Wednesday, 28 November 2007

The ride home

After Isma, the stringer from NST left, I had a light dinner at the gerai. A few off-duty security guards came over to have their dinner and we talked a little. When they got up to leave, they all rose to shake my hand and their supervisor even paid for my dinner. What a nice gesture - and not the first time I'd enjoyed such warm generosity too.

I was at the ticket counter half an hour before the scheduled departure time and the bus arrived a few minutes later. What followed was about the most insanely-hectic, sweatingly-frantic, rush-about-madly 20 minutes of my life.

Despite the ticket seller's claims the bike would fit, no problem, the bike would not fit. Much problem. The luggage compartment could have fitted the bike in if there wasn't already some stuff in it, and if the other passengers weren't carrying quite so much luggage with them. I offered to remove the front wheel - which, thanks to quick release hubs, was done in a few seconds. The bike went in, but precious little other luggage could fit.

So the bike came out again. I took off the rear wheel but it didn't solve the problem. The driver was inscrutable. Though stoic might more accurately describe him at thsi stage. Me? Take your pick from harried, frantic, rushed, sweaty, panicky... OK maybe not panicky. I somehow figured things would work out.

If only the darn other passengers would get out of my way as I rushed about...

In the end, the driver found a space in the spare wheel and battery compartment. Within this compartment hung the spare wheel and the battery rack. The bottom of the compartment opened to the road below, but the side did have a small gap into the next compartment and I managed to squeeze the bike in and wedge the back of the frame into that small gap and rest the front on the spare wheel. But first I also had to remove the bike rack - 3 allen screws came out in a couple of minutes, the fourth popped out and stayed behind in Kangar. My seat also came out and both rested on the spare wheel, held in place by the front fork of the bike.

For added security, the driver tied my bike to the frame of the bus and after we slotted the tires in to a low space in the luggage compartment, all was set.

A quick toilet break 'I'll just be one minute, I promise', I got into the bus and shortly after, we were off.

I had brought books and magazines along, and had my laptop with me but it turned out the personal overhead lights didn't work so no reading for me for the whole trip.

Much thinking though.

I was almost in tears as we drove out of Kangar. It wouldn't have been so emotional if we had not gone back the way I had come. But in mere minutes, we tracked back many kilometres along the road I had cycled just a few days before. I saw familiar junctions, signboards, buildings, shops. The darkness failed to disguise them. The smells and sounds were missing, air-conditioning and thick glass windows taking care of that. But the sights were enough.

Over a month on the road and despite my intention never to emphasise the destination, Kangar and Padang Besar had been significant. Now, in traversing the kilometres in diesel-fumed impunity, it seemed my humble leg and lung efforts were
being erased. The physical ride was over. And this bus was doing its best to diminish my journey. To reduce it to mere pages in a diary.

Where my bike had been my carrier, the indignity now was that it was a passenger. Like me.

I was glad to be going back to be with Mei, but I was immensely sad too to be leaving. Over the last few weeks, I had had an inspiring, enlightening, motivating time. Now, as the bus retraced my steps, the reality of my ride being over was stamped all over my psyche.

As a final jibe, we drove into Sungei Petani and stopped at the bus stand I had been caught in the rain at. We drove past the hotel I'd been in and I even picked out the window of the room I'd stayed in the week before.

Memories came rushing back as we sped the many kilometres to Singapore. I was glad the overhead lights were out. I looked out the window, looking for familiar landmarks. But soon the bus turned onto a highway, the scenery became unfamiliar and the kilometres rolled beneath our wheels even more rapidly.

As the occasional lights of houses and towns sped past in a blur of phosphorescence, my memories faded and I became more aware I was going home. But I was also leaving home. And that thought stayed with me for some time before sleep came and rescued me.

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and Now at laST

Well, it finally happened. After chasing but never quite catching up with me from Melaka up, NST finally sent a stringer over to see me two hours before I boarded my bus back home. It took a little arm-twisting, I must admit: when they heard I had promised The Star two articles, everything happened all at once.

Having been in a deadlines-oriented industry for the last 20 years, I know what it's like, but I still had to stress that I needed to be on a bus at 8 and that I needed time to make sure my bike got on too... so it was that the stringer, Isma, met me at the Kangar Bus Station at 6. I suggested the most appropriate place to talk and to photograph me at was a gerai near the station so there we sat and chatted for an hour.

