Bali and the Dragons

We cycled only a couple of days in Bali, to Jimbaran, just south of the airport, for a comfy, cheap, tourist hotel, and especially, just round the corner from a really useful bike shop. That Surly Ogre with that bike packing kit was probably perfect for Sumatra.
From Bali we took a bikeless side trip to Flores and Rinca, where be dragons.

Clare in Bali

Gideon in Bali

Clare in Flores

Clare on the Boat to Rinka

Gideon in Flores

Clare’s Dragons

Gideon’s Dragons

Then we packed up, and probably marking the end of our most adventurous travels, left Asia and its bustle, noise, and low prices, for Australia.

Java – The Pictures

Strange – Our overriding memory of Java is the unpleasant major road conditions. But the photos tell a different story. There’s plenty good in Java, but probably a bicycle isn’t the most reassuring mode of transport to pick for it.

On The Road in Java

Horse and Smoke Dance

This was pure luck! Somewhere in mid-Java, we’d managed to escape the manic main road for an hour or two. In a small village, we chanced upon this event in a little roadside space. It was just villagers and a few passers-by, as far as we know, so we weren’t invisible ourselves!

 

Borobudur – Ancient Buddhist Temples

Before Java became Islamic, there was a major Buddhist complex here. Abandoned for centuries, and somewhat vandalised, it was “rediscovered” and restored relatively recently. Apparently the carvings showing saucy Buddhists have been covered over during the restoration.

Prambanan – Ancient Hindu Temples

Before Java became Islamic, there was a big Hindu civilisation on the island. Whereas Bali has remained mostly Hindu, this temple complex on Java was long abandoned.

Prambanan – The Umbrellas

More Java Photos by Clare

More Java Photos by Gid

 

Short Ferry Crossing to Bali

End

Java – The Story

And So To Java. We pedalled away from Jakarta’s bus station in the early morning. The Garmin did a good job of finding a quiet way out. Jakarta was quiet – too quiet. Our relief at being away from Sumatra’s hills, and then the end of Ramadan, was short lived. Ramadan is immediately followed by Eid al-Fitr, which is by definition a religious event, but substantially experienced as a transport event; everybody in Java is on the roads. Java’s land mass is structured around a few massive volcanoes, the main roads weaving through on the flat bits in between. Alas, the smaller roads often don’t join up, so to get anywhere, everyone, including us, had to use the main, but only 2 lane, highways. Really, it was madness to cycle at that time. Cyclists would be best off spending Eid holed up, especially if they can join in the festivities.
It calmed down after about three days. Java’s crowded, narrow, bumpy major roads are at least relatively flat, and still alive after a week of good progress, we took a couple of days off in the historic, and more or less geographical, centre of Java, Yogyakarta, before continuing on to catch the short ferry to Bali.
Java has a big population in a not-so-big space.. Drivers are not so deliberately homicidal as Indian drivers, and they’re more inclined to look where they’re going, but the traffic is a lot denser, as Indian main roads are hugely bigger. As usual, it’s the bus drivers who are most aggressive and unwilling to share space or time. Well, they’ll happily ‘share’ your lane if they’re going the other way and want to overtake something. But the drivers are mostly ok, it’s the motorbike riders who are nuts. Well, more likely they’re happy, carefree folks who have no worries about any possibility of collision. Overtake a truck on the inside on a narrow blind bend – no problem. Overtaking is probably the Indonesian national sport, and often would earn many points for artistic flair and imagination. On the whole it felt less safe even than India, which is saying something. However, it was a lot less noisy than India, with only brief blasts of horns used beneficially. It got a bit less hectic as we worked our way east, taking loops via minor roads when we could.
Dear reader, you might get the impression that crossing Java by bike is a dumb plan: That’s about right. Whereas Sumatra, whilst being very tough, felt a worthwhile adventure. Bali’s roads we only experienced from the ferry to Denpasar, the capital, travelling mostly on the main road. It was somewhat less hectic than Java, and, crucially, the road was both a bit wider and in better repair. The last 40km or so on Bali’s minor roads were lovely, full of things to see.
So where are the photos?

