Our guide to cycle touring Malaysia, Southern Thailand and Java (with your kids on board).
It’s difficult to describe the inescapable freedom of travelling the world by bicycle: of waking up and packing your gear, throwing a leg over your trusty bike and just cycling away to anywhere you want to go. There’s no haggling over a taxi fare, no opening your wallet, no slow, sweaty bus rides and if you happen to be traveling with kids, you can stop to eat, stretch, pee and enjoy the view whenever and wherever you want.
Cycle touring is leisurely, you’ll meet people and stay in locations you’d usually speed past on a bus or train, and it’s the best way I know to get fit and really experience and connect with the destinations we all travel so far to see.
OK, there’s a downside too: sometimes it hurts a little bit. You bottom will get numb, your calves will burn and you will, at some stage, beg your child to get out of its carrier and walk with you while you push your heavily-laden bike up yet another too-steep hill. There might be spills and skinned elbows, too-close traffic will rattle you, and some days you just won’t get where you plan to go and some generous stranger will offer you a bed or a bungalow and turn a bad situation into the best day of your trip.
That’s what cycling can do, taking you to places and putting you amongst people you’d never dream of meeting. And did I mention that your thighs will look amazing?
So if you are still reading this, you might be wondering just how you get your family ready for a cycle touring adventure abroad. Last year my family of three cycled over 2500km through six countries. We didn’t train for months beforehand and our entire trip – buying the bikes, accumulating gear, choosing insurance, booking flights and deciding on an itinerary – was organised (well, sort of) in a record two weeks (don’t believe me, click here to see how we managed it: ).
Make it happen
The key to tackling an overseas cycling trip with kids is wanting to go. That’s it. Once you decide to do it, you are merely ticking off a to-do list and crossing days off the calendar until you fly out. You will have nervous fears: to be completely honest, and I’ve said this before, I was more terrified of cycling out of Singapore at the start of our trip than I was of giving birth, overwhelmed by the idea of having to muscle my way through Singapore’s chaotic, busy roads with my precious four-year-old balanced on the back of my tippy, fully-laden touring bike.
Ironically, that day getting out of Singapore was one of the easiest on record and paled in comparion to our hectic, traffic-clogged escape from Jakarta, Indonesia. So where did we go and why did we love it? Here’s how the trip went down in Malaysia, Thailand and Indo.
Cycle Malaysia’s East Coast
880km: Singapore to the Thai border
After a fair bit of late-night web searching, all advice pointed us towards a route up Malaysia’s less hectic East Coast, partly because the terrain was flatter than other routes north and mostly because the roads were less travelled. Three weeks on we were not disappointed. From Desaru north we hugged the coast, cycling as far as we wanted to each day and stopping often to collect shells, cool off in the waves and tackle the detours that locals urged us to enjoy, discovering tiny fishing villages, night markets, secret stretches of sand and top noodle stalls as a result.
In all we spent 13 days on the bikes in Malaysia, covering daily distances of between 40km and 90km a day, and another 5 or so relaxing. The traffic was bearable, many roads were positively lonely, the beaches were pretty enough for sand castle building and swims, and the happy, mostly Muslim locals we shared tables with at every coffee stop, lunch break and noodle shop from Desaru to Kota Bharu went out of their way to welcome us, engaging our child with smiles and conservation and frequently paying for our meals! We ate, drank and slept well on less than AUD$50 a day (check out this post…..), overnighting in a mixture of airconditioned hotels, local guesthouses and breezy beachfront bungalows.
Twice we stayed with warm showers hosts – that’s couch surfing for cyclists (click here if you’re curious), and local food was fresh, cheap, plentiful and well suited to young palettes. Our daughter travelled under the shade of an umbrella attached to her bike seat and we hit the road every morning before sunrise to avoid the worst of the day’s heat and to ensure there was ample time each afternoon for play.
