KUALA LUMPUR, May 4 — How many of us truly know our own country? Seasoned travellers from abroad may investigate a destination more thoroughly than natives. This is something Belgian entrepreneur Erwin Franck understands all too well; he runs Bikers Adventures Malaysia, which offers customised motorcycle tours around the peninsula for visitors seeking a local perspective.
“Basically my clients, who are mainly Europeans, are looking for rides with a guide who is familiar with the best routes and destinations while providing a Western standard of service,” he says.
Franck hails from Antwerp in the northern part of Belgium and speaks both Dutch and French fluently. After a long career dealing in lighting and sound equipment, he was on holiday in Malaysia a year and a half ago and fell in love with the country.
“However, when I wanted to rent a motorcycle to tour around Peninsular Malaysia, I couldn’t find one. A search on the Internet turned up two companies but I received no replies from either,” he says.
This incident stayed in his mind long after he returned home. At the same time, he was fed up with weather conditions in Europe as he prefers the warmer climates and temperatures of the tropics.
“Also, I wanted to do something else with my life. The dearth of motorcycle tours here designed for foreign visitors was an opportunity and perhaps a sign too. After all, I love the mix of cultures in Malaysia, be it the different races or variety of food. Moving here was a no-brainer,” he says.
Franck returned to Malaysia in December 2012 to survey the situation. Three months later, he decided to take the plunge and invested in a motorcycle with GPS navigation. He then spent half a year riding all over the peninsula, looking for good roads and secluded kampongs.
He says, “Malaysia’s infrastructure is one of the best in South-east Asia. However, even if roads are decent, the transportation between nice travel spots can be challenging for tourists, what with taxi touts and unpunctual buses. On the other hand, with a big bike you can get almost anywhere.”
Franck admits that the sight of a Mat Salleh on a motorcycle riding into a small kampong can be awkward but he would break the ice by ordering a kopi ais. This spirit of discovery led him to uncover many hidden gems in West Malaysia that even locals may not have heard of or visited.
Starting a company in Malaysia can be a trial for a foreigner but Franck was adamant about doing nearly everything on his own in order to understand every part of his business. He eventually launched Bikers Adventures Malaysia last December.
“Some people think an adventure bike tour will be very rough-and-tumble but I only offer the best. My clients stay at nice hotels and resorts; no backpacker lodges for them! They ride on BMW R1200GS dual sport motorcycles, which are great for both asphalt roads and slightly off-road terrain. These bikes can carry loads of luggage yet remain comfortable for pillion riders,” he says.
In fact, the Adventure model of these 1,170cc two-cylinder boxer engine motorcycles was used by actor Ewan McGregor and his best friend TV presenter Charley Boorman during their 24,000-kilometre journey through 18 countries from John o’ Groats in Scotland to Cape Town in South Africa in 2007.
Franck’s clients won’t have to travel quite such distances but the more ambitious riders can embark on a two-week tour of West Malaysia with him. He says, “The 14-day Grand Tour starts in Kuala Lumpur where they can rest after a long flight before exploring the city at night for street food.”
After two nights in the capital, Franck leads his group down to historical Malacca. What would have normally have been a 130-kilometre ride on the highway is almost doubled as his customised route takes them to the UNESCO World Heritage centre via smaller roads. This way the riders get to see more sights such as the traditional Minangkabau houses of Negeri Sembilan.
“We arrive in Malacca in the afternoon. There’s so much to see here — Jonker Street, Christchurch, Stadhuys, Chinatown and the Indian shops – and plenty of great hawker fare at night too. The next day we head off-road after Kluang through the palm plantations. At Mersing, we can hear pre-recorded ‘chirping’ to attract swiftlets to build bird’s nests in concrete structures; I tell them that the Chinese consider bird’s nest soup, made from the salivary excretions of these birds, a delicacy,” he says.
The next leg of the journey includes catching a private boat to go to Tioman Island; a couple of nights in Taman Negara for the wildlife, canopy walk, longboat rides up the river, waterfalls and night walks; and even a stop at the Maranthandavar Temple that is built around a large tree in Maran, Pahang.
“Our next stop is Lake Kenyir, a hidden pearl in Malaysia that most tourists haven’t been to as it’s not that accessible. To me, Terengganu is the most beautiful state in Malaysia with its beaches, waterfalls, jungles, lakes and food. Time has truly stopped here.”
In the town of Penarik, north of Kuala Terengganu, the riders stop at Terrapuri Heritage Village, a project to rescue traditional Malay houses of the last century by taking wood from old kampong homes and rebuilding them into modern-day replicas. They view the 40-metre reclining Buddha statue — the largest in Malaysia — at Wat Phothivihan, a Thai Buddhist temple in Tumpat, Kelantan, before reaching the Belum rainforest where one supposedly can watch elephants crossing at night.
“Of course, no tour of West Malaysia is complete without visiting Penang. We take the old ferry across to the island as motorcycles are allowed on board. We stay at Cheong Fatt Tze — the famous Blue Mansion — and ride around the island searching for the best Penang char koay teow and assam laksa.”
Next up are the winding roads to the Cameron Highlands. Franck says, “Hardcore bikers love these challenging roads. I love the transition from the tropical climate to a cooler one, and nothing beats the look of shock on their faces when they see English-style houses and trees native to the Western world. The green tea plantations are another highlight.”
On the way back to the capital, the riders drop by the Batu Caves and follow devotees up the 272 steps to the temple. Their last ride is to Putrajaya, to catch the sunset against the beautiful silhouettes of bridges over man-made lakes, before departing from KLIA the next day.
Franck also offers shorter trips for clients while others may just wish to rent motorcycles with planned routes but opt to ride off alone without an escort. However, he will still guide them out of the city for their first ride in Malaysia to familiarise them with the roads.
“I usually reply to enquiries within 24 hours. Before accepting a tour request, I have to make sure they have the necessary requirements such as a valid driver’s license and check how many miles and years of motorcycle experience they have,” he says.
Groups are capped at a maximum of four motorcycles as Franck needs to maintain certain speed levels. Sometimes when passionate riders bring their less-than-enthusiastic family members along, a car can be provided for them to follow at their own pace.
Franck says, “The response has been great. Folks are fascinated by my routes, especially for visitors who have never been to South-east Asia before. The climate here is great for Europeans seeking to escape the bitter winters. I find Malaysia a good country to start with; Singapore is too plastic while in Thailand there isn’t much English spoken on the mainland, only the islands, and there are already a lot of things going on there.”
Sounds like the Belgian biker has found a truly Asian haven, and now so have the adventure-seeking riders under his charge.