The link to the story on NST online is here.

It contains some minor mistakes, but nothing to worry about. Just read the blog and you'll find the real stuff - if you haven't already.

I don't crave media attention, even if I do enjoy being in the spotlight sometimes. But this time around, it's important that some seeds are planted gnationally. The experiences may be personal but the ideas are much more panoramic in nature. I'm looking forward to sharing a little more in the Star articles as well as on this blog soon.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Thoughts while stationary - Personal limits and Comfort Zones

It's done.

I've reached Padang Besar and in so doing covered about 1200 kms from the southernmost tip to near the northernmost. Put in perspective, it is nothing compared to the distance covered by many others. And yet, without sounding apologetic, I feel I've achieved something.

We all have our comfort zones, the boundaries of which we regard as our personal limits. My last few years have been a little about pushing some of those boundaries a bit at a time. This ride was no different.

I must admit that my return from Padang Besar was immensely satisfying. I found myself counting off the kilometres, realising each one passed was one more closer to the final one for this ride. I'd pushed a number of personal boundaries and was feeling great for it.

I'd met some really nice people, seen some wonderful sights, learnt some new things, made some new friends and in so doing, accomplished some of what I'd set out to do. Not all, you ask? Well, as the chain went around and around, so too did the philosophy of the ride. One link led to another. One idea to another.

The idea of the ride, as conceived at the start, has largely been met. There are bits yet to go - writing more about some of the people I've met, compiling the material and so on. There's also the promise of an article in NST (if they can catch up with me finally - they've been calling me since Melaka!) and my two promised articles in The Star to come. But by and large, I've done most of what I'd wanted to do.

But new ideas are slowly emerging. Primarily - what next?

Well, let me ask you - what next indeed?

If you've been following my journal, it's likely because you share some of the ideas I have. Many of you shared my opinion that there is just so much bad news floating about nowadays, perhaps we need to remind ourselves that things aren't all that bad. Give ourselves that little bit of impetus to go on another day. Certainly the stories of Hamzah, Supriani, the DAP and UMNO blokes in Pekan Seri Menanti, David Munusamy, are all in their own way, heartwarming, inspiring even.

But is that all? Just a few nice stories?

Well, I wrote once about 'Influence'. Let me revisit that a bit. And without being big-headed, let me set out a bit of a challenge...

I'm a simple bloke, with very modest abilities. I pushed myself a little and know myself better now. That my limits are not as confined as I'd been led to believe. Now, I haven't changed the world. Far from it. Upcoming stories in the papers might raise some awareness, but there's still much to do.

And that's where the challenge comes in.

I have some friends who've done some pretty remarkable things. Immediately coming to mind are Alex Yap who's set up a children's home, Young Soon who's been working with kids in rural areas for years, Singam who is on the Board at Montfort in Melaka. I count Johari Low in that bunch as well, for always being generous of spirit and more when he saw a worthwhile venture.

Many more of us haven't pushed our boundaries that much though. We've, for the most part sat back and well, complained.

So did I. For years.

But now, I can't so much anymore. Whenever I do I am reminded of Hamzah who told me of a situation in the kampung: A Chinese resident had planted vegetables on public land on the edge of the ditch next to his house. The environment officers came around and didn't say a word so a Malay chap up the road did the same. This time the environment officers came around and asked him to clear it up so he complained that the Chinese chap was allowed to keep doing the same. To which the environment officers said 'Go and look at how he's managed his plants. He's keeping them neat and tidy and the ditch is unaffected. You, on the hand, are clogging the ditch and have to clear up the mess.'

Surprised? But it happens...

Then I recall David and how he sometimes counts among his party guests the local assemblyman, a Malay gentleman who comfortably sits among the other guests as they partake of food or drink that is not halal.

Mere anecdotes? Perhaps, but so much of our lives are built around anecdotal accounts, aren't they?

Every positive encounter I've written about here is confirmation that there's a strong heart still beating in our country. A sense of community, muhibbah, that we've all but forgotten in the cities.

So here's the challenge:
Push your boundaries a bit this coming year. Do something instead of just talking. Get out of your comfort zone a little. Heck if I can, anyone can.

