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Day 250: Krakatau

For us in Europe when you speak of Indonesia most people think of aromatic coffee, the resort island of Bali, and the loudest ‘bang’ in the history of the mankind – Krakatau. It had been a childhood dream of Nic’s to one day visit world’s most famous volcano – ever since seeing the disaster movie ‘Krakatau, East of Java’ – though the makers were obviously too busy to consult a map whilst filming as it is in fact just off the West coast of Java!

Visible and visitable from Carita beach on West Java, Krakatau was the epicentre of the 1883 explosion whose force was equivalent to 10,000 Hiroshima atom bombs. The force of the eruption blew the volcanic island apart. The air pressure waves stopped clocks and smashed windows in Jakarta, 250km away, and was heard as far away as London and Alaska. However most of the damage and deaths in the region were caused by the colossal tsunamis that followed – one single wave as tall as a seven storey building raced outwards to the coasts of Java and Sumatra, demolishing everything in its wake. Three hundred towns and villages were simply erased, and over 36,000 people killed. For two years after the eruption, ash blown up into the atmosphere lowered global temperatures and caused psychedelic sunsets all over the world. 30 years after the eruption a new volcano (Anak Krakatau – child of Krakatau) rose out of the sea on the spot, and is still active (and growing) today.

Considering it is one of the major attractions of Indonesia, getting there from Jakarta was surprisingly difficult. All inclusive tours were prohibitively expensive (upwards of $200 each). Getting there by public transport is dramatically cheaper – though a health hazard due to the chain smoking locals on the bus – and also there is no guarantee that a cost-effective boat trip will be available once you get there. We decided to chance it.

The journey was very painful – thick pungent cigarette smoke, no air condition, cramped seating (worse than budget airlines), and the interminable stoppages as the driver pimped for more passengers along the way. The roads were terrible, and every stop would bring on-board numerous hawkers selling drinks, food, and more cigarettes. What should have taken 2 hours by car actually took us 5 hours!!

We had expected Carita to be a lively bustling resort town – particularly since it was a public holiday weekend. Sure enough there were plenty of hotels along the beach – but almost no-one around as the day drew to a close. We found a hotel, than went in search of a boat tour to Krakatau the next morning. Fortunately the volcano god smiled on us – there was one company running a boat the next day, and there was another tourist in town (a Canadian called Erwin) who had been waiting for others to share the boat cost with! At $70 each it was still quite expensive for us, but we decided to do it.

The next morning just as we were about to board the boat, two more Canadians (Ian and Michael) joined our group, thus lowering the cost per person to a much more affordable $50 each. We counted ourselves very lucky – having heard about two tourists who waited for 5 days to share the cost of the boat, and finally gave up and went home.

The boat ride to the island of Krakatau took 4 hours – the sea was choppy, with rain clouds in the distance. We landed on an amazing black sand beach by the volcano – it was really black like powdered charcoal! From the beach it was a short hike up to the shoulder of a hill next to the volcano. Although it wasn’t smoking the day we got there, the volcano showed signs of activity and the rangers did not allow us to climb to the top :( There were amazing views of the sea and nearby islands, and a wind strong enough to almost lift Sedef off her feet!

After the volcano we were taken to another nearby beach for lunch and swimming, then around the island to a nearby reef for snorkelling. The boat moored right above the reef, at about 15m depth, with the reef wall plunging into the depths of the ocean on one side. Nic was nervous at the prospect of swimming in such deep waters, but he wanted to give snorkelling a go. So he showed amazing bravery and resilience, and after holding on to the boat’s ladder for 15 minutes, finally let go – to paddle around in his life jacket! :p The coral was quite extensive, with both soft and hard corals, shoals of tropical fish, and anemones and clownfish (like Nemo). The amazing underwater sight took Nic’s mind off his nervousness and together we enjoyed the underwater scenery.

The weather started to take a turn for the worse and on the way back the waves grew larger and it started to rain. Thankfully our experienced captain managed to bring us back onshore in one piece.

