Twelve Kingfishers and a Cobra…

The title of this piece sounds like a splendid beer order on a curry night back home, a beautiful thing to behold indeed, yet this title was granted by something far more wondrous than a round of alcoholic beverages but I am getting ahead of myself… First, rewind to a sun-dappled day riding the coast road north under a sapphire blaze sky. Stop after an hour or so to woof down a couple of Roti Chenai, our second breakfast of the day, promising ourselves it will do us for lunch knowing full well we’ll probably be tempted in a few hours time by the waft of some other roadside vendor… Overeating is a common problem in Malaysia where some folk eat up to six meals a day and it is so easy to join in. The bikes are purring along, all clean and tidy after our month-long stop in Melaka; it’s a good day to be alive. The road leaves the coast to serpent crawl through mile after mile of palm oil plantation, the trees waving to us as we speed along like a convention of green-team cheerleaders. Then a stretch of major carriageway drops us into the suburbia of KL: Kuala Lumpur, capital of Malaysia. It is the middle of the afternoon, a good time to arrive in the big smoke for traffic and the journey is effortless with big carriageways delivering us right to the doorstep of the Prescott Hotel.

The Prescott was a delightful find; 3-star room at 2-star off-season prices and everything in the city within easy monorail / walking distance. From hawker-stalls on Jalan Alor to the Indonesian Embassy where we are granted 60-day visas (with up to 4 x 30 day extensions granting us up to 6-months there should we need it) to the atmospheric Chinatown and Little India. We decline the £4 a head hotel breakfast for a plate of that mouthwatering morning staple, Nasi Lemak, across the street; a measly £3 for the pair of us including white coffees lashed with evaporated milk that taste like mugs of melted caramel. KL quickly wins a place in our hearts as our favourite city in South-East Asia, easily outshining both Bangkok and Singapore. It’s a big city with a small town feel and it’s denizens really go out of their way to make a traveller welcome. The city is host to a delightful mix of old and new; grandiose colonial-era civic buildings around Merdeka Square, with its cricket style pavilion in the heart of the city, mingle with modern from the ‘donut on a needle’ KL Tower to the utterly dazzling Petronas twin towers while here and there, mosque and a minaret mish-mash with shrine, church and temple. A Sunday train ride takes us out to see Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine on the northern edge of the city sculpted out of a curtain of limestone rock.

The sands in the hourglass marking our time in Malaysia are slowly running out and we have one final trip to make before it all ends. We wanted to cut across the peninsular to see something of the east coast, looping north and returning via the central highlands for a hike or two in Taman Negara National Park to give us a feel for the interior. The monsoon season prevented us from visiting earlier, but the rains are now ending and we travelled in the hope that the weather may have eased enough to let us see the place. It would also be a superb opportunity for our first attempt to film part of our trip. We have always been reluctant to video our travels for a number of reasons, chiefly, that your trip can easily turn into one big movie shoot with all the attendant frustrations and hassles of catching the right footage. From the expense of buying decent camera equipment, the masses of computer memory required for movie footage as opposed to stills and finally the inordinate amounts of time spent editing the movies, splicing in soundtracks etc, and you lose a heck of a lot of travel time making what will probably be a mediocre home-movie at best. Back in Melaka our little Panasonic Lumix camera died after many years of sterling service and, seeking a suitable replacement, my eye was drawn to a fantastic deal on an SJ4000; a little ‘Go-Pro clone’ that came with a fantastic array of accessories with a freebie selfie-stick and memory card all thrown in. A few YouTube reviews convinced us to go for it; if successful we could use all the accessories on a more expensive Go-Pro while at the same time it wasn’t such a big expenditure if it ultimately proved unsuccessful.

A fantastic sunlit dawn provided the scene for the inaugural video; “The Leprechauns Leaving of Kuala Lumpur”. With the camera mounted on top of my helmet we set off catching the sleepy-eyed city as it woke from a Saturday night. Dust motes twirled through the crepuscular rays as the sunrise crept around skyscrapers filling canyons of streets with golden light. Mopeds buzzed around my front wheel giving some feel to what it’s like ride through an Asian metropolis and then the towers hove into view. First the KL, spire first, peeking over a curtain of high-rise blocks. The road skirted the buildings revealing the entire height of the needle from stem to tip, all sited atop the jungled garden that laps around its base. The road wound on beneath the monorail into a futuristic cityscape, all glass, concrete and steel, the route lined with spectacular palms and banyans with the tendril roots of the latter trailing down from lofty branches to remind the viewer that these are equatorial climes. Suddenly the Petronas Towers hove into view. I gasped at the beauty of these jeweled icons, their stainless carapace sparkling all diamante and reflecting laser beam lights of pure sunshine in all directions. Traffic lights ahead changed to red and I sat awhile jabbering excitedly on the intercom to Mags, enthralled that my directorial debut was yielding such fantastic material. This was just superb! What a start to the day!

