“The problem of camping in Malaysia is not being unable to find a place to camp, but to choose the best spot among too many.”
From the lens of an Egyptian on a bikepacking tour of Southeast Asia, the experiences ran the gamut from miraculous to mundane, to heartwarming and humourous.
Photography courtesy of Mohamed Elewa.
At 51, Mohamed Elewa has the stamina of someone half his age. He has travelled to 15 countries by bicycle, mostly on a recumbent bike, the type that allows you to lean backwards. After 6 months of cycling in Western Europe and another 2 months in Sudan totalling some 13,000kms, all done within the last few years, he decided to travel to Southeast Asia, covering Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.
The 6-month Southeast Asian trip took him across 3,000kms in a journey that he describes as memorable and surprising, and a trip where he made many friends, some of whom he is still in touch with.
In Malaysia alone, the Egyptian spent about 3 months in the second half of 2019, and savoured most of it – the good and bad. He was essentially ‘bikepacking’, which simply means backpacking by bike. For accommodation, he tried as much as possible to sleep in a tent in a good spot, also known as wild camping.
Most days, he rarely exceeded an average of USD5-6 per day due to the savings from wild camping or staying with friends. Back when he was in Europe, however, he had to stay in hostels or with friends due to restrictions in camping.
But in Malaysia, Mohamed found freedoms that he could only dream of previously. In his Facebook posting, he wrote: “The problem of camping in Malaysia is not being unable to find a place to camp, but to choose the best spot among too many.”
Here is another posting that demonstrated how he got away with cycling on the highway of Malaysia. “I always avoid highways when I tour. Last Friday was an exception. My visa was about to expire and I needed to renew it. The express highway would save me 70 km. Whether bikes are allowed or not on highways in Malaysia is ambiguous. It’s a constructive ambiguity which I would say I interpreted in my favour.
“So, I took the risk. I took the motorcycle lane after the toll gate which has no barriers, and rode at full speed.
“The distance to the next exit which I was aiming at was 28 km. I was hoping I could cover it as speedily as possible before being spotted️.
“The first 15 kms went very well. A decent shoulder and a very well paved road. Not a single time did any car cross the line of the shoulder. I felt safe and thought I made the right decision.
“Then a pickup from the road safety patrol showed up from the opposite direction. The driver honked at me. I have been spotted. My heartbeat accelerated.
“I frenetically rode at maximum speed. My muscles burned as if they were injected with acid mixed will hot chilis. After a few minutes, another pickup with flashers on passed me slowly and stopped.
“I am done.”
“I slowed down to face the consequences of my foolishness. Then a miracle happened – the pickup moved, made a U-turn and left.
“What a relief. I continued my ride joyfully.
But minutes later, I saw in the mirror a third pickup with flashers on following me at my same pace and securing the shoulder.
“Fair enough. I hate being escorted, but it is far better than using the longer alternative.
“After a few kilometres, I stopped to drink. The pickup stopped as well. I saluted the officers and expressed my apologies for any inconvenience.
“The answer was: ‘we are here for your security and safety’. “Zakirul and his colleague escorted me till the exit.
“No words are enough to thank the road security team for their help and professionalism. I hope I will not have to bother them again riding on another expressway.”
Another time that he experienced great freedom was when he thought he was alone in a beach called Adam and Eve Beach at Perhentian Kecil Island.
“I reached the beach after a long hike. Nobody but me there – it’s Adam’s beach! No Eve anywhere. I put on my swimming short, jumped into the water and then sat in the shade. Before I left to explore other trails and beaches, I’d thought that since I am “Adam” and “Eve” apparently was not yet created from one of my ribs, then it should be okay to take off my wet swimming shorts and wait for a few minutes till I dry before wearing my hiking shorts comfortably.
“A great liberating feeling.
“I then sat writing a few thoughts while keeping my dry shorts very close so I could wear it within seconds in case of an emergency.
“I got a little absorbed when I carelessly had a look to my right! ‘EVE’! A splendid Eve laying down her stuff and getting ready for a swim.
“I literally jumped into my shorts. I had to cover myself although I didn’t eat the forbidden fruit”
“Travelling and meeting people with the same passions obliterate age differences and any other differences.”
Apart from displaying great humour, Mohamed’s writings had literary beauty. Not surprising for a man who reads the classics like Albert Camus during his down time.
When clouds were forming in the sky, he wrote: “Apocalyptic skies transform my mood dramatically. I feel like playing one of the engaging symphonies of Tchaikovsky or Beethoven in full volume. Scream till my lungs would almost explode. And ride relentlessly at full speed ignoring the rain, thunder and lightning.
“Madness symptoms? It has similar effects of a full moon on a Wolverine.
Post-trip, in an interview with Asian Property Review, Mohamed recounted that his most memorable moments were the human interactions.
“On a few occasions, there was some very warm human contact which touched me deeply, for example, a brief period on the road at a cafeteria, a roti canai shop which I went twice. The owner and I are still in contact. Another time, I met a retired police officer who had a boat and invited me for a boat trip. Those were very unique interactions that left a deep imprint on me.”
In his Facebook, he wrote: “The best parts of all my trips are the unplanned ones.
“While heading to the ferry which would take me to Kapas Island, I met Abdulrahim on a scooter. A jovial fella who was impressed by my bike. He offered me cold tea which I accepted gladly. We chatted for a while about my trip. Then he told me that he has a boat and that his hobby is to go fishing twice or thrice a month. He was planning to go on Saturday and asked me if I would like to join. OF COURSE, I WOULD LOVE TO.
“It was a splendid day. I caught about 40 fish. Every time I caught one, my heart pounds with joy like a small kid.
“Thank you, Abdulrahim. You made my day.”
It wasn’t all hunky dory of course. When Mohamed first started the trip, his weight was 82kg. In 6 weeks’ time, his weight went down to 73kg. “I looked like an Auschwitz fugitive!” he exclaimed. “
The heat and high humidity make me obsessed with cold water, fruits and juices. My appetite for cooked and solid food isn’t that great. Things need to change. Starting from Friday, I will have a substantial challenge to cross Malaysia from west to east through a very long and mountainous terrain. I will need a high calorie daily intake to be able to meet this challenge,” he wrote in his Facebook.
His next challenge?
A harrowing trans-Atlantic crossing that would take about 3 months. If he succeeds in that and Mohamed assures me that he would as it was not a ‘suicide mission’, he would plan for a year-long bikepacking trip from Japan to Portugal spanning some 12,000 kms.
The courageous man had not only crossed more than half a century on earth, he had most certainly also crossed the mental, physical and spiritual barriers in an extraordinary adventure few in his age group would attempt.
As he notes, “Travelling and meeting people with the same passions obliterate age differences and any other differences.” Very true, indeed.