We spent a day in Pekanbaru, deliberating over the difficult dilemma of how to cross Indonesia. The facts were:

1. We had to cover 4000kms
2. We had to do a minimum of 6 ferry crossings from island to island to get to Timor (some ferries only running once a week or less frequently)
3. We had to do all that in 30 days!!!

Clearly it was not a possible feat, even for the fittest cyclists… So we spread out our map looking for a way to cut down the distance to cycle. We had also been informed that the hurricane of the day before had caused serious flooding and road damage in east Sumatra (on our initial planned route). So with much regret we decided the best option was to take a cheap domestic flight to Jakarta, thus cutting out 900km of cycling in Sumatra… We would therefore get to the island of Java (the most populated island that contains the capital Jakarta) much sooner than anticipated. From there we would see how far we would get in the remaining time – we could always fly/sail to Darwin from Bali, if we ran out of time and couldn’t make it further…

One day and a two-hour flight later we arrived in Jakarta. We found a nice cheap hotel in Jalan Jaksa (main traveller’s area) and spent a couple of days in the city, planning a detour visit to the Krakatau volcano, and then further on east into Java. We found Jakarta to be much more ‘Western’ than we had imagined – with Starbucks, Pizza Huts and a nice fast bus lane connecting key points in the city (their equivalent of a Metro). There was not much to see in the way of historic monuments or any other major tourist attractions. We paid a brief visit to the quaint old district of Batavia (now Kota), which still retains its colonial Dutch influence, including the infamous Cafe Batavia, worth visiting for the exquisite colonial interior and sumptuous (though pricey) chocolate-mint shakes!

We also took a stroll around the Sunda Kelapa harbour – one of the few working ports in the world still using wooden schooners and porters to load and offload cargo… Afterwards we took the lift ride up to the top of the Monas monument – a 137 m tall column with a viewing platform on the top. It is often referred to as ‘Sukarno’s last erection’ by the locals – thus referring to the dictator’s philandering, finally ousted from power in the 1960s. The country is still undergoing significant political upheaval on the road to democracy – as we witnessed ourselves in the form of a three day demonstration for changing the labour laws. At one point the crowd started to get violent, smashing lampposts, and we had to take shelter in a nearby Starbucks which promptly brought down its steel shutters!!

We caught the highly efficient Singapore ferry from the World Trade Centre, to the Indonesian island of Karimun – a slightly unconventional jumping-off point for Sumatra, but much nicer than the traditional stop-by island of Batam, just off the coast of Singapore. In true Singaporean style our departure at the ferry terminal was highly clean and efficient – with airport style luggage check-in and all the amenities of a modern international terminal.

How different it was arriving at our destination, Tanjung Balai port on Karimun island. A wooden jetty and a crumbling wooden building, with customs officers chain-smoking underneath the no-smoking signs plastered on every wall. On arrival we were dismayed to find out that we would only be able to get a 30 day tourist visa – the visa rules having been changed recently! This put a serious spanner in the works. Indonesia being a very large country, our planned route covered almost 3000kms, and would need approximately 2 months to cover fully on bicycle! We realised we would have to take some shortcuts to cross the country in time…

We stayed one night on Karimun, and caught a fast-ish boat to another port just off the coast of Sumatra, called Selapanjang. From there we would transfer on to the river-boat that would slowly wade for 14 hours upriver to the town of Pekanbaru, in the middle of Sumatra. We had 1 hour to kill on Selapanjang – Nic wandered off 3km into town in search of some food, but came back empty handed. In the end we bought some chicken curry (claw!!) and rice wrapped in a banana leaf from a local woman on the jetty. No cutlery so we ate Indonesian style (with the right hand).

About half an hour later a wooden boat-cum-mobile-pigeon-coup that looked like it had been on the water since the 19th century moored up. We took no notice of it, waiting for the nice river-boat on which we had booked two ‘kamera’ (rooms) for the overnight trip. Whilst waiting Nic joked that wouldn’t it be funny if this was our boat! The smile was quickly wiped off his face when realisation dawned that ‘this WAS our boat’!!

