A New Thing – Border Control on the Bike

It’s a little astonishing.  Well, I think so, anyway.

In nearly 13,500km, and heading into country number twelve, yesterday was the first time that the Beast and I got stamped through an international border together.  Thanks to the EU’s lack of internal borders, the ferry crossing between Canada and the US, and arriving almost everywhere else by plane, it just hadn’t happened before.  It certainly won’t be the last time, mind you.

It wasn’t especially traumatic, despite the immigration officials on both sides of the causeway between Singapore and Malaysia struggling to peer through the sunscreen melting all over my chops.  Thirty seconds at each end, and I was through.

In fact , it hasn’t been an especially traumatic few days.

After the slightly chaotic rush of nearly a month on the road in Indonesia, Singapore had a vaguely surreal and calm feeling about it.  It’s always reassuring to find a true mark of civilisation like a cricket club.  And I’ve been to Singapore before, so was prepared for the diversity, the prices, the smooth, orderly way of life, and the equally smooth roads.  The relative tranquillity was nice, for a day or two.

I had a wander around their giant sport park on Tuesday, which reminded me of a (slightly) smaller version of the Olympic Park in London.  An aquatic centre, kayaking area, and recreational cyclists whizzing around.  A bunch of fit-looking people in tracksuits, and serious-looking expats studying tablets (presumably coaches).  And an enormous stadium with a domed, retractable roof.  Which some poor council employees were either finishing off, maintaining, or repairing.  Rather them than me, I think:

On the way out of town yesterday (Wednesday), I rode through the concrete-and-glass canyons of Singapore city centre.  There seemed to be a few more towers there than last time I was in town, but the biggest noticeable change was that the Marina Bay complex now dominates the shoreline in front of the city (it was still being built the last time I was there).

Whatever you think about the architecture (the bit lying across the top is supposed to look like a boat – but with trees on it, apparently), it’s now an instantly-recognisable symbol of Singapore, and just as massive and deliberately impressive as those monuments in central Jakarta.

Anyway, I’m not at my most comfortable in big cities (especially when riding a bike), and a country which is basically nothing but city is a little too claustrophobic for me.  It was time to get moving.  Through the seemingly endless tower blocks, across the causeway, and into Malaysia.

I’ve been taking the riding easy for the last couple of days.  Easing back into oppressive heat and humidity seemed sensible (it’s nearly 10C hotter here than in Indonesia, and nearly as sticky as Queensland).  So it’s tricky to grab together a sensible set of first impressions of Malaysia; I haven’t really seen enough or covered enough ground yet.

It feels richer than Indonesia (most people are in cars, rather than on scooters, for example), but the prices are only marginally higher.  Which is good.  The main roads are generally well surfaced, and the driving seems pretty reasonable.  Which is also good.  It’s hot, and there’s been a nagging headwind.  Which is bad, but might change (probably to storms, knowing my luck so far).

The locals are quite a mixed bunch ethnically (mainly Chinese and sub-continental) and religiously (it’s another secular Muslim country which has been busy celebrating Chinese New Year).  And they seem friendly and laid-back so far.  I’d heard that Malaysians were quite reserved compared to others in South East Asia, but I’ve had several long-ish conversations already, and if ‘reserved’ means ‘prone to having a chat without pestering you for a photo because you’re foreign’, then I’m pretty happy.

I’m heading up the west coast of the peninsular all the way to the Thai border.  I should get to the seaside tomorrow (Friday), all being well.  The border is probably a fortnight or so away.  And the Beast and I now have a little frontier-crossing practice under our belts to stand us in good stead for it.

Beast in a Box (Again)

Well, the ‘slow boat from Jakarta’ plan didn’t work out.

It proved to be too many things: too complicated (the Beast being treated as cargo and sent separately); too time-consuming (endless running between offices near the port); too tiring (language barriers and miming can wear you out) and too relatively expensive (24 hrs on the ship would cost the same as the ridiculously cheap hop between Jakarta and Singapore).

And so I flew the Indonesian coop this morning, popped back into the northern hemisphere (just), and arrived safely in Singapore just over an hour after leaving Jakarta.  The Beast, while whining as usual about being dismantled and packed in cardboard, appears to have survived once again.  I’ll know for sure when I put it back together tomorrow.

I did have time for a poke around the more monumental end of Jakarta before I left.  It reminded me a bit of some cities in the Former Soviet Union (albeit without the same apparent risk of being topped for being rude about the government), or maybe North Korea, with everything laid out neatly and then massively oversized to emphasise the importance of the place.  The Istiqlal Mosque (above) is hard to get a scale on.  My estimate is that the vertical part (below the dome) is about seven or eight storeys high.  It’s a big mosque.

It’s a little easier to appreciate the largeness of the National Monument.  It’s a monster.  And the enormous, carefully tended park around it was an idyllic setting for families enjoying a Sunday stroll yesterday.  Or at least it would have been, if it weren’t for the fleets of hired mini-motorcycles being raced around and around by manic, grinning teenagers.

Now, I’ve seen so many abused bicycles in Indonesia, overloaded to breaking point to carry everything from reeds to dumpling stalls to multiple sacks of rice, that I felt it was time to expose the practice (although, sadly, I suspect that simply pointing it out will not stop the exploitation).

I’ve switched off my hypocrisy filter, by the way.  The Beast actively enjoys being loaded until it creaks and then thrashed across thousands of miles of mountains, deserts and crumbling tarmac.  Honest.


Anyway, this pitiful example was being used as a coffee shop in central Jakarta by a particularly villainous owner.  An owner who insisted on being photographed with his poor, worn out victim.  And then tried to charge me five US dollars for a coffee to cover his modelling expenses.  Bearing in mind that the normal price of a coffee is 5000Rp (around 40 US cents), and that $5 will buy you a meal in a decent restaurant, I declined his kind invitation, and gave him a twenty percent tip on the coffee instead.  I didn’t want a picture with his mug in it anyway.

For the first time on this entire trip, I walked away from a conversation with what I can only assume were carefully selected curses and threats ringing in my ears.  I wasn’t looking back, but I reckon there were probably some less-than-flattering hand signals involved, too.

In fairness, he was the first and only unpleasant human being that I met in Indonesia, which only accentuates how lovely people generally were there.

Let’s hope that Singapore, Malaysia and points further north are as interesting, and the people as nice, as Indonesia has managed in the last month (though preferably with slightly better roads and less manic traffic).