In Kuala Lumpur, ‘right of way’ goes to the craziest, and the city’s chaotic streets are a dangerous place for a man of slight build to be teetering precariously at alternating speeds on an enduro bike designed for longer legs. Yet here I am, weaving through traffic and trying to find the on-ramp that will lead me out of the city and towards the Karak highway. From there, Insha’Allah, it’s a straight shot to the loop road going through the heart of Peninsular Malaysia’s largest state, the road that will skirt tourist highlights like the Cameron Highlands, Taman Negara and Kenong Rimba and give me time to explore the less-visited villages that lie between.
With motorcycle-only side lanes and two-wheel toll-free access, the twisty, winding Karak Highway is a motorcyclist's dream road. Still unused to my Demak DMX-R150's high position, I am reluctant to push the needle much past 70. My riding partner Ronnie is having a hard time keeping below 80 on his barely street-legal Kawasaki KLX250R. But his speed is glacial compared to the many full-bore crotch-rockets whizzing past at speeds close to 200km, weaving dangerously around taxis and lumber trucks. This, Ronnie later tells me, is rite of passage for many of Malaysia’s more hardcore motorcyclists, and the cause of death for a dozen or more annually on this stretch of road alone.
As we head north from the highway the road narrows considerably. Patches of jungle on both sides seem like dots to the long dashes of Malaysia’s true dominant landscape, the ubiquitous palm oil plantations. Every few minutes a truck nearly as wide as the road itself passes us heavy with lumber.
Perfect fish head curry
A few hours of hard riding brings us to Raub. Once a gold-mining town (there’s still an operating mine on the outskirts), the new gods of lumber and palm have eclipsed gold as the area’s main revenue source. We’ve come for the town’s specialty, fish head curry at Restoran Ratha Raub. This is the gold standard by which all curries must be measured, chunks of tender red snapper cheek-meat with locally grown vegetables in a smoldering sauce hot enough to cause blindness.
The next morning, after a cup of cough-syrup sweet Malaysian Kopi, we’re on the road to Kuala Lipis, roughly 100 km ahead. We’d arranged to meet at a gas station halfway and since only two roads lead north from Raub, getting lost seemed improbable.
Ronnie pulls ahead of me shortly after we leave town, and for the next hour the sparsely trafficked road winds through endless miles of evenly-spaced palm trees - whose sole function is to profit their owners by producing a product destined to clog arteries from Sydney to Seattle. Ronnie is nowhere in sight, nor is the halfway point gas station. Something tells me I’m not getting any closer to Kuala Lipis. I pull along the side of the shade-free road and check my phone.
'You took the wrong road, man!' Ronnie laughs down the line. 'Hell, you’re almost at the Cameron Highlands. Don’t worry though, you can cut across at Sungai Koyan.'
I get back on the bike and my phone buzzes. A final text from Ronnie: ‘Don’t forget to get gas. You wouldn’t want to be stranded in the middle of nowhere, LOL!’
Palm oil plantation pit stop
Twenty minutes up the road, I hit Sungai Koyan, a palm-oil plantation outpost with one gas station and two restaurants. I fill the tank, and after a quick plate of amazingly good chicken rice I’m riding east through green jungle and past the beautiful karst rock formations of the southern Titiwangsa mountain range.
Reaching Kuala Lipis
Though picturesque with a lovely winding river, a few shop-filled streets and what’s billed as Malaysia's smallest Chinatown, Kuala Lipis has the vibe of a town whose best days have passed. Ronnie, here for hours, shares my impression. After checking into a cheap hotel, we set about exploring the town. Though the night market is decent enough, and some of the town's architecture is quite lovely, Kuala Lipis is decidedly less lively than Raub.
The next day, after a breakfast of weak coffee and sweet toast, we’re riding through the mixed landscape of jungle and plantation that seems to define central Pahang. After many hours in the saddle I'm more comfortable on the Demak, and Ronnie and I are riding at the same speed. The road winds through more jungle punctuated only by small kampungs, each with one or more exquisitely crafted wooden mosques. Children wearing traditional Malay garb wave as we pass.
By early afternoon we’ve reached Jerantut, a cheerful town with two main roads, an outdoor food market and a colourful section of shop-houses. For Ronnie, Jerantut has but one point of interest: its prominent Kentucky Fried Chicken.
We hop back on our bikes for the last leg to Temerloh. We’ve just hit town when the sky opens without warning, and we are forced off the road by what seems like a near-solid wall of water. Lasting barely ten minutes, the storm drenches us as surely as if we'd ridden through Niagara.
Back to Kuala Lumpur
After sheltering from the storm that night, we get back on Pahang's main trunk line for the last 150km stretch leading back into the urban chaos of Kuala Lumpur. The winding highway is beautiful, and being Sunday, now far more crowded with motorcyclists on big bikes whizzing by at speeds approaching suicidal. Now fully comfortable on the Demak, I twist the throttle and watch the needle crest the three-digit mark. I hold it there for a minute, maybe two, before dropping back down to 80. In Malaysia, breakneck highway speed is like right of way; easy to come by but hardly the domain of the sensible.
Make it happen
Kuala Lumpur International Airport (www.klia.com.my), which is about 75km south of the city, is the main gateway to the country. Near KLIA is the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCC-T), from which Air Asia operates (www.airasia.com). Other major airlines flying to and from Malaysia include Emirates, Firefly, Malaysia Airlines, Qantas and Singapore Airlines and more.