The lights changed and the road led us away from the excitement into more mundane suburbs. The cool morning breeze wafted across my face as we gathered a bit of speed on the link road to the motorway out of town. Better drop the flip front of the helmet then… At this point I should explain to the non-motorcycling reader, Maggie and I are using what are known as ‘flip-front’ helmets for this trip. They look like a full-face crash helmet only the entire chin piece can be raised like a medieval knight would raise his visor after the joust. Flip-front helmets are just great for slow speed riding around town so you can enjoy the benefits of a cool breeze just like this morning… except that this morning I have a new video camera mounted on top of my helmet that is supposedly capturing fantastic footage of the metropolis… Later when I downloaded the movie, you guessed it… about 40 minutes of flip-front, totally obscuring every shot. No towers, no trees, no sparkles just a crappy piece of white plastic proceeding vaguely along some road.

The highway across the country to Kuantan was some compensation for my failed cinematography and surely one of the great rides of Malaysia; the E8, a staggering, slaloming, super-wide motorway into the mountains full of fast bends and stunning scenery. Then the slower coastal road delivered us to the surfer beaches at Cherating for a couple of nights at a mostly vacant resort. It is still too early in the season and we had lashings of rain and stormy seas dictating an earlier than planned ride on up to Kuala Terengganu. On the surface Terengganu didn’t seem to have a lot to offer, especially when dappled dull by grey skies, but this is Malaysia and the friendly and welcoming people here simply make anything seem great. Our hostess at the ‘Titi Villa’ (…stop sniggering at the back there!) delivered a bountiful supply of home cooked food to our door at least once a day, delicious repasts ranging from lightly curried Malay pasta to a fragrant fall-apart fish platter that tasted like the catch of the day basted in a curried bisque.

Sadly we learned that the heavy rain had destroyed our intended route up through the central highlands to Taman Negara, incurring a 60-mile detour to the north to circumvent the blocked road. Rain induced landslides had destroyed several roads in the area with some loss of life, including the tragic tale in the local paper of a schoolteacher whose car veered into a collapsed drainage ditch. The car was wedged in the ditch and, unable to open the doors, she called her husband on her mobile as the car filled with water. He rushed to the scene only to retrieve her drowned body.

Fortunately the sun was now shining as we rode into the Malaysian heartland and made our way to Kuala Tahan, where the road ends at the broad reach of the Kelantan River across which was the gateway to the park (you will have noticed the word ‘Kuala’ appearing in quite a few Malay place names; it means ‘place were two rivers meet’). But let’s not go there just yet… That road ran like a liquorish bootlace through palm plantation chased all the way by telegraph poles, their sagging lines adorned with clothes-peg arrays of beautiful little swallows. Now and again they descended to chase along the road in front of us turning our slow ride into a real zippity-do-da-day. Then a tracer-round of electric blue flashed by; a Kingfisher, most beautiful of birds, had joined the fun! We rolled off and watched as he alighted on the lines up ahead, heads swiveling like mechanical owls unable to take our eyes off him. Back home in the UK most of our native wildlife is fairly drab and muted in colour. One exception is the Kingfisher, most elusive and tiniest of birds and we have glimpsed flashes of these little streaks of blue maybe four or five times in our lives. So you can imagine our delight at this encounter on the bike, even better to see him perched on the telegraph wire allowing a good look at him. We rode on; another Kingfisher on the other side of the road, a while later yet another and then a pair of them watching us ride by, then another and another until we had counted a round dozen providing a spectacular avian honour-guard for the day.  Indeed our Kingfishers were appropriately bright jewels to stud what was for us the crowning beauty of all Malaysia; Taman Negara National Park.

