I've been places. I have seen a huge part of our country mounted on two wheels and there's something about motorcycle touring that makes it irresistible to me. I love my cars, but out touring on bikes, seeing the country, meeting people and experiencing cultures is a huge rush. But I had never done on foreign soil. So my ride in Borneoâ¦ what a way to begin!
I was invited by Tourism Malaysia and WTR magazine to come ride on their annual Malaysian tour, this time, the destination was Borneo. WTR is a malay mag that focuses on motorcycle touring in the region. And Borneo is an island actually in Malaysia that also happens to be in Indonesia and Brunei by parts. I was the sole Indian on the ride, a matter of pride for me.
I practically hopped and skipped in my airline seat from the excitement for the four hours it took me to fly into Kuala Lumpur. And on the other side, I met the other journalists and riders who had come from Italy, UK, Russia, Indonesia and Malaysia. All of them love touring and shortly after our intros, we were trading stories. The riding couple from UK turned out to be Simon and Lisa Thomas, who have been riding around the world for the past eight years now on their BMWs, a R1100GS and a R650GS. I discovered that hold multiple world records, including the world's longest motorcycle ride â" I was in seriously accomplished company.
After an authentic Malaysian dinner, we got much needed shuteye as we had to start early next morning. The next day, I was flying to Kuching (which means little cat), the capital of the east Malaysian state of Sarawak. It is the largest city on the island of Borneo. We checked in to our hotel and met more riders, this time Kuching locals. Malaysia is a hospitable country and they love feeding their guests. Which suited me to the T since I consider myself a foodie and the interesting cuisine and lip smacking food was right up my alley.
Post lunch, we all wanted to meet our motorcycles for the trip. Even the sudden rain couldn't stop us. Later the organisers told us that we would be going to the annual Rainforest Music Festival on the first day, the venue was Sarawak Cultural Village some 35km away and we would be spending two days there. But before I could start wondering how a 35km jaunt was a tour, I spotted the Kawasaki KLR650 and the KTM950SM that were my riding options â" both bikes I have heard about, but never ridden. Our group of 20-odd riders then received a quick briefing from the Kuching Traffic Police, followed by the ride marshal and his hand signals. That last bit isn't a joke and the Malay traffic department actually trains riders to become marshals and then they can lead tours around the country. I was happy to note â" as will you â" that my Indian driving license was valid in Malaysia and an IDP (International Driving Permit) is not required to ride or drive in Truly Asia, er, Malaysia.
I (finally) began my ride on the KTM. We left after sunset for Mount Santubong below which was the music festival, a three day music carnival that has become the countries largest musical event with over 30,000 people attending this, the sixth installment of the annual event. There were workshops, food stalls, bands from all over the world, and merchandise and crafts from all over the region. The food was great and I discovered that we would come twice more to the festival and then each time, ride the 35km back to out hotel in Kuching. I guess it was a good way to get used to Malaysian roads and the new motorcycle, right?
The KTM950SM is a supermotard, albeit a large one. The bike was KTM's first road bike featuring a multi-cylinder engine, a V-twin that produces 100PS, an unheard of figure for a supermoto when it went on sale in 2005. It proved to be a good companion on the highways and a lot of fun to ride. The roads were smooth and curvy. I discovered that the KTM has instant power and incredible chuckability. And free-flow exhausts which meant that it sounded loud and sweetly V-twin-thrummy. It got up to triple-digit speed rapidly and on this curvy road it was simply the most amazing V-twin I have ever experienced. It's combination of a torquey engine, precise gear shifts and the ability to cruise comfortable at high speeds makes it a gripping, visceral experience.
