Here I enjoyed a free tourist attraction, but frowned while thinking of the snakes in the surrounding lush jungle.
Motorhead Adventure Through Malaysia
“Snakes!” My business card had printed on it for the last 25 years, “I hate adventure that has anything to do with snakes or sharks.” Research on Malaysia found the green tropical country I was to pass through had over 110 different species of snakes, and at least 16 of the land snakes where I would be traveling by motorcycle were known to be venomous. The most lethal was the king cobra. The python was near the top of the list, another of my least favorite serpents.
I was using my 20-year-old Kawasaki KMX200, not a big motorcycle at 200cc, but large enough to do the road and jungle work in Malaysia. It’s a humid and mountainous country near the Equator with a land mass (127,581 square miles) about the size of the state of New Mexico. One gets a false sense of superiority when riding a heavyweight and big-displacement cc adventure motorcycle through snake infested jungles versus being much closer to the ground on a smaller motorcycle like my KMX200. But if lying on the ground from a slow speed get-off, or a fast one, neither big nor small motorcycle provides much of an obstacle to the Malaysian snake in the grass near the fallen rider.
On March 26, 1967, a famed American silk and textile industry businessman, Jim Thompson, mysteriously disappeared while going for an afternoon walk near where he was staying in the Cameron Highlands of Malaysia. One theory about why he or his remains were never found was he had met a python that dispatched him and consumed his remains. My route through Malaysia vectored me close to where he disappeared. I decided to use my time in Malaysia for more of a motorhead adventure, studying the motorcycle culture of the country rather than the fauna and flora off-road, or in the snake infested jungles. I also hunted good motorcycling roads, versus being worried about snakes while on some canned tourist jungle tour or monkey watching package.
Upon entering Peninsular Malaysia, also known as West Malaysia, Immigration and Customs requirements were quickly finished with a “Welcome” said in English by the officials.
Immediately upon leaving Thailand and crossing the border at Sadao, on the main highway south from Bangkok, I felt a difference between the two countries. Getting my passport exit stamped on the Thai side meant parking the motorcycle and walking to an Immigration window along with the other people exiting. Back on the motorcycle and riding to the Malaysian Immigration building found a surprise for me as a global motorcycle rider, a special lane for motorcycles only. I was able to drive up and while still seated on the motorcycle hand my passport through an open window to get stamped in, at no cost. The process took about 60 seconds and both I and my motorcycle were into Malaysia with a “Welcome” said in English by the Immigration official when he handed back my passport.
I asked about Customs and needing any paperwork for temporary importation requirements for my motorcycle. An official smiled, said it was not necessary, but pointed to the Customs office. Because my Kawasaki was Thai registered the Customs official on the Malaysian side said nothing was required unless I was on a Carnet de Passage and wanted to volunteer a page to get it stamped “In.” He said if so, then I would also have to get it stamped “Out” when I left Malaysia. I volunteered nothing. The entry process to Malaysia was one of the most motorcycle friendly ones I had experienced after having crossed hundreds of borders worldwide, even easier than getting myself and a motorcycle into my native country of the United States of America.
The highway signs were easy to read throughout Malaysia. I traveled without a GPS, only a paper map purchased at a gas station.
One of the first things I noticed in Malaysia was what good condition the road was in compared to the 600 miles of pavement back towards Bangkok. Although driving in Malaysia was on the left, like in Thailand, the quality of the pavement, sign markings, and even a special far left lane marked for “Motorcycles Only” was a significant change from the congestion on the other side of the border.
The main highway south was a toll road, but again motorcycle friendly. That meant there were small roads (motorcycle wide) clearly marked for Motorcycles Only on the far left side of the main road for motorcycles to bypass the toll booth, meaning motorcycles rode toll free. While these Motorcycle Only paths or lanes were obviously designed for small-displacement motorcycles, the heavyweight Harley-Davidsons and BMWs I saw easily maneuvered over them.
After leaving the toll road and driving on the smaller two-lane paved roads into the countryside and mountains I again found most had a far left lane used by motorcycles. The big-displacement motorcycles would use the smaller far left lane for passing slower cars, trucks or buses when needed, but most of the time their pilots passed on the right. It was the better of two worlds, being able to legally use the motorcycle lane or the main lane.