That didn’t always happen of course. On more than one ocassion hotels were full and we were forced to cycle further than anticipated, ending our long days at playgrounds and night markets instead. Hands down, east coast Malaysia rates as the most friendly destination I’ve ever travelled through. Maybe it was due to the beaming little blonde-haired child perched on the back of my bike, or perhaps the people are just totally awesome.
Highlights: The coconut palm fringed ride from Sedili Kecil to Tanung Sedili, beach time at Cherating, rolling north of Mersing through jungle-clad hills, our blissful beachfront bungalow at Merang, a coral escape to the Perentian Islands and the utterly deserted coastal roads north of Kuala Besut that sneak you into busy Kota Bharu.
Cycle Southern Thailand
240km: Sungai Kolok to Krabi
Under the best advice we could garner in Malaysia, we decided to leapfrog the very southern tip of Thailand, not because of the enduring conflict in the region but because ironically, the lack of tourists for so many years has resulted in much of the tourist infrastructure closing down. We rode our bikes across the border and jumped a passenger train to Phattalung, one of the most underated destinations in southern Thailand.
What rocks most about Phattalung is what dominates its horizon: a rugged limestone outcrop known as Khao Ok Thalu, fringed by forest and tamed by a steep, concrete staircase of some 1000 steps. The summit climb is breathtaking in every way and another less taxing stairway winds across the range to a hidden Buddhist mediation hall in the forested saddle and higher still, a stunning golden Buddha seated in the Subduing Mara posture that keeps watch, guarding the entrance to a tranquil sanctuary for some of the happiest Buddhist nuns in existence (don’t miss this video…).
Inspired by all that limestone we made a sprint for the west coast, lured to Krabi by emerald beaches and a slice of island life. The route led us first to Trang, home to one of the best traditional Buddhist vegetarian restaurants I’ve ever discovered. This jumping-off point for west coast islands boasts a pretty good night market too, filled with fresh fruit and snacks for our big ride ahead.
Picking a path north to Pak Meng (nothing to rave about) and onto the Emerald Pool in Thung Teao Forest Nature Reserve (beautiful but totally overcrowded), we spent a gorgeous night in the lush surrounds of Morokot Resort after a killer 80km-long day in the sun. The hot, hot cycle into Krabi in the midst of Thailand’s dry season effectively ended our ride through Thailand; it was simply getting too warm the farther north we cycled so after a few days R’n’R at the beach, we packed our bikes and jumped a plane south to Java, Indonesia for a dramatic case of cycling culture shock.
Highlights: meeting happy Buddhist nuns at the top of Phattalung’s Khao Ok Thalu, Trang’s bustling night markets, soaking in the Emerald Pool after the crowds departed on closing time and kicking back Ao Nang in Krabi with spicy papaya salad, deep-fried seafood and icy beers.
Cycle Java’s Southwest Coast
607km: Jakarta to Yogykarta
If you Google images of Java’s landscapes, you’ll understand what it was that made us fly our bikes into Indonesia’s most populated city #@%!!. Having cycled out of Jakarta I now know what madness that decision was, but intrepid travellers can’t possibly hope to discover new ground unless we jump on in!
Cycling out of Jakarta was anything but the road less travelled, a crazy endeavour tempered only by a couple of months of experience in the throngs of Southeast Asian traffic and our vastly increased fitness and balance. Want to see some crazy Indo traffic? Click here now .
Our white-knuckled, three-day ride to the coast at Cimija was spent dodging collisions and surviving spills (one of which eroded my confidence so much that I transferred Maya to David’s bike and took the bulk of our gear instead). I fractured my hand and pushed my bike past a dead motorcyclist on the day that almost ended our Javanese adventure, leaving us sombre and trembling and seriously questioning the whole crazy deal.
