Hindu temples sprinkled around many towns and cities and there are distinctly Chinese
cemeteries laid out on hillsides. All of these different groups manage to maintain
their distinct characteristics and culture yet live, work, and socialize together in
Back to Penang and Georgetown, it is the oldest
British settlement in Malaysia, before Singapore and Melaka. It is also the most
"Chinese" of all the cities in Malaysia. Sun Yat Sen even used it as a
base to plan his revolutionary strategies. But the British colonial times are still
very apparent in it's abundant colonial architecture.
Another person we had met on the
internet, Suhaimi, met us in Penang and accompanied us down to KL on July, 29.
Suhaimi has plans to take a RTW trip by motorbike in the next two years or so.
Although he works in KL, he spends his weekends working with a rafting company that
conducts trips down the rivers in the north of Malaysia. The ride to KL with Suhaimi
was a leisurely one. The motorways in Malaysia are on par with Europe or the U.S.
but with little traffic and lots of great jungle scenery. When we arrived in KL
Suhaimi took us to the BMW dealership and introduced us to the gang.
The two mechanices, Gary and Along, offered to
check out the bike. We knew the fan was dead and couldn't be repaired (sealed), and
were trying to find a replacement. There was no stock in Malaysia, Singapore,
Thailand, or Australia (we spent the previous week having friends check). In this
tripical heat, riding without a radiator fan could damage the bike, so we were desperate.
We could have found a non-BMW part, but they cost close to $200, and the bike is
(just barely) still under warranty. The service manager, Devindran, discussed
options with the guys, and we installed a fan from a K-bike (they had one in stock).
Riding to Kuala Lumpur -- Petronas Twin Towers center/left
After our visit to BMW, Suhaimi
he took us into the city to help us find a good hotel. When we had rested a bit and
unpacked he and his wife picked us up and took us to eat dinner at a big hawker
place. These hawker places are filled with food stalls, each with something a little
different to offer. You order different dishes from different vendors and then tell
them what table number you are at. When the food comes you pay the server for the
dishes. Each vendor uses different colored plates so they know whose is whose when
the table is cleared.
Our biker friends, Tom, Kirstin and Liam were
in KL as well. The day after we arrived we met up with them and started discussing
the shipping process to Australia/NZ. Tom and Kirstin are off to NZ where they will
work for a year or so to raise money for the next leg of their Journey. Liam is off
to Melbourne where he and his girlfriend will work and travel for a year, afterwhich Liam
will continue to the Americas.
After some trial and error trying to find a
good and cost-effective shipper they finally found one through the email advice of another
motorcyclist/traveler Philippe. Friday afternoon we accompanied the threesome to
Port Klang, about 40 kilometers outside KL, to help them with their crating. We were
very impressed with the shipper, Multimodal, and the workers. The workers did a
great job building the crates (good solid workmanship) and the manager, Mr. Murali was
After the bikes were crated, they had to wait
several days to have the crates fumigated (going to OZ and NZ), wait for the boat to sail,
and collect their Bills of Lading and Carnets. They could not leave the country
until the process was complete (about a week or so). Since Tom, Kirstin and Liam
were without their bikes, they decided to kill time and save some money by taking a bus
down to Melaka for a few days. We decided to move out of our expensive hotel
($25/night with a view of the tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers) and
stay with another friend, Ven for a few days.
By the way, we did get to see a fair bit of KL
while we were there. Our hotel was in the middle of Chinatown, full of food hawkers
and every other type of vendor you can think of. Malaysia is known for its bootleg
CD's, software, music and VCD's (video CD's). We took advantage of this and bought
several VCD's (The Green Mile, The Gladiator, Mission to Mars and the Patriot among
others.) It's great! We can watch movies on our laptop. We walked
through Little India and sampled the food, walked to the Petronas towers and gawked at
their height. KL also has more shopping malls than any other city I've been in (even
more than Los Angeles!) Yes, we kept ourselves busy (they're also
air-conditioned). But, I have to say that for it's huge big-city image, it also has
a lot of green space and small neighborhood feel to it. KL also has some good
colonial architecture sitting side-by-side with gigantic towers. It's a friendly
city and one that I wouldn't mind actually living in for awhile.
This is lit every night
Now, back to our stay with
Ven. Ven is a guy we've been talking to for some time on the internet. He and
his friend Sam did an overland trip on BMW F650's from India to England a few years ago.
Now they are both partners in their own law firm but they have plans to get on the
road again in the next few years. Ven generously offered his place for us to stay
and we took him up on it. Although he works hard we did manage to get in some
quality time with him to talk about his travels and to discuss ours.
We stayed with Ven for two nights before taking
a trip up north with other friends. These other friends are Zaharan and Rosnah.
