CA to AZ
AZ to NM
TX 1
TX 2
LA, MS, & FL

Spain & French Pyrenees
France –Bordeaux & SW Coast 1
France –Bordeaux & SW Coast 2
France – Notre Dame des Cyclistes
Belgium & Holland

Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania

Slovakia and Hungary
Croatia, Slovenia & Bosnia-Herzegevina
Israel & the West Bank
Zealot City
Jerusalem Syndrome



New Zealand 1
New Zealand 2
Roadkill Safari

East Java and Madura
Central Java
Java - Jalan-Jalan
West Sumatra

North Sumatra & Malaysia

Thailand 1
Thailand 2

Laos 1
Laos 2

Holiday in Cambodia

I: Hue, Danang, Hoi An
II: Hoi An to Hanoi
III: Hanoi, by Wendy Tucker
IV: Hanoi to Mong Cai

I: Guangxi
II: Hong Kong to Hengyang, Hunan
III: Hunan and Jiangxi
IV: Zhejiang
V: Shanghai and Jiangsu

Dehli to Agra
Rajasthan 1: Agra to Bundi
Rajasthan 2: Bundi to Dungarpur
Gujarat 1: Dungarpur to Palitana
Gujarat 2: Palitanta to Jungadh
Maharastra 1: Jalgaon to Ahmednagar 1
Maharastra 1: Jalgaon to Ahmednagar 2
Maharastra 2: Ahmednagar to Bombay


Belize, Mexico and Cuba
Belize and Guatemala
Belize to Bacalar, Mexico
Bacalar to Oxkutzcab
Havana to Vinales
Around Vinales
Back to Havana
Puerto Rico
California AIDS Rides
France, Belgium, Luxembourg
Minneapolis to Milwaukee
Moab and the Four Corners 1
Moab and the Four Corners 2

Back to Top

Indonesia V: North Sumatra and (a little bit of) Malaysia


25-26 April, Samosir (f)

Our entire Samosir Island (actually a peninsula) experience seemed surreal. One event characterized the entire experience. As we were walking through the quiet town of Tuktuk we came a boy sauntering with wide swings of the hips wearing a round biscuit tin on his head. We’d seen many women carrying all kinds of goods as crowns but this was the first male. To add to the novelty of the moment he smiled as we passed and said only "cake". Deftly he lifted the tin off of his head popped the lid and showed us the homemade Bundt inside. As if anticipating the next question before we even asked, "berapa?" (how much?) he tipped the lid to reveal the price. Seven hundred rupiah was too little to dicker with and we bought a slice without balking. As we munched our purchase we began to analyze why we’d bought a piece of cake, neither of us was actually hungry. It was the ingenuity of the offer that had lured us. After being subjected to seemingly thousands of "hello mister hav-a-looks" and other unoriginal touts it felt only right to reward this entrepreneur. And, who could argue with the price, less than a dime?

The next day’s agenda seemed a recursive. We’d planned to circumnavigate an Island in the middle of Southeast Asia’s biggest lake in the middle of one of Asia’s biggest islands. (It could be even further complicated because there is another lake nested on the island of the lake….) A little investigation revealed that our itinerary was just a little too aggressive and neither Andy nor I were willing to subject our butts to similar hardship that we’d felt at Danau Maninjau. We opted to rent motorbikes in order to do the 150+km tour of Somosir.

Renting the bikes was a frustrating experience, but well worth the hassle. Within a few kilometers of Tuktuk the road disintegrated and we were soon motoring along a sandy potholed path some four hundred meters above the lake’s surface. Had the air not been rendered hazy by local and remote forest fires we would have been treated to a spectacular view of the lake below.

Samosir Bataks are Christian and this being a Sunday they were all in their best attire and on their way to churches that dotted the remote countryside. It seemed strange to see crosses adorning roofs in the Indonesian landscape and even more unusual to see Indonesians in western dress. Men in dark suits and women in brightly colored long dresses walked the dirt roads to and from church. Unlike their Muslim counterparts, the Christian women of Samosir wear makeup and are unbelievably outgoing. Wearing sometimes clown-like countenances they heckled us and jeered us as we passed, seemingly with more vigor than the male Bataks.