But by day three, the bloody images of road carnage began to fade and as the road emptied out, rising and falling through verdant, hilly terrain, the ride began to feel less risky again and our safety, more within our control. When we finally reached the tiny surf town of Cimaja on Java’ s southwest coast and ripped off our face masks to breathe the salty seaside air, we were all smiling big, happy, “hello mister” kind of grins.
A breezy bungalow and a few Bintangs later we were stocking up to tackle an uncharted ride through a patch of Java untouched by tourist hotels and foreign languages, and that’s where the adventure really began.
From Cimaja to Batu Karas we climbed epic hills – 1000m ascents – and freewheeled back to the sea, relishing time on a raw Indonesian coastline where being utterly out-of-place felt awesome, villages spilled out onto white-sand beaches, and locals ogled us in a way that turned the clock back 20 years.
Although hard-won, this was the road less travelled and our 410km, five-day ride proved thrilling, challenging and utterly memorable. There were hardships for sure – mouldy, window-less rooms, long, hot rides and hard stares – but these paled against the dramatic scenery, the friendly children that flocked to my daughter’s side and the bliss of reaching Rancabuaya and a clifftop bungalow with an infinity pool for a tiny AUD$22 a night!
When we managed to pull our little fish out of that Rancabuaya pool, we paralleled the coast for two heavenly days past pure white beaches severed by braided green rivers, mesmorised by perfect surf breaks that peeled off untouchable, deserted headlands all the way to Batu Karas, a beach mecca suddenly accessible to backpacking surf groupies.
Awaiting us was a boat adventure into Green Canyon and lazy, uncomplicated days by the beach, relishing our comfortable airconditioned room, easy English conversations and readily available icy beers. Eventually the good life and the crowds pushed us to escape on our bikes again, and when the roads begin to choke up, we threw the bikes on a local bus and pushed east to end our month-long trip exploring Java’s cultural capital – Yogyakarta (see more here…..).
Highlights: Stopping halfway into the 1000m climb to Jampang Kulon and buying homemade chocolate cake to celebrate our almost-forgotten anniversary; finally learning enough Behasa to order fried sweet potato and bananas for breakfast; Ranchbuaya’s dreamy seascape and the speedy upriver boat ride into Green Canyon.
What to take: Bring your own touring bike to Southeast Asia complete with one (or more) child carriers, panniers, plenty of water bottle storage, helmets and a varied repair kit. We preferred to cart our child in an elevated rear bike seat to keep her out of the traffic and fumes.
Getting around: Lonely Planet downloads and off-line mapping apps such as Pocket Earth and Maps.me were helpful on the ride. Through warmshowers.org we met and stayed with local cycling families on our rides through Malaysia and Java.
Practicalities – Malaysia: English is widely spoken, towns on the east coast are nicely spaced for cycling and food is everywhere. On average we spent AUD$50 a day (two adults and one child). Don’t miss a trip to Pulau Perhentian Kecil for an ultra affordable island escape with great snorkelling and the best underwater visibility from March to October (there are no ATMS on the island so pack cash,(www.perhentian.com.my).
Practicalities – Thailand: If overlanding into Thailand your 15-days automatic visa won’t last long. Apply for a 60-day visa at any consulate in advance (fly-in travellers get an automatic 30-day visa on arrival). Expect good weather from November to March (and high season prices) and gradually spiking temperatures in the hot, dry months from April to June. Travelling is easy in tourist-sassy Thailand, and you’ll never be far from an ATM, convenience store or hotel.
Practicalities – Java: Temperatures vary little across Java but you can expect clear skies and avoid peak season tourist crowds if you travel from May to June. Jakarta is well connected by air (try airasia.com). The cycle from Jakarta to Cimaja on the coast is a 2-3 day ride (160km); expect to pedal another 400km to Batu Karas with stops in Jampang Kulon, Sindang Barang, Rancabuaya (our favourite), Pameungpeuk and Cipatujah. Carry plenty of small currency, learn as much Bahasa Indonesia as you can, and be quick to smile (as locals do) when things don’ t go to plan.