 

Sumatran Struggles – Beaten?

A double posting tonight – you might have missed Sumatra continued – Photos?
Sumatra is the toughest place we’ve been on this trip. We’ve given it our best shot, but after a month, we’re still a week from the ferry to Java. Legs are aching from the endless very steep hills, and skin is blotchy and spotty from the endless sweating and humidity. It’s time to take an easier path. I wrote that on a Jakarta-bound air conditioned bus.
Its tough because of the hills. After Toba, we made our way south, along the volcanic spine, for a way, before going West, so as to benefit from the coastal lowlands. Well, they are low, but they ain’t flat. For much of it, spurs or ridges extend to the sea. They’re only 100m or so high, and the coast road takes them in endless savage little hills. In the heat and humidity, we can’t climb fast, or without cooling breaks; progress is sometimes demoralisingly slow. Two of our last three cycling days gained only 60 and 52km, little over half our average. And there was a rest day in between two of them! On our last day of cycling in Sumatra, we were a week later than our planned crossing to Java, with 500 hilly kilometres to go. By 4pm we were still 40km short of the day’s target. Then, on a narrow bridge, this big bus had to wait behind us to overtake (nb: a technique unknown to Java’s bus drivers). We turned and signed “bikes in bus” to the driver. It worked! We covered the 40km to Krui in comfort. Well, sort of comfort, as the road remained the same bumpy corkscrew we’d struggled on. There we rested a day, and sorted ourselves onto the next day’s bus to Jakarta. That recovered one lost week, by skipping roughly 500km. I guess I should add as a postscript that we didn’t cycle east Sumatra, which the maps suggest is flat and swampy, and might have been easier, but less scenic.
Pictures of hills – oddly, we have lots…
It’s tough because of the heat and humidity. Shortly after starting, every day, we were soaked in sweat. Towards the end of Sumatra’s big hills, Clare started to suffer from heat rash. All day pedalling hard, then often sleeping in hot, stuffy rooms, was too much for her skin. Gid later showed some signs of this too, but generally coped a bit better, perhaps cooled by his stylish Bukittingi haircut or just baring a silver cyclists chest with shirt flapping in the wind. No wonder the girlies are all in fits of giggles. Clare bought some cotton clothing hoping it would be cooler even if not designed for cycling. It seemed to be working… The rash not getting worse.
Err, no pictures of the sweat and rashes, sorry.
Accommodation was difficult at times. Once out of the highlands, it’s way too hot to camp, especially in our rainproof, but poorly ventilated Scandinavian tent, as there’s rarely much breeze. Hotels and guest houses are usually good value, often offering AC, but thinly spread, though not so thin as  OSM and Google suggest. Although we’d agreed not to try for big distances, often mapped accommodation is over 100km apart, and not always do we find somewhere unmapped. We have new words – Penginapan, for lodging house; Losmen for inn. Rarely in electronic maps, these can be found in smaller towns. Even towns not on the map but deduced from a road junction – some surprisingly big towns show up that way. We’ve been taken in by locals, which was a great experience, but a hot, sticky night, fully clad, in a communal room. Once we crashed out in the utility block of the local police station, which isn’t uncommon for Sumatra cycle tourists. I reckon if you can stand the heat, you could sleep free most nights. If you can’t, fan cooled rooms start at little over $10, air-con from maybe $15, so long as you can find a decent sized town. We always aimed for aircon, for a night’s sleep and dry skin, although we didn’t always get it. It’s the best option to dry out laundry overnight – we’re only using two sets of clothes. Finally, aircon’d places have most vents closed, whereas the traditional method of staying cool is maximum ventilation; this means there’s many fewer mozzies in an aircon room.
