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On the road . February 2008 . Nepal, India, Malaysia and Singapore

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Cyber café, Melaka, Malaysia, 20-02-08
The perfect time to go

Kathmandu to Melaka: 2 (+1 hour) cycling days; a four hour plane flight; 154km; 591m)
Kathmandu to Salak Tinggi (15 km; 18 m)
Salak Tinggi to Port Dickson (52 km; 275 m)
Port Dickson to Melaka (87 km; 298 m)

Our bikes are ready to be picked up on Monday 4 and they are just perfect. Meanwhile, we have done the sightseeing stuff: Durbar Square, Monkey Temple etc; generally wandered round town, caught up with a couple of friends, Ken and Rupa, who are presently living in Kathmandu; bought a few pressies for the family and ourselves and booked my bus ticket to Varanasi. I make the side trip the following day and will get back to Kathmandu on Sunday 10, just 4 days before we fly to Kuala Lumpur.

It's still uncomfortably cold in the evenings, when I return to Kathmandu; the days are a little brighter, so we manage a cycle trip into the valley with John, who we met in Agra, and Beate, a sport and music enthusiast from Germany. The scenery is a little better as soon as we are well out of the city; the outskirts of Kathmandu leave a lot to be desired as far as aesthetics are concerned. Rubbish laden rivers with retch-worthy stenches being the most disquieting. Unfortunately, the mist bound skies obscure our view of the Himalayan snow peaks until we are almost back from our village circuit. Everyone raves about this scene, though I can't help noticing the urbanised sprawl that engulfs the entire bottom half of this image. It totally spoils the picture and even if it does boast the largest mountains in the world, I can think of several other places I'd rather be for dynamic moments of mountain appreciation.

Apart from the uninspiring consequences of city development, Nepal is a beautiful country with warm hearted people and a variety of remarkable things to see and do. However, with elections drawing near, daily demonstrations, electricity being cut-off for up to 11 hours each day and critical fuel shortages giving rise to 8 hour long queuing at petrol stations, it's definitely time to move on. The last commodity crisis effectively triggering off a 50% rise in the cost of our taxi ride to the airport. Not really perfect timing on our behalf.

Playing our cards right
The whole airport escapade is not too much of a drama. Well, apart from the blow when we are informed that we both need to fork out 1700 rupees (about $US26) for airport departure tax. There's only enough cash on us for the estimated excess baggage fees. We both have hand luggage just exceeding 7 kgs each and I've got every camera piece, battery and electronic gadget small enough to stuff into my numerous pockets, weighting my pants down so that they are nearly falling off me. Ali adorns four layers on top and two below while I take an olympic gold for the four shirts, one fleecy, one coat, two bike pants: one long , one short underneath my ordinary baggy trousers. Still our luggage is 39 kilos! This would normally be perfect but we haven't accounted for the bikes yet. Together, they roughly accumulate another 31 kilos and at $US7/kg, that's a hefty price tag.

I keep quiet on the sideline, while Ali plays all his trumps at once and demands adamantly to know why we paid 16 US dollars on top of our flight costs and why the salesperson at the Yeti booking office assured him that this fee covered all taxes including departure tax. And furthermore, why the same person reassured him for the second time when he made another trip to the office to re-confirm this last point. Anyway, after a bit of sitting around at check-in and wondering what exactly is going to eventuate, Ali's persistence and further threat to cancel our tickets, which would not have been much fun at all for us, gets the bikes on for free. Naturally, we still have to pay the departure tax, but this gesture of good will on Yeti Airline's behalf saves us roughly $US200. So, thumbs up to the airport staff for their genuinely apologetic customer service, though I wouldn't want to go through it all again: a bit too much of a gamble for me, but well done to Aaldrik for playing his cards just right.