Motorcycles in Malaysia were required to have their license plate number on both the front and back of the motorcycle, most often a metal plate on the back and stickered on the front fender, both sides. When I asked about needing it done for my Kawasaki I was told it was not likely I would be stopped or ticketed as I was obviously passing through the country, but technically the front numbers were required if I wanted to pay to have the stickers applied. Many traffic police officers looked at my heavily loaded touring motorcycle as I rode through Malaysia without the front numbers but none stopped me. More often they were more interested in a friendly way about where I was from, where I was going and wanted to offer help if they could.
Modern gas stations were common and many were self-service, accepting my USA issued ATM card within seconds at the pump.
Gas was plentiful and modern stations were “pay-at-the-pump” with an ATM card, credit card or cash at a pay booth or inside the attendant building. Many were also mini-mart style gas stations with fast food and cold drinks. Some were self-service only, while others had attendants who were friendly and careful not to drip the last drops onto the gas tank.
The over 28,000,000 people of Malaysia were generally motorcycle friendly. While 50.4% are ethnic Malays (and thus technically Muslims), 23.7% Chinese and 7.1% Indians, motorcycles seemed to transverse these ethnic distinctions. Whether I was checking into a small Malay-owned hotel, eating at a Hindu restaurant or dealing with the Chinese owner of a motorcycle shop, everyone seemed acceptable to my motorcycle lifestyle.
This custom paint job on this chopper was a nice tribute to the American Indian, a popular motif and model throughout Malaysia.
Import taxes on foreign manufactured motorcycles make them extremely expensive in Malaysia. While the import tax rate floated from year to year, it hovered around 100%. Because of this high tax, and the inexpensive operation of smaller displacement (less expensive) motorcycles, the majority of motorcycles seen in Malaysia were small. My 200cc Kawasaki was viewed as a big motorcycle wherever I went. What was especially foreign and interesting to Malaysians as I traveled through their country was my touring gear. Nearly all the Malaysian motorcyclists I met used their motorcycles for commuting or as the family vehicle. The rare Malaysian motorcycle traveler I met was usually on a big cruiser or adventure model and obviously well heeled due to the huge expense of owning a large bike.
Before traveling to Malaysia I researched the possibility of renting a local motorcycle or purchasing one on arrival. Internet information was there were no rentals available in Peninsular Malaysia, information I found to be incorrect once I got there.
While small displacement motorcycles were the majority in Malaysia, I could have purchased this used 250 cc Suzuki for $1,000.00 USD.
The option of purchasing a motorcycle, using it, a then selling it back to the shop or owner was possible, but expensive. The projected average daily cost of $150 for what I could buy and then sell back in Malaysia was three times what I could pay for the same type of motorcycle in neighboring Thailand. While technically I could not purchase a motorcycle as a tourist in Malaysia visiting on a tourist visa, cash and entrepreneurial creativity proved that this option was not only feasible, but that it could be done through a number friendly new or used motorcycle dealers.
I opted to use my own motorcycle to travel through Malaysia, a decision based principally on economics. My Kawasaki KMX 200 had never been imported to Malaysia, and the fact that it was well worn and had been severely beaten over its life of 20 years meant I was pushing its mechanical envelope, one I punched through a couple of times.
The first mechanical problem was a small one, a spark plug died. It was a cheap spark plug and the two-stroke engine of the Kawasaki KMX ate it for no obvious reason. I was carrying a new spare and installed it in minutes, once I figured out the cause of the engine shut down was no spark and not lack of gas.
The second mechanical problem was the result of an unknown fix by some previous owner. A large section of the cast rear wheel had broken off the hub where the wheel bearing was supposed to fit tightly on the left side. The prior fix had worked loose and the bearing was spinning in the hub.
A small motorcycle repair shop had the word Kawasaki printed on the front of the building. When I rode up the owner and his helper stopped all work and walked out to look at my motorcycle, not having seen one like it before. When I pointed to the rear wheel hub and explained as best I could that I needed a weld or something to tighten the bearing space inside the broken hub, the owner smiled and said he could solve the problem. His helper shoved aside their other work, and soon had my motorcycle’s rear wheel off. The owner then dug out two new sets of sealed bearings from a dirty and broken box of mixed spare bearings and suggested we replace both bearings while we had the wheel off and were doing dirty work. I agreed.
Well away from any big city, this small town hotel rented a clean room with two beds for $25.00 per night.
