Malaysia: Jungle Joy Ride

Malaysia: Jungle Joy Ride
Under a royal blue sky, we’re hurtling south along a smooth multi-lane freeway amid a sea of rolling greens hills. Waves of lush forestation, palm farms, and tea plantations stretch into the horizon. Malaysia is a dynamic melting pot that Malays, Indians, Chinese, and a host of others call home—and where the best of each fuses into a culinary and social scene unlike anywhere else in the world.

My R 1150 GS pulls firmly as I lean into a fast bend with Lisa just a few feet behind me. We’re among 25 new friends and BMW riders who’ve joined us to provide an escort into one of Asia’s most vibrant countries, Malaysia.

The Petronas Towers, a Modern Marvel

Ivan, on his R 1200 GS, is just ahead; we’d met him months ago in northern Thailand and gratefully accepted his offer of an apartment room in Kuala Lumpur (or KL) for our first few nights here. Hard on the throttle, we’re 125 miles north of KL and working to keep up with the rapid pace of our group. We slice through the center of the Kinta Valley and past the Perak State city of Ipoh with its architectural mélange of colonial austerity and Chinese shop fronts. As evening sets in, we’ve exchanged countryside for suburbs, and our freeway is now lit in fluorescent orange and bright neon blues resembling a scene from the sci-fi adventure film Tron. We merge carefully into the traffic entering Greater Kuala Lumpur, a city that 1.6 million people call home. Surrounded by car exotica, we ogle the latest and greatest offerings from BMW, Mercedes, Porsche, and Ferrari before finally reaching Ivan’s sky-rise apartment in Damansara Perdana, one of KL’s wealthier suburbs. Our band of riders has shrunk to three as each has peeled off to find their own way home.

Our first fast, smooth ride to the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur.

The past few days have given us a chance to acclimatize to KL’s modern-day tempo. We’re on the bikes and have moved away from the speeding freeway that encircles KL. We navigate the city center’s complex and congested one-way system at a more familiar pace. Neatly painted markings on black asphalt denote motorcycle parking only. We are dwarfed by Malaysia’s crown jewel that looms overhead, The Petronas Towers. Designed to symbolize Malaysia’s advancement on the world stage, thousands of steel and glass panels stretch almost one-third mile into the sky. On the 41st floor, the famous Skybridge spans the distance and joins the 88 sparkling stories. As night falls, we are perched on the 33rd floor of Traders Hotel, which boasts one of the best views across Kuala Lumpur. We can’t help being impressed with the Petronas Towers as they dominate the skyline and send beams of vertical light into the low cloud base.

Race to the City in the Sky

We’re riding northeast of the city along the Karak Expressway, a 6-laned leviathan cut into the hillside. It’s Sunday morning, and we’ve joined local bikers for one of the most famous rides in Malaysia. Lisa and I are being inducted by Ivan and his biking buddies into a long-held weekly ceremony, the race up to Genting Highlands. Atop the Titiwangsa Mountain Range, the resort offers KL’s elite a cool respite from the city’s intense heat. Besides, it’s the place for petrol-heads to be seen on the weekends.

Richie A. Orangutan, alpha male, quietly watches us walk past.

I’m tucked in behind Lisa on her F 650 GS and surrounded by BMWs, race-prepped Ducatis, MV Agustas, and Bimotas. Ivan signals for our group to peel off the expressway and join a two-lane, one-way track. We throw our bikes into an endless succession of corners that come at us increasingly faster as we hurtle up the mountainside at an ear-popping pace. The landscape changes from tropical to alpine as we near the 6,000-foot summit at Genting. The resort is cloaked in a cool mist, and the view is spectacular. With the bikes parked nearby, Lisa and I sip on strong coffee and gawk at an exotic mix of Ferraris, Lotuses, Porsche, and Lamborghinis that pull up smoothly to the nearby casino. Although the roar of 30 motorcycles starting tells us that our group is ready to head back down, we elect to stay and meet up with Ivan later this evening.

Mischievous Monkeys and Human Skewers

Back on the bikes, our ride to the lowlands is as dizzying as the ascent, and we are soon sweltering once again. Five miles north of downtown KL, we ease off the Jalan Lingkaren Tengah 2 highway and pull up at the base of a dramatic limestone outcrop. Gangs of mischievous macaque monkeys roam the 272 steps that lead to the elevated mouth of the Batu Caves. At the top, we catch our breath and take a moment to let our eyes adjust to the vast and dark interior of the main chamber. The vaulted ceilings of the aptly named Cathedral Cave (a Hindu temple) disappear into an eerie gloom. At the start of each year during the Thaipusam Festival, the cavern becomes a frenetic and gruesome spectacle as throngs of devotees to Lord Murugan crush inside, many of whom skewer themselves with stakes, hooks, and knives. For now, the darkness of the tranquil shrine is lit by candlelight, and a handful of bare-chested Hindus pray and chant. In the rear grotto, where the limestone has crumbled, shards of bright sunlight pierce the murk. The scene is a surreal contrast to the well-heeled, Wi-Fi festooned places of shiny KL.

Traditional Orang Asli (indigenous Malaysians) wooden homes north of KL.

The “Headhunter” Ride

In the blur that was last week, we were invited by Tourism Malaysia and WTR magazine (a Malay motorcycle publication) to join them on their annual tour, the Sarawak Headhunter Ride. With a name like that, how could we refuse? Our destination is Borneo!

Rolling over the smooth cobbled streets of Kuching (the capital city of the East Malaysian state of Sarawak), the bikes seem none the worse for their 90-minute flight from KL. We promptly check into the plush Merdeka Palace Hotel where we meet our riding companions, an international group of biking journalists and photographers (Nicky from Thailand, Franco from Italy, Halley from India, and Dimitry from Russia). Wisnu, Firdaus, and Ahmet had flown in from Indonesia yesterday. Five Borneo riders led by the ever-smiling Aki make up the local contingent, and they will ensure we catch Malaysian Borneo’s highlights.