1000km Malaysia: Cycling around the peninsula (long article!)

Peter and I (ready to go)Through HelpX I came to stay with a lovely family for a week, in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. I helped with weeding in their garden, which was more than necessary after the rainy season, and I had also intended to figure out the next destinations in my trip. Which I did – although in a totally unexpected way: My host Peter is a cycling enthusiast, and he told me I could borrow his second bicycle and all the necessary gear to go on a cycling tour through Malaysia. We went to a cyclist talk, a Malaysian who had cycled from Finland to Singapore, which was great inspiration to me and which made me more than eager to start out on my own cycling adventure.

Day 1 – Leaving the city

We set out early in the morning, Peter seeing me off outside the residential area, then I was on my own. I had not done a whole lot of planning, just knew that I probably wanted to be in Singapore for Chinese New Year two and a half weeks from then, and that my first destination possibly was a national park (Taman Negara), about four cycling days away. Peter had asked a friend if I could stay at his place for the first night, but other than that nothing was set – everything was possible!

Cycling on an express way

Kuala Lumpur is not conceptualized for cycling, so in order to get from on point to another a cyclist has to follow the cars onto highways and express roads. I started out in Puchong, the south west of the megalopolis and had to get to the opposite side, to the north east. That meant around 60km on mostly 6-8-lane roads, with cars speeding by and loud trucks blowing their exhaust fumes right in my face. A not too enjoyable first leg of my trip, but it sure taught me how to behave in Malaysian traffic.

Golden statue in front of Batu Caves

Batu Caves

Eventually I arrived at Batu Caves, a Hindu place of worship, where I discovered that I had a flat tire. What a perfect start! I decided to look at the caves first, huge natural halls which would have been even more impressive, had it not been for their concrete floors and thickly painted walls…

I found a motorbike workshop, changed the tube, and the friendly mechanic helped me with balancing and inflating the tire. And soon after I was cycling again, now on a smaller road that started winding its way through the rain forest, up a long hill. It was beautiful, and although the hill was steep I preferred it a lot to the staright and level, but busy city highways. Along the roadside I saw dozens of monkeys, eating, and then attentively watching me while I passed by. When I had climbed the pass and gotten something to eat and to drink, it was already late afternoon. Some easy cycling down on the other side brought me to Bukit Tinggi where I was happy to meet Peter’s friend and to rest in his home.

Highway below

Kampung Bukit Tinggi

I started thinking about the next day and realized that it would be much nicer to stay with someone rather than to set up my tent somewhere in the wilderness, alone. On couchsurfing I found a host about 90km further along the road and contacted her, well knowing how slim my odds were, on such short notice…

Day 2 – Hilly palm oil plantations

In the morning I had gotten a reply; I could arrive in the afternoon and meet Mira at the elephant sanctuary where she was working. Great, that sounded exciting, and I had a plan!

Misty rain forest

The first part down the hill went smooth and fast, but after having passed a city where I got a late breakfast the landscape changed: Forests made way to palm oil plantations and the narrow back road I had settled upon (as a much longer alternative to the highway) was a constant up and down. Paired with a relentlessly burning sun this cost me a lot of energy.

Palm oil plantation

Palm oil plantation

It took me several hours of cycling on that road, seeing nothing but palm trees and the occasional small village before I finally arrived; sunburnt, with hurting legs and utterly exhausted.

Days 2-5 – Resting, changing plans, and having a good time with great people

Washing an elephant

At the elephant sanctuary it was time to wash the elephants. I was happy to get into the cooling river and help rub the leathery skin of these majestic animals with sand, then wash them clean. Mira had then finished her work, and by the time I had made to her place (even more agonizing cycling) she had made a plan: we would go camping at a river somewhere in the forest with some of her friends.

I only understood half of what was happening and just followed along, smilingly. We were driving to different places, picking up people and stuff, dropping off some of the people again, getting food. When we arrived at the location where we were to stay I was surprised to find a nice shelter with a fully equipped kitchen. Something had gotten lost in translation, but I certainly did not mind.