Only you will know what you want to do. Big or small. Modest or extreme. Doesn't matter. Just get out and do something positive. Don't fall backwards into the clutches of cynicism. If you want to share your ideas, or canvas support right here, by all means do that. You may encounter the same generosity of wallet and spirit that got me going!

As for me, the bike's going to be used for my weekend rides with my wife after it gets a good servicing (especially the brakes!) and not much more. The writing continues, however. I've been grappling with some issues on racial stereotyping, the rural/urban dichotomy, the unifying quality of a common language, and branding as applied to Malaysia in general. More to come I'm sure. One link leads to another.

Will you help pedal?

Day 34 - 36 Nov 18 - 20 Padang Besar: The Last Stage

Distance: 76.9 km
Max Speed: 37.4 km/h
Average while moving: 18.9 km/h
Total distance to date: 1203.6 km (inc distance in towns, not reflected in blog)

On the morning of the 19th, I carried my bike downstairs, knowing it would be the last stage of the ride. I had packed light - my handlebar bag with my usual personal items and my rack top bag loaded with spares. No luggage, no spare water. The bike felt so light it took a few minutes to readjust.

The way out of Kangar was easy and fast. All around me were the limestone outcroppings that dot the Perlis countryside. At first it seemed I was headed directly for a mountain range, but as I cycled further along, the range parted and I realised I was headed for the valley in between. The bulk of the range was to my left and as I looked there I realised Kampung Wang Kelian lay in that direction.

Padang Besar lay ahead with only a few small climbs. And one beautiful dam and lake. It was still relatively early and the trees still cast longish shadows across green grass and deep blue waters. On a hill overlooking the lake, I found an abandoned, but still very new, rest stop. The shops were all shuttered and I wondered why - the view from the wooden patio was stunning. The volume of traffic was quite slight though so perhaps it was a lack of business rather than anything else.

Further along, a couple of inverted-bell shaped limestone hills rose up hundreds of feet. At the foot of these two was a large development - Pusat Serenti Bukit Chabang. I had no idea what a Pusat Serenti was, but right across it was a gerai so I stopped for a cup of tea and something to eat.

The little gerai was a simple affair with a zinc roof mounted on rough wooden beams. The owner had softened it considerably though - birds' nests hung from the rafters, and large and small ferns were suspended from the roof or hung on pillars. The gravel driveway in skirted a landscaped assemblage of plants as well so the entire was quite pleasing to the eye.

We chatted for awhile, the owner and I, and she explained that the Pusat was a drug rehab centre. She lamented the fact that most of the inmates were Malay - almost 300, with only a handful of Indians and Chinese. She said the youth of today were clearly having problems and the proximity to the Thai border meant drugs were an easily available way out.

One comment she made made me both silently laugh and cry - there are more drug rehab centres like this than there are universities. A striking statistic.

Still, she opined the centres were doing some good - and certainly the beautiful and quiet surroundings seemed a good place for inmates to start over.

Strangely, the ride in to Padang Besar after that was a little harder. I'd made some adjustment to the seat height earlier. I had previously set it slightly lower to help deal with the hills around Jerai but found my knees giving me trouble thereafter. Raising the seat sorted everything out and my legs could stretch out comfortably on the faster stretches. For some reason, however, the bike now felt sluggish. I would discover the cause later.

On the way in I saw a Jabatan Haiwan area and stopped when I saw Ostriches. Man, those birds are big... And I'm convinced now that Big Bird of Sesame Street fame is really an ostrich - when one looked straight at me, I swore that with liberal application of yellow spray paint, I'd have a good Big Bird double. OK, so my memory of Sesame Street is a little hazy... I also saw deer in the distance and some horses too. All on large tracts of pasture land.

I got in to Padang Besar and a policeman at a road block (of which there were a few) directed me to the back way in to the Railway Station where I wanted to go to get a refund on my train ticket.

I had to carry the bike up the stairs at the entrance, then down two flights to the platform where the ticket office was and got there just on 11:15am. Only to discover the counter closed at 11:00 and reopened at 2:30pm... An officer confirmed I could get a 50% refund later so I wandered off to town to take some pictures and eat.

A policeman at the railway station chatted with me for a few minutes and said that if I took the overhead bridge instead, I would get back into town without going via the container truck road I'd come in on. So I carried my bike up the two flights of stairs, then across the overhead bridge and down a long flight of stairs, and into the immigration centre.

