It’s couch surfing for touring cyclists and its called Warm Showers (perhaps because a good wash trumps a comfy sit down when you’re a sweaty biker). For foreign cyclists looking to meet locals while travelling and experience just of slice of living as they do, this online hospitality exchange site is a top idea.
You get to connect with altruistic, cycle-happy hosts, swap tales from the road and glean a little more about life in the country you’re travelling through. Because no money can be exchanged, Warm Showers stays can stretch the budget too. Hosts might offer you a bed in their house or a place to pitch a tent outside, and perhaps use of a kitchen or laundry. It can be a bit of a lottery when it comes to amenities, but it’s more about enjoying the company of others while touring than saving a buck.
Being squeamish about small talk with strangers and a long-time devotee of personal privacy, the cosiness of couch surfing has never appealed.
But our new cycling friends in Singapore heartily recommended Warm Showers. So, as we set out on our journey up the East Coast of Malaysia and immersed ourselves in a slow pace of life, we decided to give it a go.
There weren’t a lot of available hosts along our chosen off-the-track route, so we didn’t baulk at contacting Bob when we reached Sedili, a two-day ride out of Singapore. A retired bank manager, Bob’s online profile sounded great. It was the way he described his little patch of green on the edge of the village with shady gardens full of fish ponds and roosters and rabbits that seemed ideal after a couple of long, hot days on the road, especially for our four-year-old daughter Maya.
Bob, you Rock!
Bob’s hospitality must be legendary in cycling circles. His comfy, air-conditioned rooms with attached bathrooms were just the beginning. After settling in Bob invited us to lunch: a huge spread that included curried crab, fried fish netted straight from his pond, and plenty of vegetarian dishes prepared especially for us by his lovely housemaid Wan.
A good grasp of English meant we could enjoy a decent chat, and afterwards, we all jumped into his car for a guided tour around town. Watching river fishing boats, we sipped thick, Malay coffee at Bob and Wan’s favourite shop where he treated Maya to ABC – a much-loved Malaysian concoction of shaved ice topped with nuts, sweet beans, coconut jelly and vibrant squirts of lurid green, yellow and pink sweet syrups.
At a riverside playground Maya joined local kids in an impromptu soccer match and there were stops at the beach, a friend’s house to sip icy glasses of rose-flavoured milk and a local restaurant for spicy noodles and iced tea as the sun went down.
We awoke early the next morning to the distinct sound of magnificent hornbills feeding on papayas in the treetops. Bob and Wan were already up and waiting so we zipped off to breakfast on spicy rice and hot coffee and took a bundle of picnic treats back down to the beach for a warm, wake-up float as the sun rose over the coconut palms.
There were more indulgences too: a trip to the local bakery where the local Muslim women showed Maya how to roll fresh roti, and another delicious lunchtime feast. We spent the afternoon at a local coffee shop, nibbling on platters of fried sweet potato, tofu and banana and dipped fresh fried flatbreads into thick curry. Bob and the local shopkeepers didn’t let us pay for any of it, despite our best efforts (although I did manage to muscle Wan out of the way to pay for a few groceries for lunch). To ease our too-full tummies, Bob and Wan cut down and served us fresh green pandan coconuts – the best I’ve ever tasted.
We all had too much fun, tasted tremendously good food and enjoyed the company of Bob and Wan’s extended circle of friends so much. Our very private, air-con room was comfy, we were invited to use the washing machine, and Maya simply loved petting Bob’s rabbits and feeding the koi fish.
But there was one obvious problem. Bob’s immense generosity raised the bar far too high for any other Warm Showers experience to touch.
Our Flipside Stay
We were bound to be disappointed the next time around and we were…just a little. Five nights later we were drawn to another Warm Showers host because it was a family and we thought Maya might enjoy some playtime with someone other than us.
The family was lovely, the conversation easy, but there was a less inclusive vibe. We had access to a private bathroom for a refreshing cold wash and were offered a tiled room where we rolled out our camp mats (no bed, but not a major hassle). The only downer was that we weren’t really included in what the family was up to, other than a trip to the supermarket so we could buy drinking water and food. At dinnertime we went our separate ways: the host family joined up with their family and we strolled to the main street in search of a restaurant.
What made the stay distinctly uncomfortable was that overnight the house got unbearably hot because all the windows were closed (I assume that the host’s bedrooms had air-con). We tossed and turned and sweated on our camp mats until 5am and were happy to escape into the cool of the morning and start cycling. One night of discomfort was no big deal and the experience moderated our expectations of what a Warm Showers stay might be. That said, we’ll be happy to pay for cheap hotels for a while; Bob, you ruined us!!
With around 83,000 members, Warm Showers is a worldwide hospitality exchange website exclusively set up for travellers touring by bicycle. It’s free to join and whatever hosts offer (beds, campsites or a shower) must be free-of-charge www.warmshowers.org