Quite daunted we boarded and placed the bikes at the bow. Once inside, the boat wasn’t as bad as it looked from the outside. It was WORSE. The two ‘kamera’ that we booked turned out to be a floorspace separated by planks from the next compartment, each about 3×6 ft. The whole inside of the boat was all open-space so there was no privacy, and worse still, no shelter from the chain-smoking locals. We decided that we would probably die of suffocation by the morning if we stayed there – so we clambered up the outside of the boat on to the roof. We were warned we might be cold in the night by the locals – but we decided to brave it nevertheless. There was in fact no need to worry since it was a dry balmy night (though the locals promptly put on their wooly hats!).

We had the roof pretty much to ourselves the whole journey. The boat meandered its way at a whopping 10kph through the mangrove forest and oil palm plantations. There was no habitation in sight other than the odd logging station and oil palm rigs. A few small settlements were largely primitive – no cars or electricity and everything made from wood.

As the night fell we watched the sunset and a large storm to the east – we later found out that it was a big hurricane that caused serious flooding and damage to the roads on our route. Thankfully it stayed dry on the river and we fell asleep watching the stars.

Woken at dawn by one of the crew, we watched the sunrise over the oily calm waters of the river. Finally the boat docked – we were on Sumatra, the largest island of Indonesia. It had taken us three boats and 36 hours to get here – each boat was worse than the one before and the standards of living had dropped dramatically with each boat. From the clinically clean Stepford-wife suburbs of Singapore to the third-world streets of Indonesia, where children played bare-foot…

Singapore…as all the tourist t-shirts put it: “A fine city”. It is indeed a city of ‘fines’ – one for almost every conceivable public offence. Some quite expected, but some really obscure… There is for example a hefty fine for not flushing a public toilet, for chewing gum (anywhere in the whole city!!!), or even sipping a bottle of water on the metro… As our friend Jessica rather painfully found out, having taken a sip from her bottle on a particularly hot day, when all the other passengers gave her looks of utter disgust…

Singapore is a wealthy and very orderly modern city – the streets are clean, the lawns manicured, and everything gleaming shiny. People are courteous, though somewhat cold. All this comes at a price of course – the city is ruled by a benign dictatorship, where there are laws and rules for every aspect of life. There are also a staggering number of expats living in Singapore – 1 in 4 people is an expat. Expats are paid extremely well (sometimes at European levels) – which goes a long way in Singapore. However, they are not allowed to own landed property, so permanent settlement is extremely rare. Expats transit through Singapore and the scene is constantly changing as people come and people go.

The indigenous population is heavily Chinese, as many of the older buildings and monuments bear witness to.

Singapore is also home to the Raffles Hotel and their infamous Singapore Sling cocktail – here is the recipe if anyone wants to try it at home! Parental guidance advised :p

Singapore Sling Recipe
30ml Gin
7.5 ml Cointreau
7.5 ml Dom Benedictine
15 ml Cherry Brandy
120 ml Pineapple Juice
15 ml Lime Juice
10 ml Grenadine
A dash of Angostura Bitters
Garnish with a slice of Pineapple and Cherry

We were on the cusp of leaving Singapore – though some of our admin was still incomplete – when Sedef got in touch with Andrew Tinney, an old boss back in the UK, who now lives in Singapore. It was rather unlikely that we would hear from him since he travels a lot for work. By a great stroke of luck he was in town on our last day and we met up for a cup of coffee to catch up. This was rather fortunate for us, since he kindly offered us run of his house for the next few days, whilst he was away on business. After he gave us the tour of his ‘mini-mansion’, we thought we would need our bicycles indoors! Honestly it took 5 minutes to walk from the guest bedroom to the kitchen!! :p

So we spent the next few days being a pair of couch potatoes at Andrew’s house, watching DVDs, playing pool and computer games, and swimming in the pool. In fact all the things we have not had a chance to do since we left London. It was just us, the cat (a lovely Devon-Rex called Puka that we fell in love with) and a Phillipino housekeeper who lived in a separate area of the house.

