Cycling Sumatra Part 5: Honks and hills

Beautiful Melaka is a tourist magnet. We loved it.

Beautiful Melaka is a tourist magnet. We loved it.

Cycling Sumatra Part 4: Honks and hills

Country: Indonesia and Malaysia

From Pemantangreba to Bangi

Lesson learned: The Indonesian word for “foreigner” is “Mister”

Laughed about: Power-walking to the Pizza Hut.

Most wonderful miracle: UNESCO town Melaka and a lonesome beach

Food we ate: Rice and Pizza

Greatest challenge: Traffic and hills

Days on the bike: 7

Kilometers cycled: 310.85

Average Kilometers per day: 44.41

Total Kilometers cycled till Bangi: 14411.69

Total days travelled till Bangi: 817

March 2014: Cycling Sumatra Part 5.


This Blog entry is dedicated to our friend Carolyn, who is a great supporter and follower and a friend of dogs, as well as to the Dog Shelter Georgia, who are doing a wonderful job finding nice human friends for street dogs. Our good friend Robin and his two dogs Molly and Leyla support them and want to help Georgia’s street dogs.


We had finally made it to the main street. The times of water shortage and mud were over. I was sure that everything would be much easier now, but as it sometimes happens in life – it wasn’t.

Roberto has a nap on a ceiling

We were really in need of some days off.

We had been used to zero traffic. What we had now were full streets, fumes, honks and crazy drivers. Apart from that our flat tracks have turned into an extremely hilly road. The hills were not high, but very steep. Slowly I moved leg after leg at 4 km/h of average speed in the lowest gear and it took me several minutes to force my bike up the hill. Then I had a few seconds time to change into the highest gear and roll down within seconds at more than 50 km/h. Down in the valley the game started from the beginning again. Endless up and down. After few kilometers I was completely exhausted.

Traffic in Pekanbaru, Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia

Traffic in Pekanbaru

Do you remember that I mentioned the traffic? Well, the hills were bad, but still doable. The traffic was worse. There was no space at all for us. The trucks also had quite some trouble going uphill, so the other cars decided that now it was probably a good moment to overtake them. Other traffic? So what?! They did not have all day time. If the other road users wanted to stay alive they should better make space. It was that easy. But when it was time to roll down the hills, the cars were not as fast as the heavy trucks and now it was the truck drivers’ turn to overtake everybody else. It is a bit more difficult to maneuver a heavy truck. I can tell because riding a bike full of baggage between people with only the bike makes me feel like the truck between a group of smart- and golf drivers. So of course the truck drivers decided that now it was the others’ turn to take precautions – and their time to speed up and overtake, no matter what. I am not sure if some of the drivers really knew that actually they had a pedal down next to the accelerator, which lowered the speed of their monster. On our miniature trucks we were a minority and as the weakest players on the field we had to lunch into the bushes on the side of the road.

Traffic in Pekanbaru, Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia

Even the state’s capital is full of mud roads. But these have asphalt under the mud.

The Indonesians love a good honk. There were generally five reasons for honking.

  1. The driver is overtaking and wants to show that the road is his now and that he would not go back into his lane until he had overtaken all slower vehicles along the way.
  2. The driver is going to overtake and shows his presence to those he cannot see.
  3. The driver is driving properly on his own lane in normal speed, but someone else comes driving towards him in the wrong direction, because he is overtaking somebody himself. Usually that person is speeding up and honking like crazy (cf. reason number 1).
  4. There are cyclists on the street and they have to be greeted properly by the loudest and longest honk there is.
  5. The driver has some nice music playing and likes to honk in the rhythm of his music.

I am not sure if I had mentioned earlier that I am scared very easily. After half an hour on the road my shoulders and my neck were as tense as the frame of my bike and my eyes were quickly in search for danger all the time. How could I know which drivers only honked to say hello and which ones honked to show us “Get out of my way, I am driving a big heavy truck and I do not fancy slowing down for some dirty slow cyclists”? Only at night I managed to relax a little.

Traffic in Pekanbaru, Riau, Sumatra, Indonesia

Imagine two truck-like pushbikes in the middle of that junction.

The hills and honks continued for three days. My general mood turned from happy into grumpy and I am sure that if I ever get angry looking glabella wrinkles then these days had a lot to do with them. I did not feel all too social so whenever we stopped we tried to search for small stands and usually sat down in the darkest corner. Yet we were rather easy to spot for the locals and of course they were curious on us and as open minded and interested people they shouted “Mister! Miiiister! Hello Mister!”, came closer and involved us in a small talk while posing for hundreds of pictures.

Equator in Sumatra

We had made it to the Equator!

Mister stands for any foreigner, male or female, child or adult, it can stand alone or as a title like “Mister Annika” and after some days I gave up calling the girls “Miss” and just replied “Hello Mister” to anybody along the way.

