Roadtripping Malaysia

Exploring the Cameron Highlands

Things don't always go according to plan on our cycling RoadTrips, or in life for that matter. That perfect getaway you've been planning for months can easily be derailed by unforeseen circumstances, taking the experience in a totally different direction. And while the normal reaction at the time is one of frustration, it's often the most unplanned moments that provide the most lasting memories. Adventure happens when things don't go as planned.

Back in March, in the days after the Tour de Langkawi, we joined forces with former WorldTour professional Sea Keong Loh to explore the stunning roads and vistas of Malaysia's Cameron Highlands. The trip ended up being shorter and less expansive than was initially planned, but it was no less memorable for it.

roadtripping cameron-10

roadtripping cameron-153

roadtripping cameron-139

In my humble opinion, a proper roadtrip isn’t supposed to go fully to plan. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. If things are running smoothly and itineraries are being followed then somewhere along the line you might not have grasped the opportunities and experiences that were passing you by.

Back in March when the European winter was still in force I made my escape. I’d jumped on a plane and headed to the warmer climes of Malaysia to cover their premier road race: the Tour de Langkawi. The week-long stage race is named after a Malaysian island that only sees a single stage of the event while the majority of the stages loop around the Malaysian mainland.

In the weeks prior to the race the idea of a road trip was planted in my head by a friend I’d made while suffering at the savage Taiwan KOM back in November. Danial Hakim is a photographer with a passion for Asian racing and he had been waxing lyrical about areas that were begging to be investigated by bike. No excuses were required — we got our plans in motion. After all, it’s crazy to travel for close to 25 hours from my home in Europe to Malaysia to just cover a stage race.

Soon enough word got out, people got interested and before long we gathered a small Roadtripping team. Local legend and ex-Giant-Shimano WorldTour rider Sea Keong Loh would be the man to show us his training roads. Joining us would be Danial’s best mate and partner at their cycling site Peloton Images Asia, Zie Haqqin, a man who’s a dab hand when it comes to shooting video.

Let’s fast forward a little here, skip past the Tour de Langkawi and jump straight to the Monday after the race; a day we’d put aside for recovering from the race and recharging bodies as well as batteries. Danial, Zie and I had all worked covering the race while Sea Keong had been racing for the Malaysian national team. We took a necessary trip to the local bike store, Jami’s Bike Shop on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, to pick up a Pinarello they’d generously offered for the trip.

You start to wonder when the owner says to pop around at 10:30pm to pick up a bike. In the UK, turning up at that hour would see you standing in font of a closed shop; in Malaysia it results in eating street food with the owner across the road while watching the world drift by.

The high-end Italian kit and bright lights of Jami’s stands out among the small family businesses selling everyday mundane items, attached to their proprietors’ homes. Once the food was polished off and a quick bike fit was sorted we hit the road, ready for bed and eager in the knowledge that the following days’ adventure was just a car ride away.



roadtripping cameron-103

“Seeing a man keel over, lose consciousness and then shake uncontrollably isn’t what you’d expect or want to experience while stopping to fuel up.”

roadtripping cameron-14

Our first port of call was to be the Cameron Highlands, famed for rolling tea plantations and a spectacular sunrise. The Tour de Langkawi had bypassed it this year but with what Sea Keong, Danial and Zie had been telling me it was an area that should be top of our to-ride list.

The initial plan had been to hit three regions: the Cameron Highlands, the Genting Highlands and finally Frasers Hill. But even before we left plans started to change. The news that the Genting Highlands was shut to traffic due to building works immediately had us whittling our destinations to two locations; a shame but no problem. But it was to be what we’d initially planned as a quick pit stop at a petrol station on the way to the Cameron Highlands that was to have us re-scheduling once again.

Seeing a man keel over, lose consciousness and then shake uncontrollably isn’t what you’d expect or want to experience while stopping to fuel up. But this is exactly what was playing out in front of us while in the petrol station’s rest room.

We, along with what seemed to be a tour group, watched as a man dropped to the floor and had an intense epileptic fit. With his friends looking perplexed, shocked and scared at what was unfolding they slowly leaned in preparing themselves to restrain him from his vicious shaking. Unfortunately or fortunately, depending on how you look at it, I recognised what was happening, being epileptic myself. I stepped forward and offered a hand, telling his mates to refrain from restraining him.

Zie was soon on the phone to the ambulance while I helped make the guy comfortable. Slowly he regained consciousness. It turned out that the poor guy had just arrived in the country for work; he’d traveled with friends from Nepal clearly looking and hoping for a fresh start at life. He’d had one episode of fitting in the past but was unaware it was epilepsy. It was a sad story to hear.

