Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Alor Setar, Where in the World is That?

Zoo, Ani, and Radzi, my hots in front of their bike shop
What?!?! Where is that?!?! Is that the name of a city? Indeed it is! I wouldn’t have even considered stopping here if it hadn’t been for a Warmshowers listing and the fact that it was the perfect distance from the Thai-Malaysia border the day I crossed.  You won’t find Alor Setar in any guidebooks, but for me it will always be a memorable stop on my Malaysia route.

I had contacted Muhamed prior to my visit.  In his profile, it showed he was a new to the cyclist network.  He had joined the 30th of December 2013.  He owned a bike shop and when I wrote him, he mentioned he had already been visited by his first guest. It turns out his first guest, Max, was the reason why he had signed up for Warmshowers.  Max was a young Dutch tour cyclist who found his shop and was in desperate need of a new wheel set for his bike.  However, he needed to wait for it to be shipped from Holland from his sponsors and so he ended up staying in Alor Setar for 2 weeks with this kind, wonderful family.  I heard so much about Max, that I feel like I know him personally and I actually emailed him to thank him for getting them to sign up for Warm Showers.

One of my many delicious homecooked meals by Ani

It turns out my host, wasn’t named Muhamed, but Radzi.  In Muslim culture the last name goes first.  Radzi and his son “Zoo” run a great little bike shop with all European brands. Radzi’s wife Ani, or “Kaka” is at the shop frequently as well.  In fact, the family spends the majority of the day at the shop, and Zoo actually sleeps at the shop at night. 

I rolled up on Saturday afternoon and my intention was to stay one night and then head on south to Penang and see Georgetown.  Little did I know what was in store for me in Alor Setar.  In my first couple of hours I learned about the history of the shop.  Radzi also gave me a brief overview of the history of Malaysia, particularly his region and the confluence of Malay, Chinese, and Indian cultures and the mix of their three very distinct religions.  It was truly fascinating to learn about the region.  I had already picked up on the diversity as I could see plenty of Chinese and Arabic writing and noticed veiled and unveiled women.  Radzi helped me make a basic cheat sheet for my necessary vocabulary and phrases in Malay. Just before dinner time, he asked if I needed any bike maintenance.  I was so enthralled in our other conversation, I had forgotten all about getting my bike looked at by the pros. 

Zoo taking extra good care of my bike

I had switched out my bottom bracket just before entering Bangkok, but since the city was on “shutdown” I couldn’t get my hubs replaced.  I didn’t think it was such a big deal, as I didn’t notice anything in particular as I pedaled.  However, he had one look at them and was appalled by their poor condition.  The bearings were incredibly worn and the whole hub needed to be replaced.  The problem was that tomorrow was an official government holiday and the wholesale warehouse with all the bike parts for area retailers was closed.  But that didn’t stop Zoo and Radzhi from coming up with a solution.  They would have to polish the bearings and clean the hubs and change out the cassette and chain as well.  It meant I would have to stay an extra day, but that didn’t bother me, I knew I was in good hands and so was my bike!

That evening Zoo took me around town on the back of his moto.  I felt like I got a lot of stares behind him.  There are plenty of unveiled women in Alor Setar with the Indian and Chinese population, but not too many with blonde curly hair and short shorts that reveal a funny bike tan line!  We brought me to delicious Malay food which appeals to me more than Thai because it isn’t so spicy. Zoo was so patient as he went through each of the pots full of food and pointed to the ones that were definitely spicy and identified what was in each. In Thailand I had a few “not so spicy” dishes to choose from, but here, it seemed that almost everything was pretty mild.  Even if my lips started to burn, I soothed them with the delicious iced milk tea, which still exists in this country along with coffee and milk.  I think I’ll be switching to tea and milk here as all three cultures drink more tea than coffee.  Zoo also brought me to the local night market where we bought durians, my substitute for jackfruit in this country.  They are much more smelly, but ohh so good!!! 

