Hit The Road

22 November 2016

Pistonhead KL show you how to tour Malaysia the cool way – on vintage motorcycles.

You hear them coming – a low growl thrumming from the pistons, with a ticking undertone – the members of Pistonhead KL arriving on their vintage Yamahas. “We call that the sound of chopsticks,” explains Mei Choi, one of the founding members. “It’s a sound we love.”

Pistonhead KL, an Instagram account chronicling the motorcycle travel adventures of a group of creatives, was started almost two years ago. Its first post featured a photo of five bikes on the road, complete with blue skies, fluffy clouds, rolling hills, and the caption: “we just ride”. The image was taken on a trip up north to Pai in Thailand, a journey of nearly 2,500 kilometres.

However, Pistonhead KL’s beginnings preceded Instagram. The core of the group is a group of friends: custom bike designer Jone Koh and fashion hairstylists Gary Chew, Joseph One, Jun Chu, Chai Yee, and Mei Choi. Most of them are freelance hairstylists who move in the circles of fashion photography, working on magazine editorials and events, brought together by a common appreciation for vintage fashion, thrifting, travel and retro bikes.

According to Joseph, when Chai Yee brought a bike (the single-cylinder Yamaha SR400) about five years ago, the others followed suit and bought vintage Japanese bikes (all which come with rounded headlights, a classic build, nice leatherwork and chromed metal fenders). One thing led to another, and soon it was time to don helmets to go on their very first ride.

It was a three-day, two nights’ trip to Penang, and they have gone far since – Malacca, Johor, Cameron Highlands, Kuantan, Thailand, Bali – accumulating stories and friends along the way. The group gradually grew to include more members such as noted photographer Chuan Looi, producer Stella Ng, fashion stylist and editor of urban culture portal Streething Ethan Chu and many others. It was Ethan who first started the Instagram account for the group. “I tumpang one,” laughs Ethan. “They just asked if I wanted to go with them on one of their trips, and I joined lo. I’m not a biker myself.”

So why motorcycles?

The group smiles, and Jun speaks first: “You get a different scenery. You feel more in touch with your surroundings.” Ethan chips in: “You use all of your senses, you are in direct contact with the rain, the wind is in your hair, the smells are different.”

Ethan continues, “When we were in Thailand, it was a mountainous area where we rode through hills and valleys, and the weather conditions differed so wildly between hilltop and valley; the heat, the cold, that just brings on a rush of adrenaline. Whenever we stopped there are new stories to swap about what happened on the road. When we were in Bali, we rode to a volcano called Mt Batur. On the way down, we saw some glimmering water, so we just decided to check it out [and] we happened upon a gorgeous lake! There’s no mention of it in guidebooks anywhere. It’s magical.”

It’s things like these that make travelling on bikes incredibly satisfying to Pistonhead KL. There are no traffic constraints, and one gets to set the pace and itinerary. It’s freedom on wheels.

“Well, we’re also a bit too unfit to cycle,” Jun adds.

Thirty-four year-old freelance hairstylist Mei Choi (her work can be seen on the glossy pages of L’Officiel and Marie Claire) is also the only female founding member of the group. While she used to ride motorbikes back in her hometown, she doesn’t do the actual riding on trips. As a passenger riding with her husband Jun, it allows her to be the official navigator of the group – reading maps, finding a way out when they’re lost, and keeping an eye out for thrift shops.

There’s another plus to travelling on motorcycles too. Mei adds, “Travelling through these small villages – we rarely travel on major highways as smaller roads make for better exploration – we sometimes discover interesting thrift shops, and it’s always fun to signal the others to stop and rummage through the shops. We all love wearing vintage. Bundle shops in KL have been picked clean, and there are no good finds anymore. Biking lets us find hidden corners of the world this way too.”

Of course, there will always be dangers. Riding into unfamiliar territory can be confusing, especially during night rides. One can’t use Google Maps on a bike, but being on the bike means it’s easier to stop and ask for directions as well. Once, when one of them was too fatigued, there was a minor crash. But he survived, as they usually travel on speeds of 80 to 100 km/h.

“Any faster, we wouldn’t be able to enjoy the scenery properly,” says Gary. “Our bikes are kind of vintage – most of them wouldn’t be able to withstand gruelling speeds. Chuan Looi has a Kawasaki W800 though. Even if he powers ahead, he’ll have to stop somewhere to wait for us to catch up eventually.”

Scrolling through Pistonhead KL’s Instagram account, one is taken through narrow paths in paddy fields, volcanic landscapes, beaches, secluded corners in Ipoh, and even shots by the side of PLUS highway. The group’s recommended routes include KL to Hatyai (a ride of about six to ten hours) and Kuala Kubu Bahru to Fraser Hills or Cameron Highlands.
However, their favourite route is a trail from Ulu Langat to Titi.

“It’s a twisty route through cliffs and jungles and you won’t meet another car for hours. When you stop for a break and turn off the engines, it’s complete, total silence,” says Jun.

Follow Pistonhead KL’s travel adventures on Instagram (@pistonheadkl).

By John Kang
Travel images courtesy of Pistonhead KL.

This article is related to NATURE OFF THE BEAT TRAVEL

off the beat

Art Bars

FRI, 31 AUG 2018

From geometric patterns to elaborate curlicues and floral motifs, here’s a look at the vintage household grilles of Malaysia. ...

off the beat

Malaysian Film Industry

THU, 30 AUG 2018

How do Malaysia’s film studios make the difficult decisions that lead to a successful project? The movie industry is often ...

off the beat

Unseen Tours Kuala Lumpur

TUE, 28 AUG 2018

An initiative to train homeless people as tour guides is helping to put lives back on the map. Josh, as he prefers simply to be kn...