Bicycle blitzkreig

Thai visa in hand I fled Pennang before dawn on the first free ferry to Butterworth. A quick roti chennai later, I gave the bike it's head and whistled north.

The countryside opened out into a patchwork of farms spread across lush riverland.

The mighty Muda with its headwaters at Mt Bubus weaves it's way towards the straights.

Lazy rivers criss-crossed the plain dodging occasional karst outcrops and bisecting my northerly rush. Occasional gum stands offered shade and the distinct impression you were being spied on.

On the banks of a Sungai Merbok tributary NW of Petani lurked one of Malaysia's most exciting culinary revelations. A kampong canteen lunch. Served buffet style, a table some 4 meters long is covered with dishes. Fish from river and sea spiced a dozen different ways, murky currys each more potent than the last, tangy salads, a galaxy of vegetable dishes all served at an extraordinary price in the bosom of the local community. 

The heat had become oppressive but fortunately my afternoon destination was not far; a westerly diversion along the Bujang Valley.

Just north of a little town called Merbok one finds a tantalizing glimpse of the civilization that thrived here 1600 years ago. The candi temples, like those above, date back to AD 110 and thus may be the oldest man-made structures in South East Asia. 

It is a shame then that the remains have been relocated and restored. Spiffing English amateur archaeologists with names like H.G. Quaritch Wales should be praised and cursed in equal measures for the discovery and disturbance.  

Heavy Indian influence is discernible in the Buddhist/Hindu religious motifs while Sanskrit tablets attests to international commerce from the 4thC BC. Intriguing Indian oral histories speak of Bujang as a site of vast wealth and treasures from golden chariots to caves filled with jewels. Alas none of these are held in the very provincial museum with little in the way of English signage. I made what I could of the exhibits and enjoyed having the echoing air conditioned rooms all to myself.

This wonderful diorama, rather than the shards of brickwork and pottery that held my attention longest; the geography of the afternoon laid out with brilliant clarity. 

What wasn't depicted was a tiny island a little further north.
I would have ridden straight by had I not glanced at Google maps and noticed an intriguing, barely perceptible, line connecting it to the mainland. A cartographic glitch perhaps? Still it bore investigating.

Well, well.

A sandy track through scrubland vegetation, followed by a sharp left over a sand bar brought me to a wide bridge leading out over the water. Concrete bollards prevented cars crossing leaving it to me, a few mopeds and dozens of locals fishing from the sides. 

Having covered the incongruous 2km I had expected... well something. Instead the bridge met the island at a scruffy piece of level ground measuring perhaps 15 meters square. Behind this precipitous jungle hills jutted. A run down bench was the only sign that this space was a destination of sorts. The piercing sound of metal work being conducted suggested to me that development was in progress somewhere. It was grating but presumably would not go on after dark so I set about exploring.

To the south a jumble of boulders descended steeply to a rocky shoreline along which nestled a pretty cove. Sweaty from the days exertions I gave the nearby fishing boats no mind and stripped off to wash.

Cleaner, and less saddle sore, I picked my way back to the bicycle before setting off to explore the tangled jungle to the north. A fizzing firework erupted into the sky flashing pink and black. Another couple of strides and two more Liquorice Allsort rockets burst forth. Closer examination revealed that the launchers were the size of a small bird but the trajectory and slow helicoptery descent ruled out an avian source. Sneaking forward I caught a fleeting stationary glimpse of a huge cicada before it too whistled skywards.

Tacua Speciosa - looks like a stuffed toy but isn't.  picture source

Having watched in awe as the last of these huge insectoid fizz bangers shot forth I noted with satisfaction that the metal grinding too had stopped. (Belatedly the penny dropped.)

The jungle wall hid a small track leading up the north side of the island. As I advanced I realised I was being watched. The cicadaless silence was replaced by rustling above, behind and on my flanks. A troop of macaques materialised, their chittering rising an octave with each step made. This was not my first dance with macaques in Malaysia and I was blissfully unconcerned until, what was clearly the alpha, dropped from the trees a few meters in front of me. Teeth bared, the noise around me erupted. A tentative step forward elicited yet further shrieks.

It just so happened that, entirely coincidentally, I decided it was getting rather late. With aloof disdain (certainly no hint of headlong retreat) I returned once more to the bike. 

Dusk and dawn.

At sunset the green lantern lights of the night fishermen began to dot the straights. Mopeds carried out an odd ritual dance. Driving along the bridge to the island before, without pause, turning and heading back to shore as if on an oversized fashion runway. This gave me pause as to exactly where to sleep. The northern track was closed to me. The cove on the south shore was tempting but the steep rocks meant I would need to leave the bike behind. In the end I decided to hang my mosquito net from the bench and sleep beside bike at the cost of romantic seclusion. A not quite restful night was spent waking to continued moped promenades and cats invading the island eco-system.

The next day began in similar fashion to the last as I rushed north hugging the coast where I could, until forced inland to round river mouths.

As the heat rose toward noon I stopped for another sumptuous kampong canteen lunch before trying and failing to escape the heat with a wander round the air condition-less museum at Kuala Kedah. After reading about the diverse armadas that have captured the town in its long history (Siamese, Srivijayan, Cholan, Portuguese) I learnt that the town had been the first point in the Japanese invasion of Malaysia.

One of the most intriguing aspects of that campaign was the role of bicycles:
"Influenced by the intense heat and impassable jungle, Japanese planners decided from the beginning to use bicycles rather than horses as a means of troop and light material transportation. This decision allowed the foot soldiers to travel farther, faster, and with less fatigue. Due to the vast number of rivers on the Malay peninsula, and the British propensity to destroy the more than 250 bridges they crossed during their retreat, bicycles allowed the infantry (to continue) their advance, wading across the rivers carrying their bicycles on their shoulders,or crossing on log bridges held up on the shoulders of engineers standing in the stream. The British could not escape the troops on bicycles. They were overtaken, driven off the paved roads into the jungle, and forced to surrender. The constant pressure and relentless pursuit was psychologically devastating to the defenders; a true blitzkrieg -- Japanese-style." - Bicycle Blitzkrieg: LCDR Alan C. Headrick, USNR

It gives me little joy to imagine that most elegant means of conveyance put to such dastardly use. Contributing to arguably the worst defeat in British military history. Still, having admired the cannons and read the plaques I retreated to the shade of a tree for an afternoon siesta and found it impossible not to daydream of enraged cycle cavalry charging infantry lines with bayonet lances. It is possible that once again I had caught a little too much sun on the morning ride.

Traversing quiet, sandy coastal tracks, in the afternoon progress was steady and pleasant and I had soon reached the carp country of Kedah's north. Here the mangroves have been replaced with aquaculture - principally pond after pond of sport fishing. The uncertain economics of such a trade off aside the people here were welcoming even by Malay standards.

I was soon off bike playing keepy-uppys with a band of kids before being led by the hand to one of the fisheries owners. He promptly insisted that I camp next to his pond. He also invited me to join him on a night fishing expedition but a departure time of 03:00 meant I politely declined in favour of a good nights sleep.

Before bedding down one of the older boys I'd played football with sought me out on his bicycle and invited me to join him and his family for some nasi lemak. Served in banana leaf pyramids these tasty rice and curry paste delights were a fast favorite of mine and make perfect travelling food; portable, long lasting, calorific and suitable for any meal.

I anticipated crossing into Thailand the next day but it was with a sense of loss that I contemplated leaving Malaysia. A beautiful country where so many people had been so kind to me.

Overview: Day 1 ride: circa 90km
                 Day 2 ride: circa 80km

* routes are made using googlemaps autocomplete. Accuracy may be less than perfect


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