Can't get enough of these Durians

We made it back to the shop around 11pm where Radzi and Ani awaited our arrival with their teenage daughter. She was going to stay in the shop with me that night rather than Zoo.  Radzhi and Ani apologized profusely for not inviting me into their home.  They said their house was half the size of their small shop and half of that space was occupied with bikes.  I kept assuring me that a small space on the floor in their bike shop was more than enough for me. They had a bathroom in the back, and fans to keep me cool, what more could I ask for? Not to mention I was spending the night in a bike shop.  Kids dream of getting locked in a toy store over night, and for a cyclist geek like me, spending the night in a bike shop is sort of the same.  Although, I didn’t have much desire to stay up all night playing with the bikes, I just enjoyed their beauty by my side. 

I slept 10 straight hours the first night and probably would have slept another 10 if it wouldn’t have been for the fact that they had to open up shop and here I was on the floor.  Poor Zoo had to sleep at home the 2 nights I was there because according to Muslim law, an unmarried man and woman aren’t allowed to sleep under the same roof.  I can’t believe they offered their bike store to me for the two nights as I took over Zoo’s bachelor pad.  Not only did they confide in a total stranger, but they treated me like I was part of the family.  I had to be careful with what I told them.  If I mentioned how much I loved a certain food or wanted to try a particular dish, the next time they showed up to the shop, Ani had with her that food or dish for me to try, plus something else.  For breakfast Radzi arrived with 4 different tupperwares full of food and a pitcher of tea.  For lunch, came another 4 tupperwares, along with all sorts of snacks for me to try.

Simple, clean, and comfy!

Loved my basic bathroom set-up

My second day in Alor Setar was an unplanned day off for me and truly delightful!  I spent hours talking with Radzi and Ani.  She shared some recipes with me and I learned a lot about bikes from the two men. Zoo spent a good amount of time polishing my bearings, which would hold me over until Singapore along with a few other minor tweaks.  Radzhi and I used google maps and his Malaysian atlas to plan the rest of my route down south to Singapore.  I even managed to have a Skype date with the CC Gracia bike Club in Barcelona who were together with at their annual presentation of the season’s rides and upcoming events. 

Before I knew it, it was 7pm and I hadn’t stepped out of the small bike shop the entire day!  That night, again Zoo and I went to cruise the town on moto, run errands, get dinner, and pick up another Durian or two on the way back to the shop. Radzi and Ani were waiting for us again, with more little gifts and presents to take along with me tomorrow on the ferry to Langkawi.

Radzi, myself, and Ani

It’s people like Radzhi, Ani, and zoo that make warmshowers such an amazing network for tour cyclists and make my trip so memorable   I’m miles and miles away from home yet I feel like you’ve been adopted by a family for a night or two.  They took such good care of me, as if I was their daughter. The morning of my departure, again, Ani made the most amazing breakfast and even brought food for me to take along to Langkawi.  She gave me a typical sari, and the contact information of her brother who lived on Langkawi in case I needed any help.  Zoo, then rode on his moto by my side (giving me an occasional push)12 kilometers to the ferry terminal and made sure I boarded without any problems!

Kind, generous, hospitable, loving, humble, genuine, and sincere…..the list goes on and on for adjectives I could use to describe this incredible family in Alor Setar.  It makes me angry that the majority of people in the western world associate the Muslim culture with terrorists.  All we know, usually, it what the media wants us to see, and we use this to form a general opinion about this culture.  It is a shame because that is the last thing that now comes to my mind regarding Muslims!  Some of the most hospitable families on my trip have been Muslims and the truth is, it makes me want to visit more Muslim countries and experience their culture even more. 

I don’t know how I will ever repay Radzi, Ani, and Zoo for all their kindness, and all the other hosts who have invited me into their home for a night or two and taken such good care of me.  Someday when I settle down and have a place of my own, again, I will hopefully be able to take care of warmshowers guests and other travelers with the same hospitality that others have taken care of me! 


  1. Genial Melissa, no leí todo.. pero que bueno cuando la gente de ayuda de esta manera...

  2. mes descriptiu impossible, em sembla que ho estic vivint amb tu.....i com disfruto Melissa !!