The concave-boat-hull rooflines of the Batak residences are almost as striking as the Minangkabau houses of around Bukkitinggi. Indonesians seem to take great pride in the look of their homes, especially their roofs. Is there some function to go with all that form?

Function was something missing in the bridges of Samosir. Most we crossed were in such disrepair as to be dangerous; no wonder there were so few four wheeled vehicles on the road. Most of the wood-decked crossings had gaps so large a basketball could easily fall to the river gorges below. Most had the trunks of palm trees replacing part of their planking. Still we’d see huge dump trucks tooling down the road leaving the unanswered question, "how do they cross the bridges?"

By lunchtime the sun had baked us and we were ready for a breather. At a sidewalk café we ate mie goreng next to a rather large community event being held under a canopy in the street. I had thought from the fidelity of the public address system and tone of voice of the announcer that it was a cattle auction. The dress of the attendees contradicted this assumption --it turned out to be a funeral.

After mourning our lunch we decided to brave the now mounting heat and continue our ride around the Island. Mercifully the road between the bridges had smoothed and we were able to ride with sufficient speed so that the wind cooled us. Throughout the day we past copious numbers of Christian crypts fashioned from cement with stylized Batak roofs. We wondered if they spend more money housing the dead than the living. Certainly more was invested in crypts than river crossings.


Batak crypts on Samosir

Busted bridge


27 April, Tuktuk to Brastagi, 112km (a)

"The boat to Haranggaol? Ohhhh… It already leave." I suppose we shouldn’t have been surprised, since we’ve found boat information (and not only in Indonesia) to be unreliable at best. Everybody we asked yesterday told us it left at seven; now they were saying six, making me wonder how anyone gets on boats at all. Nevertheless, the words were hardly welcome, since it meant sixty extra kilometers of riding over what looked to be mountainous terrain. Worse yet, we’d risen before dawn and pedaled seven kilometers without so much as a cup of coffee. In fact, I went the whole day without coffee. Fred says my resulting crankiness manifested itself in a number of ways, while to my mind it was one of our more enjoyable riding days yet.

It was certainly one of the most challenging. Rather than taking us to a port on the north side of the lake as planned (and Toba is big –the biggest in Southeast Asia), our vessel dumped us back in Prapat, a place neither of us was eager to re-experience. We pedaled straight out of town, knowingly ignoring one-way street signs in order to avoid an unpleasant hill. Soon we were pumping up a giant hill, though, following the main highway to Medan up the lip of the crater encircling Lake Toba.

A half-hour later we had climbed three hundred meters. The view of the lake would have been fantastic were it visible through the forest-fire haze. At our turnoff that led northwards following the lake, a handful of lounging cops advised us on what lay ahead. "It goes up about two kilometers more," said one, "and then it’s all downhill to Brastagi." Estimations of distance varied from forty to a hundred kilometers. The cop who thought it was a hundred k was right, while the one who told us it was mostly downhill was egregiously wrong. Indeed, our first two kilometers on the side road took us sharply up –through lush jungle silent save for animal sounds—but it was hardly to be the last hill. What made all the climbing tolerable were the cool mountain air and the unbelievably quiet road, most of which had been recently resurfaced. As we passed through some rough looking assemblages of houses that pass for villages in these parts, I wondered what it would be like to live in such a vertically-oriented environment, perched above a virtually inaccessible expanse of blue. Many of the people had a wild mountainy look to them, with unkempt hair, dirty clothes and skin and rough manners. As we passed sweatily by, most were too stunned to muster the meekest "hello Mister," for which both of us were grateful. Some did manage hearty Batak greetings of "Horas!" though, a word that’s fun to shout back (as well as being the alpha and omega of my Batak vocabulary).

We caused quite a stir when we stopped at a roadside warung. A middle-aged male patron wanted to impress his pals with his English abilities. "Where you prum?" came the inevitable question. When we told him, everyone nodded their heads and shouted excitedly, "Amerika, Bill Clinton!" Over and over, our new best friend tried to convince us to have some tea, but given the general hygiene standards of the place, we thought it best to stick to bottled beverages and headed out as quickly as possible.