Feeling right at home
The flight leaves almost on time, the coffee is diabolical but who's complaining after our recent windfall, the view of the Himalayas from the window absolutely staggering, though we can't quite work out which one is Everest. They all look incredibly high. It takes just 4 hours and we arrive at 5.15pm Malaysian time. The airport is a culture shock after our last 12 months of travel: marble and chrome surfaces, clean toilets, drinking water fountains, internet points and outside it's a balmy 30°C. Everything runs smoothly. The bikes are separated from their layers of bubble wrap and assembled while the bags are re-packed with even-weight in mind. The only hitch is the incorrect piece of information from the Tourist Bureau that we can take our bikes on the KLIA Transit train. Had we known that earlier, we wouldn't have taken our time unpacking. It's 6.50pm and apparently it gets dark at 7.30pm. Not enough time to ride the 20 kilometres to Kota Warisan. I zoom downstairs to see if the KLIA Express to Kuala Lumpur will allow bikes, but that is also not an option. Unless we want to spend the night in the airport, we'll have to face the roads in the dark.

Turns out that most of the information from the Tourist Desk was inaccurate. It gets dark at 8.00pm and it's an easy ride along perfectly flat roads with flood lights leading us all the way from KL International Airport to Kota Warisan: just 15 km and 18m. We arrive at Transit Budget Hotel just as it is getting dark. It's 100 ringgit for the night (4.68 ringgit = 1 euro), which is dirt cheap for a hotel so close to an airport. Included in the package is toast and coffee for breakfast. After the whole family helps us up with our luggage and after we've had a nice shower, we venture around the corner to the local Thai restaurant, where Allan Goh, the owner of the hotel is also eating. He orders for us and similarly pays the bill as well. Sweeter than the frangipani scent filling the warm tropical night air.

Malaysia may only be two and a quarter hours time difference from Nepal, but that coupled with our early rise the day before and we don't want to wake up the next morning. Its a late departure at 9.45am and not optimum when the sun is already very warm. I'd almost forgotten what it was like to pedal past so many luscious green ferns and vines intermingled in row after row of palm trees. Incense sticks mixed with humidity, fast food frying in woks and the occasional gentle waft of someone smoking a gudang guram reminds me of South East Asia. I immediately feel at home.The roads are really good and for the first time in a very long time, the brakes are not necessary when coasting downwards. There's no cow-shit to dodge either, very little exhaust, friendly courteous drivers and no heavy handed horn freaks. Just a little toot every now and again and a welcome wave to Malaysia.

Kota Warisan to Port Dickson (52 km; 275m) is a simple enough ride and after asking a group of attendants at a parking bay in town, we head just outside the centre in search of a place called Hotel Merlin. Actually turns out to be Hotel Meng Yen: I think we still need to get used to the accent. It's basic stuff for 35 ringgit and looks like we are the only ones staying overnight. The township itself is pleasant enough to wander around: plenty of restaurants and shopping facilities. We pass the time away by watching a match at the local football ground before making our way back for dinner at an earlier spotted vegetarian food stall.

Call us strange, but ordering a dish called Fish Head Soup or Chicken Curry Noodles when you are a vegetarian, seems a little odd. Even worrying. Clever as they are, the Chinese have really gone out of their way to produce soya and mushroom based products that taste and look like their meat equivalents. Fact of the matter is: we don't like eating meat, be it the texture or the taste, so in our case the Chinese efforts are in absolute vain. Sorry guys, but we really do prefer our vegetables and tofu to look like vegetables and tofu.

The journey into Melaka (87 km; 298m) is hard work in the 33°C sun. We haven't yet acclimatised to the heat and although I only feel a little fatigued, Ali has a lot more difficulty. Mostly, due to another bout of tummy turmoil. It's been on and off since India really, but this time the problem gets progressively worse, even after beginning a course of ciprofloxacin. Our stay in Melaka is now extended by an extra day and if there isn't some sort of improvement tonight, then we'll have to seek medical advice tomorrow. What between his susceptible stomach and my broken bones and pinched nerve, looks as though we'll never reach the finish line.