The fix was to cut a half inch wide strip about six inches long from an aluminum Coke can and use the strip to make a thin spacer that would go between the outer bearing race and the inner opening of the cast wheel. Mr. Indian-Kawasaki-Owner-Mechanic had the repair done in less than an hour from my arrival at his shop. Total cost, including parts, labor, tax and a tip for the mechanic to buy cool drinks for everyone, was $25 USD. We parted good friends, me giving out stickers, and they likely laughing about my funny foreign accent and head scratching when the owner initially told me, “No, I am not Kawasaki mechanic but am mechanic Kawasaki, can fix your Kawasaki.” The repair held for another 2,000 miles until I could get a proper weld done.
Sleeping ranged from using many of the numerous small hotels, beach bungalows, to upscale resorts and in the big cities the ugly downtown hotels, all in the $25-$50 range. I had learned the best way to understand a culture and a country was to understand the people and one way to get to know them was to stay in their homes, an option widely offered in Malaysia away from the big cities. Known as a home stay, the night included a meal with the family, clean room and bed, and in the morning a simple breakfast. These home stay options were less expensive than the small hotels and gave me an opportunity to experience the home life of the Malaysian people.
(Left) If a measure of the quality of life was the globalization of American fast food,
Malaysia reflected high standing with both McDonalds and Burger King present.
(Right) Something I had not seen in America was motorcycle “McDelivery” service as
Eating and drinking was another matter. Away from the big cities, where the Western palate could be satisfied with everything from McDonald’s to Kentucky Fried Chicken, I often ate where the locals ate, enjoying street seating in front of an open air restaurant. When eating at a home stay it was not unusual to dine with the entire extended family while sitting on the floor in the main room of the house, a style common throughout Southeast Asia.
Rather than carry a laptop computer, an option for cyber junkies were the numerous and inexpensive Internet cafes, this one charging $1.00 USD per hour for high speed and an air- conditioned environment.
Some of the restaurants and towns they were in were dry, there being no alcohol sold. With over 50% of the population being Muslim this was not to be unexpected. For the traveler used to having a cold beer at the end of the riding day, the tip was BYOB, or bring your own beer.
My electronic and cyber travel style was basic. A paper map purchased at a gas station near the border when entering Malaysia showed all major and minor roads throughout the country. I carried no laptop computer and yet was almost daily able to use one of the many inexpensive Internet cafes to read and send e-mail and keep writing assignments flowing. Some hotels advertised WIFI and it was available in many of the Internet cafes. The only major electronic item I carried was my Canon digital camera. It died on me in Kuala Lumpur where I replaced it with a similar model that had the import tax on top of it, costing me $200 instead of the $150 I paid two years and 50,000 images earlier from a New York camera shop.
Playing a bit of a tourist I visited the Petronas Tower in the capital of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, once the “tallest building in the world.” Even though to me it looked like two buildings, the connecting bridge made it “one” building, as did the joint base.
While I was not much good as the usual tourist or backpacker following the recommendations in published tourist guides, I did some touristing for photographic purposes. For instance, it was hard to not at least look at the Petronas Tower, once the tallest building in the world, when passing through Kula Lumpur. I stopped, took some photographs, but decided not to pay for the guided tour inside the building. I also passed on the diving tours, jungle treks and wild animal nature walks. Instead, I looked at motorcycles, thousands of motorcycles. I also visited motorcycle shops, spoke with motorcycle riders and traded motorcycle information with anyone willing to talk about motorcycles. Toward that end I found Malaysia one of the more motorcycle interesting countries I had visited.
The best riding roads were those in and out of the mountain range that runs down the middle of Peninsular Malaysia separating the east and west coasts. While not of Alps or New Zealand quality, there were many roads with high quality pavement, properly cambered turns and scenic views.
The Cameron Highlands were cool and a welcome get-away from the heat of the lower elevation levels and bustle of the cities. Mysteriously missing since 1967, some say Jim Thompson was buried in these rolling hills while others say he was living in the trees. I believe a snake ate him.
When I was at a scenic overlook in the Cameron Highlands taking photographs two Malaysians on small motorcycles stopped out of curiosity about me and my motorcycle. We started talking about motorcycles and travels and their motorcycle dream to ride a Harley-Davidson in America on California’s Highway 1, go to Bike Week in Daytona or spend time gambling in Las Vegas. As we looked at the dense jungle below us I asked, “So, do you think Jim Thompson is down there, in bones or spirit?”
They looked at me and laughed. They had both read my business card when I gave it to them and knew of my serpentine phobia. One answered with a grin, “You go down there looking for him and all you will find are snakes.”
We laughed together and promised to keep in contact. Maybe I will return to Malaysia, it had been a great motorhead adventure as I passed through. I will leave the snakes to other tourists or visitors, those not there on a motorhead adventure.