The road climbed up a long series of switchbacks from here, snaking through rock-strewn forests of pine. We knew we were near the top when a huge broadcast antenna materialized out of the mist before us. My altimeter read 1400 meters before we plunged back down along a semi-surfaced road that dumped us into the vast vegetable-covered plain containing Tigaringgu, a godforsaken crossroads where we had lunch.

After cruising up and down the main (and only) street, we settled on the cleanest-looking and most popular eating establishment, the first Padang-style restaurant we’ve seen where at least ninety percent of the dishes were unappetizing fish smothered in chili sauce. I ordered the only item that looked and sounded fish-free, spicy tempeh, and was dismayed to find it contained dozens of tiny fish heads. Normally Fred’s the picky eater in the family, but he chomped it all down as I picked out as many of the staring minnow eyes as I could. Though not even he would touch the apparently poisoned soup that was plunked down before us. As we ate, the other customers (all men) stared silently as the employees (all women) giggled hysterically, making for an altogether self-conscious dining experience.

Tigarinngu marked the kilometric half-way point of the day, and we’d already climbed nearly 1200 vertical meters, so the relatively level terrain which ensued came as an immense relief. The road’s surface alternated mysteriously between excellent and execrable, as it had been resurfaced in utterly random stages. Miraculously, we found Magnum ice cream bars in a gritty-looking town called Seribudolok. I asked our sullen hostess what it meant. "A thousand mountains," she explained. When I told her I thought we’d climbed them all today, she indicated a nearby volcano and suggested we climb that one, too. No thanks, I said, pointing my bike in the other direction.

Our cultural diversion came about an hour later. We had passed into the land of the Karo (as opposed to Toba) Bataks, and I was anxious to see an example of their traditional architecture. The small village of Dokan fit the bill nicely, with a collection of crumbling old multi-tiered wooden houses looking vaguely like furry flying saucers decorated with cow heads.

Back on the main road, the closer we got to our goal, the busier traffic became --mostly heavy trucks hauling god-knows-what, driving straight down the middle of the road as if it had been built uniquely for their benefit. Villages became more abundant and less pleasant to cross, especially since school had just adjourned for the day. As well as screaming "Hello Mister!!" at full volume, many of the little monsters –boys and girls alike-- would slap our arms, grab at our bags or block our path. When one little urchin (not the first) picked up a stone and chucked it in our general direction, I leapt off my steed and pursued him on foot around a car, through a chicken coop and into the rice fields before giving up. Fred said he was glad I didn’t have my pepper spray handy… Climbing up a hill into the busy town of Kabanjahe, I got miffed by a persistently honking Kijang (Indonesian sports utility vehicle, and the type of auto most likely to contain buttheads). When I turned around to give the driver my most convincing one-finger salute, Fred wisely noted that it might be best to charter it the remaining ten kilometers to Brastagi.

Another dollar well spent, it turns out, since it was uphill (albeit gradually) the whole way, along a miserably busy road. At first Brastagi didn’t look too appealing: a busy main street lined with ugly concrete blocks. The people at the tourist information office were surprisingly friendly though, and even proved informative. As well as recommending a hotel for us, they told me that the back road we planned to take to Bukit Lawang tomorrow was "a Dutch road" now only suitable for trekking, and that the only way was along the main highway through Medan --not exactly welcome news, but helpful.

The place they’d recommended was uphill of course, a gigantic monstrosity of a "resort" catering to nouveau riche Chinese from nearby Medan, more of an anthropological encounter than a hotel. We were bewildered to find it bustling with people, piling out of their shiny new Mercedes. Normally in Indonesia we’re the only guests at any given hotel, and this was Monday. Someone explained that tomorrow is yet another national holiday, "an Islamic one" this time (if someone could convince the Indonesian government to observe Jewish holidays, no one would ever have to work). Fighting his way through the throng of hyperactive Chinese families –invariably accompanied by their white-uniformed, darker-complected pribumi nannies—Fred scored us the last room in the hotel. "It’s a small one," he warned, "and the worst value we’ve found anywhere in Indonesia. But the guy at the desk says there are no more rooms in town due to the holiday." After stowing our bikes under a staircase, he led me up to what he called "the servants quarters" –and that’s exactly what the room was, a tiny garret attached to a larger suite. If any doubts remained that the room had any other intent, the diagrams explaining how to use the western-style toilet dispelled them. Nevertheless, there was enough room for our gear plus two stiff-n-sore bikebrats. Somehow we found the strength to go for a sunset walk around Brastagi’s hillside suburbs, where we passed by a large number of more savory-looking lodgings, all of them looking empty. In the fading light, we descended the hill along dirt pathways through Brastagi’s kampung suburbs, where I was surprised to see peasants returning straight from the carrot fields to respectable-looking houses with roofs sprouting parabolic t.v. antennae.

