MALAYSIA: 'Truly Asia?' Sorta-kinda ...

Click on images to enlarge them.

Their much-televised campaign is based on the jingle:
'Malaysia, Truly Asia.'

Well, perhaps. But then it's a new Asia, not the traditional one the jingle implies. Malaysia is moving forward very quickly and successfully. Infrastructure is amazing, approaching that of Europe/America in many ways.

The fact that this country is just a couple days' drive from Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam – was a bit of culture shock to us. Driving some parts we said on the intercom, but for the climate and non-white faces:

'Malaysia, Truly Toronto.'

OK, we're exaggerating, but not totally; there are times you could be driving at home.

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Petronas Tower at night;
major money & architecture all over.
Trickle-down effect of a booming economy?

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Click to enlarge any image.
We haven't figured out how to get to Borneo with bike.
No ferries, just freighters & planes.

Malaysian dates: Oct. 12 - Nov. 19, 2009.
(Less 10 days in Singapore in between.)

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Slide show [show link] by artist-friend Bill Andersen. This one is from Malaysia to Indonesia. What a guy, and such a fine talent, he does these shows without even telling me – and makes our pics look better than we can do! Thanks again Bill!

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Border crossing from Thailand at Sungai Kolok [map link] to Malaysia was a breeze. No fees, no hassles and very friendly. Thai Customs hit me for a $30 penalty because the bike over-stayed it's papers by two weeks; oh well.

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Regional petty theft: While getting the passports stamped in Thailand, some contemptible heap of bovine droppings stole my riding gloves, which were stuffed into Black Bike's fairing by the forks. He reached in a grabbed them surrounded by a crowd while the bike was parked directly in front of the Customs office, we being just a few feet away.

They were well-worn, sweat-soaked, but I loved them, plus they'll take searching to replace; hope the thief contracts an unspeakable disease. Meanwhile I ride without gloves.

Petty crime seems to be a regional epidemic and cultural issue – unlike the rest of SE Asia where we encountered absolutely none in a few months of ground travel. Indeed theft has been a non-issue through most of the trip – until this region (just our cups in the upscale India hotel.)

That same night, in the parking lot of the Kota Bhura hotel (below) someone else, whose next illness will I hope be non-trivial, decided to try steal the stick-on chrome front fender decoration/protector off Black Bike. He tried to yank it off, bent and cracked it, then quit – it doesn't come off easily. What on earth could he do with a bit of Goldwing fender trim, brag at the local Idiots' Club about stealing it? I'll get it fixed somehow, or enrich FedEx by ordering a new one from USA; small parts become a big hassle-expense while on the road.

This marked a notable three-days-in-a-row petty theft stream in the region, clearly an unfortunate local cultural symptom.

The third one had been in Trang South Thailand [map link], our second-last Thai night – where the hotel parking lot had a night watchman, whom I had unfortunately tipped. Gratuity notwithstanding, we suspect it was the guard himself who decided he needed the little plastic knob that controls the hot air re-directional flow from the engine to the feet. A completely useless bit of plastic for him, but likely irreplaceable by me, I doubt it's even a Honda part number unless you buy the whole mechanism; I'll try find and adapt some other plastic knob. But I do hope the thief, in spite of possible delusions of adequacy, is sufficiently stupid to mistake it for candy, thereby causing himself painful intestinal issues.

South Thailand and North Malaysia have bad-boy probs, as exemplified by these relatively minor but telling incidents.

Not coincidentally, the area is the most heavily-policed and road-blocked region in all of SE Asia – by far! They also have armed guys with separatist aspirations. Only in the Middle East have we seen so many Army and Police checking vehicles non-stop. We were advised by some that the area is considered slightly dangerous. See South Thailand blog.

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Malaysian Economy: Most impressive! At a 2008 GDP per capita (PPP) of $14,200 Malaysia is 22% ahead of Turkey's $11,600 – these are the two most industrially-successful Moslem nations.

Within the Islam world, Saudi Arabia and Oman are closer to $20,000 per capita but they are predominantly petro-economies, not industrial ones. Malaysia has some petro too, but industry accounts for almost half GDP [source link.]