Sat in the car with the air-con blazing away a little while later we were all a little taken aback. Talk turned to us realising we were all pretty damn fortunate in our lives. None of us had ever been forced to leave our country of birth to find work just to make ends meet. The thought of “had we just helped or hindered the guy in his new life here in Malaysia?” rumbled in my mind. Was the cost of an ambulance going to cripple him financially? Was his job going to still be there when he was ready to resume work? It was an odd feeling and you could feel the puzzlement and mood change in the car as we drove off.

roadtripping cameron-86

roadtripping cameron-49

With us all reeling from the day’s dramas we soon came to the conclusion that we’d skip Frasers Hill as we’d seen it in the Tour. Instead we’d just enjoy the Cameron Highlands to its fullest — no dashing about, no spending a ton of time in the car racing from location to location, no skimming an area’s surface just so we could say we’d been there, done that. The service station situation had us all agreeing that we were on a road trip and the essence of that is to enjoy it without worry. Instead of a road trip this was quickly turning in to what we dubbed “a playground ride”.

The Cameron Highlands are situated roughly 200km north of Kuala Lumpur. The original reason we’d picked it out as prime road tripping territory was partly the long 40km climb it offered. We entered the Cameron Highlands from what I was told was the ‘good-looking’ side; Kampung Pahang would be our starting location.

The first day’s aim was to get to the hotel at Brinchang, roughly 65km from our drop-off point. With most of these kilometres of the upwards variety we knew we were going to be pushed to complete it before the sun set. With a mix of clammy heat, legs that hadn’t turned a pedal in over a week and the slight gradient I knew I’d feel the climb.

The road cuts its way through a thick forest of overhanging trees. It’s a road that, for me as a European, felt a world away from what I’m used to riding on. We were surrounded by dense greenery with corners that didn’t let us know what to expect until we rounded them, and a back drop of animal noises that overpowered the small birds I’m used to hearing. All I had to guide me was Sea Keong and his stories of where he’d been dropped in a stage of the Tour de Langkawi a few years back and at what point he’d dragged himself back in to contention.

The first village we passed through was Jalan Tapah. The whole place sits along the roadside — shacks narrow the road down on each side. The silvery waterfall pouring from high above down to the yellowing rock face and on into the trees below is the main tourist attraction.

The coloured shacks all look slightly bleached by the harsh sun, each vying for tourists’ money. Fresh fruit, locally-made gifts and hand-crafted furniture were all on display; the smell of cooked fish and chicken begged for us to stop. Once through the village the hillside started to crank up. Nothing too serious but from here onwards the gradient never really subsided until we hit the main town close to the top.

It’s also where the right-hand side of the road briefly opened up to allow a glimpse of the elevation we’d already achieved. To the left the foliage got even denser.



roadtripping cameron-154

roadtripping cameron-29

With Sea Keong looking at ease and me chugging away, we started to pass small huts tucked away in the forest, each clearly built from materials found in the forest. It was as if time had forgotten the area. These were the homes of the local indigenous people of Malaysia, the Orang Asli. Many still live off the land, with some earning a small income from selling handmade goods to passers-by.

Riding past large families all sat in the entrance of their homes we shared the occasional cheer or wave. We made a mental note to stop and investigate a bit more the following day when time would be on our side.

With night slowly creeping in we finally rolled into the township of Brinchang. Hungry and sweaty — more from keeping pace with Sea Keong than the heat — I noticed the night market. In his wisdom Sea Keong made a beeline for the illuminated stalls.

Decked out in lycra, aboard flash-looking bikes, in the dark of the night, chowing down on the local cuisine, we soon became the unexpected attraction of the market. People wandered over, shoving their kids in our direction and whipping out their cameraphones, snapping away. The place was alive.

We gorged on fruit that actually tasted like it should, skewered meat in rich sauce and the local milky tea tarik. Shattered but raring to see what the morning would bring we hit the sack.

roadtripping cameron-23

roadtripping cameron-44

roadtripping cameron-63

Our reward for waking up at “silly o-clock” was the view of almost fluorescent pink sunlight drowning a mountain side of tea plantations. It set us up for a day of adventure like no other.

Perfect conditions, tarmac that weaved its way through the rolling hills and being fuelled by the previous day’s market purchases caused a massive outbreaks of smiles among the four of us. As Danial and Zie vanished in to the undergrowth to look for “perfect angles” Sea Keong and I investigated the narrow roads, dashing through corners that seemed to have been designed with cyclists in mind.

