Zhi Heng and Yan spent three weeks cycling south towards sunny Singapore, from the popular resort town Phuket, Thailand. We spoke to Yan about their 1600km sojourn that brought them through the alleyways of Phang Nga, the Thailand-Malaysian border at Wang Prachan, and the majestic mountains of Titiwangsa.
What made you do this? Why this route?
Zhi Heng and I were captivated by the idea of cycle-touring as a post National Service (NS) trip after reading of the boundless adventures recounted by cycle-tourers on various blog sites and YouTube channels. Two examples would be Scotsman Mark Beaumont, with his round-the-world attempts, and Ray Pokai’s tour of Asia.
Personally, I was eager to attempt the less-conventional idea of cycle touring (at least in a Singaporean context) as it was an opportunity to challenge my worldview; that is, to experience foreign countries aside from what tourism industries may offer.
Also, I have been (and still am) enthralled by the efficiency of the bicycle (and the human body): it was highly satisfying and slightly profound to experience traversing land masses through only my own energy output (barre a few ferry rides across non-ridable water bodies).
The curiosity and excitement of whether we could successfully do the same as other cycle-tourers kept us engaged with our goal of reaching Singapore (it was also a motivation to embark on this journey in the first place). In hindsight, this journey reinforced in me the notion of sustained determination, focus and patience being able to overcome logistical uncertainties, physical demands and daily changes of environments.
We were intending a relatively short trip (~1 month) that was reasonably affordable (we spent ~$1K SGD pp for 3 weeks) and logistically manageable. Our original plan was to tour within Thailand, taking flights to and fro Singapore; however, we decided that a one-way ticket to Phuket meant saving on flight costs, removed the need to pack our touring bicycles back in boxes again for air travel, and clearly established a specific end goal, that is Singapore.
No matter the detours, so long as we headed generally south, the end of the landmass of continental Asia (in the region) was Singapore.
I rode a Soma Saga with Shimano 105 shifters and rear D, MTB crank set, 11-25 cassette (I would have preferred at least a 32 cog), 3 bottle cages, fenders front and back, pannier rack with 2 x Ortlieb packs, Brooks Saddle, Velocity wheels, Conti Gatorskin tyres, Topeak top tube pouch. Total mass ~ 17kg fully loaded with food and water.
The items/equipment to bring depends largely on the climate norms of the areas you intend to ride through. Personally, the essentials for this trip were sun protection (sunglasses and sunscreen), waterproofing of valuables/ electronics, and bicycle repair spares (spare chains, tubes, patches and mini pump). I think it is equally important to know how to use the spares before embarking on a trip.
It is always a good idea to do a few fully loaded test rides with all the items you intend to bring, for a sample duration of a day on tour, to get accustomed to the demands, and rectify any equipment issues. Spare bicycle lights and batteries are paramount – a change in plans can often mean riding through the night.
Packing a hefty touring machine into a flimsy cardboard box can be a daunting prospect; refer to bike packing videos on YouTube by GCN, ParkTools. Alternatively, consult your local bike mechanic. I prefer a steel-framed touring bike (more durable) and flat handlebars (easy to pack). Make sure to use plenty of bubble wrap over critical parts like the derailleurs.
Planning/ Food/ Accomm:
What I enjoy about cycle-touring is the simplicity in daily itinerary – we had a means of transport, we had only to settle the foods to eat during the day and a place to rest during the night. Unlike backpacking, cycle touring meant we could act upon our transport-decisions immediately, as no time was spent waiting for public transport schedules. We could literally go anywhere, at any time, on a bicycle.
Initially we fretted much about finding a place to sleep each night; however, after a few days we learnt the ubiquity of cheap hotels/guesthouses throughout Thailand and Malaysia (or I daresay, SEA in general) – SEA is truly a near-ideal region for cycle touring with its cheap street food, accommodation, and warm hospitality.
We garnered much attention from the locals as we coasted into each little town; they were generally interested in our stories and our plans. A week into the trip, we were confident and comfortable enough to begin each day serendipitously, so long as we were generally headed south.
Lessons that I’ve learnt
Logistically we were well prepared – I encountered some flats and my spares came in to use.
Fundamentally, I learnt the mutuality of relationships: more often than not, most people will be genuine and kind towards you if you are likewise towards them. That being said, it would be naïve to cease practising being streetwise in assumption that everyone has your best intentions at heart.
Secondly, communication and space between touring partners are important for long haul tour trips. Some friction and discontent are bound to arise, and it takes maturity from both parties to acknowledge this inevitability and manage it effectively. Physical fatigue and logistical stress can exacerbate emotions. During our break at Ko Lanta, we took a day off individually, ZH going diving while I spent time reading.
Thirdly, it is crucial to have fun. During the long climbs up through the township of Gerik/ Titiwangsa range, we had lots of fun waving to every passing vehicle. These are the vivid memories I remember, and in the moment then, it took away the immediate task of climbing.
Fourthly, physically and emotionally pacing oneself is important to keep oneself from burning out – do not be resistant to taking breaks away from the bicycle. We visited the islands of Ko Tarutao (Thailand), Pulau Kapas (Malaysia) and rested for a few days at each: diving, running, snorkelling and hiking.
Highs and lows I experienced during the trip
On the third day, we had a lovely couple (husband was dutch, wife was Thai) host us in Phang Nga, we had a cooked thai dinner like family; the following day they offered to lift our packs up to the top of a mountain (we still rode our bikes, just lighter).
I recall the memories of Gerik with a smile as we spent most of our times waving to passing vehicles that reciprocated with honks of encouragement.
The first township we arrived on the east coast of Malaysia was Kuala Besut; I had a Low-High moment: overstressing of my rear D whilst climbing entirely broke my rear derailleur, however a kind soul (fellow cyclist), Ah Gim, offered us a free lift to his bike shop to get my rear D repaired. Ah Gim, even treated us to lunch.
However, the culmination of all highs was the sight of Marsiling HDB buildings from across the Causeway – self-explanatory. There were moments then where we gaped in realization of what we had achieved. It was immensely humbling and awe-inducing, to experience the spatial scale of a mere 1600km on Earth’s surface.