Within Malaysia's neighbourhood, some comparisons to its $14,200 GDP p/c [source link]:
. . . .Thailand is 44% behind it at $7,900 per capita;
. . . .Indonesia 75% behind at $3,500;
. . . .Philippines 80% behind at $3,100;
. . . .India & Vietnam 82% behind at $2,500;
. . . .Cambodians at $1,800 per capita,
. . . .– are about 1/8th as productive Malaysians.

Another remarkable comparison: Russia has about the same GDP per capita as Malaysia! The latter is steaming economically, although 5%-6% inflation has taken a bite out of the net-in-pocket gains.

Unemployment is very low at 3.3 % while just 5.1% live below the poverty line – a great report card.

How has Malaysia done it? During the 40-some years since independence from Britain, it has not accidentally moved from a 'raw materials' economy to a 'knowledge-based' one. Successfully so in this case, thus becoming a proud Asian Tiger.

It has a population of just 29 million – 25% smaller than Canada's. With a small domestic market, it must export and import. Foreign currency is thus a basic need and it is an important trading partner of USA.

During the 22-year term of Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad until 2003, Malaysia diversifyed its economy from raw materials exporting to expansion in manufacturing, services, and tourism. After 2003, Prime Minister Abdullah attracted more investments in high-tech industries, mainly electronics – plus medical/pharmaceuticals technology.

It still exports raw materials, but they are decreasing as a percentage of the economy: Tin, rubber, palm oil, timber, cocoa remain key. Malaysia is also the 28th largest oil exporter and 9th largest gas exporter in the world. But manufacturing is gaining ground as a ratio.

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Travels: Kota Bharu [map link]: Located about 7 km from the ocean with a nice beach we rode briefly, it might make a good beach holiday.

We came here because the road across the country heading west is beautiful in parts, as initially advised by fellow biker John Gunston who we coincidentally chanced upon in a Hua Hin Thailand restaurant.

Kota Bharu hotel: Our first stop in Malaysia, we just wanted a room to beat the fast-incoming rains. Do not make our mistake by staying at Sutera Inn [link], such a gross rip-off! Their web site is misleading nonsense. Filthy carpets with burns galore; the room smells; no hot water; one of most expensive hotels in the past four countries at $50-$70 for 2-star quality; teensy crummy TV; run-down; internet is an extra $10 on a vastly over-priced room. It's our first night in the country and sure gives a baaad initial impression, shame on the owners.

Find a good hotel in Kota Bharu and let us know its name, so we can recommend it against this one.

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Scenic route across the North: Crossing the top of Malaysia from Kota Bharu to Penang [route link] is fairly flat and boring for the eastern half. The western half however is charming, winding and mountainous [terrain link]. Not especially challenging riding, nothing compared to North Thailand, but a good scenic route and not over-populated or highly developed like much of the country is. It's a one-day ride across.

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Penang is a nice modern island-city, connected to the mainland by a very long excellent bridge (one of world's longest) and ferry services.

It was dubbed 'Pearl of the Orient', is a microcosm of Malaysia – and many tourists come just to see Penang and then fly home.

It is attractive and surrounded by great beaches, has some old quarters: Chinatown, Little India; sleepy Malay fishing villages; 5-star resorts; old colonial quarters; famed local food specialties and much more. Also called Georgetown, it's a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

It has all the modern amenities including reputably excellent medical tourism. We didn't take many photos, but here's a good tourism web site [link.]

We stayed at Hotel Continental [link] at $40, central, parking, wi-fi, just fine although with no character.

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Penang II, Cosmetic Surgery: We came back from Bali in December '09 to get Wheezy a facelift, arranged a month in advance.

No I'm not embarrassed to talk about it. And yes there are always risks but I was not concerned. We keep our possessions looking young and new; most of us do everything we can to fight age and gravity, die our hair, use make-up, dress the part – so why not take advantage of cosmetic dentistry, boob jobs or whatever makes us look and feel better. Good visual impressions, although never a panacea of course, certainly help in business and love. Hence I tightened up my face a bit including removal of bags under the eyes and extra beneath-chin flesh. I'm anything but a fashionista, but go ahead, call me vain biker trash.

