50-year-old goes solo 'bikepacking' and rediscovers youth

50-year-old goes solo 'bikepacking' and rediscovers youth
PHOTO: The Star/ANN

When I was 18, I told my father of my intention to cycle up from Kuala Lumpur to Langkawi on a bicycle. He stared at me and thought I was crazy.

So I waited three years and worked part time during college to buy a bicycle. I did the ride and it was an experience of a lifetime.

Now at a ripe age in my mid 50s, after raising three children and caring for my ageing parents, I have more time to relive my passion in bicycle touring.

The world is so beautiful. It's just waiting to be discovered and I would like to experience it first-hand. So I vowed to cycle the world upon my retirement.

In order to learn from the best, I decided to host many cyclists on their world tours (there are websites to facilitate this such as warmshowers.org). I also decided to do a trial run myself: a solo self-supported tour from KL to Bangkok then back down to Singapore.

My general plan was to head north using the west coast road all the way to one of the border crossings at Perlis before entering Thailand. This is the story of the first three days, from my home in Puchong, Selangor up to Bagan Serai, in north Perak.

Day 1: Better than TV

My tour began on a Friday morning with the destination of Kuala Selangor.

I love riding early in the morning. Besides avoiding the heat and heavy traffic, cycling in cool misty mornings always give solitude and peace.

However, there was no such luck today as my late start had forced me to join the rush hour traffic. Relief came after passing the town of Kapar as I turned off into serene side coastal roads. It was a great ride - until the baking hot sun popped up.

I lost focus because of the heat at one point and I slipped. As I tumbled down on the road, a motorbike rider laughed at me as he passed by. I was more embarrassed than hurt.

My wife once asked me what was the purpose of all this silly cycling when I could enjoy the whole day relaxing and watching TV. Why did I instead choose to get sunburned, camping along God-knows-where and even getting injured? I replied: Just like flavours in food, adventure spices up my life and makes it much more meaningful than staring at a box.

By noon, I had already arrived in Kuala Selangor. Since it was still early, I paddled on to Sekinchan. In total, I had covered 114km. There, I chilled out at the beach of Pantai Redang. The sunset was priceless - with the cool breeze included, it was a much better deal than watching TV!

Since I had a tent, stove and some rations, I decided to camp there for the night. I found a sort of tree house which accommodated my tent and gear perfectly. It was wonderful and I felt like a kid again.

Day 2: Quiet side roads

The joy of bicycle touring is not about the speed or distance. It's about the freedom to explore. When I am touring, enjoying the ride and scenery is my first priority.

I also had a "self-cycling rule" that only allowed me to stop for breakfast after doing 30km: it helped me work up a good appetite. After Sekinchan, Sungai Besar town was my breakfast stop.

Then I entered a small road heading towards Kampung Air Tawar. The Selangor-Perak state border is marked by the Bernam river. To cross it, I used a little-known ferry at Kampung Air Tawar. In this way, I could still get to Hutan Melingtang town in Perak and avoid the heavy traffic along the main coastal road (Route 5).

Soon after, I met a 65-year-old couple from Holland who were cycling down from Penang to Singapore - they also knew about the almost-hidden ferry crossing.

Even under the baking hot sun, my ride thereafter was wonderful. I was on a small road parallel to Route 5, and it was flat, wide, nicely paved, and almost totally free from traffic.

I rejoined the main road at Kampung Batu 10 Lekir. Soon after, I turned off at a small bridge into another quiet kampong road that led me all the way to Seri Manjung and Lumut.

As night loomed, I searched for a place to camp again. At 6.45pm, 4km before reaching Lumut, I saw a lighted cross shining from a little church.

I was sure a house of worship would not deny a lonely and tired traveller a place to rest. Sure enough, the caretaker was so kind to allow me to set up my tent in the compound. The nice cold shower was heavenly after my hot, sweaty ride of 132km for the day.

I was indeed blessed.

Day 3: Graveyard camp

Crossing the wide estuary of the Manjung river over to Damai Laut was a nice alternative route going north. I had decided to make a quick breakfast run in Lumut which almost cost me my boat ride. It had just left, but the boatman was nice enough to return to the jetty so that I could board.

Now came the hard part. Usually, I dismount all my pannier bags and carry them to the boat separately before loading the bicycle itself. However, the boatman was hurrying me due to his tight schedule.

It was a nail-biting experience pushing my heavily-loaded bicycle along a narrow wooden walkway - the worst case scenario was falling into the sea with all my equipment. I got onto the boat in one piece but at the Damai Laut jetty, it took three people (me included) to push my heavy bike and bags up the steep stairs.

After the first two hot days of riding, relief came when it started to rain for about two hours. It was a nice, cool and wet 30km ride to Pantai Remis before I stopped for a break. It was cloudy until 2pm, giving me some fantastic cycling weather.

Just before the town of Trong, I turned into a shady plantation road which was absolutely beautiful.

I exited the small coastal roads at Simpang (near Taiping) and rejoined the former main north-south trunk road (Route 1). My destination for that day was actually Nibong Tebal. But I had only two hours more to cycle before it got dark as I had spent more time than expected enjoying my ride!

Finally at 8.20pm, I arrived in Bagan Serai town. Further up the road, I was lucky to meet a pastor just as he was driving out from his church.

After a brief introduction and some persuasion, I got his permission to set up my tent for the night in the church compound. It was only then that I noticed a graveyard across the fence! Well, I felt I should be safe as no living soul would enjoy coming here at night.

But I left the light on just in case.

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