Lost in Malaysian The sun sets vertically in the tropics, falling straight into the ocean like a stone versus the glancing traverse across the trees it makes in the northern latitudes. I knew this as from a distance, but failed to take it into account when I planned my ride 1 degree north of the equator. This is how I lost my car in Malaysia.
Like most of my adventures, this one started out serendipitously – I arrived on time from Chicago to London to Singapore, a 24 hour pair of flights where I stretched out and slept in the full flat beds of business class on Singapore Air – a first for me. (“I can’t go back… I won’t”) Over the five day trip I flew around the world – literally – I only went east, Chicago – London – Singapore – Hongkong – Chicago. The flights ate up two days leaving me only 3 days in Singapore/Malaysia during which I and managed to see a good portion of the Malaysian coast, eat and drink at the rooftop restaurants of quite a few tall buildings in Singapore, catch up with a great old friend, as well as ride through parks, visit the botanical gardens, see little India, Chinatown, and give a couple speeches as well.
My written plan was to land in Singapore at 7:20am, be thru customs and into my rental car by 8am, drive across Singapore to the Malaysian border by 9am, and make Melaka, a 15th century settlement 300 kilometers north on the west coast of Malaysia by noon. My plans called for a good lunch of Peranakian food and a walking/shopping tour of the old town and then to be on the coastal road back south by 2pm aiming to arrive Benut by 4:30pm for a 50 mile roundtrip ride to the stilt village of Kukuk, returning by 7:30pm, 30 mins after sunset arriving to my car in the twilight.
Despite not having a map and not being able to obtain one enroute, things went according to plan – I was in the “steering-wheel-on-the-right” rental car by 8am, across the border to Malaysia at 9am, and despite not being able to obtain a map I navigated by signs and general direction to Melaka by noon. I had a fantastic lunch on Jonker street and strolled around the old town before heading south along the coast. Along the way I stumbled upon a monkey preserve and lost some time navigating by feel enroute to Benut, arriving about 5pm. To avoid riding in the dark I drove a little farther south to shorten the ride to about 40 miles roundtrip. I then parked in an empty lot of a seaside restaurant and hit the pedals on the folding bike and rode hard through Pontian toward Kukup.
Kukup sits at the farthest south of the west Malaysian peninsula and consists of a village built almost entirely on stilts – sitting 10 feet above the silt and water of the muddy tidal flats that comprise the land. The roads and paths varied from concrete on metal pillars to wooden stilts supporting uneven narrow wooden planks, but they all shared the lack of an American safety requirement: guardrails. I had a bit of vertigo as I road around the town and the light was fading fast as 7pm and sunset had descended upon my ride.
I headed back out of town as the light faded and was surprised to find that by 7:15, with more than an hour to go back to my car, it was pitch black: no street lights and few other visual indicators to show the way. Fortunately traffic was light, and I had a blinking rear light, but when I could hear traffic coming from the rear (remember I’m riding on the wrong side of the road) I would leave the pavement and make my way on the sandy dropped shoulder of the highway.
For an hour and a half I progressed relatively slowly in this fashion towards my car, knowing my return speed was much slower than the approach to Kukup. I began trying to identify the generic lot where I parked my generic car in a stretch of highway with a host of generic eateries. As it turned out, these limited visual characteristics were completely masked by the humid gloom of the evening. Two hours of riding later, and I was back in the outskirts of Benut. Damn. I knew I was several miles past my car so I turned around. I rode for another 40 minutes seeing nothing that suggested my parking area and so turned around again. 25 minutes later I could see the lights of Benut again and so turned around again beginning an endless zizag in the dark trying to triangulate on my rental car.
By now it was after 10:00pm local time, 11am Chicago time and I had been flying / driving / riding for over 40 hours across 13 time zones and I was exhausted, hungry and irritable. More than one pedestrian must have been surprised by the rider in the dark bearing down on them while cursing the random object he had just run over on the shoulder. A three hour fun ride had turned into a tense, 6 hour death march in the dark dodging onto and off the shoulder of the road hundreds of times to avoid traffic. With the accumulated jet lag I just wanted to lie down and sleep but I was in the wrong country with no cell service and no way of returning to Singapore. So I kept riding…
I had my key fob out and was clicking endlessly. I knew I was within a couple mile range of the car and turned back again. On one dodge off the shoulder of the highway I hit a large stick and upon steering back up with one hand (keys in the other), my rear tire skidded along the 4 inch tall lip of the asphalt and I ended up crashing onto the highway in the pitch dark. If a car had been coming I’d have been dead, but of course there were none was because I wouldn’t have headed back up if there were lights. Still it was scary rolling out on to the highway on my back in the dark and then recollecting my bike, road rash burning. Now I was really mad.
30 more minutes and 6 hours total of riding in the dark later I saw a sudden flash – my headlights. I can’t explain the sudden exhilaration and life that coursed back through my veins – I was so very happy. Now a mere 2 hour drive back through Johor Bahru and to the Malaysian border and through downtown Singapore without a map to my hotel somewhere downtown and I could finally eat and sleep.
I made it without too much trouble based on my memory of the Google maps I had studied and when I pulled into the St. Regis, still in full cycling regalia I was too tired to be embarrassed and checked to this incredibly fancy hotel (complete with my own personal butler) without apology wearing muddy and bloody spandex.