Dear Iron Rider

The first clue that the Tree In Lodge Hostel in Singapore is a kind of sanctuary for roving cycle tourers is the front door, which has been fitted with a bicycle crank arm for a handle. Inside a scuffed touring bicycle dangles from the ceiling, old photos of those bikers who had once made their temporary home here takes up one wall, looking variously earnest, triumphant and knackered. Downstairs people traipse about in the last of their clean spandex amid unfurled maps. Beards and caps are ubiquitous, and somebody is always eating.

The place belongs to SK, a Malaysian dude who himself cycled from Finland to Singapore which means he knows what bikers want, half price room rates included. So with the help of Singapore’s top go-to man, and Andy, another trans-continental rider, the hostel became the base-camp where I could plan for the mountain of Asia.

Before I set off from Singapore I said an emotional goodbye to Claire who set out for Japan. I then took advantage of the hostel kit swap pile since the other day, when putting on my trousers, I put my leg through a hole in the crotch instead of the leg hole. My entire leg, that’s how bad things are.

I won’t delve into the detail of my thoughts about the route across Asia lest it take up this entire post, but suffice to say planning the continent isn’t easy. Tibet closed to independent travel several years ago, three month visas to china are harder and harder to land, getting through Burma to India requires permits, Pakistan requires an expensive VISA that must be scored in your home country, Iran just recently closed its borders to independent travellers from the UK, the ‘stans and the caucuses – who knows by the time I get there, but five piddly days on your VISA for Turkmenistan is considered a win.

I crossed the border into Malaysia, and by the evening time drenching rain threatened and fork lightning etched the sky so I booked into the beguilingly entitled Impress Star hotel. The long lists of rules and mandates embossed on the wall of my room sounded fairly reasonable.

‘1. No explosives in rooms please (no animals too)’

‘12. Do not play with fire extinguishers without permission – fine 50 rg per extinguisher’.

There was no note of who to ask for this permission but the fine per extinguisher seemed to suggest that maybe they would let me play with several of them at once.

‘27. The following are not to be taken from the room as ‘souvenirs’ – television, water heater, lamp.’

It’s a little worrying that they need to be this specific. It makes you feel a little sorry for the management and the sort of rabble that take advantage of them.
‘Hi, I’d like to check out’
‘Sir, is that a home cinema system under your coat? And what’s that? Sir? Is that the maid?
‘She’s just a souvenir.’

On the other wall was an advertisement for a woman’s health product from Codi Belle –

‘Meet Farah, hormone problem. After two doses of Codi Belle her menstrual cycle is now regular and she has perfect husband-wife relationship.’

‘Meet Nisa. Accident and unable to walk without a stick. After Codi Belle she can walk like normal!’ 

So it was a strange place but the staff were nice and in the quite literal thirty seconds I used to get the wifi code from the reception a mysterious note appeared on my door, I never discovered who left it.

If Indonesia was a rugby match, Malaysia was the languorous sponge bath afterwards. I enjoyed the sense of freedom, gone was the Indonesian habit of heckling and the pillaging of personal space. Lots of people spoke English too and mornings began with a feast of Roti Canai –  a flat bread made by twirling a thin piece of dough, and eaten with a curry sauce which as far as I’m concerned is the best way to start any day.

‘You have strong constitution – mind and body! I admire you’ said a smart middle aged man at a roadside café in a Muslim prayer hat.‘Let me pay for your breakfast!’ I refused but to no avail. On two further occasions as I pushed north I tried to settle my bill only to find that some cunning Malaysian had paid and disappeared! This made for a strange situation where I would take my seat, order food and then eye those around me with deep suspicion, trying to work out which one of these pathologically generous Malaysians was going to try and pay for me and how to stop the devious philanthropists.

It’s fortunate that Malaysians are such note-leaving, bill-paying wonders because the land itself in the south of the country is not just uninspiring and dull, it’s a touch tragic. For most of the last century Malaysia was the world’s greatest palm oil producer (just now surpassed by Indonesia). With world demand erupting for palm oil (now estimated to be found in 50% of supermarket foods) Malaysia cleared vast areas of forest and as I cycled past the miles and miles of palms, broken only by huge tracts of barren wasteland bristled by the dead nubs of cut palms, and as trucks heavy with freshly cut hard wood timber rallied past, I felt a real sense of dismay. It’s easy for me though with my western back-to-nature sensibilities, conveniently ignoring the fact that my own country felled most of it’s natural woodland centuries ago, but I worry about the increase in demand and the misinformation being propagated by those with a financial interest in palm oil. As well as in food, palm oil is being used increasingly for biofuels – you know, the environmentally friendly alternative to petrol, made by ripping down primary forest, burning peat bogs to grow palms, thus paradoxically releasing more carbon emissions than burning fossil fuels. Its basically like a pharmaceutical company developing a cure for HIV which in 100% of patients has a side effect of AIDS.

