Travel for me is as much about the cultural experiences as it is about the more personal journey you inevitably find yourself on. It has now been a little over four months outside of Australia and we have both gone through a whole range of emotions. There are days when we are sad and miss friends and family a lot. Especially when things at home are tough and you feel helpless because you can’t be there to be supportive. It has reiterated the importance of feeling connected, of cultural bonds and shared experiences. Most of the time you are without these things when traveling, on the outside of a world, looking in. Yes, humanity is more the same than it is different, but sometimes cultural gaps seem insurmountable. I think Astrid and I have been feeling it more because we are one more step outside the norm. Especially coming from a place like Melbourne where being gay is such a non-issue you would hardly bother to define yourself as so. In Asia (and I am mostly talking about the less touristy areas we travel through here) we are already viewed as a curiosity because we are women travelling without boyfriends (and on bikes!). The fact that we could be a couple isn’t even on people’s radar. It’s so foreign and outside of what people know that you feel you would break their brains if you told them. And as outsiders is it our place to do this? We are not sure. Subsequently most of the time we say nothing. We are never sure how people would react, and while it’s not necessarily important with people we meet on the street, when we are staying with locals it is a potential issue. Unless directly asked, our relationship remains unspoken. This in turn makes us feel like edited versions of ourselves, which is something we have never had to be before. Because we are surrounded by like-minded, accepting people at home, it is easy to forget that most of the world does not share this experience. Travel shows me many wonderful things about the wider world but also gives me a deep appreciation of where I come from.
Malaysia however has been a break from the norm. We find ourselves essentially cycling the well-worn backpacker trail and hanging out mainly with westerners. I’m not sure exactly why, but I guess it is a smaller country with very specific points of interest with what can be rather bland scenery (think endless palm oil plantations) in between. There are actual hostels here too, rather than guesthouses and it’s easy to meet other people to hang out with. We have fallen into a habit of long days on the bikes followed by four or five days of essentially morphing into backpackers. While part of me misses the challenging and disciplined cycling of Australia and the exposure to a lot of really non touristy places in Indonesia, Malaysia is fun in a light hearted easy way.
After our wonderful time in Melaka it was time for 5 big days of cycling to reach the Cameron Highlands for Astrid’s birthday. We continued along flat, smooth highway five. Occasionally we were able to go right along the coast, watching the locals enjoy the beaches, but mostly it was the wide shoulder of the highway that was our friend. While a little dull, it is safe and easy. After many hours of cycling we stopped just short of Port Dickson at an actual campground. It was free and wedged between the highway and the ocean. While not the most scenic, it was convenient, with a place to buy food just across the road. An added bonus was that no one cared about 2 white girls putting up a tent and we had none of the watchers we have been used too. We did have an interesting cultural moment when we went to go swimming. Locals basically swim in their clothes, which can even include the Hajib. By western standards our bathers are not skimpy at all but both of us felt practically naked when we went for a swim. It’s interesting how quickly your perceptions change!
Day two saw us skirt around the outside of Kuala Lumpur, which meant some scary highway cycling, eyes pealed to the i phone’s GPS to navigate the overpasses and exits accurately. Luckily it wasn’t for too long and soon we were back on a smaller road, surrounded by the familiar and disturbing palm oil plantations. We did stop at an organic Dragon fruit farm for a shake and a snack during the mid morning, which was a highlight. The lady who ran the place gave us some poignant and interesting insights into life in Malay society. The most significant being the way the government actively discriminates against non- ethnic Malays, even though ethnic Chinese and Indian have been part of Malaysian society for generations. This is in the form of jobs and university scholarships, to name a few. She made the very valid point that Malaysia is in fact shooting itself in the foot with this policy, which is essentially resulting in a brain drain, as the smartest people end up getting scholarships and job opportunities abroad. In the afternoon, storm clouds began to gather on the horizon. We stopped for food late and were again treated to Malaysian hospitality when an elderly gentleman insisted on paying for it. Soon the clouds began to look black and imminently threatening. We pulled over at a petrol station and decided to wisely check Agoda (online booking app) for any cheap hotels nearby. We found one in the outskirts of Klang, the town we were headed too. Our foresight paid off as the thunderstorm soon arrived, drenching us in rain. After nearly 130km we were grateful for a room and a hot shower, although we think our hotel may have doubled as a brothel.
Breakfast in Malaysia is certainly a highlight; freshly made roti with dahl dipping sauce and strong, sweet tea. With that in our bellies we began day three, managing to push out 100km by the end. Perhaps the only good thing about palm oil plantations is that they offer a good, hidden place for us to camp at night.
The mountains of the Cameron Highlands finally became visible the next afternoon as we pedaled the 120km to Tupah, which is the town at the foot of the mountain range. Feeling tired we opted for a cheap hotel, rather then hunting around for somewhere to camp.
Climbing day was finally upon us; 60km of uphill to the town of Tanah Rata. I had been slightly dreading the climb, still haunted by Indonesian gradients and the knowledge that many touring cyclists end up getting lifts in trucks (although I suspect this may be from approaching the other way). The road twisted its way out of town and it was not long before we were climbing through the jungle. The gradients however were very pleasant, the air grew cooler and we were offered sweeping views of the jungle and mountains. Perfect. After a few km’s we stopped for a snack at a beautiful waterfall. Then a local road cyclist gave us the ominous news that it would soon get very steep. However, this did not really eventuate. It did get slightly steeper, but not by much. All in all it was a wonderful few hours of climbing and we would grade it easy to moderate. Civil engineers appear to be alive and well in this country.
At Ringlet we stopped for a large lunch and several drinks. It wasn’t until after I had eaten that I realised how tired I actually was. A light rain had begun to fall and the temperature had dropped significantly. We slowly began to pedal the remaining kilometers towards Tanah Rata, gratefully stopping at the Cameron Valley Tea House for sweeping views and cups of tea. We reached Tanah Rata in the late afternoon, exhausted but very happy. Wet, cold and full of sweat, we could not have been happier when we found that Kang’s Guesthouse had amazingly hot showers. After five big days of cycling, it was time to relax, celebrate Astrid’s birthday and explore the highlands.