SURPRISED by Malaysia

“The problem of camping in Malaysia is not being unable to find a place to camp, but to choose the best spot among too many.”

From the lens of an Egyptian on a bikepacking tour of Southeast Asia, the experiences ran the gamut from miraculous to mundane, to heartwarming and humourous.

Photography courtesy of Mohamed Elewa.

At 51, Mohamed Elewa has the stamina of someone half his age. He has travelled to 15 countries by bicycle, mostly on a recumbent bike, the type that allows you to lean backwards. After 6 months of cycling in Western Europe and another 2 months in Sudan totalling some 13,000kms, all done within the last few years, he decided to travel to Southeast Asia, covering Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

The 6-month Southeast Asian trip took him across 3,000kms in a journey that he describes as memorable and surprising, and a trip where he made many friends, some of whom he is still in touch with.

In Malaysia alone, the Egyptian spent about 3 months in the second half of 2019, and savoured most of it – the good and bad. He was essentially ‘bikepacking’, which simply means backpacking by bike. For accommodation, he tried as much as possible to sleep in a tent in a good spot, also known as wild camping.

Most days, he rarely exceeded an average of USD5-6 per day due to the savings from wild camping or staying with friends. Back when he was in Europe, however, he had to stay in hostels or with friends due to restrictions in camping.

‘Many Freedoms’

But in Malaysia, Mohamed found freedoms that he could only dream of previously. In his Facebook posting, he wrote: “The problem of camping in Malaysia is not being unable to find a place to camp, but to choose the best spot among too many.”

Here is another posting that demonstrated how he got away with cycling on the highway of Malaysia. “I always avoid highways when I tour. Last Friday was an exception. My visa was about to expire and I needed to renew it. The express highway would save me 70 km. Whether bikes are allowed or not on highways in Malaysia is ambiguous. It’s a constructive ambiguity which I would say I interpreted in my favour.

“So, I took the risk. I took the motorcycle lane after the toll gate which has no barriers, and rode at full speed.

“The distance to the next exit which I was aiming at was 28 km. I was hoping I could cover it as speedily as possible before being spotted️.

“The first 15 kms went very well. A decent shoulder and a very well paved road. Not a single time did any car cross the line of the shoulder. I felt safe and thought I made the right decision.

“Then a pickup from the road safety patrol showed up from the opposite direction. The driver honked at me. I have been spotted. My heartbeat accelerated.

“I frenetically rode at maximum speed. My muscles burned as if they were injected with acid mixed will hot chilis. After a few minutes, another pickup with flashers on passed me slowly and stopped.

“I am done.”

“I slowed down to face the consequences of my foolishness. Then a miracle happened – the pickup moved, made a U-turn and left.

“What a relief. I continued my ride joyfully.

But minutes later, I saw in the mirror a third pickup with flashers on following me at my same pace and securing the shoulder.

“Fair enough. I hate being escorted, but it is far better than using the longer alternative.

“After a few kilometres, I stopped to drink. The pickup stopped as well. I saluted the officers and expressed my apologies for any inconvenience.

“The answer was: ‘we are here for your security and safety’. “Zakirul and his colleague escorted me till the exit.

“No words are enough to thank the road security team for their help and professionalism. I hope I will not have to bother them again riding on another expressway.”

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