Langkawi by Bicycle (for Dummies)

If I had to sum up South East Asia thusfar in one word, it would be “motorbikes.” Not “street-food” or “friendly” or even “hot,” but “motorbikes.” Or maybe just the sound of a grumbling engine and a faintly angry beeping noise speeding off into the distance.

Seemingly everyone here is in fact riding a motorbike, from small children to their grandparents. They jam the streets and usurp the sidewalks; they park in front of bars and restaurants and food stalls wherever they can find a spare six inches. They are ubiquitous, they are annoying, they are iconic. They are something Hayley and I knew we’d eventually need to try — we were just never sure where the safest place would be to give it a go.

Motorbike parking, Penang. Check out the truly amazing sign.

But by our second day in Langkawi, we had decided it would be as good a place as any to test our mettle on the road. The streets of the island, far from what we’d seen in Bali and KL, looked calm, manageable, full of semi-courteous drivers who used turn signals and actively tried to avoid hitting one another. This would be a perfect spot to try driving motorbikes for the first time, we reasoned, and we’d heard there was an amazing waterfall just outside town we could ride them to.

We showed up at the rental place Saturday morning, licenses and cash deposits in hand, and informed the rental agent of our plan, grinning widely.

“Have you ever done anything like this before?” he asked us, eyebrows raised. (Translation: “You two girls look like you didn’t even get your training wheels off ’til college.”)

“Nope! Just thought we’d give it a try!” (Translation: “No, we’re just going for it! You know, first time in Malaysia, backpacking on our own, totally getting into it and being wicked fearless! We know, we know, it’s so awesome!”)

“OK,” the rental agent sighed, starting to put away the helmets he’d pulled out for us, “I’m going to recommend to you today that you don’t do this.” (Translation: “Are you out of your minds?!?”)

We looked at him dumbly, making hesitant little squeaking noises that were supposed to convey our real desire to do this, our ability to handle challenges, our obvious total bad-ass-ness.

“I see motorbike accidents every day,” he continued. “Every day. This is a machine. With 140 cubic centimeters of…” and at this point I can’t remember what he was saying, because the phrase “cubic centimeters” is always followed by something scientific and confusing, and because he was already walking around to our side of the counter and leading us towards a few rickety-looking bicycles. Manually powered transportation, he made it clear to us, would be much more our speed.

But here’s the thing about bicycles and me: you know that phrase, “You never forget how to (speak a language/drive stick/play an instrument, etc.) – it’s like riding a bike”? For me, riding a bike is not like riding a bike. I remember being fairly confident on my pink-and-purple Huffy two-wheeler, back when I applied the brakes by pedaling backwards and needed my dad’s go-ahead to cross the street. But these days, after years of not riding, I’m wobbly. I’m self-doubting. I tend to ride the hand-brakes and veer wildly off course each time I look for traffic over my shoulder. Basically, I look more like a circus animal trained to ride a cycle than a human being gliding effortlessly on two wheels.

Still, the idea of a nice, easy bike ride around the island of Langkawi sounded fun, largely because it came without the ominous three-car-pile-up spiel the rental agent had given us before.

“Is it far to the waterfall?” I asked the rental agent. “Too far to go by bike?”

“Oh, no, not far. Not far on bike,” he reassured us. “Maybe it gets a little bit hilly at the end, but otherwise flat all the way. Very nice ride.”

So, naturally, given the fact that I expected a ride of maybe an hour down peaceful, beachy paths along the water, I decided it would be a good idea to wear this:

Dress over swimsuit: yep, totally outfitted for success.

Obviously, wearing a dress on a bicycle is rarely a good idea. I know this. But I think I’ve been exposed to far too many movies where Julia Roberts and Marion Cotillard sail breezily alongside the fields of exotic locales, steering their fixed-gears with ease and letting the wind flutter through their skirts. This was the kind of jaunt I was expecting.

What I got was more an opportunity to push dehydration and self-preservation instincts to their limits. The “litte bit hilly” portion at the end of the route? It actually comprised about 50% of the trip. The adorable, provincial paths I was expecting? Nonexistent. We rode along the undefined edge of a twisting, busy thoroughfare the whole way, vans and motorbikes honking at us either because we were in their way or — also entirely likely — because the bottom half of my bikini was fully exposed the thanks to my impractical wardrobe choice.

At the age of 29, I’d never in my life ridden further than a few blocks down deserted suburban streets on my own, and always with a helmet and a functioning cell phone in case of emergencies. But now, here I was in the Malaysian jungle at high-noon with nothing more than a soaked-through Sox cap and some rudimentary hand-signals to protect me for the next 25 km.

One of many, many water-and-sunscreen pit-stops.

Three hours later, my dress had gone about five shades darker, from salmon-pink to dirt-and-sweat brown. My legs were gelatinous from the grunting up-hill climbs that scores of spin classes had evidently been unable to prepare me for the reality of. But by the time we finally reached the park that housed the waterfall, I can’t say that I cared. We parked our bikes for 1 ringgit each and sprinted up the little paved hill to the waterfall, suddenly aware of just how easy it is to climb a hill when there’s nothing between your feet and the ground but a the soles of your shoes. And when we reached the falls, thundering down into a tranquil, clear pool, I tore off my shoes and dress and plunged in as if about to save someone from drowning.


In hindsight, the waterfall really was stunning. There were monkeys crawling along its rocky face; there was greenery skirting its edges. There were small children in water-wings giggling in its pool and families taking pictures. But all I cared about at that point was getting my body under the cool pressure of its descent, wringing my dress and hat out in its clear pool, rubbing the grimy film of sunscreen and dirt off my skin.

By the end of my swim I felt accomplished. Fit. Adventurous. Fearless. Sore as hell. And ready to load my bike into the back of a taxi for the trip home.


5 thoughts on “Langkawi by Bicycle (for Dummies)

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  5. I just couldn’t stop laughing to myself reading this, This article is damn right funny! From someone who is currently cycle touring Malaysia as opposed to backpacking and jumping on buses and trains I can say that I agree with everything you’ve said, especially about all the grime, sweat, and oil sunscreen that seems to attract all the car fumes. I think when I get to Langkawi I’ll leave my bicycle at the hostel and take a motorbike even if that means shunning the advice of the salesman! Backpacking adventure and massive ego? Oh yess!

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