At about US$3,500 it was about 1/2 the cost of similar work in Canada, much less than USA – and very professional. High recommendation to Penang Adventist Hospital [link] for both elective and other medical work. Contact Dr Danny Oh Siew Leng [link] who was my surgeon, a USA-trained and long time resident there, around my age, very nice guy who really knows his stuff. Did a great job on me, plus, a year earlier he did a fine job on a personal friend who had found him.

If interested in cosmetic surgery and have questions, feel free to email me personally. Going to Penang Malaysia for what's called 'medical tourism' is not at all a bad move. You do not need to cut in a middle man who elevates prices by arranging flights and medical appointments.

We stayed at the Barjaya Hotel [link] which has branches worldwide and is a short walk across the street to the hospital. Its 4-star luxury and has an excellent restaurant, staff and wi-fi. The hospital has a special deal with the hotel, at around $50 – so add $500 to my facelift bill.

The short walk across the street and good hotel made for a relatively pleasant ten days of recovery during which Dr. Oh wanted me to drop by at his office daily – he really watches you carefully. Five stars all around.

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Kuala Lumpur [map link]. Simply a world class city, much money in evidence, some superb architecture, abundant shopping at all levels, almost everything a modern city can offer. We actually did some shopping – a new Canon compact camera for Thao and 13" MacBook Pro computer for Wheezy because prices and availability were excellent, the computer some 15% less costly than on-line prices back home.

The 15" MacBook Pro that did most of this blog, and toured much of the world surviving in the trunk of a bike, was sadly due to be upgraded. But the sales rep at the computer store bought her, will have a good new home, sob, sniff. Great tough computer, bravo! to Apple, yet again.

Stayed at the Alpha Genesis Hotel [reviews link] at $60 which is inexpensive by K-L standards, found it after shopping around town for a couple hours. Centrally located, rooms are new, bright and clean with good views of the city. It's right behind K-L's major restaurant street and is easy walking to three enormous malls.

It's a big city; we don't talk much about big cities. We seldom love them. Been there done that.

Third World City? Don't think so. Petronas Towers.
View of town from Towers bridge (above.)
Where is this? Paris, NYC? Beats Toronto malls. That's Dior on left.
So they're Muslim. But otherwise ... cell phone
texting & camera-snapping teens in very upscale mall.
OK, so not everyone is buying cameras today.
In-mall aquarium, huge, brilliant. Feeding a BIG shark & sea turtle.
Wheezy buys a Canon camera for Thao's birthday, poster laughs at me.
Also got a new MacBook Pro for 20% less than in Canada.
MAC Cosmetics, a Toronto brand. Sales rep attitude like at home.
Recognize: KFC, Toys R Us & Haagen-Dazs all in one corner.

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Melaka: Our favourite town in Malaysia. It feels and is 'Truly Asia.' Colorful, fun, variety, just walking about is a little adventure and cultural experience.

Excellent hotel: Both visits to Melaka [map link] we stayed in the Baba House [link] which is an old restored place with old authentic charm and quiet, clean comfortable rooms. At about $40 including parking, wi-fi and central location – an easy walk to Chinatown attractions. It's in the middle of them in fact. Highest recommendation on all counts.

Bicycle taxi art. Big lights, sound make it 'noticeable'
and fun for some tourists.
Listen to the music from the last tuk-tuk;
imagine the big battery they must peddle around
for all those lights and musical watts ...
video

How do you say 'pass the ganja' in Malay? Click to see 'art' detail.
This old guy swings ... see video below.
Video: Mr Singer's never even close to in-tune
but he's there daily, and Mr Dancer's really into it.
videoAlign Center
Jonkers night market, weekends only. Fun!
Just a nice bench and window.
Right across from our hotel.
Fine street dining establishment, Thao had great soup-meal for $2.
Melaka –> London 10,600 km?
So how come it took us 50,000 km?
Click to read short history of St Paul's Church.
Portuguese, Dutch, British, even Spanish St Francis Xavier - were all here.
The Americans are very here today.
In St. Paul's courtyard, bad Asian C&W singers,
before 500-yr old Portuguese carvings.
Front gate to St Paul's.
View of Melaka. Tower has a platform that spirals
up-down, tourists go for a slow spin.
Look at the town, could be anywhere in the West.