I had lunch at a coffee shop fronting the badly rutted main road. Thai bikes and cars were everywhere, and in amongst the babble of Malay and Mandarin, I heard the singsong lilt of Thai.

I got back to the station early, and sat at the cafeteria upstairs for awhile, enjoying an ice cream. For want of something to do, I decided to check the rear wheel for wear - a habit since the torn tyre incident. I pushed the bike back against the stand and spun the wheel to have a look. It went around half a turn then locked solid. Damn Brakes were rubbing against the wheel. Obviously my wheels weren't true anymore either. Damn! That would explain why I had difficulty coming in...

It turns out the same problem I'd had earlier had come up again. I made some cable and pad adjustments and it sorted it out at the expense of longer brake lever travel. I'd checked the wheels before and they were fine then so it seemed the calipers were only occasionally sticking and not returning fully. How long this had been happening I had no idea, but the grip was very light so that I didn't feel any juddering or vibrations. It did make pedalling that little bit more wearying of course.

I felt damn silly. Well, live and learn and all that I guess.

The train ticket settled, I felt no great urge to stay on in Padang Besar, market stalls selling all manner of Thai and local goods notwithstanding. I made for Kangar, and the bike, freed of the rear brake encumbrance, felt light and oh so quick. I pedalled furiously - keeping up a speed of 29 km/h and above. At times I was doing over 35 km/h and feeling great.

I stopped at the same stall on the way back, had an iced lemon tea and chatted for awhile more. The owner wished me well, and asked me to drop by again one day. Maybe I will.

One km closer, one less km to go. The end was almost anti-climatic - I reached the roundabout in Kangar with my head down, still going at a bit of a clip and hit the brakes at the last second. I rolled up to the Kangar Hotel, the last stop for me and the bike. I was grinning when I climbed back upstairs.

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Day 34 - 36 Nov 18 - 20 Kangar

Kangar is a small town but not without its charms. I didn't think so at first though. Buoyed by my earlier encounter at the padi field gerai near Air Hitam I came crashing down shortly after arriving in Kangar.

My research on the internet revealed there was at least one hotel - the Federal - in town and it took me just a few minutes to locate it. When I rolled up near it though, there was a group of (from a distance at least) sinister looking people seated at the steps leading to the lobby. Thinking the hotel may cater to a lot of foreign worker types, I decided to try a hotel just a few metres away, which looked very new and had a Porsche parked in front for heaven's sake.

Now to be fair to the Federal, some of the hotels I've stayed in on this ride have indeed catered to 'foreign worker types'. The one at Butterworth, for example, was clean and neat, even if the fact the reception was behind a large iron grille and locked metal grille gate gave me pause.

Anyway, the other hotel was full, so back to the Federal I went.

The people gathered at the front turned out to be a mix of locals and Thais. They seemed harmless enough and when I looked out the lobby, I saw them inspecting my bike while keeping a discreet distance.

The girl at the front desk said they were full, although she hesitated and turned to the man next to her before telling me that.

Now, a couple of times on this trip I have indeed encountered situations when I had an inking the hotel wasn't actually full, but for reasons best known to the front desk, they simply didn't want my custom. I have no way of knowing for sure of course, but this case was the most suspect I'd come across.

So I asked the man if he knew of any other hotels around the area and before he suggested the one I'd just been to, I said I'd already asked there. He replied that he didn't know.

So I asked again - were there any hotels in Kangar?

He replied he didn't know if there were any rooms available anywhere.

I was getting exasperated. I knew he knew there were other hotels around, but for some reason he seemed reluctant to tell me. I couldn't figure out why - if he didn't, as I suspected, want my custom, then there should be no reason not to suggest an alternative. So I tried again - I didn't ask if there were any rooms. Just whether there were any hotels. I was getting very short and direct with him and he knew it.

And the idiot gave me the same answer.

So very slowly and very clearly in a voice that implied 'Listen to me very carefully, you idiot' I asked him again 'I am not asking you if there are any rooms. I am asking you if there are any other hotels in Kangar.'

Finally he said there were some hotels, and I caught the names 'Kangar' and 'Ban Cheong'. So I asked where they were and he waved his arm in a general direction - good enough for me.

