Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Rain, Tea, and Great Company

One of the few pics of us together. Gunung Brinchang
The following morning was bright and sunny, and after we'd packed the bikes, we headed around the corner to the morning market for a breakfast of vegetarian curry mee (wheat noodles, bean sprouts, tofu, and sometimes chicken-not in the veg version, in a thick, spicy coconut based curry soup) and some very strong, thick coffee. We then walked back to the Peking Hotel and said goodbye til next time. Back on the road, we now made our way to the Cameron Highlands. The first leg of the trip was via the E1 highway, boring, but smooth and fast. A couple of hours into the ride, near Ipoh, we turned off the highway and onto a twisty road through the Titiwangsa Mountain range. The scenery was lovely: lush and green, with limestone mountains and wild orchids growing along the roadside (I have to keep reminding myself that all exotic houseplants are weeds somewhere in the world). The riding was a lot more fun that the flat slab, highway run. As we neared the town of Tana Ratah, we passed acres and acres of strawberry fields, huge greenhouses, tea plantations, and lots and lots of produce stands (approximately 80% of Malaysia's produce is grown in the region). It is a beautiful area.

Danny, Elizabeth, Colin, and Ronnie!
We rode into town and found a place to stay. Once we unloaded the bikes, Colin sent a message to a fellow ADVrider, named Ronnie, who lives in Ipoh and said he would meet us in Tana Ratah once we arrived. I was sitting at a table in the garden of our guesthouse, when someone said my name. I looked up and met Ronnie! Colin came out, and the three of us talked a bit before we showed him our bikes. Ronnie asked if we wanted to get some lunch, and of course, we did, so we set off toward the main street, meeting up with Ronnie's parents, Danny and Elizabeth, (who were visiting from Havelock, North Carolina- tell me it's not a small world) on the way. The five of us went to a small place that Ronnie recommended and had a great meal and fine conversations. Ronnie is currently working on an e-book travel guide for motorcycling in Malaysia, and he was curious about why more Americans don't come here to ride. Aside from the need for Carnet and the relative difficulty and expense of obtaining it, we don't know. It is a modern, developed country with great roads, excellent food, good sightseeing opportunities, cheap gasoline, and very friendly people. After lunch, we said our goodbyes for now and made plans to meet again sometime soon in Ipoh. We had a really nice time.

Will and Toby and their Enfields
Later in the afternoon, Colin and I walked around town a bit, getting the lay of the land and some ideas for dinner locations (it's always about the food, you know). As we were getting ready to cross the street, we noticed a pair of Royal Enfields (a classic motorcycle, first British-made, now manufactured in India) on the opposite side, just about to pull away from the curb. We trotted across the street, me yelling and flailing my arms in the air for them to stop. Here is where we met Will and Toby, a couple of guys just at the very beginning of their trip from Melbourne, Australia, to London by bike. They had just arrived in town and were looking for someplace to stay. We shared what we knew about accommodations and agreed to meet up for dinner.

After walking around for a while, we returned to the Twin Pines and found the Enfields parked out front. Will is riding a newer, Indian-made 500cc Enfield, while Toby is riding a 1960s 350cc. They bought the bikes in Australia and did a bunch of work to them in preparation for their trip. Their route is planned to be almost entirely overland (Burma being the exception) and is timed to make it over the highest passes through India and Pakistan, before heading into the 'Stans and beyond. It is certainly an ambitious trip, made more ambitious by their choice of mounts, so keep an eye on The Bullet Diaries to see if they make it. After chatting around the bikes, we all went out to dinner at a local Indian joint, where we introduced them to the joys of banana leaf meals. We sat around and talked over some beers for most of the evening before calling it a night.

In the morning, on our way out to find some breakfast, we found Toby and Will drinking coffee. We stopped to chat for a while before continuing on on way. As we ambled up the street, we spied our favorite breakfast of roti canai and curry. We stopped for this and coffee before heading back to the room. When we returned, we found Will and Toby hard at work on their bikes. Toby's bike needed a new oil seal around the transmission input shaft, and Will had discovered that the backing plate on his rear brake was warped, and consequently, allowed the brake shoes to twist. Fortunately, they have a comprehensive toolkit and a selection of spares. In a stroke of luck for them, a local man, with a friend who is an Enfield enthusiast, saw them ride into town yesterday. I guess he called his friend, who drove from the next town over just to see their bikes and meet them. Will and Toby said the man had quite a collection of parts and hopefully, the ones the needed. We left them to their work and went for a ride to Gunung Brinchang (the highest peak in the area) and the Mossy Forest.