We ran into one of our friends from the tourist office earlier, and he recommended a Chinese restaurant. Not surprisingly, it was filled with high-decibel families from our hotel. But the food and the service were delicious. The owners –Chinese homos d’un certain age and identical twins—gazed at us knowingly from behind the cash register. We nodded our approval on their fine selection of the service staff and patted our full bellies in satisfaction before heading out into the cool mountain air. The main street that had looked so dismal only a couple of hours earlier was now teeming with life. Makeshift restaurants were set up all along one side of the street, and the still-open shops were doing brisk business. Hasn’t anyone here heard of the Krisis Moneter? One interesting fact in our guidebook might have the answer: the province of North Sumatra (and there are eight provinces on this island alone) accounts for more than 30% of Indonesia’s exports. Up to this point I had thought that the road to riches in Indonesia was paved with rice, but North Sumatran products like cocoa, rubber and coffee are what fetch (currently overvalued) hard currency. I wonder if for some of the people staying at our hotel, the Krismon is actually good news.


Lake Toba, barely discernable through the haze

This Karo Batak house has seen better days


28 April, Brastagi to Medan, 73km (f)

This was the first day I can ever remember unfavorably anticipating a ride that included a 1400-meter descent. The big problem was that our path would be along the road that led to the third largest city in all of Indonesia. We’d thought to ourselves that some good fortune would smile upon us; at least it was a holiday and most of the traffic should be travelling in the opposite direction, from Medan to the cool holiday hill station of Brastagi.

The day we’d discovered that a ride to the orangutan reserve along a quieter road was out of the question, at least unless we passed through Medan. Our large scaled map represented a beautiful looking road from near Brastagi to the reserve, while the smaller scaled map mysteriously did not. When we stopped at the tourist information center we were advised that the road was no longer navigable and that we’d have to go to Medan.

We were mistaken about the advantage of the traffic travelling in the opposite direction and much of the ride was way too scary too describe. Just thinking about it turns my stomach. The most frightening aspect was when cars, trucks and buses coming at us overtook slower vehicles without regard to our occupation of the oncoming lane. We visited the road’s shoulder frequently in order to avoid proving Newton’s law about space and objects occupying the same.

It is a pity that so much of my concentration was on the road and vehicles because the scenery (what little I saw) was of the green and jungly variety. At least the ride was effortless due to our loss of altitude.

Swinging around a corner I nearly fell off my bicycle in shock of seeing ten bicycles and their lycra clad owners sitting by the side of the road. We stopped and had tea with a cycling club that had ridden up the nasty hill we were coasting down. Benson, a middle aged Chinese father and cycling enthusiast and his son Wandi had formed the club and had taken the group for a holiday ride. They offered to escort us back to Medan, which we accepted gladly. It is often hard to match our pace with unburdened riders. Usually riders without packs are too slow descending and too fast on flats and up. Today was no exception to the mismatched cycling rule. One good thing about traveling in a pack is that you are more visible to motorists --not that they showed us any more courtesy as a group.

I was actually glad when the cyclists pulled ahead as the terrain started to level off. Many of them were riding a little more dangerously than I could watch. Bravely they played chicken with the oncoming cars, tempting fate as they tested the nerves of the motorists. I sat back at a comfortable distance, not wanting to be part of any possible collateral damage. Much to my amazement we made it to Medan in one piece, parting company with the last of the cyclists before looking for lodging.

Later in the day we ran into one of the cyclists at the mall (where else?) with his family. His children slurped ice cream while he advised us of the location of a bike shop. His wife seemed to ignore our presence Andy surmising her disapproval of his hobby due to safety concerns. The mall proved to be a great place to stock up on supplies and recharge ourselves away from the stifling heat and rancid smoky air of Medan


Our escort into Medan

Live bats sold as asthma medicine on the street in Medan; we considered buying them all and liberating them.