Before I left, I gave him a withering look and told him 'Of course I don't expect you to know if these hotels have any rooms available. Why would you know that? I merely want to know, since YOU have no rooms, whether there were any other hotels I could enquire at. THEY would know if they had any rooms.' And then I walked out.


I found the Kangar hotel. It sat above a 24-hour KFC outlet. I kid you not. Why would Kangar need a 24-hour American Fast Food joint? I would soon find out...

The hotel sign had the telephone number so I called from downstairs and they said they didn't have any single rooms but I could have a larger room for RM 79, and yes, my bike could be brought upstairs. So I did, all the while giving a mental middle finger to the idiot at the Federal. That's why your hotel looks old and grubby you fool. Grrrr....

The Kangar may be small - just 10 rooms - but it certainly wasn't old and grubby. I was greeted warmly by the lady who'd answered the phone, and a very nice fragrance indeed. Not from her, as I discovered, but from a Lampe Berger burner on the counter. The room was comfortable and the only minus point was the electric sockets being stuck in a corner so I had to stretch my power cords all the way in order to be able to use the laptop in bed.

Why do so many hotels have this issue? Anyway, no other complaints and my 2 (soon to be 3) days passed happily.

Now, back to KFC...

I arrived on a Saturday night, and after a short roam around, found I wasn't really keen on eating anymore local food - at least not what was available in the few stalls open. So KFC it was...

I wandered off to the bus station the next morning and Lo! And behold! There is a direct bus from Kangar to Singapore! More than one in fact, and I can put the bike below! So now I can get back by Wednesday night! I celebrated with a Nasi Kandar lunch near the bus station.

I know now why Sunil's been putting on weight. These darn Nasi Kandar meals can be very heavy indeed... But also very yummy...

I discovered that Kangar is deadsville on Sunday. Almost nothing is open. Almost no shops, no restaurants, no coffeeshops and besides the few stalls near the bus stand where I had lunch, no stalls either.

So for dinner I had KFC again... For variety, I had the Dinner plate this time (3 pcs of chicken, a bun, coleslaw, mashed potato and a drink). Last night I had had the Snack Plate (2 pcs of chicken, a bun, coleslaw, mashed potato and a drink)...

Because of the pressing need to sort out my transport, as well as a rising need to have a day or two of rest, I decided not to go to Wang Kelian. I would miss the Sunday Market which Wang Kelian is famous for, but it could not be helped. I would go to Padang Besar on Monday instead, thereby completing the South - North journey as originally planned.

Monday night - I will post the details of the Padang Besar trip separately - and the girls in the hotel mentioned Kangar Laksa. Well, I tried. I honestly did, but the darn stalls were closed! What could I do? This most definitely isn't Sungei Petani!

So I had KFC again... The Maxx Meal this time (1 Zinger burger, 1pc of chicken, with an extra order of coleslaw).

This is my first trip to Perlis, and I found I like the state. Well, with the exception of that idiot (middle finger mentally raised) in the Federal Hotel. The people seem quite casual - many women were without the hijab and even those with, were frequently seen in blouse and pants rather than the Baju Kurung I've bceome used to seeing in Perak and Kedah.

I also noted some racial mixing - one coffeeshop in particular advertised Hailam food and had a Chinese proprietor who did some cooking sometimes, and two other Malay cooks. Very unusual.

But very gratifying.

I will post pictures later as I have this morning still to walk around.
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Sunday, 18 November 2007

Day 33 Nov 17 Alor Setar - Kangar Part 2

Along the way, about 2 km from Air Hitam, I stopped at a roadside stall set amongst some padi fields. It was a clean and tidy place, well kept, with a number of tables arranged neatly in rows. A large family sat finishing their late lunch in one corner and a very tanned lady beckoned me sit further in where it was cooler.

She took my order of Iced Lemon Tea and I looked around as I waited. The stall seemed, like many such I have come across, to be an extension to a house or other building. I could see into the kitchen and that look uncharacteristically clean and tidy too. To my left was an expanse of padi fields and then a large predominantly zinc building which looked a little run down. To my right, in the shop, was a table with food in covered metal trays.

A little cooking or barbecueing area and another little counter completed the setup.

My tea came and it was perfect. It's sometimes too sweet - especially when I forget to ask for it with less sugar, but this one was just right.