Oil palm plantations do make half decent rough camping sites though, and each night I pedalled down a side-road deeper into the plantation and made a home. Monitor lizards, bats and rodents shared the gloom, and I heard them scraping and scuttling at night. After three days of palms finally a jungle teaser – macaques scampered across railway line and overhead cables, a sign warned for tapir, monitor lizards sprinted across the road.

One night I camped out in the rubber trees, it was hot and humid, and I knew the night ahead would be like the others – like passing out face down in someone’s arm pit. ‘Sweat-time’ is as a necessary part of my nightly routine as setting up my tent or eating dinner and for twenty minutes I lay still inside my tent listening to the wall of malaria buzzing outside, and could do nothing more than dribble onto my sleeping mat, because any other action would have invoked a gush of sweat and use of the ‘sweat-towel’ which if it gets any sweatier will actually open up a porthole to hell. Inside my tent though, I was not alone. A cricket bounced about, a spider flickered in and out of nylon creases, beatles roamed, weaving by caterpillars on expeditions. The rug of dead arthropods inside would have to be added to, but there are priorities, only mosquito murder trumps ‘sweat-time’. Also I had to review my sorry legs which were both branded by a rash I was trying to get to the bottom of. There had been the stinging plant I brushed against two days ago, that, combined with sweat rash would do it. Of course the combined effort of the mosquitoes, horse flies and fire-ants definitely deserves some of the glory. Some sunburn, probably. Perhaps also now infection. In fact the only thing I was relatively confident was not contributing was smallpox, though I couldn’t completely rule it out. There comes a time when you just have to start ignoring things like this.

I had a plan to counter the fever of the Malaysian tropics – a new road up from Sungai Koyan through jungle to the less sweaty, less malarial, less rash-provoking Cameron Highlands, and then dropping down the other side to the historical town of Ipoh and on to Penang and my next days off. The road up was broad and tranquil, knifing through sweeping jungle, dense with vines and creepers, droning with insects. At times entire sections of the road were elevated, enough so that my eye line fell onto the forest canopy and a breeze licked at me as I peered out over a wealth of tree species in a motley of greens.

As I reached the Cameron Highlands black-gassing Land Rovers chugged past, greenhouses blistered the hills. Impressively resplendent tea plantations festooned the crumpled land like a novelty haircut. I took a day off but travel burnout got the better of me and I didn’t muster the ambition to get involved in any of the activities everyone else was here for, the journey to get here was enough. Instead I hung out in the hostel run by a guy so morose he would have made an actual ogre appear quite chipper. Over breakfast the next day I got chatting to a barefoot French guy who was dressed in an enormous crooked wizards hat, 2/3 length multihued pantaloons that made me hum ‘you can’t touch this’ and two entirely functionless sashes from hip to shoulder. His eyes lurched around in their sockets like spinning eight balls, he grinned wildly and spieled about a techno party he had organised in a field in Cambodia when he lived with an eco-community there. Eventually  immigration stopped letting him back into the country on his regular border runs, though why he didn’t conjure up a magical VISA I don’t know.

Tea plantations, Cameron Highlands
I whipped down from the highlands through more jungle until evening sunlight played on the limestone hills near Ipoh. Two days later I fetched up in Penang via the ferry from the mainland and checked into The Love Lane Inn, a place even seedier than it sounds, if that’s possible. It was the second cheapest fleapit in the city, the cheapest was directly opposite and was an actual brothel. Come 11pm prostitutes, at least a couple of whom were over 50, minced around the pavement outside, occasionally dashing inside when the police swung by, who I’m guessing weren’t there for the good of the public.

The manager of the Love Lane Inn looked like Ozzy Ozbourne, if Black Sabbath had never split up and Ozzy had grown his affinity for heroin. He had matchstick arms, an insalubrious pallor and when he moved it was only ever by slinking. On my second morning I woke covered in myriad bites so I showed Ozzy and moaned to him about the mosquitoes.

‘No no no’ he said ‘it’s not the mosquitoes, it’s the bed bugs’
‘Bed bugs?’
‘Yep, we have a lot’
‘Well can I change beds?’
‘Well you can, but most of our beds have the bed bugs. They’re everywhere.’

It was almost admirable, that level of honesty and hard-boiled apathy.

The problem was that skinflint travelers would check in at the brothel, check out again bringing the bed begs with them to other hostels like the Love Lane Inn. I found scores of the blighters in the wood of my bed and so I then joined the gaggle of travelers sat outside, itching themselves sullenly.