One day Roberto yelled “Stop!” and I nearly jumped off the road in fear, but then I saw it. I had nearly missed the equator! That was one of the reasons for me picking this unusual route – I wanted to cross the equator by bike. We took some pictures with the monument and then continued cycling back in the northern hemisphere.

Every now and then we were followed by some street dogs. In more than two years on the road we had not counted a single dangerous encounter with dogs, even though people had warned us that the Turkish, Thai, Indonesian, Greek and Serbian dogs were the naughtiest of all of them. Yes, we had been followed by plenty of loudly barking dogs with their slobber drooling out of their mouths, but not a single one really wanted to hurt us.

Annika and Roberto at the equator in Sumatra

Proud cyclists

We never carried pepper spray or sticks of stones to throw at them, but some friends had given us the best tip of all of them: when chased – stop. It may sound scary to stop and stand right in front of the barking dog, but once we stopped moving we were not too interesting for the dogs anymore. They loved to chase, but what was the point in chasing an object that did not move? Most dogs survive on what they find in the streets and few need to chase for food and those that do, are better off with some small rats, snakes or bunnies than with two big and sweaty cyclists of 55 and 85 kilos.

So when we got tired of being chased we just slowed down. If the dogs still kept on running, we stopped. Most dogs would continue barking but they would lose interest in no time. And the few ones that kept on growling, ran off the moment, we bended down. They knew that people who ducked were usually picking up stones to throw at them, so there had never been an actual need of throwing anything, we have always been fine with ducking only, even if there were not even stones around.

Map of Riau Province, Sumatra, Indonesia

In Pekanbaru we had finally found out that the route I had been looking for, was complete nonsense. Why is there no such map for sale? We could have really used one.

Some cyclists told us that we had to look into the dog’s eyes, others were sure that that was the worst thing to do. Others say the only thing that helped was, to bark back and move the arms in the air, others say that this is exactly the action to be avoided. I can’t tell, I have always been fine stopping.

When we reached Pekanbaru, Riau’s capital, we checked into a brand new budget hotel. All rooms were rented for the price of an economy room (grand opening special) and were super clean. We even had a real shower with a shower head on a tube on the tube and hot water coming out of it. Breakfast and Wi-Fi were included and we enjoyed AC, free breakfast and our own TV with a few Indonesian and Chinese channels. The nearest shopping center was less than 10 minutes walking and we paid some 10 € a night. What a difference to the past week! We brought our things inside, took a quick shower and went off power-walking to the shopping center where we filled ourselves with as much Pizza as we could fit in our bellies. That was just what we needed: a clean and calm room for ourselves, good food and some quiet days.



It was only another 190 kilometers to get to Dumai, less than 3 days by bike, but I did not even want to think about hills and honks anymore. I was exhausted and tense and my neck was as hard as the street under my wheels. Why should we leave this beautiful and relaxing place and get back into the dangerous roads? I had just been lucky that every time I got scared I had reflexively pulled the handlebar to the left towards the bushes and not to the right into the traffic. Nobody forced us to continue. And we really did not want to. Instead we stayed four full days in Pekanbaru, ate fast food, wrote emails, had a good rest and headed off to the bus station on the fifth day.

Indonesian repellent

We prepared ourselves for the day when insects would rule the world. The Indonesian repellent was just so cheap.

On the way to the station we stumbled upon a minibus with space for two bikes on the roof. We were the first ones in the bus. “We’ll leave soon”, the driver and his helper told us. We had heard that one before and waited for half a day back in Kyrgyzstan. But our little bus filled surprisingly quickly and fortunately our bikes were the only heavy items on the roof. No big boxes of cucumbers, no pooping chicken or goats, none of the passengers carried a washing machine, a new computer or a cow with them. We were in very good luck.

The bikes survived the ride without any problems and so did we. Thanks to our driver. He had the unusual habit of actually having a look at the traffic before he went out to overtake. Yet we had to fix two wheels. One tire exploded and one rim broke in two pieces and in the end we needed more than 6 hours for less than 190 kilometers. But they never made us push the bus, spend the night on the side of the street or squeeze into another full bus. Even the price was fair: we paid as much as all our local co-passengers too and when the driver asked for a little tip for the heavy bikes we gave it without big discussion. The price he asked us for, was fair and indeed we had been the only ones with big baggage.

Hotel Bathroom in Sumatra, Indonesia

In Dumai we got the luxury version of a hotel room: it came with our very own bathroom!

We found a cheap but very simple guesthouse in Dumai and I am quite sure that I was the only female customer who did not make any money during this night. We decided to use our sleeping bag inlet as a sheet between the mattress and us and not to cover ourselves with it as we usually did. It was too hot to cover ourselves anyway and the fan helped much more without a cover.