One afternoon, we were pulled over by a roving Warm Showers scooter patrol. Mati offered us free accommodation pretty much exactly where we were heading. How cool is that? Well pretty cool, as it was a kind of substantial beach hut, with the best overnight breeze, and a very well aimed fan. A shame we were keen to press on, it would have made a nice beach break. There’s a fair number of Warm Showers hosts in Indonesia, it’s got to be a great option if you sleep OK in the heat.
No pictures of hotels, either…
Talking of beaches, we did see some surf, and some surf dudes, on the west coast. The best action is supposed to be out on the western islands. The coast we saw looked attractive for some surfers and maybe sea kayak too, but perhaps tricky, for sea kayak landings.
Though tough, Sumatra is a very rewarding place to tour. 2,300km long by the shortest road route, the mountain views are stunning, the rainforest, even roadside, is full of lush greenery and noisy beasties. The agricultural areas range from fascinating and colourful gardens and paddy fields to duller palm plantations. Some tourists find the palm oil plantations depressing, mostly as they often represent torn up rainforest. But they’re not so bad to cycle in. Sumatra is big, but it’s always had a modest population and limited development, so there’s not much history to see, it’s more the landscapes and the people there now that are the “sights”.
They are not all the same people – we see different cultures as we roll struggle through, but always the people are friendly. Each day is spent grinning and greeting. Clare realised she’d been wearing a fixed grin for 30 minutes passing through some town, so many folk wanted to wave and call. As usual after a couple of months in a country, we got up to a shamefully poor vocabulary of maybe 20 words of Indonesian. It was enough, with gestures, and a few Indonesians speaking English (“Hello” is the same, and all Indonesians know “yes”, “no” and “selfie”). I guess there are about the same number of selfie stops as India, but here it’s mostly girls. And very giggly ones too, at least two per scooter.
People…
With fairly heavily loaded road orientated bikes, and limited time, we stayed mostly on minor main roads. Like in most hilly regions, the minor roads rarely joined up to provide alternative routes. But away from Medan and its horrible road to Berestagi, traffic was light. We were there mostly in June: Monsoon downpours happened at times, but most days were dry.
A self-inflicted accidental challenge was that we left the Christian region around Lake Toba at about the start of Ramadan. Thereafter, roadside eateries were shut all day, we had to make very boring picnics from the small supermarkets. And there was a bit of a feeling of it being somewhat impolite to drink or eat in public. But we had to, as finding roadside  privacy proved as impossible as in India. The degree of fasting rigor varied as we travelled, some regions appearing more devout than others. It was a relief when it ended, by that time we were in Java.
Our final thoughts on Sumatra differ. Clare was thoroughly fed up with it by the end. The endless hills, and their brutal steepness, the enforced distances to hunt aircon, the problems with food, the heat, and the frequently off-road experience when we avoided the highway, was all too much. Gideon is more positive, but thinks to get a great tour there, we’d need a bit more youth and/or heat tolerance, a lot less baggage, fatter tyres and maybe suspension, and stronger legs. Oh and maybe three months, just for Sumatra, not Indonesia.
Clare claims North Java is flat, find out if it really is in the next blog!

