Malaysian hospitality is still alive and well. Before crossing the border from Thailand to Malaysia I sent a text to Nor, a photojournalist who I met in Terengganu back in 2012, asking if she was around to meet for a coffee when I crossed the border. It didn’t surprise me at all that she went a step or two better than a coffee. Nor is just a little bit crazy, slightly bossy, loves organising people and events and is constantly making some sort of arrangement, plan, scam, or insider-only deal. She is a million miles from the Western perception of a middle-aged Islamic lady; take that perception and cast it far from your mind, then imagine a small, bubbly, denim-clad Tom-boy with a bandana and a Kawasaki and you’re getting a bit closer to reality. There is seemingly no limit to the strings she can pull and the contacts she knows to get something sorted in them Malaysian world of bikes. So Tom-boy Nor arranged for me to stay with a Malaysian friend called Joe and his young family in southern Thailand the night before crossing the border. Joe, along with his wife and young daughter took me out sight-seeing to see the Mangrove swamps on the Satun coast, took me out for dinner, and put me up for the night, and drove me down to the border to make sure I didn’t need an interpreter to get through Thai customs / immigration, and all for free, just the moral Islamic duty to look after travellers. When we arrived at the border we realised that the vehicle insurance and tax permits required for entry to Malaysia were only available on the Thai side of the border, and I’d run my Thai cash down to next to nothing, I only had US$ and GB£, and frustratingly there were no exchange kiosks at this border crossing (weird or what?). So I was just about to get back on the bike and ride the 30km back to the nearest Thai town to find an ATM when Tom-boy Nor’s next helpful step arrived. To ensure me smooth passage through the border she had not only organised Joe to be there on the Thai side, she’d lined up four Malaysian KTM riders to come up and meet me from their side. Bear in mind these guys had never met me and could barely pronounce my name when they were lending me the necessary cash to get the permits and insurance documents to get into Malaysia. Now I know I could have dealt with this on my own, it would have meant an annoying ride back to find a Thai ATM (who doesn’t put a currency exchange kiosk at a border crossing?) and I could have found the correct offices to obtain the correct documents eventually, but having both a Malaysian welcoming committee and a Thai send-off party to deal with the inevitable border problems was heaven-sent, well, actually sent by Tom-boy Nor, but the effect is the same!
On entering Malaysia the welcoming committee escorted me down to Jitra, the first major town inside the border where Tom-boy Nor was waiting, bursting to announce that she had sorted out a tour of the KTM factory assembly plant for us, starting right now … come on boys, let’s go! Sure enough there’s a big industrial assembly plant outside Jitra which builds KTMs from the component parts sent over from Austria. We were shown all the way through the process including the production line where a brand new bike can be assembled in about an hour, then tested on a rolling road. What a remarkable process. Malaysia has punitive import taxes on foreign vehicles, so to get around this KTM have set up an assembly plant in Malaysia, using a Malaysian labour force and therefore are able to say that the bike is produced locally and so avoid the outrageous import tax. Imagine in the UK being charged a huge extra tax on anything that wasn’t physically made in Britain … Oh, hang on, the Brexiteers have just voted for that sort of ludicrous nonsense! Anyway, the VIP guided tour of the KTM assembly plant ended with being given a test ride on the new 1290cc KTM Duke street bike which hasn’t even been released on sale anywhere in the world yet. I could get used to VIP treatment.
Tom-boy Nor set up a homestay to house me for the next two nights in a traditional Malaysian farmhouse in the countryside, complete with a talking / laughing Miner bird, a 4m long python who swallows a whole chicken about once a month and a ludicrously loud cockerel who announced dawn at, well, dawn, and then continues to remind you every minute or so for the next few hours. So annoying! The lazy lifestyle in the teak stilt huts probably hasn’t changed in a century or two, and doesn’t look likely to change any time soon, there’s no mobile or internet signal out there, no air con, and other than a couple of carved wooden benches everyone sits on the floor or lazes in a hammock. The family here seem content to operate life quite slowly and are happy to take in a few waifs and strays as they turn up. Chut, a young German guy in his early 20’s arrived 3 months ago and liked it so decided to stay (for free), and currently has no major plans on moving on. I’m not sure I could abandon my life and travel plans for so long, but then when you’re 22 you’ve got perceivably more time to vegetate and contemplate the meaning of life from a creaking teak Malaysian farm hut. Nor’s plan for the next couple of days was to enjoy the open house feasts of the Hari Raya festival. Hari Raya marks the end of the Ramadan month of fasting (no food during daylight hours) and Hari Raya marks the beginning of the new Islamic year. People open up their houses for huge buffet feasts and invite anyone and everyone to attend. The weather put a slight dampener on this as the Monsoon season decided it hadn’t quite washed through yet and we were treated to a few hours of spectacular electrical storms and flood-inducing rainfall, but it didn't dampen the mood of the families who Tom-boy Nor took me to visit, all happy to invite us into their home and feed us any amount of delightful spicy beef, chicken, lamb, veg and sweet sticky rice. If I'm not careful I'm going to put all the weight back on that I've lost in the last seven months.
After Jitra my next port of call is Kota Bharu on the North East coast. It’s about 350km of some of the best biking roads in the world, using the East-West Highway to cross the Belum Rainforest with spectacular views across mountains dripping with dense foliage. It’s another few hours of pure motorbike nirvana, although my choice of soundtrack is little more chilled to match the fresh mountain air and the sweet mangoes which Nor picked from her garden for me this morning to ensure I didn’t go hungry on the way. Blue skies, wispy mists, fresh breeze, green rainforests, perfect roads and freshly picked mangoes; life doesn’t get much better than this, I decide that Chut should definitely get out of his teak stilt hideaway and go and see the world by bike.