The lady came up to me again and we chatted about the bike and where I'd come from, the usual stuff. She eventually sat down and we talked at length.

Now, consider that, since Penang, I have not been at 100%. My little period of funk had passed, but my body was struggling to deal with the strain of the last few days' exertions. Riding out from Alor Setar, I wasn't really in the right frame of mind or body to do a long ride. The effects of being in large towns in the last few days had a lot to do with how I was feeling as well.

Penang, Butterworth, Sungei Petani, Alor Setar - all large towns, all anonymous, all wearying in one way or other. I think I shall need to ease back into being in crowded places slowly when I return...

It always happens though, you know. Just when you think you're just that little bit tired, something good happens that lifts you right up again.

I had mentioned earlier how great it was to get the wave or toot or shout of encouragement when you;re cycling along. Well, it's always been much greater to sit down and enjoy a chat with someone in a kampung gerai.

I never caught the lady's name, nor at least 30% of what she said - why can't these darn Kedahans speak normal Malay? But the 70% I understood brought me right back to the feeling I had talking to the two gentleman in the coffeeshop in Seri Menanti, or with Hamzah near Simpang Lima/Sungei Besar.

She told me of how she used to work in a factory, realised it was a dead end job so she went to work in a restaurant. At first she cleaned dishes, then when she expressed an interest in working in the kitchen, they let her learn the craft until she was finally cooking. Armed with those skills, she eventually came out and set up this gerai. Her food was good, if not necessarily spectacular.

What was truly amazing though is her grasp of what makes a good food establishment tick. She spoke about being warm and friendly and recognising that the food business was a relationship business. She worked hard at making sure her customers were happy - whether with the cleanliness of the place, or the quality of the food and drinks served.

She was proud of the fact she had repeat customers - even out here seemingly in the middle of nowhere. And equally proud that some big-shots had dropped by, some repeatedly, to buy her food.

I liked what she told me. I liked the fact she worked hard and with a clear idea of where she intended to be in the future. I liked her work ethic. I liked her principles. And most of all, I liked how she was just so warm and friendly.

Big towns take a lot out of me. I struggle to deal with the fact that people in big towns just don't seem to have the time for each other. I hate the sullenness or surliness. I detest the me-first mentality. And I deplore the fact people just seem to have forgotten how to be kind and warm, even when they've just met you.

This little stall, 2 km from Air Hitam and 10 km from the Perlis border, made me remember the small towns aren't like the big towns. And thankfully so.

I rode off feeling better than I've felt in a few days and when I reached the border a little later, I stopped to take some pictures. And ponder the significance of what I was about to do.

I was about to enter the 8th state on my ride. The northernmost one. I've never even been here in a car, much less a bicycle. The last few days had begun to worry me in that I felt I was becoming focussed on destinations. Sure, the fact that the towns I was in didn't entice me didn't help. But still, I had no desire to end the journey at a point, a destination. This wasn't what it was supposed to be.

And yet... Soon I would be at the end of the ride. Whether that be Padang Besar or Kampung Wang Kelian was still undecided. The former was the original, partly for the availability of transport home (or so I'd thought). The latter for the fact it is indeed the northernmost town, to balance out starting from the southernmost tip.

That decision would be made a day later. Meanwhile, I stopped and looked at the monument marking the border between Kedah and Perlis. It was a milestone in more ways than one. I had done what I;d set out to do, physically.

What I'd set out to achieve philosophically and spiritually was still unfinished. And I'd have a few days yet to ponder what was to come next.

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Day 33 Nov 17 Alor Setar - Kangar Part 1

Distance: 51.37 km
Max Speed: 27.3 km/h
Average while moving: 18.5 km/h

The Regent tried its best to get me to dislike it. Being stuck on the top floor when you have 20kgs of bags to haul up is one thing - even when one of the hotel staff helps.

When he opens the room door and tries to switch on the air con only to find that the remote fails to work, it adds to the overall image and mood just a tad.

Then when he comes back with fresh batteries and the air con starts up, you look around the room and realise two things - it fronts the street and you get traffic noise (though in reality it isn't too noisy) and you also realise that only 2 of the 6 lights in the room actually works. No bedside lamps, no entrance light, no side light...