Georgetown is all about the food so I struck out for one of the night markets which was arranged on each side of a busy road so that you queue for food amid a ferment of wending motorcycles, rickshaws and cars. The vendors are all a one-man-band of the culinary craft – tossing, throwing, frying, chopping so fast that it often seems simultaneous. Puffs of steam grey the night air, behind it they look like emerging magicians. Women caw instructions to the table runners. I ordered noodles and ate carefully – two days before in Ipoh, not an expert yet with chopsticks, I dropped a dumpling into the chili sauce, a splash of which reached my right eye. I had to leave the restaurant half blind and in severe pain, and also hoping nobody would notice.

Thailand, according to cycle tourers crossing Asia, was a cinch – plenty of flat roads and great food served by a folksy band of smiling, bowing Nice People. I was planning big distances, cruising past lush forest and golden Buddha statues, stopping only for green curry and tea. The border town was the usual gaudy, thrumming staging post, and I was cooking. I had sweated so much I looked fresh from a nautical disaster, so I stood by a giant fan which was turned on two guards and pretended to browse through my passport until I was dry again.

In Thailand, much like Malaysia, the gratuitous generosity continued. Twice I was treated to free food and water on my up to Krabi. There is always the map test – open a map on the road in a new country and see how long until someone slides over to your rescue. I haven’t tried this in Thailand yet though, I’m worried there might be screeching of brakes and a rapidly forming queue with people saying things like ‘Take my GPS!’ or ‘Have you met my sister, Miss Thailand 2014? Let me get you acquainted’.

When I arrived into Ao Nang near Krabi I met Martin, another cycle tourer, who had been in touch by email. That night I felt well and went to bed. I woke up in the night with the headache to end all headaches goading my fever-fuddled brain. By morning a rash had developed over my abdomen, my temperature was consistently topping 39 and everything hurt, not everything I hear you say – yes, everything. I knew it had to be something nasty and my hunch was dengue fever as SE Asia is a particular hotspot. If it was, it would be a long recovery, even without the complications.

I ventured out to the nearest clinic for blood tests. The doctor agreed – this was dengue, a disease that has always sounded particularly threatening to me, but because the name is too inert for some, it has also been dubbed ‘break-bone fever’ and now I know why. Each day I managed a 100 yard mournful shuffle to some food outlet where I ordered something, took a mouthful and binned it. It might have been wasteful but I wanted to know that I could go out and get food even if my body then rejected it. A half-victory.

I didn’t eat at all for three and a half days and my white cell count and platelet count both took a plunge (2.1 and 70 for the medics interested). Only on the 4th day did the fever break but I still felt terrible. It all helped forge the opinion that dengue really is everything it’s cracked up to be. It flattened me, and 8 days after its onset I still feel two-dimensional. In the medical textbooks dengue has a long list of symptoms of which I had a full house, bar the hemorrhagic complications, plus I had others that are definitely symptoms of dengue but must have been accidentally omitted from the texts – one such symptom of dengue is the desire to tell everyone that you have dengue. I had this one, but nobody was very interested. I holed up in a cheap hostel, and I’m still here waiting impatiently for my appetite to return and my body to stop aching so I can get moving, north to Bangkok.

Thank yous – The Garths, SK, Andy and Wayling, David, Anne and Philip – for the insurance which arrived just in time, Ian Humble, Tom Wingfield and the mystery people who bought me breakfast and left notes on my door.

And to the mosquito that gave me dengue – it’s war. Your brethren will suffer for this. Mark my words.

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Comments (4)

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    Sorry to hear about the dengue, Steve. If that's what I had in Ecuador some years back – and I've been told both that I had dengue and malaria by people who supposedly know well the symptoms – I can certainly commiserate. That "bone-breaking" comment rings all too familiar. Absolutely miserable. Everything hurt, without exception, and time advanced incredibly slowly. Anyway, wish you the best and safe travels as you head west. Who knows, we might bump into each other next year in Europe when I head from Lisbon to NE Slovakia over April-October or so. If we do, the booze is on me. Cheers from the U.S. Pacific Northwest!


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    Hi, I do enjoy your blog, you are a really good writer, and best of luck to you. I will keep following for sure.


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    Derek Spanfelner


    Steve, I hope the worst is behind you! Good luck as you move on the Bangkok; hopefully these same random acts of clandestine kindness follow you there (and the bed bugs don't). As always, thanks for the discerning and honest traveling eye.

    Keep up the wonderful adventures!


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    Laura Moss


    This made me laugh out loud, great writing!

    Regarding Iran, don't take the warning about stopping independent travellers too seriously. We were told that cyclists wouldn't be allowed, got the visa and cycled across without incident this February. I know of others doing the same thing right now, also fro the UK (as are we). Good luck with the rest of your epic trip!


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