Shelter by the river

We cooked dinner and by the time it was ready several more people had arrived and we were quite a big and happy group. The boys all smoked, but since everyone was Muslim there was no alcohol. That made it a totally different experience from what it would have been like almost anywhere else (and I loved it, of course!). We had profound discussions about religion, politics, society and everything else, which was very interesting and fascinating since our backgrounds were so different. I learned how to start a fire with only bamboo (it worked, almost) and everyone was just so nice and friendly…

Taking the truck on back roads

Banana plantation

The next day we all drove to the biggest fruit farm in Malaysia, which started just further down the road. I tried jackfruit (that’s yellow, sweet tasting flesh in a huge green, spiky, awkwardly shaped egg that can weigh up to 30kg!), picked some limes, saw papaya and banana trees, pineapple fields, and a lot more. The afternoon we spent relaxing at our base at the riverbank; swimming, setting out nets, making food and talking – enjoying life.


I realized that I had overexerted my leg on the second day, and that I had to give it some rest. I stayed another day with Mira, meeting her family and spending more time at the elephant center.

Elephant forhead

Feeding the elephants

Then another miracle of spontaneity happened: I contacted a HelpX place, an adventure resort in the rain forest at Sungai Lembing, and they told me that they needed help as soon as possible, preparing an obstacle race. They were driving by where I was staying early the next morning and we agreed on a place where they would pick me up.

I ended up staying an entire week in Sungai Lembing (that story you can read here) which gave my leg the opportunity to recover from the initial strain of cycling.

Days 12-14 – Along the coast

Since I had to get out of the rainforest, and then also paid a visit to the local museum I did not start cycling from Sungai Lembing before the early afternoon. Still I made good progress, about 90km that day (slowly but steadily); first downhill, then level, following the coastline from Kuantan southward. A little before sunset I found a quiet place on the beach, set up my tent and watched the stars and distant lightning, to the rhythmic sound of the waves.

Endless (dirty) beaches

It had not rained the entire night, but started when I was about to take down my tent. I sought shelter and left a little later, when it had cleared again. That day I cycled to Sungai Rompin, a rough 110km, but had a long rest at around noon, fleeing from the excruciating sun.

Having a rest on the beach

Along the way there was always an abundance of small shops and cheap roadside restaurants, so I never had to worry about running out of supplies.

Shortly after Sungai Rompin I met a cyclist (the 5th so far), a young carpenter from France who had been cycling for close to one year. We teamed up until Mersing, from where I caught the ferry to Tioman Island in the early afternoon.

Day 17 – Palm oil plantations, again

I was relieved to find the bicycle and my bags where I had left them when I returned from my short “beach holiday” in the afternoon, and was so full of energy that I decided to continue and to start further decreasing the distance to Singapore. After approximately 40km it started getting dark, but I was cycling through endless palm tree plantations without any hotel for miles around.

Elephant road sign

I stopped at a restaurant and was told that it was not safe to camp in the plantations due to wild elephants. But the nice restaurant owner allowed me to set up my tent under his roof, which I did.

It looked like I would get an early night, being the only one in the restaurant, but at around 9pm people, mostly teenagers started arriving on their scooters, and the karaoke facilities were activated.

At midnight, when they had left I set up my tent. The owner and his wife began shutting things down, with their young children still bustling around them. All evening they had been alternating between doing their homework and watching brutal Chinese movies on the overhead television. Then, at almost 1am, I heard another group arriving and ordering hearty meals. So the family went to work again, and the children got some more time before ging to bed (What a life!) And the next morning they all left before six o’clock, leaving me to get up quite a bit later (leaving with sunrise at around 7am), feeling a little tired from the short night…

Day 18 – Kampung Sungai Ara

Only 10km after I had started cycling I stopped again: I had seen a sign for “roti canai“, my favorite Malaysian breakfast. A couple of these flat, indian-inspired breads with dal (lentil soup) and the typical drink, teh ais (ice tea) make a delicious meal, and the waiter was so surprised by me ordering in Malaysian that we got into a longer conversation. His name was Han, and he told me that he too was fond of outdoor excursions and adventures. He then invited me to stay in his home to experience the life in his village. I did the math and found that I could still make it to Singapore the next day, so I agreed happily.