Having had such a great time with Dean and Jessica and staying at Andrew’s house, we didn’t want to leave Singapore. We hate to admit it but we were dreading Indonesia as our expectations were that it would be quite similar to India…

However not wanting to turn into ‘potatoes on bents’ we did finally get back on the road. On the way to the harbour to leave Singapore we bumped into (not literally!) a Japanese couple (Kazunari and Tomoko) on a tandem bicycle. They have cycled extensively around the world over the last 8-9 years. Alas we only had enough time to say hello and exchange emails!

We arrived in Singapore a day later than we expected, on the 23rd of March. It had taken us 2 weeks to cover Malaysia, no mean feat considering we covered over 1000kms and a whopping great mountain in the middle. We were tired but happy to know that we were to have a little rest and relaxation with friends and to stay in a home, rather than a hotel.

The customs procedures were pain-free and finally we were on the 1km causeway that connects Singapore to the mainland. Dean and Jessica had given us directions to theirs (very straighforward) and cycling the15-20km from the border to their house, clearly marked the contrast between cycling in Malaysia and Singapore. Nice, clean, tree-lined streets, traffic that behaved itself impeccably, orderly pedestrians, etc. In fact you could say after Thailand and Malaysia it was like cycling into the Stepford Wives suburb. A fine city indeed!! :p (see later)

For our first night there Dean and Jessica had organised drinks with some of their friends at the nearby Holland Village, an area popular with the local expats. We hoped we would not make complete fools of ourselves, having not had one drop of alcohol for weeks and wondering if we had completely lost our social graces and communication skills in the course of or journey!! Not to mention having little clue about current news and what was on at the cinema/charts/etc. It was such a relief for us to be able to have an intelligent conversation with people – the topics with people we meet in the last few months being restricted to the same questions over and over again – and usually in very basic English!

The next morning (ok, who are we kidding, the next afternoon!), we set out to explore the glitzy shopping malls of downtown Singapore (Orchard Road), the skyscrapers of the financial district, the Colonial District flanked by reminders of British rule, the half-lion half-fish statue of Merlion, the official tourism symbol of Singapore, and the Esplanade – a new sprawling art complex occupying six hectares of waterfront land and boasting several concert halls, theatres, and galleries. Opinion is split on whether the two huge, spiked shells that roof the complex are peerless modernistic architecture or plain indulgent kitsch. They have been compared to hedgehogs, kitchen sieves, insect eyes, golf balls, microphones, and even mating aardvarks, although the locals usually refer to them as the ‘durians’.

And of course, no visit to Singapore would be complete without a visit to the legendary Raffles Hotel, almost a byword for colonialism and best known for its infamous cocktail the ‘Singapore Sling’. Patronised by the rich, the famous, and the influential, the guest list includes Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, Noel Coward, as well as a long string of film stars and politicians. The museum in the hotel is crammed with memoribilia following the hotel’s history.

The next day we went to the Haw Par Villa with Dean and Jessica, a theme park depicting Chinese legends and moral values, built by the Aw brothers, inventors of the all-curing Tiger Balm ointment. The best – and most gruesome – statues lie in the Ten Courts of Hell exhibit – graphically depicting horrific punishments for a multitude of sins. Prostitutes are shown drowned in pools of blood, drug addicts tied to a red-hot copper pillar, and those who haven’t yet donated to Nutsonbents flayed alive. :p There are also some surprisingly harsh punishments for what we would consider to be mild sins – being sawn in two for cracking the spine of a book, and entrails pulled out for cheating in an examination!! The rest of the park contained several buddhas, Chinese wise-men, and (to Nic’s delight!) a section on the story of Hs�an Tsang (Tripitaka), the Buddhist monk who went to India to retrieve Buddha’s scriptures, with his companions Monkey, Pigsy, and co., all immortalised in the TV series Monkey (which Nic loves).