A professor and school teacher respectively they plan to take their own RTW
motorbike trip at the end of next year when Zaharan retires. We have also been
talking to them on the internet for some time before we arrived in Malaysia. They
invited us to join them on a visit to Rosnah's family's house in the north east of
Malaysia (just below the Thai border). The family lives in a typical Malaysian
plantation style home, built of wood and atop stilts. Zaharan said it would be very
basic accommodation but the experience would be very authentic. He was absolutely
right! What a wonderful thing it is to be invited to stay in a local person's home,
eat their food, play with the children, tour their plantation, meet all the neighbors and
cousins, and get a small glimpse into everyday life.
On Thursday July, 6th we drove up towards the
village (near Kota Bharu) with Zaharan on his 175cc Modenas motorcycle. Rosnah had
classes to teach so she took the overnight bus on Friday night. It took us most of
the day to drive there. On the way, we came across a village that looked over run
with military men wearing fatigues and carrying machine guns. It turns out we had
come across a big event! A few days before several armed men had broken into an
ammunitions compound on a local military base and stole hundreds of weapons and
ammunition. They had also take 4 hostages. When we arrived we discovered the
criminals had been located on top of the hill behind the village and were holding out
there with the hostages. After a short time eating some fruit at a fruit stand, a
military many came up and asked us to leave, then directed the locals to go back in their
houses. We asked what the problem was and he said they were about to open fire on
the criminals on the hill and didn't want us in the way-----they didn't want to have to
explain anything to our embassy. So, we got on our bikes and headed on down the
Zaharan, Rosnah, and their kids
When we arrived in the small
village of Bukit Tandak, we were greeted by about 8 young children, two of them Zaharan's,
and Rosnah's mother and father. Zaharan didn't know how they would react to seeing
foreigners since they hardly ever see any! But the welcome was definitely warm and
they made us feel completely at home. No one spoke English so we used a lot of sign
language and funny faces. That always works well with children. The next day,
Friday, was the normal day off in the work week for the state of Kelantan, so we were
visited by many of Rosnah's cousins. That afternoon we were treated to a tour
of the village and its surroundings by the ex-village chief. The tour consisted of
visiting the local rifle range, an ex-paramilitary training center now a lovely R&R
center, and a beautiful lake. We rode through gently rolling green hills, past palm,
rubber, and pineapple plantations and even did a little off-roading through some deep mud.
The generosity of the people here was incredible. The owners of the R&R
center said they would let any foreign motorcycle travelers stay in their guest rooms for
free (of course Malaysians would have to pay the normal fee.) It would make a
wonderful relaxing place to stay for a few days. Anyone interested can contact them
directly (the wife speaks English pretty well): HJH. Rahimah, telephone number
+60-11-719-6890 or 791-2199.
Rosnah's family's house was basic but very
typical of homes in this area. The family lives and sleeps in the one room house.
At night, comforters are spread on the wood floor to be slept on. In the
morning they are rolled up and stored away. There was a sofa and a few chairs along
one wall of the house but most people sit on the floor. We took our meals sitting on
the floor as well. This creates a curious problem for those of us who are used to
sitting in chairs. Your legs fall asleep and start to ache about 5 minutes into the
meal. Then, you can't really stretch your legs out for fear of offending someone by
pointing the bottoms of your feet at them. Also, since this was a strict Muslim
family and country-folk we had to really curtail the use of our left hand while eating
(and they didn't offer us cutlery). Of course, these customs were the most frequent
topic of dinner conversations.
While we stayed with the family
we had to take care to keep our legs covered. It was very hot during the day and
this created a bit of agony for both of us but especially Chris. We are used to
wearing shorts on hot days and nights. In this community of strong Muslim values and
where every woman wears a head scarf outside her home it would have been an offense to
show our legs. So, each night we lay down to sleep with our pants on and t-shirts
that we wore that day. I managed to sleep okay but Chris did nothing but sweat all
Inside the house, just after breakfast
The kitchen was in the back of
the house, almost outside really. Also the bathroom and toilet were in the
back. The bathroom also doubled as the washing room. Each morning when I woke
up at 6:30 a.m. to use the toilet, I had to disturb the oldest granddaughter from her
morning chores of washing the clothes just so I could take a pee. Although there
were so many people in the house and around it I was amazed there wasn't a constant line
for the bathroom. In the evenings I would take a bucket shower (I've gotten good at
these!) and not have to wait to get in or rush to get out for the next person. I
think everyone must have been using the cousins house next door so we could use the
bathroom in peace!
On Saturday morning one of Rosnah's cousins
came over with his family to take us in their family van to see his plantation. They
were justifiably proud of their big spread. What hard work it is to clear the jungle
to make room for their crops of palm, rubber, pineapple, and various other fruits.
Then we returned to the house to say our good-byes before we headed back to KL that
afternoon. Before we got on our bikes Rosnah's mother came out to us and gave us
each a big hug which made us feel so good. I think she even had tears in her eyes
when we pulled away. It's amazing how connected you can become to people without
ever actually speaking the same language. Without our friends Zaharan and Rosnah we
never would have had an experience as special as this. We wish them the best of luck
in the planning for their trip and hope they meet people as nice and welcoming as they and
their family were to us.