Still, there was a feeling of lived-in comfort. Like an old pair of shoes that feels just right, despite looking a little worn and tired, the hotel just seemed to fit around me invitingly and warmly.

And it did get warm... but don't let me get ahead of myself.

The staff at the hotel were extremely friendly - not in a false, instructed or trained manner, but in a sincere straight-from-the-heart flow that just added to the aura of the place.

Now, I'm not saying that the Regent is the best place to stay in Alor Setar. Not by any means. However, just like how I've found such warmth and friendliness in so many people I've met along the way, the Regent was that little kampung gerai compared to some other newer hotels. You forgive the gerai for its torn table cloths, or its grubby walls, for you know you'll have some decent grub, a good chat, maybe a memory or two to take with you.

I went to the Railway station to book my ticket back. The station master confirmed that if I booked the entire first class cabin, and if I wrapped the bike up and made it as small a package as possible, I should have no problems taking it on board. Happy to have finally made progress on the matter, I went up to the ticket counter and found all the tickets sold out for my intended date of travel...

I had wanted to be back in Singapore on Wednesday the 21st, for a number of reasons. The only tickets I could get would land me in KL on the 21st morning. I bought the tickets anyway, with all sorts of scenarios running through my head...

1st class train from Arau to KL arriving 21st. Bike dismantled and boxed.
Then express bus to Singapore - will they let me take the bike? Could it fit in the luggage compartment?
If not, what about train to Singapore? Hmmmm... got to heave everything through customs - no fun that. Anyway, it would be too late to arrive on 21st evening.
What other choices? Other stations? What about getting to Butterworth and getting the train straight through to Singapore?
Or I could leave the bike in KL and bus down immediately...

I got back to the hotel just before 11, quite hot from the walk. I had requested a late checkout so went upstairs to think things through. As I sat there, the lights suddenly went off and the air con main switch flicked off loudly. Hmmmm... the room was still plenty bright due to the large windows so I waited a little while.

5 minutes passed and I decided to pop downstairs to find out what was going on - they couldn't have thought I was checking out and flicked off my power could they?

The entire hotel was dark save for the emergency lights and the natural light that came in through the clear roof panels over the atrium. It seems there was a power blackout - I found the staff having lunch in the cafe and joked that they should pay their electricity bill promptly next time. They laughed and invited me to join them for lunch but I declined and headed out to find me something to eat.

True enough, most of the shops were in darkness, the owners sitting around calmly reading papers or talking. I gather blackouts are not uncommon here, in Mahathir's birthplace.

When I came back, hot once again (it was a very hot day), the residual cool air in my room was welcome though after a few minutes I was getting a trifle warm, though not uncomfortably so. I made some telephone enquiries about buses and it all didn't look good.

Still, Not something to dwell over, so I decided to check out and head out to Kangar. I waited in the lobby (the electricity supply had resumed) until about 3, chatting with the staff for a bit. When I eventually set off, I turned around and 3 of the staff were at the hotel doors waving at me.

I like the Regent... even when the air con or lights don't work!

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Day 32 Nov 16 Sungei Petani - Alor Setar

Distance: 84.42 km
Max Speed: 45.8 km/h (steep and long hill! And I was using the brakes!)
Average while moving: 18.7 km/h

I had way too little sleep last night. I just couldn't get any shut eye and was up past midnight. Not a good idea when you want to get some miles in the next day.

As it was I woke up feeling a little lethargic. There are essentially two parallel routes to Alor Setar - one being the main trunk road, and the other the coast road which ends at Kuala Kedah and then cuts back to Alor Setar. I opted to take the scenic route - though this was a last minute decision.

I had noticed a note on my maps marking the Archeological Museum near Gunung Jerai and had considered checking it out. As I cycled along the main trunk road to Alor Setar, with every intention of taking that shorter route, I saw a sign pointing west to the Museum, in the Bujang Valley. It claimed the museum to be less than 20km away but by the time I considered it, I had passed the junction - bicycles do go so very fast, don't they?

At the next junction, there was another sign again so I figured what the heck, maybe I was meant to get there so I took the turn off and headed west.

I cycled in, and used my instinct to guide me as there were no more meaningful signs after that. At one stage, I saw the sign for Butterworth and got concerned so I stopped and backtracked 400m to the previous junction and true enough, I had taken the wrong turn off. Phew!