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A boring photo of a perfectly paved boring highway.
South Malaysia is like that, unless you seek out rural routes.

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Melaka first-ever International Bike Rally: Joe Wong and some of his fellow 'Goldwingers Singapore' members kindly invited us to join a bunch of riders going up for the weekend. It's only 200 km of perfect freeway north from Singapore to Melaka and we really like the town the first time. Plus an all-Asian bike rally ... a cultural experience, let's compare.

Such hospitality, warm friendly people, everything including hotel rooms for two nights, meals, T-shirts, bandanas and police escort while taking over the Melaka roads whenever riding en masse – all provided and well organized, for a registration fee of some $30 each ...

We seldom/never ride in packs, plus one certainly has to concentrate while surrounded by bikes riding in close lane-splitting formation, a riding mistake in this context would be ultra-embarrassing.

It was a mostly Moslem crowd; we were surprised to see the event officially billed as a 'Ride for Gaza.'
Aside from this statement and an evident total absence of beer, booze or drugs, it was very 'American culture in Asia': Goldwings (Hondas made in Ohio); Harleys (both full dress and choppers); Japanese Harley knock-offs; and a variety of Japanese and Brit crotch rockets, cruisers and antiques. Almost everything on two wheels, including two Bombardiers on three wheels.

Cam-Am Spyder trike [link] by Canadian Bombardier.
Even the bad boy American riding gear: Cowboy and riding boots some quite fancy, leather pants, jackets, bandanas under the helmet, the works. Except it was 35˚C =95˚F and Wheezy was wearing thin summer pants, T-shirt and still sweating buckets. How the Asians could take the heat in that riding gear ...

USA-style choppers by the dozens. Even the leathers.
This could have been a bike rally scene at home, except all the faces were Asian – but for three. Turns out Wheezy was an almost-exclusive white face in the large crowd, and for certain we Canadians were the only world-tourers present – all of which made us an item of curiously and often even praise. Fellow bikers understand ...

Not practical, but an artistic statement.
One other difference: To ride a decent-size bike in Malaysia or Singapore, you have to be relatively well off.

The vehicle-import taxes in both countries are major, like 100%-plus. So Black Bike for example might be worth US$50,000+ if new. Many of the bikers we met have several sets of wheels, so this was an over-all well-to-do crowd.

Not that the crowds at Sturgis SD or Americade NY are exactly poor on their tricked-out sometimes-$100,000 Harleys; here you just need to pay that much more ...

Large crowd in front of St Paul's Melaka, maybe 500 (?) bikes of all kinds.
WWII Brit bike still running, a BSA 500 cc I believe.
Gov't Minister for Melaka invited us to his house for breakfast,
chatting with a Malaysian actress-celeb and serious biker.
New friends Ellen and Andre Lim.
Biker babes Singapore style:
Chinese, Indian, Malaysian ancestry reflects Singapore.
At one of banquets, delicious thin fish slices cooked in bamboo.
And finally ... if in doubt that American culture is alive & well
in Moslem Asia, see this short video clip.
video

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Cameron Highlands, superb riding: Awaiting our boat to Indonesia, cooling our heels in Port Klang [map link] we took a recommended weekend ride into the cool mountain twisties [route link]. Cameron Highlands towns are many, and vary between 'charming' and 'Niagara Falls Malaysian style' except without the waterfalls. Depends which town and the time of week. This was a weekend so many hotels (out of an abundance of choices) were booked.

The mountainous terrain goes up to 5,000 ' (1,500 metres), coolish 24˚C not far north of the Equator, perfect roads, dense mountain forests – all are just superb! [Terrain route link]. It's the best couple days of riding we can remember since North Thailand.