Sumatra continued – Photos

Clare in the Town

Gideon

Clare in a Paddy

Gideon

 

Clare on the Beach

Clare in the Quarry

End

 

Toughing it out around Lake Toba

A flat route round the world I had never expected to find but gratuitous hill climbing is not for me.
We tasted hills near the start of our trip with a slice of ‘the castle route’ in Germany and after an extended trip along the Danube we were reintroduced to arduous peddle pushing when travelling south through Bulgaria. Since then we’ve travelled across Turkey, woven our way across the high lands in Azerbaijan, missed the Pamirs and the Himalayas due to ill health, visas and snow, gone up and down again through Myanmar and into Thailand before reaching my high spot – cycling along the coast looking out through the palm trees across the golden sands to the waves gently tickling the shoreline. But then I always have been a sucker for the sea.
Gid was trying to tempt me into agreeing to the mountain range in Northern Sumatra so we bargained – flat in Malaysia, missing the, I’m told, beautiful Cameron Highlands but seeing the historical towns along the west coast and going for the volcanic mountain range in Sumatra.
From Singapore we took a quick ferry to Batam, where an Indonesian cyclists, Zainal, and his family, kindly hosted us for three nights, while he helped us sort out our long ferry journey to Medan in Sumatra. After disembarking from the PELNI ferry, we headed west to Bukit Lawang, one of the best spots to see Orangutans. It used to be a rehabilitation centre for them, and a few still hang about, though living wild. It was another guided hike, and another expensive day, once the guides had finished arguing in public about who was to book the guiding. Excellent jungle walk and sightings though.
With the Orangutan spotting done and dusted we moved on the meat of the island tour; the volcanic mountain range that forms the north-south “spine” of Sumatra. Having assiduously tried to digest the verbal instructions from Matthew and Hans, as the smaller roads are often not on either electronic or paper maps, one wrong turning led to two days of savage conditions. Despite what I’ve said above I don’t give up easily but thought I was finally beaten here. Tracks that are more like river beds with smooth mini boulders and large rounded stones combined with a heavy downpour and the going gets tuff. At slow speeds tyres fail to grip and heavy bikes slide sideways. The local’s small motorbikes coped admirably, but we saw no three or four wheelers for hours.
Mid afternoon and our 100 km destination was light years away. Gid retorted that we knew it was going to be a long day as he grit his teeth and set to.
Taking shelter from the rain at a local eatery resulted in a fabulous outcome. The locals agreed there was no way we were going to reach Berestagi but one young lad said we could stay the night at his family home. One hour later, with even more muddy tracks and bike pushing, we arrived to a fabulous welcome.
Jusia, our young hero continued his good deeds the following day when he helped us both push our bikes up even more impossible tracks with the finale, a 1km long 1 in 3 track covered in slime which took our young muscle bound hero and two other helpers to get us to the top. It took all morning to get clear of the tracks and reach the road. We were shattered. During lunch, at the bottom of Berestagi hill, it started belting down again and didn’t really stop. Two tree branches and a fence came down as a squall went through. Once the worst had passed we set off, but caved in as soon as we saw a place to halt. Matthew later told us we’d been in Sumatra’s main brothel district, which explains some oddities of the accommodation. Midday day three we finally reached Berestagi … but hey – ho we knew it was going to be a long day.
Berestagi is one of those towns that tries to make a tourist’s silk purse out of not a lot. See the picture of the monument below, unusual in that it depicts Dutch troops … and is still standing. We saw a great grey plume over Mount Sinabung, to the west, but failed to take a photo as it was behind a load of overhead wires. By the time we’d cleared those, the plume was dispersed. Closest we’ve been to a real eruption!
Finally we began to reap the rewards of our labours. Our first accommodation was a campsite looking down above Lake Toba where we dusted off the tent and admired the curvatious mountains emerging from the waters edge. Well, “mountains”, actually they’re the edge of the gigantic volcanic caldera (crater) that Lake Toba fills. We couldn’t see the far side, it’s that big.
We easily found the ferry from Parapat to Tuk Tuk on Samosir Island, glided across the lake for a sunset hour, before collapsing into one of the many guest houses for a two day rest. The guidebooks were right; Tuk Tuk is ideal for doing nothing, and very scenic.
After two days rest, we started to make our way round the island; the panoramic views from the top of the volcanic mountain range stretching out across the water were truly spectacular. The frequent recession of mountains disappearing into the distance and cloud covered peaks a stone’s throw above our heads. Lush and varied foliage folding it’s way in and out of the grooves ascending from the water. Trees, creepers and even ferns at lofty heights above our heads. Occasional terracing attesting to man’s diligence.
Coming back down to the waters edge we saw entire villages out working the paddy fields: reaping, thrashing, threshing, ploughing, planting to keep the rice yield going.
Finally, I had to agree, it had been some of the most spectacular cycling we’ve done.

