KB Backpacker’s Lodge has a dorm or two, but they also have private rooms. I’m so over dorms it isn’t funny, so when I checked in, I went with a private, despite me being the only guest. My room opens onto the common room and kitchen and I’m surprised to stumble out in the morning and see another guest.
She gives me a friendly wave as I dart back into my room to put some more clothes on, and then we get chatting. She’s Danish and arrived earlier that morning. Surrounded by cycling kit, I ask the obvious question.
Setting up at Kota Bharu Central Market. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
“Are you a cyclist?”
“I’m a doctor actually,” she laughs, “but yes, I am cycling. I arrived early this morning. I don’t like riding in the heat.”
It turns out she’s been in Malaysia for a month or so—riding alone. She started in Singapore and has been pedalling her way up the east coast of the peninsula. She rattles off the towns she’s been through and some islands between. She’s deeply tanned as only Danes get, with a genuine smile. She’s radiating how much fun she has had.
I have a love-hate relationship with cycling. I love the slow travel mindset that permeates it, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than peddling so far—give me a motorbike any day. Of course, I don’t say this.
Wandering Kota Bharu. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I ask if she had ridden up from Kuala Terengganu (the next capital south) or Kuala Besut (the port to the Perhentians). Turns out it is neither. She’s come from some hamlet in the southern reaches of Kelantan near Kuala Krai.
My blank face gives me away—I’ve never heard of Kuala Krai.
She tells me she’s been staying in a village for a few days learning batik and how to make a kite. These are both cottage industries that Kelantan is famed for, but most don’t delve much deeper than seeing them in a museum or at a souvenir shop.
She’s been exploring Kelantan for a week or so. Staying in small homestays and practising her Malay. She rattles off the names of a bunch of places—I’ve never heard of any of them.
Good cycling fuel. At Shan Sri Dewi Restoran in Kota Bharu. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
I ask her where she is getting her information from and she tells me she met a guy at an outdoor equipment shop in Kota Bharu. She needed to get something on her bike fixed and Pawi (the guesthouse owner) had suggested she try the shop. Not only did she get her bike fixed, but she found a local travel evangelist in the process.
To rewind slightly.
Earlier, when she was recounting her trip, she told me about an incident that had worried her. Kelantan is Malaysia’s most conservative state, and she worried about the hassle as a solo woman. She rode from Kuala Terengganu to Kuala Besut and visited the Perhentian Islands. When she returned to the mainland, the bag holder on her bike, which she had left in storage at a travel agent, was damaged. Not badly, but it didn’t look, to her, to be accidental.
“Oh here we go,” she told me, “this shit is exactly what people warned me about”. She rode the bike to Kota Bharu planning to get it fixed and bail to Thailand.
Not all that useful for fixing a bike. At Jahar Palace. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
“I was so pissed. I mean I’ve travelled a lot and I can look after myself. I was so angry. It is beautiful riding on the back roads here and I resented being chased out of the country,” she said.
Then she went to the outdoor equipment shop—and everything changed.
“The guy, he’s friendly and he fixes my bike no problem. I go to leave and he asks me where I’m going. I was still so angry, and poor guy, I took it out on him. I told him I was leaving Malaysia because I wasn’t welcome in Kelantan and all this other shit.”
Telling me, she laughs but she is also clearly embarrassed by her behaviour at the time.
This is not my room at KB Backpackers Lodge. Jahar Palace. Photo: Stuart McDonald.
“Anyway, he calms me down. I apologise. He shows me how my pannier broke from wear, not arson. It turns out he’s a mad cyclist. I mean mad. I thought I was crazy, but he rides everywhere. Everywhere. That evening I had dinner with his family, and, well, the rest is history.”
Her new friend gave her a bunch of tips on things to see and do. Then he outlined a rough itinerary she could follow, never riding more than 20 or 30 km a day. He waved off her safety concerns, saying, especially out of the city, she shouldn’t expect problems. Save a few errant stares, that had been true. He called a friend with a small homestay at the first suggested stop, and set her on her way.
From then on she’d made a gentle loop through the State, each place calling ahead to sort her out at the next homestay. At her last stop, there was a waterfall and she’d hiked up to it with some women from the village. They’d spent much of the day there, relaxing, swimming—and taking “my God a million selfies” she laughs.
By the time she’s finished, hours have passed. I need to get going as I have a full day of hotel and sight inspections (and eating) planned. I say it sounds like she’s had a fantastic time and I pass her some tips for Narathiwat and Yala (where she is headed to next). She tells me I should grab a bike and go do the same as she just did.
I roll my eyes and say I’ve no time. The clock is ticking and I’ve got to cover the entire coast in the next three or four weeks. I just don’t have the time to do a circuit as she has. Maybe one day—when I’m on holiday, I laugh.
“You should do it,” she says, “where you’re going, everyone already knows it. What I just did—nobody knows it”
She doesn’t mean it as a brag, but she is right.
One day I will.
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