Kuala Tahan, service town for the park, was something of a sleepy outpost backed on to the river, a collection of a few shady guesthouses, eateries and package tour companies offering everything from day trips to jungle expeditions into the park. Down by the river a number of floating restaurants lined the banks. At the far end one of them hung suspended from the trees high up on the bank, like Dorothy’s house from the Wizard of Oz, marooned when the river flooded a few years back. We spent days in the park, wandering muddy jungle trails (after all the recent rain) and climbing up to try the canopy walk, a run of rope-ladder and netting constructions that take you high up into the trees, rendered utterly frightening by the ricketiness of it all.  We saw monkeys, more Kingfishers, heard rather than saw a racket of Hornbills up in the canopy above and gawked at a splendid Brahminy Eagle circling the riverbanks. On our final hike, we were making our way back to the ferry back to town when we bumped into a couple of locals walking in the opposite direction. They were stopped and frantically gestured for us to halt! keep quiet! stay back! and take care! The guy made a sinuous motion with his arm and pointed into some bushes at the side of the trail. He then uttered one word “Cobra!” If we were unsure of his gestures that word put the fear of god into us and made us obey… After a few moments we cautiously crept along the path, eyes glued to the bushes where the snake was last observed. Peering into the gloom we spied a small clearing into which a one-metre length of chalybeous serpent unraveled his length to move rapidly away from us into the more dense undergrowth. Back at the park interpretive centre we identified our snake as a fully-grown Monocellate or Monocled Cobra and, whilst the snake is extremely venomous with the additional ability to spit its venom, they will only strike when cornered and prefer to evade contact as had happened today. It was another beautiful encounter and one that will ensure that Taman Negara remains a special place in our travels.

And so our time in Malaysia was drawing to a close. We rode back to Kuala Lumpur, stopping off to see yet more spectacular birds around the old hill station at Fraser’s Hill on the way. The sign on the way into town bills this as Malaysia’s Little England and indeed it feels like we are in the Lake District, if you can imagine Cumbria surrounded by jungle. Back in KL we replaced the waterpump on Maggie’s bike for the second time on the trip, the task made easier this time by the use of the facilities at Sunny Cycles, in our books the number one motorcycle dealer on the planet! Sunny is a fellow overlander and was very sympathetic to our needs, immediately offering floor space in his workshop to complete the repairs and then taking us all out for lunch. Then it was time for the ferry to Sumatra and bid farewell to Malaysia after nearly seven months here (including the month long stop in Singapore), the longest we have spent in any country on our travels to date. Malaysia is a magical place, not so much for the beauty of the country but for the kindness and hospitality of the Malaysian people who we will forever after hold dear to our hearts. But up ahead the monsoon is clearing and it is time to proceed to our next destination… Indonesia!

The gallery for this article may be accessed by clicking the following link: Last Days in Malaysia

9 thoughts on “Twelve Kingfishers and a Cobra…

  1. Nice bit of reportage there, folks! Clearly hitting your stride with the scribbling. Quite right about the filming being a bit of time consuming ball ache. But, I hope you don’t get too discouraged with the learning curve, your game will up, just like the writing, as you persevere!




    • Thanks for the comment Johnny,

      We’ve had a bit more success with the filming but it is consuming memory at an alarming rate… Still undecided on whether it is worth it and suspect the most I’ll get out of it are snippets for inserting into presentations.



  2. Hi Guys.
    A terrific write up. I’ll be there later this year and am very much looking forward to it. I’d love to know more details of the ferry to Sumatra. I’ll be coming the other way and it would be handy to know.



    • Hi Geoff,

      Thanks for the comment 🙂 The ferry runs from Tanjung Balai (IND) to Port Klang (MLY) and the cost per bike & rider is 1635 RM. You can’t prebook as such but you do need to check which boat is on on what day. It runs every day except Sundays and they have 5 boats, of which only the laser vessels can carry bikes. It is a bit of a palaver loading and unloading as you have to get all your luggage X-Rayed and need it off anyway to get through the tight doors and into the boat, which is built to carry passengers only. It’s a big motor speed boat and crosses in 5 hours. Will post more on this in the next post on Sumatra. In the meantime the following link is quite useful for info on the other ferries through Indonesia; Thanks to the guys at Panomoto for sharing this. Will you be at HU in Indonesia? If so it will be great to meet…


  3. It’s in May Geoff – around 18th and is on the island of Sumbawa. We will probably be shipping to Oz around July so we may bump into one another if your headed the other way…


    • Thanks Jo!

      Glad you enjoyed the read. Sumatra has been amazing and we just moved on to Java… Blog on Sumatra should be ready soon 🙂


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