The steam rising from my cup of orange pekoe warmed my nose and sipping the tea warmed my heart. Plates of strawberry tarts and chocolate cake covered the table. I looked out over the vibrant green of the tea plantation and Jude said “happy birthday beautiful”. It truly was. We had just cycled through the highlands in the rain, explored a Buddhist temple and were now settled in for an afternoon tea party. Over the next few hours we enjoyed ourselves drinking bottomless pots of tea, eating tasty treats, reading our books and talking about life and our journey.
For some reason birthdays make me take stock of where I am in life. This year was no different and as I cycled home through the Cameron Highlands I was again struck by how incredible life is. I am surrounded by love and joy, I have my health, I have new experiences everyday and I am living my dream – for all of this I am truly grateful.
After another hot shower to warm up, I settled down with more cups of tea and enjoyed Skype dates with family and friends. That evening the celebrations continued with a steamboat for dinner, where we ate so much delicious food cooked in a spicy Tom Yum soup that I thought I would explode. Some cheeky beers followed this and just before midnight we rolled into bed full and happy. A big thank you to those who sent greetings and love, and an extra big thank you to mum and Heidi for their generous gifts that allowed Jude and I to treat ourselves all day!
Every good birthday needs to be followed by a day of rest. The rain continued to fall and we spent the day snuggled up on the patio, drinking cups of tea, reading books, researching where to go to next and occasionally running a few errands. I must admit it is nice to have these days, as it brings a semblance of normality back to the journey we are on. Like a day off we would have back at home.
I have wanted to see the Cameron Highlands ever since Pablo regaled me with tales and tea from his travels here, well over a decade ago. Unfortunately “development” has run riot, and not in a good way. Buildings, mega-tourism and large scale agriculture permeates the hill town oasis I imagine the area once was. Landslides and deforestation are rampant and if I had not been travelling here on a bike I would have been thoroughly disappointed. Luckily the following afternoon we found a little slice of paradise on a jungle trail that led us up Mt Brinchang. We attempted to trail run the track (I just read a book that has inspired me to attempt an ultra-marathon), but after a few kilometres my trusty Birkenstocks drew their last breath and expired in a mud puddle.
It was not all a loss, as the views were spectacular and the hike was the beginning of the travel/friendship group – ‘the pod’. On the way down the mountain we enjoyed a girly afternoon with Kirsty, Jess and Charlotte, eating strawberries and peanuts, and chatting about the pros and cons of travel through Asia as women. Kit and Ben had veered off earlier in an attempt to tackle the highest peak in the highlands. The hiking had brought on a hunger, and that evening we introduced ‘the pod’ to the delights of steamboat. Plates of food covered the table and it was cooked in pots of spicy soup, and the beers kept coming as our bellies expanded exponentially. After the feast, we headed back to the hostel and sat around the fireplace sharing stories, as we watched the night turn to early morning.
The following day was spent on bike and life maintenance, as we were heading off the next morning and the ladies were in a desperate need of some TLC. They were washed, tyres rotated, chains oiled, brakes adjusted and with an artistic flair – nail polish applied to the scratches. We also did washing, wrote the blog and talked cycle touring with Chui and Pim, a lovely couple from Holland who had recently exchanged backpacks for bikes while travelling in China. “Best decision ever”, they said. We agreed!
An early morning roti chanai fueled us for the remaining ride through the highlands. The day of easy downhill that I had envisioned didn’t quite turn out as planned. In reality it was a morning of more climbing and undulations as we traversed the remaining highland towns. But what goes up must come down (eventually), and with jungle noises serenading us and breathtaking views around every corner, we cruised back down to the lowlands near Ipoh. Unfortunately Malaysia’s environmental exploitation continued and while cycling amongst limestone karsts, I was astounded that they were being blasted and mined. For a country that is promoting itself as ‘the tourist destination for 2014’ this destruction of beautiful areas is a real turn off for foreign visitors.
That evening we set up camp next to a Chinese temple. The caretaker was very excited that we wanted to stay and he kindly opened the bathroom for us to have a much-needed shower. We had forgotten how hot and humid it was after our reprieve in the highlands and the luxury of a shower was heavenly. We started the following day at the local roti and tea shack for some early morning sustenance. It is great watching the dough for the roti being stretched and then fried on the hot plate, while nearby the tea is being mixed with condensed milk, the sweet mixture being poured from pot to pot at an arms length.
A full day of riding ensued as we pushed towards our destination of Penang. Dark clouds had been gathering in the distance all morning and about 20km from Butterworth the sky opened and monsoonal rain fell. This rain is that heavy, that by the time you have opened your pannier, found your rain jacket and put it on – you are already wet through to your underwear. I feel like a kid again riding through the flooded streets, feet lifted in the air as I splash through puddles. Despite there being a 1.5km bridge that runs from mainland Malaysia to Penang, cyclists are not permitted on it. Instead we caught a ferry from Butterworth to Georgetown. From the ferry, Georgetown looks like a metropolis and I wonder how a UNESCO World Heritage area could be hidden amongst it all. As the old adage states – looks can be deceiving.
Love Astrid x