Route: Bukit Lawang, Namo Kelling (home), nr Sikiben (brothel) , Merek (Sapo Juma campsite), Parapat (just for ferry) , Tuk Tuk (rest stop). To exit Samosir we cycled to the south of the Island, stayed a crummy night at Nainggolan, before catching the morning ferry to Belige (Balige). This ferry isn’t on any map, another gratefully accepted tip from Matthew. From Belige was 6 days of hot, hilly, wiggly cycling to Bukittinggi, simply following the main road. A couple of days out of Belige we’d left the Christian area behind, and encountered the difficulties of cycletouring through Ramadan. All the roadside and small town eateries were closed during daylight. Shops were open, but finding somewhere lonely to eat “discreetly” was blooming hard on the Trans-Sumatran Highway as there’s houses and people everywhere. Not too many places to stay, either. The actual road wasn’t too busy on this stretch.

Heading south – Malaysia

Along the jungle road and across the Malaysian border and we’ve left behind Thailand’s hotpants, obesity crisis and nasal sing song, where intonation is everything. The differences are sudden and quite stark.

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The Malaysians often wear more, especially the ladies, dressed head to foot in something voluminous and Islamically modest. Many men wear little pill caps, as we’ve seen before in the ‘stans’ and a few places in India. It’s not universal though – there are still shirtless men in rural areas, and hotpants in towns. Malaysia is a predominantly Moslem country, compared to Buddhist Thailand, although as we saw later it has very substantial non-moslem minorities. There are many mosques, but also numerous Chinese Buddhist temples, Indian Hindu temples and some churches.

On the road, Thailand’s population of 8 motorbikes and 2 pickups in every 10 vehicles is replaced, unfortunately, with a more European mix: lots of cars. It makes the roads feel a lot more cramped and dangerous, although the driving is nothing to complain about.

Trying to avoid the main roads has lead to some delightful routes along minor coastal roads and weaving across the plentiful lanes dissecting the numerous and expansive paddy fields; water monitors to the left, water monitors to the right.  Occasionally one has scampered ahead of us before taking the plunge.

As we progressed south it became more difficult to avoid the ‘principle highways’ full of roaring traffic especially as we were all squeezed between the mountains and around the many inlets and rivers.  At one point, two of our three electronic navigation devices said, ‘No’, to a way across the river avoiding a main road but Maps.me clearly showed there is a passage. At lunch we quizzed a local guy who spoke reasonable English but he was not interested in the idea of a river crossing. Nothing on the other side except palm plantations, he said, and was clearly in favour of the main road up and round the inlet.

An inner glow welled up inside me, on the other side is a palm plantation: small lanes, no traffic, trees for cover. It couldn’t be better! But did a ferry exist, as there evidently wasn’t a bridge? We set off with our fingers crossed. 1.5 km wasn’t too far to go to find out. As we rounded the corner onto the waters edge the ramp on the other side was clearly visible. Flapping arms directed us further along the road where we came upon an opening between workshops and boat houses. Initially it didn’t look too promising but tucked in at the edge of this broad, rope-strewn slipway was a rickety jetty with a short, dumpy, roof topped boat with a section cut out of its side – the ferry. In a jiff we’d jiggled the bikes across the random, ill fitting planks of the gang way, through the hole onto the ferry, to the amusement of the folks already on board with their small motorbikes lined up ready to go.

There’s a lot of unhappiness worldwide about the way the rainforests are being cut down and replaced with palm oil plantations. Malaysia is a prime example. The same comments probably apply to the old rubber plantations too, and coconut palms. But although they’re undiverse compared to rainforest, they’re not so bleak. Other plants and trees crowd the edges of tracks and irrigation ditches, we see monitors, monkeys and squirrels. Brahminy kites and crested serpent eagles patrol the treetops, while purple herons and kingfishers line the ditches.

After all our careful planning the South Westerly monsoon has come as a bit of a surprise. Cycling in it has thrown up new challenges. We’ve always attempted to set off early each morning but regularly fail (Gideon sez that’s not a new game, we played it with sea kayaks too).  Now there is further motivation. Not infrequently, as the day progresses the black thunder clouds chase us along the roads, the rumbling of thunder close behind, snapping at our heels. The first drops of rain quickly develop into rigid rods beating down upon our backs. Heads low peering forwards as we spy for somewhere to cower; we’ve been remarkably lucky at finding shelter. Mindful of the time however, eventually we have to grit our teeth and set off again. Cars whizz past through newly formed pools and suddenly we’re wearing them. It’s warm of course, but the soggy shorts chafe.  Bikes gears and brakes pick up destructive grit and grime.