Cyber café, Mersing, Malaysia, 02-03-08
Dripping weather

(Melaka to Singapore: 4 cycling days; 281km; 661m)

Melaka to Muar (46 km; 110 m)
Muar to Batu Pahat (56 km; 35 m)
Batu Pahat to Pontian Kechil (80 km; 132 m)
Pontian Kechil to Singapore (99 km; 384 m)

After refraining from the Malaysian cuisine for a day or so, the tablets kick in and Ali starts to improve. Luckily there is an abundance of western food in Melaka and the Carrefour across the road from us has everything from La Vache Qui Ri (Laughing Cow Cheese) to baguettes on offer, but apart from wandering around the bounteous shopping centres and visiting the overly touristy areas with inflated prices, there is little else to enjoy in Melaka. We devour a couple of books each, wander around the malls in air-conditioned comfort and renew some of our worn out accessories and depleted supplies due to the recent flight.

Five nights pass and we finally step back on the bikes. The morning is warm and durian fruit stalls intermittently punch the air with their unique pungency before fading back into the humid atmosphere. My nostrils have just been cleared of the odour when a tandem bike comes flying up from behind me. Marlene and Victor heard from the drink stall owner about 10 minutes earlier that another couple of cyclists were on the road, so they pushed a little harder than we were and easily caught up. We all have the same destination in mind and the time flies as we cycle and chat our way into the quaint little township of Muar (46 km; 110m).

On the left, as you enter the city centre is the difficult to miss Riverview Hotel mentioned in the LP. Seeing as Marlene and Victor are intending to stay here, we decide to spoil ourselves for a night. Though 65 RM (14 euro) bartered down from 96 RM, is a little over our budget, it is a definite steal for the lavish facilities that you get. Not only white fluffy towels, soap, shampoo and toilet paper but an orthopedic bed, television, hot water thermos and wi-fi spots in each room. To top that all off, an English newspaper is slid under the door in the morning. Talk about service! My only gripe in these places is that the air conditioned rooms don't have fans in them as well. A fan is much healthier.

The next morning and we find ourselves cycling around town looking for somewhere that sells something vegetarian for breakfast. It's the first time that it's been a problem but after a number of stops we find a restaurant that will make us some nasi-goreng. Perfect cycling food. The weather on the other hand is not perfect for cycling. At 35°C in the shade, it's very hot and our skin, which hasn't really seen the light of day for almost a year of cycling through strict Muslim countries, bears the worst for it. To make matters worse, the 45+ sunscreen that I purchased in Pakistan for a small fortune, must be well past the use-by date because it doesn't shield us against the rays at all. The consequence is a couple of red beacon faces, arms and legs that afternoon.

Traffic is a little on the busy side along the Highway 5, though everyone is friendly enough, giving us wide berth as they pass. The roads are generally good and they are ever so flat. We arrive in Batu Pahat (56 km; 35m) early afternoon, still dripping with sweat as we cart the gear to the first floor of Hotel Sentosa. It's a significant drop on the opulence scale and not really Marlene's cup of tea. Even for our standards, it's a little grungy for the 38 RM. Still, we only use it to sleep in and most of the evening is spent in the Chinese outdoor food market chatting the hours away while Marlene rallies up a spectator crowd for pampering to the needs of the local stray cat population.

Apart from the unique and colourful patio stilt houses, scenery along this route is nothing spectacular and is dominated by palm oil plantations. Looking at the map, the highway appears to run close to the coast on occasions, but we never catch a glimpse of the ocean. Pontian Kechil (80 km; 132m) however, is a seaside resort town and the accommodation at the beach front starts from 65 RM. Again, we have no option but to spend a night in extravagance at Hotel Seaview. Damn it! Rooms here are even decked out with a refrigerator and wide screen television. Conveniently around the corner, a 24 hour restaurant serves up super delicious food.

While Ali and I slept like logs, Victor does not and looks a little worse for wear the next morning. Fortunately, he picks up as the day goes on. The trip, on the other hand, doesn't. It is quite boring and close to Johor Bahru a network of highways ambushes us with heat, fumes, noise, traffic, concrete surrounds and annoying inclines. This is completely different to the Johor Bahru that we slid out of twelve years ago. On the contrary, the immigration post on the Malaysian side, with it's line of time-battered booths and signage, is exactly the same.

