Tuesday, October 11, 2016

EWAR Day 4 - A mostly downhill finish. HT to Gerik. 70km.

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Sunrises are amazing moments as they are not just spectacularly beautiful, but they symbolise the start of another brand new day given to us by our Creator. We had a surprisingly good sleep in our tent and we both woke up early, all fresh and rested. Watching the dawning of a new day, high up in the mountain range of Titiwangsa is something not many people get to do, and we wanted first class seats.

We packed our stuff and went to the best vantage point to await the coming artistic performance of the brightest star. The air was a cool 18c and crisp, with not a hint of pollution and we filled out lungs satisfyingly. There was a certain stillness, quiet and peace - almost like a sacred moment with just a few like minded souls around. Then hints of golden light started to cut into the darkness, allowing a glimpse of the vast mountain ranges as far as our eyes can see and the show began.

What we saw stirred something in our souls and we counted in a great privilege to be able to witness and experience such a special moment. It was almost a National Geographic opportunity and we brought our tent here to shoot some photographs that we hoped will capture this visual gift better.

Pic KC

Getting everything packed and loaded on our Fridays, we were ready to begin our last leg of the EWAR tour. Compared to yesterday's hard climb, today we reap the rewards of a beautiful 30km descent to the lakes. Then another 40km or so to Gerik.

At 7-ish in the morning, the busy eatery was still closed and we found out from some lorry drivers who were hanging around that it won't be opened till 10am. Thus, it was to be a start without breakfast but because it was going to be an effortless descent, we were not too worried. Rugging up to tackle the cold , we said goodbye to Hentian Titiwangsa and began our freefall quietly down the mountain road.

It was amazing to be flying at 40+ km/h after yesterday's crawl up the peak and I controlled the descent as I wanted it to last as long as possible. With the cold wind biting at our faces, it was truly exhilarating. We could see clouds covering the mountain tops and we were actually higher than them.

While downhills are amazingly fun, it is always important not to exceed your bicycle's capabilities and yours. Travelling on a 16" foldy, high speed descends are not one of its strengths compared to a bigger wheel 26 or 700 one. Tests have proven that up to 26km/h, small wheels have the advantage as they have less mass. However, downhills at 40km/h and more, the stability is not as good as big wheels especially when there are irregularities on the road. Therefore, I descended carefully and safely - controlling my speed to be about 35-40km/h. Furthermore, we are really not in a hurry as we had the whole day ahead of us. Having a spill at high speed can be disastrous when there is no medical help available in such a remote place like this.

Though it was largely a beautiful descend, there were some short climbs and we took the opportunity to remove our layers. The humidity was also starting to make its presence felt and that was most unwelcoming as we approached sea level.

All too soon, we found ourselves at the beautiful Temaggor Lake area and obviously, this is a very popular area for holiday makers who seek fishing, boating and all sorts of outdoor activities. We crossed the bridge into Pulau Banding and admired the vast expanse of water all around us.

We took about 1.5 hrs to get down here and our stomachs were rumbling. Hence, the first order of the day was to seek breakfast but there were no restaurants or cafes in sight. A quick right turn into a small road at Pulau Banding, I stopped a silver Mercedes who was pulling out and asked if there were any food around. The kind gentleman told us to ride in a bit more and take a turn that led to the lake.

Our obedience paid off and at the bottom of the steep slope was a cafe that catered for the boaters. Though nothing grand, they had hot coffee/tea as well as the ubiquitous Nasi Lemak, which I loved, and fried noodles as well. One thing that has to be said about the humble Nasi Lemak is that I have yet to find a bad one in Malaysia. KC and I ate and drank our fill, and we enjoyed the beautiful scenery before us right down at the lakeside.

Crossing the small island back into the mainland, we stopped to check out the very expensive Belum Rainforest Resort where a basic room starts off at 400rm per night. It looked very posh and nice with golf buggies all ready to take you to your room. Perhaps we will stop here next time when our women folk comes along but for us two "hobo" tourers, we were more than happy to sleep in a tent.