Pondo - Plantation cabin

By then Han had finished his work for the day and we went to the home of his family. He later showed me his own oil plantation where he had a shelter („pondok“), a nice place to relax. Han introduced me to many of his friends, and also to the imam of the village (whoa wanted to add me on facebook!); we had some local food, then we went to a farm where we, together with the owner, dug up some Tapioca-roots (“ubi kayu“) which we then prepared for the evening.

Mixed farm

Tapioca harvest

Digging out tapioca

Cutting and washing tapioca

Most of the people I had met and some more showed up at the pondo, we sat together, talked in a mix of English and Malay and ate cooked and baked ubi kayu with sambal (chili sauce) from a banana leaf – it was simple, but absolutely delicious!

Ubi Kayu/Tapioca on banana leaf


Group picture with Han and his friends

This was their daily thing, I understood; getting together after work and just having a good time, doing nothing, basically. Enjoying life (a recurring pattern!). Naturally I was accepted into their group, and with a mix of basic vocabulary we had nice conversations… Han and I were the first ones to leave, at around midnight. He would start work at six in the morning, and I was to follow shortly after, have breakfast, and leave as soon as it got light.

What an amazing day! Han had given me the genuine experience and an amazing insight into the local culture…

Day 19 – Entering Singapore

CyclingI made good progress that morning, cycling on the same road I had been on for the last three days – from Mersing to Johor Bahru. A somewhat hilly, two-lane road cutting through endless palm oil plantations. After Kota Tinggi it widened into four lanes though, and the spacious shoulder disappeared, which made it a lot less fun to cycle on. The palm trees gradually made way to roadside eateries and suburban workshops and hardware stores, and by noon I was in the middle of sprawling Johor Bahru. This city had clearly not been designed with cyclists in mind (or pedestrians, for that matter): Wide highways were dividing the city, and they often posed the only option to get from one place to another.

Without giving it a thought I had assumed that it would be easy to find, but there were no signs to Singapore. The island is connected to the mainland by two bridges, one in the west, and one in the north, the latter one, called causeway, being the only one open to cyclists. It connects Johor Bahru with “Woodlands”, an area in the north of Singapore. Not knowing this at the time it felt like chance that I got to a place where the traffic was divided into trucks, cars and motorcycles. Out of lack of options I followed the last category, which proved to be the right choice, and got to a checkpoint, where my passport was stamped. I had left Malaysia.

Read about my experiences in Singapore here.

Woodland crossing

On the bridge between Malaysia and Singapore

Day 23 – Leaving Singapore, getting to the coast

Leaving Singapore turned also out to be a lot harder than imagined: Maybe I was tired, but a few wrong turns at park connector intersections made me cycle long detours and it took me several hours to get to the causeway. Here it was not allowed for motorcycles (and hence also for me) to enter a ramp up to the checkpoints (I would have had to come via the highway, which also is not allowed for cyclists), but a friendly police officer told me I should take the ramp anyways, and then carry my bicycle across a divider. Then I was in the right lane and just went with the traffic flow – back across the bridge, entering Malaysia, and onto one of Johor Bahru’s lovely highways…

In the late afternoon and many highways later I could finally turn onto a smaller and less trafficked road, which brought me to the coastal city of Pontian. Again I had cycled around 100km or so, but I must have gotten used to the strain by now, since it did not affect me any more.