After the Chinese park, we paid a quick visit to Chinatown, to have a look at the Thian Hock Keng temple (the most majestic Chinese buddhist temple in town) and the Sri Mariamman Hindu temple, with a colourful pillar of statues. Then we joined the bus-loads of tourists browsing through the stalls in the busy Chinatown market.

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Our first impressions of Malaysia were rather jumbled as in three days time we went from a flashy expensive island resort (Langkawi) to a heavy Chinese influenced city (Georgetown) and then the predominantly Muslim mainland.

We had expected Malaysia to be very similar to Thailand foodwise. However we were surprised to see how much the brands of food items (drinks, biscuits, etc.) as well as the variety of staple food available in hawker stalls and street markets changed once we crossed the border! No more Thai curries or Pad Thai, now replaced by rice and noodles, fried in a variety of styles, with either Muslim or Chinese overtones. Quite a lot of Indian food too!

We immediately noticed the change in culture from Thailand – people were still pleasant but much less friendly, on the mainland all women are either Chinese or muslims wearing the traditional scarf, smoking was more prominent, and driving standards dropped slightly – everyone seemed to be in a hurry. It also struck us that whilst Thailand relies on tourism heavily for its income, Malaysia gets a lot less foreign tourists, and hence has to rely on industry more for its economy. The heavy good trucks and factories that were pleasantly absent in Thailand once again reappeared in Malaysia. We also found that standards of hygiene dropped slightly – there was a lot more litter on the streets.

Sedef also found she got more hassle from men if she was cycling on her own – nothing dangerous or intimidating, just a lot of wolf whistles and unwanted attention. In Thailand men and women would smile at us and we would reciprocate. In Malaysia a foreign woman smiling back is misinterpreted for the worst – the typical oriental view that all foreign women are ‘loose’ seemed more prominent here. Having said this we found the people still generally nice and helpful, though Muslim Malaysians were a lot more reserved than their Chinese counterparts. One friendly Chinese guy we met in Ipoh (George) treated us to a meal at a nice Chinese restaurant nearby.

The flora and fauna was somewhat similar to Thailand – although we saw enormous plantations (more like forests) of oil palm trees, and a lot more wild monkeys and huge lizards by the roadside. The heat and humidity was still high, as we were nearing the equator, and we had a few days of monsoon rain. The highest temperature we recorded during a day’s cycling was 40.5C – you could see the heat waves rising off the road (and steam after rain!), and you could cook an egg on a car! To battle dehydration Nic devised an ingenuous solution – half a metre of thin pipe stuck through the lid of a big water bottle on the bike (so we could sip water continuously on the move).

We had expected (and were told) that the roads in Malaysia would be better than Thailand. However, from our experience we found it generally to be the other way round. Though the Malaysian motorway hard-shoulders were immaculately lawned, and often lined with flowering bushes!! Not a piece of litter in sight and armies of gardeners strimming the grass throughout!

There are two other things we will always remember about Malaysia. One is Durian fruit – an extremely pungent yellow fleshed spiky fruit that smells like caramel/cheese/feet all combined. So not surprisingly most hotels have signs banning it from the premises. George said it was like ‘eating extremely smelly cheesy in a stinky toilet’. :-)

The second thing we will always remember is the abundance of KFC outlets in most towns, open till quite late. Since we were often exhausted from cycling it was comfort food that we craved and KFC was always there for us. We were particularly partial to their new cheezy wedges – potato wedges covered in melted cheese and sour cream – absolutely yummy.