While crossing a bridge, I heard the familiar whirring of bicycle gears coming up behind me. I usually check my mirror quite regularly but had been distracted by the scene below me so failed to notice the cyclist until he was abreast of me. Decked out in cycling gear and riding a racer, he seemed to be out for a pleasure ride - he had no other bags on him. We said 'Hi' to each other he went past. I sensed he slowed down to let me catch up, but laden with all my stuff and struggling with my lethargy, I was going at a very sedate 20 km/h and he slowly distanced himself.

By this time, there were no more signboards pointing to the museum so I gave up on that idea and decided to just continue on to get to the coast road and take that way up north instead.

I made a couple of turns by instinct and eventually found myself in Merbok, with Gunung Jerai looming large on my right. I rode through town saw a Malay stall, went past that, saw a Chinese stall and nothing else, then opted to go back to the Malay stall. Something about a good sambal in the morning...

I sat down facing the main road and as I looked up what should I see but the signboard to the museum, pointed straight up a little road that ran off the main road. I was, in effect, sitting across from the entrance to the museum I'd given up hope of seeing...

After breakfast, I rode in. The sign said 2km and I got as far as 1.4 when the rode became much too steep to ride up. I pushed the bike up a couple of hundred metres to the corner, expecting to see the road taper off. This was supposed to be the Bujang Valley after all wasn't it?

Apparently not - I rounded the corner and saw that the road got even steeper. The gradient got so steep I was leaning into the bike, my head almost level with the seat. I even had to stop a couple of times to rest, such was the effort needed to push!

Well, I got up to the guard post and the entire episode mocked me with two speed humps I struggled the bike over before I could get to the museum itself. Which turned out to be a small affair, opened in 1980. This was a large Hindu trading post 1600 years ago and it was interesting seeing the various artifacts unearthed in the area.

The gallery entrance was dominated by a large 3D model of the surrounding area and the first thing I noticed was that the museum was actually located in a cutting in Gunung Jerai. Hence the steep climb.

The next thing I noticed was that the road along the coast went steeply up a hillock. My blood ran cold for a moment. It seemed my earlier declaration that hills were no big deal now were coming back to haunt me...

I had come across a blog by someone from the area and he'd referred to the Singkir kampung area as hilly. Well, the maps didn't really indicate that, and besides, wasn't this area the Bujang Valley? OK so every valley needs a couple of mountains to define it...

The staff at the museum warned me that there were 3 hills on the way up the coast but he said I should be OK if I took it slow.

I wasn't OK. If the climb in to the museum was the mother of all hills, I met her 3 offspring on the way up the coast. The peak of one of the hills turned out to be Tanjung Jaga which had some very elevated views of the sea below.

I made it up the first, pushed up the second, coasted along a short plateau then pulled up to rest when I saw the third. It seemed to reach for the sky and I appeared to be looking down on the roof of cars that went up the slope ahead. Well, I eventually sped down the slope, made it up about two-thirds of the way then got off the bike and pushed the rest of the way up. I had to stop once to rest - I really wasn't feeling very fit today!

After the hills I stopped for an iced tea at a little stall by a river. The stall had a little sheltered space beneath a large shady tree with a juke box, a few seats and a large TV. Seemed like a really nice place to watch football or hang out in the evenings.

A lady ran the stall and her son and his friend were lounging about when I sat down. The usual questions followed and the son declared he would never be able to cycle such a distance - he made a great pantomime of having to call a friend to come and pick him up.

It was here that I knew I was well and truly in the north. My iced tea didn't cost me 80 sen. It cost me 8 kupang... I was beginning to have problems with the dialect as well and often could not understand what was being said. It wasn't just the pronunciation - 'betoi' for 'betul' - but some of the slang was lost on me too.

I reached Alor Setar, roamed around a couple of streets before I found two hotels. So I checked into the Regent.

No, not that Regent... This one was built in 1967, and in fact the foundation stone was laid by none other than Tunku Abdul Rahman, our first prime minister. A much more modest hotel, a room cost me less than RM80 and was clean and comfortable. My bike was locked up downstairs, and they gave me a room on the 3rd floor. And the hotel had no lifts 'Ini hotel lama ni...' 'This is an old hotel...'

Ah well, I survived Jerai, I'll survive the Alor Setar Regent.

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