29-30 April, Bukit Lawang (a)

I had wanted to pedal up to the orangutan reserve in Bukit Lawang, but Fred thought it wiser to motor up and leave our bikes to be serviced in town. He had broken a spoke on the way down from Brastagi, and both our chains needed replacing. When I called the bike shop our friend had recommended in order to get directions, the friendly voice at the other end of the line said, "I’ll just send my driver by to pick the bikes up." I could get used to Indonesian-style service…

The ride up to Bukit Lawang, however, proved to be less easy. Everyone we talked to gave us different advice, and in the end we chose to trust a travel agent, who went so far as to flag down a passing bemo for us. "This will take you to Binjai," he instructed, "and from there you can take a taxi to Bukit Lawang for only 5000 rupiah." It sounded to good to be true –for good reason too, since it was a lie. The bemo unceremoniously unloaded us ten kilometers short of Binjai. When we finally did make it there, the "taxi" turned out to be a minivan that cruised the highway looking for more passengers. At first it seemed like a pretty good deal, since we were the only passengers save a chatty guy in the front seat asking the usual questions. But as we progressed, the van quickly filled up. At one point I counted more than twenty people squeezed into the van, which was so crowded that the ticket-seller had to hang off the side. And the music –sappy Indonesian love songs—was cranked up so loud that I feared the windows would blow out. I looked out at the endless palm oil plantations, trying to think of anything but my discomfort. The two-and-a-half hour trip seemed five times longer. When we were finally able to disentangle ourselves from the limbs of other passengers and get off the noisy tin can, I promised Fred we’d take a proper taxi back.

Our first impression of tourist-infested Bukit Lawang wasn’t overly favorable. A pair of sleazy-looking touts fell upon us, pushing hotels and jungle treks. Once beyond these unsavory characters, however, the place felt pretty hassle-free. After a necessary shower we headed upriver to the orangutan rehabilitation site along a long path lined with cafes, guest houses and low-budget travel agencies. A dugout canoe took us across the river to the rehabilitation center (visions of strung-out orangutans filled my head), where we had a quick lunch with a Dutch dude traveling solo. A steep and slippery trail led first past a group of caged orangutans (most of whom had been kept as pets in nearby Medan) into the forest. After only a few minutes climb we began to hear them swinging noisily through the trees and caught glimpses of orange fur among the leaves. The end of the trail was a stiflingly hot muddy patch looking over a small wooden platform, upon which two Indonesians were seated. One guy was banging the wooden planks with a rock to call the orangutans, while his partner removed bananas from his backpack. A handful of other tourists encircled us, and we all took turns slipping on the mud and falling on our butts.

Three of them showed up. The first one came right along the path, forcing us to move out of its way, while the other two swung wildly through the trees. They drank milk from a cup and ate entire bunches of bananas at a time; one of them made away with a pack of cigarettes. The orangutans seemed more interested in the human contact than the food, though, and apparently enjoyed hamming it up for the cameras. We all clicked and flashed away until the rain began to fall, at which point we were sheparded back down the slope. The whole experience wasn’t that different from a zoo, yet it felt magical somehow to be in the jungle among "wild" apes.

We met two other Dutch while waiting out the torrential rain on the way down. Arian and Sandra were attractive young newlyweds on their honeymoon. They had just arrived from Amsterdam the previous day and we gave them some advice for the road ahead. They joined us for dinner back at our lonely hotel, during which we tried our best to explain for them Indonesian food.

The next morning I went back to see the orangutans again while animal-hater Fred chose to chill. At breakfast we met an American dude called Eric, all kitted out for a safari. He worked for Prudential Securities and was putting together a deal in Kuala Lumpur. It was his first visit to Southeast Asia and he was committed to experiencing the highlights, which he believed to be the Sumatran jungle and Cambodia’s Angkor Wat. Along with his guide Anton, he planned to visit the orangutans no fewer than four times. I wonder if he made it to all four feedings, since I found it to be pretty much the same experience the second time around. The only major differences were the far greater number of tourists (mostly old Germans) and the addition of a mother orangutan with her tiny baby. Another added bonus was seeing one orange ape puke up some bananas onto the platform and then casually scooping them up to taste them again. Recognizing the three orangutans from the day before, I asked one of the rangers if it’s always the same animals who show up. He told me that six of them come regularly and that they all have names. The baby, for example, is called Jan, after the month he was born.

