After 24 hs of sailing calm waters we finally reached Sandakan in the Malaysian side of Borneo. The first time I had been to Malaysia was 12 years ago, although at that time, I visited the peninsular part of it and wasn't traveling by bicycle. Back then, even though the country would be far from being unforgettable, the experience was overall positive. On the other hand, this ride along a part of Borneo, completely changed my perspective.
Sandakan is a small and quiet port town in Sabah province. Its population is pretty mixed, most people are malaysian but there are many of Chinese and Indian origin, the latter being a blessing, since they have brought with them their exquisite cuisine and the town is filled with restaurants offering delicious curries at very reasonable prices.
We started cycling first thing in the morning the day after we disembarked. 360km lied ahead until reaching the border with Indonesia. We had just started the way that would eventually take us to the Equator and you could already feel it. No matter how used to the heat we would have already been, Borneo is hot, hotter, much hotter and by 9 am we would be cycling soaked in sweat already.
As soon as we left the town we found ourselves riding across a new landscape, a landscape that would repeat itself over and over in the coming months. We were on a road in the most perfect condition, pavement smooth as silk, riding up and down. At first sight, everything around us was a very green, lush and exuberant landscape. On a deeper look though, as miles passed by, a sterile, artificial and excessively monotonous landscape would be revealed. Because Malaysia (and to lesser extenet Indonesia) has long ago made a decision: exterminate all of its precious forest (well, not all of it, just keeping a zoo-like piece of land for the shallowest tourists) till the very last square meter and replace it with the palm oil monoculture. One has heard and seen throughout the years, media talking about deforestation in Borneo, one of the jungles with most biodiversity in the world together with the Amazon and Congo and how this represented a catastrophe for the planet. But it is not until the time you are standing right there that you realize the magnitude of this level of destruction. The undulating landscape of hills that used to be thick virgin jungle are now covered by hundreds of thousands, even millions of palms uniformly planted repeating themselves in all directions ad-nausea. This palm is not even a local species, it's been transplanted from Africa for the first time back in the 19th century. It produces one of the most harmful cooking oils for health thus, it doesn't come as a surprise that it is the cheapest of all oils. One of the main markets for it is in the developed countries where it is used in packaged products among other things. But there's also the best excuse to justify the extermination of our natural resources, it's the trend now, it's the use of it as biofuel. This has to be one of the greatest bullshits of humanity these days, as it has already been proven that the destructive effects on the environment as a result of the burning of the forests, far exceed the benefits that would eventually come as a result of its use as biofuels, but Malaysia (and all the multinationals from rich countries that profit from this) couldn't care less. The important thing here are the benefits in the short term, the fast cash yielded by the palm and not the harmful irreversible effects that this will have for the rest of the planet.
The simple act of riding along these roads ended up being a deeply saddening and depressing experience but dangerous too. The enormous amounts of cash flowing in the country thanks to the palm gave way to lots of new rich. The need for optimization of production brought roads paved like silk and luxury vehicles with it. The vehicle chosen by most Malaysians is the Toyota Hilux. Now, Malaysians are, generally speaking, good people, somewhat friendly and mostly educated, however when it comes to them sitting at the steering wheel, they are nothing but murderers. Fleets of Hilux's would pass us time and time again at speeds that I'd rather not write down in here for fear of my parents and loved ones having a heart attack. They are so silent and came so fast that one couldn't even hear them coming. As soon as they passed they would disappear in the horizon in the blink of an eye. We were very cautious and we would stick to the outer edge of the road as much as possible but in reality this turned out to be even worse because it didn't make them slow down. No matter how far away from the middle we would try to cycle, these assholes would fly by just inches away, leaving us behind shivering with chills of fear. The stress that we were accumulating throughout the day was such that at one point I said to myself "the hell with it, I'm gonna start riding right in the middle of the road, either they slow down or they will have to run over me and drown in my own blood" Malaysian motherfucking pieces of shit. Excuse the insult, I hardly get this angry and I usually love local people but with these people it got to a point that we felt this was utter disregard for human life. There was certainly an utter disregard for animal life already. the whole road was a bloody pet cemetery, filled with cats, dogs, chicken and even reptiles as long as 2 m long turned to cream. Every very few kilometers the place was a fucking bloodbath with animal guts and blood spread all over. Add to this equation unbearable heat and humidity, constant steep climbs and it's the perfect cocktail for three days and a half of pure suffering and stress.
Everything got even worse at night, when trying to find a decent place to camp after a whole day of cycling proved to be almost impossible. The Malaysian lack of hospitality wouldn't allow it, nobody trusted us, everybody looked at us suspiciously and refused us. These people are anything but representative of this region of the planet. I have no idea whether this lack of care and friendliness came as a result of this time of bonanza and easy money and turned them into greedy motherfuckers paranoid of being robbed (like so many places in the west) but every night was a nightmare. Everybody would give us the lamest of the excuses in order to prevent us from camping here or there.
It took us three and a half days of pain to reach Tawau, a tidy, no-frills border town, including the biggest rats I had seen in my life. I don't recall having seen rats this big since Rangoon back in 2002. We stayed a couple of days in Tawau until we got our Indonesian visas. I was never so looking forward to leave a country.
Malaysia, I will remember you as a country of selfish people unwilling to help, murderers of our environment, and murderers behind the wheel and I will recommend anyone not to go cycling there, in fact, we will try to stop as many people as possible from visiting you. Amen!