As we crossed bridge #2, we spotted Banding Lakeside Inn which was the place that we initially wanted to stay in. I am very grateful to someone who wrote on my FB post to notify that the hotel is closed for renovation. Hence, that led to our idea of camping which worked out so well.

Getting out of the lake, we began our climb but just as we passed the Inn, there was a military memorial which beckoned us to check it out. This was put up to honour those in the Malaysian Army who gave their lives while fighting the communists in the 60s and 70s. As we were taking pics with the armoured vehicle, a soldier came to us and asked for our particulars. He was friendly and was just doing his job. We were very moved to read about the bravery of these soldiers, particularly their CO Cpt Mohan Chandran. 

Though the climb was a short 8km, the gradients seemed to be steeper than yesterday for some reason. What a contrast from whizzing effortlessly downhill a little while ago to now huffing and puffing the pedals on a low climbing gear.  The superbikes were also out in full force and provided the necessary entertainment for me as I made my way up slowly.

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Once the climb was over, it was pretty easy as the route began downhills again before flattening out. As we were coming to the end of the East West Highway, I was wondering where the Highway Monument was. This was erected to honour those who gave their lives in the constructing of this highway.  Besides the harsh conditions and animals, they got sabotaged and attacked by the Communist Guerrillas as well.

Fortunately I saw it on our right and yelled to KC to stop. But he was too far in front and kept on going. I decided to just do a quick stop and check it out. It was moving to read about how difficult it was to build this highway and I felt a real sense of gratitude to be able to ride it.

At this stage, it was really getting hot and the last 12km to Gerik was a sweat fest. It was really good to finally pull into a petrol station, sit in the aircon and down a cold drink. As I was coming in, I really wanted a Sprite and not only did I get my wish, but it was on sale on promotion at an incredible 1RM!

Continuing onto Gerik, the ride after all that we have gone through over the mountains and valleys, felt a wee bit ordinary and flat, pun intended.

We were in Gerik some 2 years ago on our way to Betong and coming in from the opposite direction caught us a bit off guard as things looked unfamiliar. Gerik serves as a crossroad to the east of Malaysia, south to Gua Musang and Kuala Kangsar, and north to Thailand and hence, should have some buzz but this was not to be. Being a Sunday, somehow everything was closed. Everything! There was absolutely no buzz and we could not find a decent eatery which was frustrating as we were starving! We had hope to eat at a delicious coffee shop which impressed us before but alas, that too was closed. We finally found a Chinese restaurant which served rice and dishes. However, that looked like they were cooked in the morning but beggars can't be choosers, as the saying goes. Demoralise was probably a very apt word to describe how we felt after this epic ride and eating semi leftovers for lunch.

As we sat in the coffee shop, we spoke to a couple of old guys who were fascinated with our adventure. We asked if there was somewhere we could go for a foot massage for our aching legs and they looked at us and exclaimed in their dialect, "You gotta be kidding! This is Gerik." They suggested going to Betong for it was an easy 50km only.

At this stage in a hot afternoon, we were in no mood to cycle and Betong Thailand with its great food and vibrancy sounded brilliant. That got us really excited! We had just missed the daily bus so we went to check out our transport option at the taxi stand. My fear with taxis are that they are all about sharking tourists but the boys at Gerik Taxi stand were really nice. They pointed us to the price list and it said 55RM to the border. That's it, bicycles no charge. Hence, it was a done deal!

We soon saw ourselves speeding at 140km/h with our friendly taxi driver and the trip took a mere 40 mins with his driving prowess. He was so kind to not drop us like a sack of potatoes but instead, made sure we were driven pass the Malaysian customs and right up to the Thai customs. Such amazing service!

Clearing customs was really easy and it was a mere 7km ride from the customs to Betong town. We checked into Modern Thai Hotel and we could not believe this unexpected visit here. In touring, I love how things break away from plans and turn out so beautifully.

What a fitting end to our EWAR trip to be in Betong. Thailand has always been my favourite country with its warm and friendly people, spicy and delicious food and we even got our much appreciated foot massage! 

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We spent 2 nights in Betong, then went on to Penang before taking a VIP coach back to Singapore.