Before long we came across a small, broken and clearly little-used road which pointed upwards to the highest point of the Highlands. Like any good cyclist it was a road we weren’t going to ignore.

The uneven and at-times sketchy road surface took us through yet more pristine plantations with green, lush, low-slung hedges of tea leaves below the road. The view from the top opened up giving us a firm idea of how big the highlands actually were.

The forests stretched out before us before dropping away into the morning mist below, further reminder that a return trip would be in order to fully investigate the area.

The descent from the top was just as difficult as the climb; a gaggle of steep sharp corners on the rough surface had us yanking on the anchors for most of the way down. Brake blocks squealed as the tyres struggled to keep us on a trajectory that would safely see us around the corner rather than in the tea leaves below.

roadtripping cameron-43

roadtripping cameron-71

roadtripping cameron-124

In the lower plantations and with breakfast beckoning, we headed for the Boh Tea cafe. Make no mistake: this was a cafe and not a coffee shop. Ordering coffee here would, I’m sure, see you forcefully ejected. And doing so would result in you not being able to relax in possibly the best brew shop I’ve had the privilege of putting my feet up in.

Sipping tea on the balcony that overhung the plantations and chatting the usual cycling nonsense would have been a difficult task to leave behind, but knowing we had equally as interesting places to visit made us keen to move on and throw our legs over the bikes.

Pointing the bikes downhill we soon reached the huts that had intrigued me the day before. With several of the locals sitting by the roadside we stopped and immediately the conversation started as our bikes were keenly checked over.

Not speaking the local dialect I attempted to chat in few exaggerated hand signals with pointing. Sea Keong was able to speak in a broken dialect and we soon discovered that the main man among the group was in fact Michael Jackson … or at least he claimed to be. A few attempted moonwalks in cleats and a line or two from Thriller and we were all soon laughing.

It didn’t take long until Michael wandered over to his hut and returned with a long hollow cane. It turned out to be a blow pipe, several meters long and used in conjunction with wooden darts made from a tree sap; darts that, surprisingly and slightly worryingly, were loaded with enough poison to kill a wild boar. Trading bike for hunting pipe we each checked out each other’s tools of the trade.

roadtripping cameron-131

roadtripping cameron-126

roadtripping cameron-136

Looking at Michael you know he’s had a tough life living off the land and bartering with tourists. When Zie, Danial, Sea Keong and I found out Michael was only 35 years old it came as a shock. He looks older and clearly suffers from the multiple bodily pain and prangs that you’d expect an old-age pensioner to have.

For the second time in as many days the reality of how fortunate we are was brought home to us. We’re roughly the same age.

As Sea Keong and I rode away we discussed how different our lives are. Even though Michael’s born and bred in the hillside and lives a life of hunting and sheltering in a small hut, he clearly knows his value and how to earn from it. It’s obvious he knows how he and many of his friends have become, for want of a better expression, ‘tourist attractions’. It’s a little sad, but they seem happy with the deal.

Back on the bikes we dash down to the next section of the road. Pushing hard on the pedals I try to keep with Sea Keong but he’s on top form and easily making my legs hurt. If we were out training I’d be angry at myself for being dropped but with scenery like we’re passing through it makes up for the humiliation.

Dashing around corners with little braking and the odd calculated gamble soon sees me back on Sea Keong’s wheel.

roadtripping cameron-144

roadtripping cameron-115

roadtripping cameron-156

Arriving back at the village of Tapah Perak we decide to grab some of the food we’d had to skip on our ascent of the hill. Popping into one of the street vendor’s premises we tuck into rich-flavoured fish and noodles. Sitting roadside eating good food that looked a little questionable we got chatting to the owners. It turned out that a few of the stalls and shops here are owned by the same family. Before long we are introduced to the sons and brothers and cousins, handed more fish and fruit and then sent on our way.

Back on the bikes and yet again full with food we soon find ourselves on the lower slopes of the mountainside. The day’s sun is setting, the heat still stifles and Sea Keong still tears it up. Sprinting (or getting dropped less slowly in my case) we burn the last of the day and our energy.

Danial and Zie holler from the car, each taking turns to hang out of the window to get a good shot of us enjoying ourselves. Then we’re back at where we had been only 28 hours before.

In just over a day we’d crammed in more than we could have dreamed of, met people that would leave a lasting impression, ate some great food and on top of it all had an absolute blast on the bikes.

Sure: things hadn’t gone anywhere close to the original plan, we hadn’t claimed Strava KOMs and we definitely hadn’t burned more calories than we’d consumed. But it had been a trip that had us swearing we had to do it again … and next time with zero plan in place.

Highlights video

Photo gallery