On my way back down river, I arranged a van to take us into Medan, where we learned on CNN that anti-government riots were going on at a nearby university. Maybe it was time to leave Indonesia after all…



Hamming it up for the white apes


1-2 May, Penang, Malaysia (f)

In the dark and dingy waiting area of the "fast" ferry to Malaysia I sat flipping a coin while Andrew inquired as to why we were so late. Bryan came up to me and introduced himself while I watched an Indonesian babe flirt mercilessly with Andrew. Andy came back and explained to us that he’d just been proposed marriage and that we were waiting for the Indonesian immigration officials to arrive. It is too bad that the customs officers couldn’t double as immigration. There were at least six of them and they were far more interested in smoking and working on a crossword than what anyone had in their bag.

Bryan was (I suppose he still is…) an actor who became disenchanted with the whole Hollywood scene and somehow escaped the vicious cycle of waiting tables while auditioning for parts. His tale is, however, far more interesting than the average thespians’. Just as he found himself at his low point an attorney contacted him and explained that an interested and anonymous individual would like to finance his studies in the Seattle area. He could choose any school and any program as long as it was in Washington near his grandparents. I’d just finished a nostalgic rereading of the parallel Dickensian tale of Pip and his benefactor so I couldn’t help but ask him, "Did you ever figure out who your ‘Havisham’ (or convict) was?"

He hadn’t yet but supposed it was a good friend of his grandparents who had some vested interest in their happiness. Bryan took up studying Asian literature and moved to Seattle. We finally boarded the "fridge-boat" and found seats in the back. Andy’s girlfriend from the waiting lounge boarded and passed out vaccination cards. Jokingly (and loudly) he pointed to Bryan and told her he was looking for a mate much to the amusement of the entire boat and the embarrassment of the girl. She blushed and ran from the cabin. I feared retribution and it seemed I might be correct when "Mr. Andrew" was paged on the boat’s public address system. Andy returned promptly with her notebook indicating that she wanted Bryan’s coordinates so she could write. After scrawling Andy’s brother’s (Marty’s) details in her notebook we passed it back to her as they cranked the motors of the vessel.

Immediately we realized we were sitting in the wrong place. The metal hatches leading up to the deck rattled with the vibration of the motor. I envisioned a five-hour headache and went forward to find seats in the other cabin. We moved and spent a peaceful trip sleeping, reading and chatting with Bryan about our respective travels.

When we arrived we were made aware of our error in switching cabins. We had been sitting in the occidental cabin and had moved into the Indonesian cabin. We then had to wait shivering on the icy boat for an hour and one-half while the Malays processed all the bules and most of the Indonesians before we got to exit the boat. After a ride into town and a shower we set off to meet Bryan for dinner. As we entered the lobby of his guesthouse across from the Chinese mansion where they filmed Indochine (the movie) in, we discovered Bryan in the middle of a little crisis. Bryan had inserted his credit card in an ATM and the machine had eaten it. The big problem was that Bryan was to be in Penang for only one night. He’d only come over to renew his Indonesian visa, not wanting to worry about it as he toured eastern Indonesia. Now he had no cash and no card and was testing the viability of Visa’s lost card services. We went on to the restaurant to wait on Bryan as he spent his night in customer service hell. Arriving during happy hour we slurped down two cool beers and munched tasty appetizers (reserving two icy Guiness Stouts at the happy hour price for Bryan). Our waiter, Jeff, who we’d pegged as a sister, cared for us well. Bryan, who finally arrived, didn’t see his plucked eyebrows nor any of the other tells that led us to our assumption and doubted us. I took it as a challenge and managed to not only get him to admit he was a drag queen, but to produce photos to prove it. As a male, one might say that Jeff had unfortunate looks, but as a girl he was exquisite.

