Two years ago, Robert Tan had an idea – to journey from the north of Malaysia down to Singapore, on a bicycle. This June, the 72 year old followed a similar route that the Japanese took during their invasion of Malaya, with five other seniors, on a trip they hoped would “challenge and discover the spirit of human endeavour”. The youngest of the group was Jason Ong, 60, led by the oldest, Tan. Due to the haze, the group had to abort the ride in Port Dickson, and had covered a total of 700 kilometres, which left them short of their goal by 300 kilometres.
We met up with them to ask them just how the managed to survive the trip – and emerge victorious.
Old is Gold
Why is the group made up of only seniors?
Robert Tan (RT): I chose 60 and above as I want to inspire the young “If we old people can do it, you guys can do it too” and the people of our age “Don’t just sit in the void deck and drink coffee. There is so much in life to do in life, just go and do something”.
What advantages do you have being older as compared to the younger people in their physical prime?
Gary Goh (GG):We have the endurance to go on. The young ones think that it’s too far, too difficult, so hot. It was nothing to us. Even climbing the hills was alright for us. Some of the young ones want to go fast and then they get tired easily, and give up on climbing the hill. For us, we go slow and easy.
What was your personal motivation for embarking on this trip?
GG: I’ve cycled in Malaysia before with young people, so I thought it would be interesting to go on a trip with old people. I always wanted to see the people and culture of Malaysia.
The Inspiring Ride
How did you get the route for the WWII ride and why did you choose to call the route the WWII ride?
RT: I called it the WWII ride not to remember the war, but to discover the human spirit. As with every war and hardship, there is always something to be learnt, and in this case, it is challenging and discovering the human spirit. The Japanese had a mission, we also wanted to have a mission and see if we had the spirit and courage to follow through with it. I wanted to establish the iconic route, I believe that it has a lot of potential. I put all 3 aspects of the ride together, the human spirit, the historical element and the tourist attraction. We just wanted to accomplish the route from the same starting and ending points, taking the west coast since not many people usually go there.
While on this trip, did you discover anything about yourself?
Foo Siang Peng (FSP): I discovered that if I really want to push, even when I was lagging behind, I told myself I must catch up, and realised that I can still go on. Just by pushing a little bit more.
GG: I feel like I’m getting better everyday! I hope to cycle like this even until my 80s.
RT: What we did was not impossible, anybody could have done it
Did you have any fears and how did you overcome it?
All: We had no fear.
FSP: I think anyone who undertakes this should not have fear. If you have fear don’t go, if you want to go, don’t be fearful.
And about what cycling in Malaysia is like…
What kind of precautions did you take against being mugged?
GG: Nothing. It did not cross our minds at all.
RT: It’s very safe and the people there are actually very friendly. However, we did hear of snatch thiefs on motorbikes.
GG: When cycling to Malaysia, it’s best to cycle in a group and not stray from the group.
If a western foreigner wanted to do the trip, do they need a guide?
RT: In the northern part, there are mostly Malay towns. But as you go down south, there are more Chinese. Mostly they can speak basic English. Even the small towns that we went through had 7-11 (a 24 hour convenience store) and Guardian (pharmacy).
What are some of the dangers?
GG: The only danger in small towns is from the traffic because some motorists don’t give way so you have to be very sharp when navigating a turn. Some people have no licenses and others are teenagers who just drive.
Robert: It’s actually common to have a motorcycle driving in the wrong direction towards us, but they will usually give way in the end.
How did you manage to get accommodation without pre-booking it?
GG: We had the GPS and just used it to look for Chinese hotels. Unlike Singapore, there are plentiful cheap hotels in Malaysia and we just needed air-conditioning, beds and a shower, so it was not too difficult for us to find accommodation.
RT: Malaysia is a reasonably developed country with many small towns along our route which had budget hotels, intended to cater for local businessmen. Malaysia has also promoted home stays so there were many available along the way. I was certain that we would have no problem booking hotels and in fact, we even had a choice sometimes! The most important factor in deciding which hotel to stay in was whether they would accept our bicycles.
We hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into the trip that Robert and his friends made through Malaysia, and if you’re planning to head there for a ride, check out the group’s top tips for cycling in Malaysia.
All photographs curtesy of Robert Tan