Thank you once again for following our EWAR trip on LTF! There were many highlights on this trip but this video probably takes the cake. I hope it inspires you to try this beautiful route one day.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

EWAR Day 3, Up, up and away! - Jeli to Hentian Titiwangsa. 48km.

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Trying our hand at begging without much success!  Pic KC.

We woke up this morning excited! I have done many tours which has challenging climbs and to be honest, the statistics of a 1000m climb over 45km or so indicates a rather gradual gradient. Nothing to be too worried about unlike climbing Wulin in Taiwan at 3275m over 60km. Still, it has been a long time since we got those climbing muscles working, so we had to ensure that we got a good breakfast. KC opted for fried rice while I had Roti Canai, a delicious Indian pancake with egg and onions.

Below our hotel was a lady selling packed lunches consisting of rice and curry and it was a good idea to get 2 for our climb up. Leaving Jeli all fueled up at a relatively early 740am, we rode on Highway 66 for one km, then turned left towards Gerik on Highway 4 in the cool of the morning. The last 2 easy days has made us a little complacent but today, it was time to wake up and work. We had after all, came all the way to climb the Titiwangsa and Bintang ranges.

We got off to a good start and in high spirits as we had planned to camp on the top of the mountain if it was possible. As we were not out to break any speed records and had the whole day to get to the top, we had time to stop along the road to sample the abundant Rambutans that waited to be plucked fresh from the trees.

Perhaps its something special about being able to eat free off the tree but these Rambutans were absolutely divine. Sweet, juicy with a small seed inside. Perfect for cycling I reckon!

This being a Saturday, traffic was surprisingly heavy but we were not in anyway unnerved as Highway 4 has a nice wide lane for bicycles, keeping us relatively safe.

Pic KC

We cycled passed an iconic landmark, the Melintang Rock, which looked so majestic and is a favourite subject to shoot among many photographers. 

Continuing on at the 13km marker, we came across a Caltex petrol station. I thought it would be good to mark this for future reference and as I recalled, this is the only petrol station that is modern and opened on this East West Highway until very near to Gerik.

Our climbing continued and we took frequent breaks, every 45 mins or so. It was clear that KC was in a much better shape than I but climbing once again is about doing it at your own pace. My average speed was roughly between 8-12km/h at this stage and we could feel the benefits of getting up in altitude. Much much less humidity and cooler breezes. The first thing that needed to be consumed was some freshly made coconut cakes before it went bad, and we enjoyed that very much.

As we continued on the climb, the feeling that I had was "When will it end?" This was like carrying a 2kg dumb bell in the gym, which is quite easy if doing 10-15 reps but try it for 100 reps it feels like a tonne of bricks. I make no excuses for feeling this way as being in Perth with an exceptional cold winter this year, I did not ride as much as I would like to. 

The key to climbing is to spin in the right gear at a cadence that you are comfortable with. Don't try to keep up with the fast rabbits or you will soon burn out. Also, to drink a lot as you don't realise how much you are perspiring. It is also in part, a mental game, very much like running a long marathon. What helped me is the little treats I give myself - a sweet, a piece of chocolate etc as we hit certain targets.

KC found a very nice place to have our lunch. An old run-down hotel that have seen better days. It seems like there are quite a few of these abandoned buildings along this EW Highway. There, we found a tap with fresh water just by a painted fish at probably the half way point. So if you run out of water, look for the life saving fish.

The packaged rice and chicken curry tasted so good despite it being a "budget" takeaway and I guess when one is hungry, everything and anything taste delicious. We rested there for a while as it was a good idea to wait a while for our food to settle.

Picking up the pace again was not easy as after eating and with the noon sun, the best thing to do was to catch some siesta. But we pressed on and not long after we started, we spotted a drink kiosk that had cold drinks! It didn't take too much persuasion for us to stop again so soon and we were rewarded by the exceptional hospitality of the kind staff. They put together for us complimentary mangosteens and rambutans and that was so nice.