Music festival and all that food digested, it was finally time to ride properly. We headed first to see the Orangutan at the Semengoh Wildlife Rehabilitation Centre, another 30km away. Orangutan is localspeak for forest people, an appropriate name for this amazingly gentle and intelligent Borneo native. I loved the fact that Orangutans I saw were all as black or orange just like my KTM! On the ride back, we stopped at a homestay where we were (once more) offered traditional food (I still didn't say no even once) and introduced us to the local music and dances. Some of danced. Others just ate and clapped. The beach was close by so we then headed there so we could relax and look at our motorcycles as the sun set. Did you know the setting sun was also as orange as my bike?
Finally the next day, we headed to Sematan, the western-most town in Sarawak, thankfully, a 100km away. This time, I rode the KLR650, a near-cult dual-sport motorcycle that's been around and appreciated for ages. I had a 2008 model with a 650cc, single-cylinder DOHC, water cooled engine that produces 37PS of max power at 6200rpm and 45.3Nm of torque at 4950rpm. It is known to be a great adventure and touring motorcycle and riding the KLR650 felt more like riding a powerful Indian motorcycle and was easy to ride around in town as well as on the highway.
Before reaching Semantan, we stopped at er, Lundu for lunch, the town was the closest we got to the Indonesian border. For lunch, I was surprised to see people relishing our very own, (Kerala) Parotta and chicken curry. Malaysian cuisine reflects the various cultures of the country, Malaysian Indian cuisine of the ethnic Indians is similar to its roots in (Southern) India.
The ride to Semantan was slightly rough and choosing the Kawasaki over the KTM actually turned out to be the right decision. For the first time, we came across potholes, unpaved patches and broken roads. The KLR's long wheel travel and high ground clearance was ideal on these surfaces and I'm sure it will be a good motorcycle for India too.
We finally made it to Semantan and went to a beach resort. The sand was firm enough and we could even ride our motorcycles on the beach. And then, yippee, we had to ride back as well â" a 200km day is at least respectable, I thought. We took a different route back, crossing a river on a rickety, old ferry and then crossing narrow bridges along the way. It was a good return to Kuching for our last night there.
The next day we were flagged off to Sri Aman, a town 187kms away. Long ride? KTM time. The Marshal warned us that the roads would be bumpy but for anybody who has ridden in India, it wasn't a problem. We even ended up doing good average speeds and reached Sri Aman sooner than expected and reached the Tidal Bore Institute, to be welcomed by Sarawak Tourism. The town is famous for the 'benak' or tidal bore (a rare phenomenon where tidal waves that occur in a river, allowing among other things surfing on the river) of the Batang Lupur river. We looked for the tidal bore but luck wasn't with us. Having gotten bored, we decided to head in for lunch.
After lunch, we rode to Sibu and reached only by night as it was a 230km ride from Sri Aman. Sibu district is known for its small towns and longhouses. Longhouses are traditional houses that are built by the different tribes in Borneo such as the Iban and Orang Ulu using only wood. We visited a few houses on our way back from Sibu and even saw modern longhouses that have been renovated by using modern materials.
We then rode to Miri our final destination. On the way we stopped at the biggest Chinese temple in South East Asia and headed to Bintulu for lunch and had some authentic food at a restaurant owned by the President of the Bintulu Bikers Club. After a heavy meal, we rode 197km to Miri. The roads were wide and didn't have much traffic, with only a few fuel stops (petrol costs only Rs 30 for a litre) required we ended our ride at Miri.
I was disappointed as we were not going to be riding any more in Sarawak. Tourism Malaysia flew us to Mulu, as there are no roads to the rainforest. We visited the Mulu National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and known for its limestone caves that are considered the largest cave passages in the world. After riding for so many days, we walked over 15kms and visited the various caves. The next day we flew back to Miri and ended the brotherhood ride.
Riding in Sarawak was the best way to see the region. I enjoyed the five days of riding and ended up riding close to 1200kms. I made new friends from various parts of the world and will definitely go back to ride in Sarawak. Motorcycle tourism is growing in Malaysia and you too can ride in Sarawak. All you need to do is contact Tourism Malaysia and WTR magazine and just like me you can be part of Malaysia's best motorcycle journeys.