Living it up
Singapore has definitely moved on from it's couple of windowed cubicles and imposing tarpaulin, reiterating the death penalty for the possession of drugs, strung out in full view of everyone entering the country. It is now a complex connection of rows and compartments with enough signs to keep you busy reading until it's your turn to immigrate. This turns out to be a reoccurring feature of Singapore. I recognise nothing of the subsequent journey. Apart from the immaculately good roads, everything has changed. Starbucks have sprung up literally everywhere, every conceivable cuisine and fast food on the market is at your fingertips and the condominium scene has blossomed all over the suburbs. Another striking feature is the amazingly diverse architecture in the city. As far as sky scrapers are concerned, there are some pretty interesting shapes and designs. Singapore is the spitting image of modern.

Being modern certainly comes with a price tag, as our wallet finds out over the next few days. You'll see those Singapore dollars slipping out as easily as me on an icy footpath. Finding a double room for under 35 dollars ($1 = 50 euro cents) is pretty difficult and at that rate, it will most likely be a dump. We are fortunate enough to have a place to stay: Gerry, another avid cyclist, contacted us via e-mail a while back and generously offered us a room, should we venture his way. And after a long and hard day's journey we are finally in eastern Singapore - Siglap (99 km; 384m) and deliciously set smack bang in lush condo surroundings. A shower always works wonders to a somewhat frayed temperament and especially after a hellish ride. Before we know it, we are unwinding over a couple of scrumptious curries in a local Thai restaurant. Getting to know Gerry and Shoko is really enjoyable; Gerry knows more about us from our website than we do about them, which is a bit weird in concept but not at all in reality. They are both super relaxed and it doesn't take long to feel right at home. Thanks guys!

And while on the subject of homes; when you get to stay in one after such a long time on the road, you realise all the permanent fixtures in most peoples' lives: a refrigerator, a washing machine (even one that sings a little Korean song when the load is finished), a kitchen, real towels, and a place to leave your valuables when you go out. While they are not things I continually miss while travelling, except maybe the last issue, it is easy to see how much more straightforward they make life.

We find plenty of things to keep ourselves occupied with in Singapore: lots of general wandering around, visiting Orchard Rd and its multitude of shopping arcades and complexes, Little India, Arab Street, China Town, The Quays, the Singapore Art Museum and Ali even joins forces with Gerry and Shoko's Dragon Boat team for their Thursday night practice. I remain with my feet firmly planted on the ground thank you very much and opt for a run through the green palmed network of parks around the river.

After 5 nights, we decide it's time to start pedalling again. Gerry gives us the tip to leave via the Changi Ferry Terminal and saving us the retched journey back through Singapore and Johor Bahru. Whichever route we take, Kota Tinggi is roughly the same distance away, but like most cyclists, if there is even the slightest chance of travelling along quieter roads, then we'll take it. The ferry leaves at 10am and Gerry cycles along to see us off. A 16km bike trail along East Coast Park, winding around green recreational areas and even greener golf clubs is further testament to the comfort of Singaporean life.

We depart on time and are back on the road before 11am. Highway 89 is barely used and pretty flat in the initial stages. The perfect conditions last until just before we t-intersect Highway 92. A little further down the road, is the first drink stop we have seen in the 30 odd kilometres since immigration at Tanjong Belungkor. The road is well trafficked and from now on in and consequently, there are plenty of supplies to be found at regular intervals. Not particularly my idea of a fun ride though are the perpetual mini-roller coaster conditions that follow. Still, we make Kota Tinggi (via Tanjong Belungkor: 89km; 513m) in fairly good time and eventually settle for Nasha Hotel (48 RM) after checking out a few other possibilities in the area. A warm shower, some food in the stomach, a bit of television to dull the senses and we are off in la-la-land.

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