Compared to Thailand our passage through Malaysia was rather swift – we did not have much time to try all the local delicacies and we are ashamed to admit we learned very little of the language. Though we are sure the sign below is not meant to be rude! :p

After a couple of day’s rest in the cool of the Highlands, we thought it would be fairly plain sailing down the mountains towards the East Coast of Malaysia. We wanted to cycle south to Singapore by the 22nd of March latest – to stay with friends Dean and Jessica who have a house down there. So it would be a tough week’s non-stop cycling with some large distances every day – but one consolation was that it was ‘flat’ coastline and nice quiet roads. Quite doable?! It was really – if only it wasn’t for a few minor mishaps we suffered along the way… though Sedef bore the brunt of them!

First of all the expected nice 60km downhill from the top of the mountain to the nearest town on the east side (Gua Musang – 120km away) was rather short lived. The road went down at a very steep 15 degree gradient for about 15km. Soon after the descent turned into large up and down sweeps of about 250m each – we were slowly losing altitude but that was no consolation! We kept preparing ourselves for the final long descent down to the valley… which never came!! And though a nice shiny new road, there were no towns or villages along the way, no shade, nowhere to buy drinks, and hardly any cars to beg for drinks either! Thankfully our early start helped – 12 hours later we drifted into Gua Musang and checked into the first hotel we saw… and collapsed!

The road to the east coast from here was fairly flat with some rolling hills ‘to keep you honest’. It was hard cycling still since we never quite recovered from the arduous ‘descent’ from the mountain – probably the first time you will hear this from a cyclist!!! Sedef had pulled a muscle on her right thigh which continued to give her discomfort. Couple of days later we finally hit the South China Sea, just outside of Kuantan. Hurrah – nice gentle cycling on flat roads for the next few days!

Then disaster struck – cycling out of Kuantan in the morning, Sedef’s gears jammed going over a bridge. She had just enough momentum to make it over the hump of the bridge, and then started rolling down to the bottom of the bridge, intending to check what was wrong once she got to the safety of the lay-by. However a few seconds down the bike lurched to a sudden stop, with what seemed like the rear brakes locking – she was thrown forward but not off the bike (one advantage of being on a recumbent!). She managed to get off safely, and then realised the derailleur (the mechanism that controls the rear gears) was bent obscenely around and stuck in the wheel between the spokes!!! She dragged the bike to the lay-by, and set about radioing Nic for assistance. Alas both our batteries being low she couldn’t contact him. She knew he would soon realise that she wasn’t following and turn back to see if she was OK.

30 minutes later there was still no sign of Nic!! Then a knight in a silver car arrived… in the form of Pang, a road cyclist who had seen Nic earlier and wanted to take a photo. When Sedef informed him that she had her gears messed up, he quickly examined the bike, took stock of the damage, and then called his friend Danny who was another keen cyclist, and owned a bicycle shop in town. Then he drove off to fetch Nic (who was by now 18km ahead, enjoying the flat cycling!). 20 mins later Danny turned up with a shiny new Shimano derailleur, and Nic arrived minutes after. In half an hour the new derailleur was fitted and gears tuned, and we were ready to get back on the road!! Big thank you to Pang and Danny for saving the day!!! If any cyclist passing through Kuantan needs parts or servicing, Danny’s shop is called Kheng Ho Motors (A-81, Jalan Air Putih, Kuantan). Tel: 09-567 9689. Email: dannywjw@yahoo.com. It seems that Kuantan has a very keen cyclist community of about 100+ cyclists!

The coastal road was lovely and scenic, and as promised, flat!! We were cycling hard, covering distances of 90-120km a day, with few breaks and allowing ourselves no distractions other than food and drink and a good night’s sleep in the evening. Alas Sedef continued to suffer more mishaps along the way, relatively minor but irritating nevertheless! Once the road swung away from the coast towards Singapore, there were a few forested hills, and quite a lot of rain for two days. We waited out the rain a few times, to avoid getting soaked. But Sedef got drenched on two occasions when the heavens opened and within seconds the torrential rain came down with the force of a power shower. On both occasions Nic (being faster) had managed to make it to a shelter just in time! Cycling in wet gear was really no fun for her, and combined with the sweating and opened pores she developed a rather embarassing nappy rash! :p Then the next day she was cycling along happily, watching the scenery, and minding her own business, when she collided with a swarm of bees (also probably minding their own business!). Having been fully engulfed for a second or two, she emerged luckily with just the one sting! Phew that was close… Good job she didn’t have her mouth open! :p