Something of the dinner or our lunch on board the boat did not agree with me at all and the result was a rather problematic (is there any other kind?) IPFE. The next day I spent the bulk of the day not knowing whether to sit or pray in front of the porcelain Buddha while Andy forewent the ride around the Island of Georgetown. Finally by evening I’d recovered enough to eat some white rice after eating only yogurt and crackers during the day. I even felt strong enough for a walk around town.

Penang was more interesting demographically than Indonesian towns. Indians lived along side of Malays and Chinese in what appeared to be perfect harmony. Colonial deco architecture, similarly, cohabitated with Asian and other styles to make it a visually eclectic town. Somehow Andy convinced me that it was a good idea to see the movie "U.S. Marshal’s". After the screening I wondered whether it ever achieved commercial release in the states.

Before and after the movie it became clear that regardless of race, religion or creed the god that Penangians prayed to is food. Nearly every inch of retail space, meter of sidewalk and scrap of dirt in the park is dedicated to the preparation and service of meals. Colorful, fragrant and delicious looking food is everywhere you look much to my consternation. I felt though I was in culinary heaven without a stomach.


Indonesian ustoms authorities; more interested in the answer
to number three down than what is in your bag


3 May, Penang to Alor Setar, 102km (f)

Legs quivering just a little I mounted my bike and we were on our way to our first riding day in our very brief tour de Malaysia. Yesterday’s nervous stomach still with me, I wasn’t sure about whether I should ride or not, but was willing to give it a try. The option to take some form of transportation would be there if I couldn’t continue. As we rode to the ferry to peninsular Malaysia a few things were obviously different here than in Indonesia.

First of all there were huge numbers of private cars all in a rush to get somewhere. Even in their haste they were very orderly and careful to give us a wide berth. The vehicles we had to watch out for were the buzzing scooters that wound their way around town without regard to anything or anyone. At least we were traveling closer to their speed while on our bikes in contrast to the day before on foot where we were at a distinct disadvantage. Along with finding more autos we discovered that there were far fewer bikes and the roads much wider and better maintained. Shortly after beginning to ride we’d tagged Malaysia as the Ohio of Asia.
Our map of Malaysia was dreadfully insufficient. It marks none of the small roads or the ferries we’d need to take today. We asked a number of folks for advice on how to proceed to Alor Setar with most everyone replying we’d have to take the main road. Just before we succumbed to the idea of toughing out the miserable and long highway route a cyclist named Chew See Lim came to the rescue and gave us detailed instructions on how to find the ferries and which lanes to take. He even escorted us along the first ten kilometers. The whole idea of the journey appealed to him except that it provided no income. This clearly violated his Chinese values.

Malaysian villages, at least in this area, were drastically different than their Indonesian counterparts. They looked far more prosperous, with nearly every house sporting a shiny four-wheeled vehicle in its driveway or under the house. Speaking of the homes, they are built on wood columns sitting about two or three meters from the ground. We assumed that the space below the house was reserved for domestic animals, though few people keep them now. Many families have finished the lower part of their house with masonry to make a ground floor. Few of the picturesque houses on stilts remain.

Our first little ferry ride made me understand why so few people knew about the boat alternative. Descending the rakishly slanted and tilted stone steps with our bikes was difficult enough, but subsequent hoisting of the bikes onto the rowboat required more dexterity than I felt capable of. Somehow we managed to load and unload the bikes before proceeding to the next ferry. Riding quickly through coconut palm studded villages we arrived at the beach. Ferry is too generous a description for the boat we took across the bay. I little outboard launch took only us across. On the other side similar acrobatics were required; we had to carry our bikes over the rocky breakwater to continue our ride. After a drink we set out in the now blistering heat.

I made Andy stop frequently so I could cool down. I’d not eaten so many popcicles since I was a child.

Chew See Lim had warned us that the afternoon would be hot and that we would face a head wind most of the latter part of the day. Unfortunately for us he was correct. Normally a headwind would cool us off but the effect was like being in a convection oven. Hot moist breezes blew across the massive fields of wet rice into our faces. One surprising thing was that in all of the acres and acres of rice there was nary a person tending to it. It was very surprising after Java and Sumatra, where every square inch of rice padi seemed to have personal attention daily. Later we saw that indeed there were vast differences in rice cultivation methodology; can you spell m-e-c-h-a-n-i-z-a-t-i-o-n? Huge motorized rice harvesters dotted the roadside.