Day 24 – Another kind invitation

I had only cycled about 60km or so, and not intended to call it a day, when, during a rest stop I met On. A retired officer who had been around a lot in younger years, and who spoke very good English. He invited me to stay the night with his family, and while he led the way to his home on his scooter, I followed behind, cycling as fast as I could. We arrived at a nice and cared-for place, and after having had a look around, we sat down and talked for a long while. About travel destinations, my experiences on the road, but also about religion. I learned a lot about the philosophy of Islam, and how it is practiced in Malaysia.

On and his family - so nice!

With his wife and his youngest son we went out for dinner (the locals always know the best places!) and then the day was already over…

Day 25 – Malacca

Early in the morning we had breakfast together, the caring mother packed everything we hadn’t eaten for me to take along, then the whole small family saw me off. It had been really nice and I had gotten another unexpected and different experience spending a day with this lovely family!

I followed the same road I had also been on the day before, close to the sea, but never actually touching it. It led me through small and sleepy villages with wooden houses and palm trees, where I was joyfully greeted by everyone I passed. Also here an abundance of food stalls and warungs (cheap roadside restaurants) on the way ensured and assured me that I would not run out of energy.

And then the buildings started rising higher, the traffic grew heavier – signs that I was approaching a city. I continued on to the city center of Malacca, but there it became almost impossible to cycle: The street was clogged with tourists!

Chinese New Year in Malacca

I left this area as fast as possible and found my place to stay: A warmshowers member who owned a hostel was offering free accommodation for cyclists on the rooftop. The view was pretty nice up there, and the soft breeze cooling – perfect!

Touristic center of Malacca

Malacca World Heritage site

Tourist bicycle taxis

I went to explore the city, but after a few hours of doing the tourist thing I had had enough. Yes, it was a nice city with a good vibe and special architecture, being a former colonial trading port and now a world heritage site. But I had (and still have) a hard time understanding what makes it such a tourist magnet…

This had been my first encounter with such masses of tourists for a very long time (the last time being at Angkor Wat in Cambodia, probably), and during my cycling trip I had realized very strongly that seeing a country is very different from seeing its tourist attractions. I was ready to continue and to get back to the starting point of my trip.

Day 26 – Returning marathon

Malacca City is “only” about 150km away from Kuala Lumpur, but that means taking highways and express roads, which I was not keen on doing. So, at sunrise, I cycled through a quiet and empty city and thus saw a much more appealing and even beautiful face of Malacca.

Malacca in the morning

Painted house

Wall art in Malacca

Again I took the coastal road northward, a longer and more hilly, but much nicer alternative to the highways. I was hoping to make it back in one day, but was also prepared to camp somewhere on the way since I did not know the exact distance, and also it looked like it would be a clear and hence hot day. Which it was. Every hour or so I had a short rest and got something cold to drink, which always boosted my strength and made me eager to continue.

Breakfast with view

For breakfast I stopped at a warung at the beach, and met a friendly local whom I chatted with for a while. After he had left and I was about to settle the bill I found out that my meal had already been payed for. This was not the first time that something like this had happened to me, but I never stopped to be amazed: These people, who don’t have much themselves are more than happy to share with you whatever they have, not asking for anything (and here not even a “thank you”) in return!

Road through palm oil plantations

The sun rose higher and burned down on me right from above. I left the coastal road and headed inland, passing palm oil plantations, the airport of Kuala Lumpur, and more palm oil plantations. It got afternoon and a little cooler again, and I was only 40km or so away from my goal. I did not feel tired, so I just continued. Finding a small back road I managed to avoid an otherwise mandatory highway, and some time (and, you guessed it, palm oil plantations) later I arrived in a modern residential area, with smooth roads. One last “refueling” stop, and I was finally there. Of course my body complained a little after this long day, but for 170km in the saddle, with a merciless sun burning down on me most of the time, I felt pretty good. And elated.

It had been a great trip, my eyes had been opened to a different, to me much more real (and also more rewarding) style of traveling. I had seen the country and not just its attractions. I had made many friends and experienced the local way of life. And I had tested my own limits and expanded them.

And now I know that there will be more and also longer cycling trips in my future!

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