Serious, perfect twisties, switchbacks, hairpins, peg-scrapers – depending how hard you ride. It felt so good to ride hard again, Black Bike's new front-rear suspensions felt so agile, we pushed the envelope a tad.

The road is cut through dense jungle mountains, countless great valley views of more mountain jungle. Fields of wild orchids growing. Scenic countryside one sees in the commercials, how we’d imagined Malaysia. Outside the tourist towns are only grass thatched-roof homes we’ve seen in the country. Farmers markets offering strawberries, a cold weather fruit; bee farms; butterfly farms; pick-it yourself farms of various kinds. Acres of major greenhouses.

Tea plantation in beautiful hills.
Transporting de big bamboo – one handed biking in twisties.

Even stalls selling stinky durian fruit [link] roadside.
. . .As Wikipedia says: 'The smell of Durian evokes reactions from deep
. . .appreciation to intense disgust. The odour has led to the fruit's
. . .banishment from certain hotels and public transportation in SE Asia.'
. . .It's true, 'NO DURIAN' signs are all over. But somehow it sells regardless.

Hotel lobby sign. (Smoking is OK.)
The area is a developed tourist draw for Singaporeans, Malaysians and Thais. It's not over-developed – yet. But they should be careful. Altogether our high recommendation as a destination worth a few days if you are in SE Asia.

Fine Cameron Highlands hotel: In mountain town of Brinchang [satellite photo link], we really liked the year-0ld Hotel Titiwangsa [link], just south of town with a weekend price of $50 – including breakfast and an excellent 'steamboat' dinner. The latter is a delicious filling surprise, a communal hot-pot soup cooked at your table with all-you-can-eat meats, seafood, veggies and spices – excellent. We got a quiet room facing the back with nice mountain views. Everything is new and super-clean, with wi-fi and very pleasant staff. Look no further.

The town reminded us more of Alpine Europe than Asia: Styles of architecture are often Tudor of Germanic or modern ... the dense layout of tourist shops and hotels, cool weather – altogether it just feels Euro. The fancier places are priced accordingly.

View from hotel window: Look like Asia to you?

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Remarkable family of serious French travellers: And cojones! See their web site [link.]

The Bufard famille is from Lyon France: papa Thierry; maman Marie-Pierre; daughters Amelie, Gabrielle, Clementine. Plus a really big friendly dog.
. . .– All living in a motorhome.
. . .– For an indefinite number of years.
. . .– Around the world.

Think you can't start doing serious travel at mid-life? Well, in their early 40's, Thierry and Marie-Pierre had never even been to Paris, let alone elsewhere in Europe; had never even been on an airplane before. They just lived and worked in Lyon.

So logically (not) they just sold their house, sold his blacksmith business, bought a used Ford motorhome with a little 4-cylinder diesel, attached a trailer behind it to carry a small bike and extra stuff – and set off around the world. For an indefinite number of years.

They've driven here to Klang Malaysia via Mongolia, India, Nepal – will do Australia, North America, perhaps South America.

And they'd never even left home before?

All this with three happy, charming, fun daughters – doing home schooling and official exams that come from France.

We met them through the wonderfully friendly and helpful Assir co-owner of Aseantex Marine Services [link] – who we'd lucked upon and who is handled getting Black Bike to Indonesia for us. [See the added blog 'Getting to Indonesia.']

Assir himself is a serious world-biking and 4x4 traveler, who had befriended the Bufards, took them camping, helped them enormously. What a great guy Assir is, a lucky find for both us and la famille.

The Bufards were having one of those, uh, 'travel reality adventures' when we met them: Two months immobile in a garage while living in the van and getting their engine replaced – two months. Why so long? Dunno exactly but Thierry is clearly a very knowledgeable mechanics guy. He's replacing the original Ford diesel with a more powerful Nissan diesel, but they are now in the process of installing a third engine, due to unforeseen problems. Major ouch.

Anyhow we all went out for a fine oceanside dinner before we took off for Indonesia and hope they come visit us in Toronto. Who knows - with luck we might even meet up again in Australia. What a great, courageous, interesting road warrior family.

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Black Bike crated and heading by sea to Indonesia ... next.





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