Moving on, we finally reached the border of Kelantan and Perak but can't help noticing so many logged timber. Not sure if these were legal but it is sad that so many of these fine trees got lobbed off. 

One of the annoying things that really disturb the peace of this climb were the constant and loud passing of hi-powered motorcycles that use the road here like a Motor GP. As much as I admire and like motorcycles, they are the exact opposites of bicycles which are quiet, green and barely noticeable. I supposed this being the weekend, it is understandable that these superbikes come out to play. So if I were to do this trip again, I will do the climb on a weekday.

That said, they kept a respectable distance and were very friendly to us, waving and honking to encourage us up. They must be wondering why we enjoy suffering and inflicting pain upon ourselves when their only effort is to twist the throttle. But this is a much more healthier and safer way to travel I reckon. 

When we finally arrived at the peak, I felt a great sense of joy and fulfillment. What awaited us were spectacular views, hot food and cold drinks. Hentian Titiwangsa is a very popular stopover for anyone crossing the EW Highway and is in fact, the only stop. This resulted in a very busy carpark with lots of people, which was frankly most unexpected. Some of the motorcyclists who passed by us earlier came to say Hi! They were in awe of our achievement or foolishness, and one of them remarked that he wouldn't have survived even 10km on a bicycle up those slopes. I asked if he would like to exchange my Bike Friday Tikit with his BMW GS 1200 and he smiled.


We spend quite some time just drinking and eating at the restaurant and one thing that I noticed were the higher prices here which was understandable. I was so thirsty I had 2 drinks and took the opportunity to wash my face and just have a well deserved rest.

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I had read about a couple from CGOAB, Wayne and Kristiana Carpenter, who came up here some 10 years ago and were allowed to pitch their tent here near the nursery. Indeed, it is a beautiful place to spend the night but modernity has arrived to what was once a quiet stopover. On this small piece of prime real estate, it had a mosque, a public toilet, a nursery, a big restaurant as well as a sheltered rest area where families gathered to have their picnics. Every inch of space was utilised! Where on earth are we going to pitch our tent?

We decided to just plonk ourselves in a little corner of the public rest area and just laid our our sleeping mats for now. Hopefully, nobody would mind. After all, many families with children were resting there too and though strangely dressed, we were still travellers like them technically. 

The plan was to see if any authorities would disturb us and since we were left alone except for some curious onlookers, we decided to build our portable LTF HQ there.  This was the first time we were setting up the tent as it was just bought at Kota Bharu and was really easy to do. 

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Camping purists would probably not approve at our not getting a 2 piece tent which offered better weather protection etc but this simple tent was perfect for this condition! The priority here was light weight and at 1.8kg, I didn't feel its weight climbing up the whole day.

Resting in the tent was surprisingly very comfortable and it was spacious too. This is the first time I have brought along a tent in my bicycle journeys in Asia and I must say it is a lot of fun. Gives us the option to go to places where hotels are scarce like here in Titiwangsa. 

As expected, the sunset was brilliant and it was special to see the artistry of our Creator at its finest here at the peak. Cycle touring offers the benefit of getting really up close to nature and I found myself singing a song of praise in my heart.

Camping like this was also a little "bogus" as we had the privilege of a modern toilet just by the mosque and a restaurant that offered delicious food and drink. But we didn't mind it one bit. We chose to eat a little later as there were still a constant stream of people filling up the restaurant. It was interesting to observe the locals which were all steeped in their culture and religion. There were hardly any other tourists and we really stood out.


When the queues were finally shorter, I settled for a juicy beef hamburger that costs us a mere 3RM or S$1. That did not quite fill my tank and I had a cup of instant noodles too, washed down with some tea for dinner.

Though my legs were aching from all the climbing, I was very happy to be here at Hentian Titiwangsa and to spend a night in a tent. I felt like a school boy on his first field trip and both of us slept feeling a great sense of pure joy.

With the cool mountain air of 18c surrounding us, giving us the best natural airconditioning, we drifted into dreamland too easily here at the top of the Malaysian mountain range. It was indeed a very special night and memories are made of these.

Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, 
Even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.

Psalm 90:2