The following morning was rainy and we made our way straight to the harbor. We had one day of visa left, but did not fancy spending a second night in the hotel, so we headed off back to Malaysia.

Back in Malaysia

Back in Malaysia

The boat was fine and the temperature inside above zero. I put all my winter gear back into my bags – of course I had come prepared after what I learned during the last cold ferry ride to Sumatra.

While I waited for our passport control, Roberto went to the toilet in the Malaysian side and came out with a big smile. “You won’t believe how clean this public toilet is!” Yes, I am talking about Roberto, the world’s biggest fan of anti-bacterial gel.

We stayed in Melaka for three nights and we enjoyed being tourists among other tourists. We had not met one single foreigner in two weeks Sumatra and here was an endless coming and going of tourists in the Jonker steet, the night market and the walk along the river. We loved every moment of that.

Hot Pot at the Night Market in Jonker Street

Hot Pot at the Night Market in Jonker Street

We have met many tourists who tried to avoid any tourist magnets and felt that they had not lived a true adventure if shared with other foreigners. We, on the other side, enjoy being in touristy places every now and then. As we spent most time with locals we are happy if we meet some other foreigners to share travel stories with, talk in English, Spanish or German, and get some tips. When they tell us about their experiences going to places that were not on our route, it sometimes really feels as if we had been there ourselves.

Plenty of flowers by the river in Melakka

Plenty of flowers by the river

As cyclists, our route is usually more limited than the one of a backpacker. Instead of having a point as a base and then explore the surroundings by going out for some day trips, we usually get into town from one direction and leave it towards the other.

Christmas Feeling inside the malls.

Christmas Feeling inside the malls.

Roberto and I have found out, that in our case, we generally explore more of the local life and meet more locals than most of the backpackers, but they saw many more places. It is always one for the other. I would not want to change our means of transportation for anything else anymore (except maybe some days of kayaking or horseback riding or hiking). We loved Melaka as the touristy place it was.

Roberto aims for the perfect picture

Roberto aims for the perfect picture

It was a rainy day when we packed our bags again. That was not too bad, as we still had about 23°C and with a little chill it was much easier to ride the bike quickly. We rode along the coast heading north until we reached a peninsula with a recreational area named Tanjung Tian. The gates were closed already when we arrived, so we camped next to two other families some 500 meters back were we came from, on the beach.

Trishaw driver Melakka

We made friends with the trishaw drivers. This one here has ridden his bike for many many years.

The rain continued until 4 am and at 5am a loud noise woke us up. We wondered for quite a while what that was, then we decided to go outside and have a look. I had not realized that one of our frame poles had broken until I tried to open the door. We fixed it right away and went back to sleep.

The neighbors were surprised to see us outside in the middle of the night.

The neighbors were surprised to see us outside in the middle of the night.

The recreational area was calm and we walked up to the lighthouse, where we saw some black monkeys with white fur around the eyes and some of the usual brown monkeys that we had seen so often before. Then we followed a narrow path down to a beach.

Beach in Tanjung Tian, Malaysia

Our own little paradise in Tanjung Tian

Apparently we had been the first ones on this day to walk down here, because there was not a single human footstep visible in the sand. The beach was beautiful and idyllic but as we did not fancy swimming in our cycling clothes, we headed back to the exit soon.

A bit of jungle in theTanjung Tian Recreational Area

A bit of jungle in theTanjung Tian Recreational Area

We had hardly cycled some 10 kilometers when Roberto’s back tire got flat. We fixed the hole in the tube, checked the tire and continued only to stop again 200 meters further. The procedure repeated a couple of times until we had a closer look at the rim, because most of the holes were at the rim side.

A bee on a flower

Wildlife in it’s smaller form

Small cracks let from one spoke to the other. How could that happen? The spokes were a little tighter than usual, but that should not have affected a proper rim. The last time we had checked the spokes was back in Rengat, when the mechanics put oil into Roberto’s valve. Had they also tightened the spokes so much that they cracked the rim?

Beach in Tanjung Tian, Melakka, Malaysia

Beach in Tanjung Tian

We did not know how long Roberto had been cycling with a cracked rim and were afraid that the crack could widen and the entire rim would fall in pieces, so we continued as slowly as possible till Port Dickson where we got a bus to Seremban and from there a short train to Bangi, where our friend Mirjam was happy to see us.

Heading towards Port Dickson!

Heading towards Port Dickson

We had a second presentation at the GMI talking about self-learning, self-teaching, being open for new things and individual initiative on the example of bicycle travel. The students would need those skills when they would live and study in a foreign country full of bureaucracy in a year’s time. We also helped Apit with another fashion show that he organized in Kuala Lumpur for the Tourism and Photography expo and had a good time with Mirjam, Apit and Dila.

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