View at the top of Gunung Brinchang
The road to Gunung Brinchang was narrow, extremely steep, twisty, and potholed. As we (very) slowly wound up the mountain, we admired the stunning scenery of the area's tea plantations. The last three miles were so steep that we found ourselves in first gear for about two of the three miles, and in a couple of spots, we almost needed an even lower gear. At first, the top of the mountain seemed a little disappointing, since all you could see were trees and cell phone towers. Once off the bikes, we saw what looked like a fire lookout tower. When we reached the base of the tower, we could see that it was open to climb. We scaled the four flights of narrow, steep, metal steps to the top. (No US-type protect you from your dumbass self safety precautions here. If you want to take your life in your hands, have at it. We're not gonna stop you.) The view from here was spectacular, out one side we could see the mountains covered in clouds, whereas on the other side were miles of tea plantations. We were soon joined on the tower by a German couple who were touring Malaysia in a rented car. They saw our bikes, and they (or really, he) wanted to know about our trip. We chatted with them for nearly an hour before climbing back down the tower, posing for a few pictures, and heading back down the hill.

Tea "bonsai"
We never did find the mossy forest, but on our way back down the mountain, we turned off at the signs for the Boh Tea Plantation to have a look around. We parked the bikes and walked the path through the tea plants to the visitors' center. It was interesting to see the plants up close- it's a shrub, and after what must be years of pruning, has a trunk like a bonsai tree. The plants were only about two feet tall, but many of the trunks were as big around as my calves (which more closely resemble good, solid, tree trunks than bird legs). In the visitors' center we watched a short film about tea production, toured the displays of machinery, and walked through the tea processing plant. The plantation has a beautiful tea room that is cantilevered out over the fields, so we stopped for a cuppa and some shortbread. While we were enjoying our snack, it began to rain gently. We decided to head back to the bikes and tried to beat the rain back to Tana Ratah. No such luck. Shortly after we pulled out of the parking lot, it began raining in earnest. At the entrance to the plantation, we found a covered parking spot and pulled our bikes in to wait for the rain to stop. The sky grew increasingly dark and the thunder rolled through the hills. After 30 minutes or so, the rain lightened enough that we decided to make another attempt at getting home. We still had another three miles of twisty, narrow road through the plantation before we made it back to the main road, but unfortunately, it began to rain even harder just before the junction. As we pulled onto the main road, the sky really let loose, so we nipped across the intersection and pulled under the awning of a closed business near a bus stand. We waited on the bikes for a good 20 minutes for the rain to slacken, but to no avail. I thought about using my time and the abundant supply of free water wisely and getting out a rag to wash the bikes, but it would have required opening the topcase and getting the contents soaked. Since the water level around us and the bikes continued to rise, we moved to a bench in the bus stand to wait. Eventually, the rain tapered off, and we decided to make the run back to Tana Ratah. We made it back to our room, dripping wet, and showered to warm up. Needless to say, we didn't do any hiking that afternoon.

Rain. Oh, and more rain.
It rained hard overnight and was still raining when the alarm went off in the morning. Since it didn't sound like it was going to be a good morning for an early hike, Colin shut off the alarm and we went back to sleep. When we did finally roll out of bed, the rain had stopped, so we got dressed and went out to get some roti for breakfast. Will and Toby were packing up to leave for Penang, so we wished them good luck and a dry ride, and said we'd maybe see them again somewhere. Over breakfast, Colin and I discussed our own options. Since the forecast was for rain over the next several days in the Cameron Highlands, and hiking in the wet is only so much fun, we decided that instead of hanging out here, we would go back to Thailand for some (hopefully) quality beach time on an island somewhere.

Our normal first stop in Thailand has been the city of Hat Yai. It's a relatively easy trip from the border and has decent accommodations for an overnight stay, but just a week earlier, a large car bomb went off in the underground parking garage of a hotel only two blocks from where we always stay, killing several and injuring hundreds of people. Because we couldn't easily make it from the Cameron Highlands to anywhere north of Hat Yai, we decided to stop in Georgetown overnight to hopefully be able to make it as far as Trang (which is north of Hat Yai and out of the area of unrest) in a day. The ride back through the mountains was gorgeous- the sun had appeared, the sky was blue, the road was dry and without much traffic. We made it back up the highway and across the bridge to Penang by the middle of the day and pulled onto the sidewalk at the Star Lodge. But they were full. What?!? No room? Robert called their sister hotel, the 75 Backpacker, for us, to see if they had a room. They did, so we carried our gear down the block to the 75 for the night. It's not as nice as the Star, but it was clean and had very cold A/C.

Somewhere along the way between the Cameron Highlands and Georgetown, the funnel that hangs from my helmet lock broke. We use the funnel on a nearly daily basis to refuel the bikes, so we need to replace it ASAP. We walked to Mydin, which is Malaysia's version of Big Lots, and sure enough, found a new funnel for about 17 cents. We also picked up some detergent while we were there before stopping at a hawker stall for banana-Milo (like Nestle Quik) milkshakes. Good and good for you! Since dim sum is becoming our new favorite dinner, later that evening, we returned to our usual place for another fantastic meal. Since the dim sum place is halfway to the mall, we continued to McDonald's for an ice cream cone before calling it a night.

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