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Our first stop was at Georgetown, a UNESCO listed ex-colonial town on Penang island. Penang was British long before Malaysia’s sultanates fell under the control of the East India Co. or the empire. The island was nominally uninhabited when the sultan offered it, in 1786, to the East India Company in exchange for protection from Siam (which the EIC failed to provide). The EIC brought in a lot of South Indian labour, whose descendants are still running microcosms of India all over the state, and attracted a lot of Chinese, who to this day are the largest ethnic group in Georgetown. It seems quite often in Malaysia that the ethnic mix, and therefore culture, in the cities, is quite different from the country, which is more Malay, and more Islamic.

Whilst I found it fascinating that in such a small area it was possible to find half a dozen architectural styles of shop-houses spanning 300 years it was the clan jetties that captured my imagination most. From cargo landing jetties to the addition of cargo stores to workers shelters to family/clan residences in a little over a hundred years. Built on stilts at the waters edge they cunningly avoid the land tax. Today they sit at the base of immaculate white towering sky scrapers making an awkward mix between old and new. Each clan jetty traces its origins – and the origins of its inhabitants – to a particular province/region in China.

Alas, while on a bus up the coast of Penang, thieves struck, and Gideon’s phone and bank card were stolen. Gideon spent the next couple of hours using Clare’s phone to lock out the old one, change passwords, and call the bank. It was easy enough to replace the phone nearby, and there was little data on it that wasn’t stored online. A new bank card was ordered, which, thankfully, Hailey sent out to our planned Singapore stop. The only ongoing difficulty after a few days was the loss of the UK SIM card, which unfortunately being Vodafone, meant hours and hours of meaningless and useless “customer service” before establishing that probably it couldn’t be replaced without visiting their shops in the UK. The other loss was the really nice phone case I’d made myself – the new phone has to make do with a batik souvenir one, helpfully modified by a little India tailor.

From Georgetown south along the west coast, the Malaysian peninsula is populated and urbanised.  The lengthways hills limit the small road options. Little gems like Pontian Kecil,  which still encapsulate the Malaysian seafaring and fishing heritage, are few and far between, without unwanted detours. Still, it was our choice, to avoid the hilly Cameron Highlands in the middle, and if we hadn’t wanted to see the cities, the quieter east coast was available. So the cycling latterly has been a bit crap, even though Malaysian drivers are generally slower and more considerate than British ones.

Our second stop in Malaysia was the capital, Kuala Lumpur. With over 7 million souls in its greater area, it is around the 50th biggest city in the world. We’ve increasingly been using Travelfish for city information, as it’s helpfully concise. In this case, it directed us to Chinatown, where we easily found a cheap and comfy hotel.  When we strode out in the morning, we stumbled over a good selection of the city’s sights.

British Empire architects seem to have enjoyed themselves with Mughal styles and motifs. These Edwardian low rises are now at the foot of steel and glass towers, many of which, again, refer to Islamic forms. Weaving around the buildings is a modern throng of international people appearing from busy roads, pavements, metro system, monorail. The heat outdoors under the sun is intense, but tall buildings provide shade; shops, malls, hotels and up-market restaurants compete to impress with their sophisticated air conditioning.

Melaka (Malacca) was our final stop in Malaysia. Unlike our other halts, it seemed single-mindedly a tourist town, and little else. Being the weekend it was crowded with tourists from KL and Singapore, pushing the already high prices up a notch or two. A one day dash was sufficient to see yet more notable houses of worship, China town, the Jonker Walk night market and, from multiple other choices, we ventured into the maritime museum. A smaller version of Nelson’s Victory provided the setting for an informative trail through the passage of time in Malaysian sea faring.

Some very pretty cycle rickshaws in Melaka, each with a sound and light show.

After Malaysia, to the city-state of Singapore, a simple bridge/border crossing, no visa complications, and one of the wealthiest places in the world.