We detoured a little on our way into Alor Setar. Road signs that had clearly marked our route suddenly disappeared and we went off track for a few kilometers. We found our way back and delighted in the tailwind that pushed us the last bit into town. The surrealistic state of Alor Setar was perplexing. A huge beautifully maintained Mosque set on an expanse of green lawn sat in the foreground of the massive pink stuccoed mall. A massive telecom tower a la Deutschland sprang from the center. At first we couldn’t figure out how a podunk town like Alor Setar rated such development until we read that the president hails from here.

After a tour of town we opted to see "Lost in Space". Neither of us were expecting much of the movie and were not surprised by anything but the quality of the theater, its screen and sound system. Are we in Asia? Andy’s supposition about the movie was that they’d had a bunch of leftovers from the special effect cutting board (perhaps the script too…) from "Starship Troopers", "Alien III" and, perhaps, "Toy Story" splicing it together and making a new movie. When we exited the movie darkness had fallen upon Alor Setar. It seemed even more artificial by night.

The telecom tower that had looked big by day was overwhelming by night. A glass elevator to the rotating restaurant revealed the (lack of) splendor of the surrounding countryside. Perhaps one day lights of homes and streets will spread out around the tower like the carpet of lights beneath Chicago’s Sears Tower, but for now there is mostly darkness. If President Matahir has his way, perhaps we will see a cityscape like that. He is planning to try to increase Malaysia’s population four-fold by 2020. We both snickered at the idea and surmised that he could probably get a little help from neighboring Indonesia.

On the way down the elevator we had an experience that characterized our interactions with fundamentalist Muslim women. Andy asked the lift operator in Malaysian and English in what year the tower was constructed. Her head covered by a white scarf, she hesitated and answered "yes!" We surmised that the jelbeb (headdress) indicated that she was out of service, sort of like the canvass bag they put over a parking meter that doesn’t work.


Cyclist guide du jour, Chew See Lim

Ferry number two on a three-ferry day


4 May, Alor Setar to Hatyai, Thailand, 98km (a)

Malaysia, though east of Sumatra, is one hour ahead, which means that the sun here rises at a far more civilized hour. For a bikebrat in the tropics, this quality worthwhile makes this a worthwhile country to ride in. As well as letting us sleep an hour longer, MST (Malaysia Standard Time) means that the sun sets later, prompting a later dinner and livelier nightlife. It felt great to be up and riding before dawn, though the road out of Alor Setar was hardly inspiring. It was like Indonesia with its soul sucked out. Private cars and motor scooters have replaced Indonesia’s bizarre and funky modes of transport here –not a duck herder in sight. Alor Setar seemed a lot bigger leaving than it had coming in, and the traffic remained heavy even after we’d penetrated the endless flat expanse of rice fields. The still cool air and a good rideable shoulder made the ride bearable, though. I was surprised by the number of squished frogs, birds, snakes (some of them disconcertingly huge) and civets (a minky sort of creature) on the roads. For such a developed country, Malaysia seems to have preserved its environment (or at least its native wildlife) reasonably well.

After fifty kilometers of soporific pedaling, we made our first stop in ugly Kangar, the largest town of the tiny sultanate of Perlis. While we munched on tasty Indian roti with curry, a table full of Malays at the next table asked us about our trip. When we told them we were on our way to Hat Yai, knowing smiles blossomed on their faces. "Beautiful girls there…and so cheap!" the leader of their band thoughtfully appraised in a mixture of Malay and bad English.

The temperature rose at an alarming rate; my thermometer was already showing 34 degrees at ten a.m. We slowed down, prayed for clouds and guzzled down water to replace all the liquid we were sweating out. The traffic thinned out considerably and the scenery improved, studded with lumpy limestone formations. All I could think about was finding shade, and by the time we reached the scuzzy border town of Padang Besar I was practicaly in a trance. We cruised up and down the only street, looking desperately for ice cream. Finding none, we pedaled soggily into Thailand.


Lumpy landscape near the Thai border...

...icy reward on the other side