Two other things that broke up our cycling this week were bumping into German cyclist Robert, who had cycled down to Singapore from Bangkok with a couple of other German cyclists (on a tandem recumbent, one of whom was blind), and was now on his way back to Bangkok on his own. We had heard about them from various people over the months . It was nice to finally meet one of them in person! We spoke briefly by the roadside and exchanged tips and advice! The other highlight was visiting the Shimano factory briefly just outside of Mersing. Alas all we managed to do was grab a photo outside, as the plant was closed for visitors.

Not far out of Butterworth we were advised by various people to take the motorway rather than the busy and narrow highway to Ipoh. We followed the advice, and ignoring the all too clear ‘No bicycle’ signs went past the tolls with no problems – in fact the police waved at us and took photos! (not mugshots!). The motorway was new, nice and wide clean hard-shoulders, and lined with lawns and bougeainvillaes!!!! Unbelievable. Over the next two days we saw several policemen who just waved at us and smiled. Probably the novelty of our bicycles prevented us from being escorted off!! One other advantage of taking the motorway was cutting out about 30km from the route as it was more direct.

From Ipoh we headed down south about 10km, to take the newly built highway across the mountains to the east coast. Luckily for us the road passed through a beauty spot up on the mountains known as the Cameron Highlands – a colonial hill station famous for its rolling hills, tea plantations, jungle trails, and cool climate. Named after William Cameron, a government surveyor who stumbled across the area in 1885 during a mapping expedition, the Highlands are very popular with the Kuala Lumpur crowd wanting to escape from the heat of the city, and the odd foreign tourist like us.

The new road was well surfaced, fairly quiet, and although rising steadily from sea level to 1500m over 40km or so, not too steep. We came off the main road near the village of Kampung Raja (no accommodation), and then cycled further uphill another 15km or so to the town of Brinchang – one of the three main resorts in the area. The hotels here are uniformly overpriced – after much searching we found a nice new apartment for a reasonable rate. We were slightly worried that it had no air conditioning – but the hotel manager assured us that it wouldn’t be necessary since the temperatures dropped sharply at night. She was right – it was great to sleep with the window open and cool fresh air coming in, instead of the drone and artificial coolness of the a/c unit!

We took a couple of days to explore the area – alas no motorbikes were available (since all tourists come in their own car or with tours) so we signed up for a basic sightseeing tour. Cameron Highlands is as quintessentially English as you get – the weather is typical of an English summer, the landscape lush and green, and even the odd scone and afternoon tea thrown in here and there. As well as being a popular tourist spot, it also produces much of Malaysia and Singapore’s tea, strawberries, tomatoes, and other vegetables and fruits too delicate to be grown in the tropical lowlands. All the locals drive battered old land rovers – never seen so many in one place before! Handy to carry the produce and negotiate the steep dirt tracks up the mountain sides…

Our sightseeing tour took us to a cactus farm, also growing various types of flowers (mainly of the English variety – such as busy lizzies and roses – which we take for granted but to the locals it is a novelty), and other fruits and vegetables not seen elsewhere in Malaysia. We were then taken to a bee farm and sampled the lovely honey, and a pick-your-own strawberry farm. Next we were driven to a tea plantation, rolling hills covered by tea plants with narrow corridors at regular distances to allow hand-picking labourers access.

The next day we set off to get to the top of the highest summit in the region (Gunnung Brinchang) which promised fantastic scenery. The taxi rates to the top were exorbitant – so we took the narrow and steep jungle trail up the side of the mountain, and got to the summit at 2100m after an hour’s climbing. The views were spectacular, though marred with low clouds sweeping over the hills all around us, illuminated by the rays of the sun.

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