Cycling Road Trip: Batu Pahat

Words & Photos: Nadiah Aziz

For many people, Batu Pahat has always been synonymous with good Bryani, a steaming plate of fragrant basmati with a hefty chunk of melt-in-your-mouth lamb (beef or chicken optional) and its accompanying thick gravy, paired with the usual condiments of acar and poppadom. There is also asam pedas, deliciously tart and spicy with juicy chunks of fish. In truth, we may have been a bit unfair to Batu Pahat, because the district obviously has a lot more to offer than the two dishes.

For starters, it’s worth noting that the local community is more than 60% Chinese, meaning the predominant culture and heritage in the area is obviously something that I’d overlooked all these years.

So when we were invited to explore a remote part of Batu Pahat by a friend, we thought it would be the perfect chance for another drive and ride trip. The invitation came from Choco Yi Ning of the local travel blog Somewhere Not Far, who had organised a weekend of cycling to showcase some of her favourite spots in her hometown.

On the way, we opted to make a pit stop in Muar town before traveling further south to Batu Pahat, specifically to Minyak Beku. As with many small towns in Malaysia, all three areas are choc full of heritage and culture, with many rich stories behind their names.

The long drive down was an easy one thanks to a loaner Volvo S90, while the addition of a Thule roof rack allowed us to transport four bicycles and their respective riders including myself with ease.

After driving approximately 190kms from Kuala Lumpur we reached Muar town, the perfect spot for a bite of mee rebus and satay pagi, as well as for spotting some pre-war buildings. After filling our bellies and making a pit stop at the popular cycling area by the Muar River, we were once again on our way. We later discovered that Muar is also a good starting point for a cycling journey.

Along the way from Muar to Batu Pahat is one of the best cycling routes we’ve seen that cuts through rural Malaysia, with a clearly marked (though not physically segregated) motorcycle lane that ensures fairly safe riding. Big trees line the roadside, providing a great deal of shade for any cyclists riding through.

Many heritage buildings make lovely photo op spots on this road, from the grand and ornate or humble but colourful wooden Malay kampung houses, to the unique Chinese village homes and colonial era shoplots. It’s a great route to reconnect with remnants of Old Malaya that still exist if you know where to find them.

At the 250km mark we reached Batu Pahat, a bustling but still charming town originally founded in 1893. Once known as Penggaram (or the town of saltmakers), the original name came from the locally produced salted fish, now no longer the main commercial activity.

The name Batu Pahat itself (chiselled rock in Malay) also has a unique history going back to a 15th century legend of invading Siamese troops chiseling rocks on the coast at Minyak Beku (frozen oil), in search of fresh water during their siege on Melaka. Other accounts say this was due to the chiseling of granite rock from a quarry in the area.

The origins of the name Minyak Beku itself is similarly elusive. The most popular account refers to the well the Siamese troops dug, which oozed oil instead of water. The more than 500 year old well is still there today, albeit largely forgotten. Another story says the name originates from tree sap in the area, which appeared as oil.

Either way, Minyak Beku’s beachside is a favourite for locals, although the coast is mostly only accessible to cyclists with all terrain bicycles or mountain bikes. The roads to the beach from our accommodation at the Lighthouse Lodge are narrow and undulating, and is used by speeding large lorries and other heavy vehicles since it is an industrial area. Realistically, only the most experienced cyclists should attempt this route.

In Batu Pahat town itself, there are still rows of well-preserved heritage buildings, constructed between 1900 and the 1950s, with Chinese, English and Malay architectural elements. However, many remain in a somewhat dilapidated state, just like in many heritage towns that are somewhat far from vital urban areas.

Back in the day, Batu Pahat’s lively nightlife and red light district earned it the name “Paris of the East,” a colorful past indeed. Today it is mainly known for food, and it’s Chinese heritage. Cycling through Batu Pahat is possible, but the roads are fairly busy in town.

Demographically, Batu Pahat’s Chinese community are mostly descendants of the migrants from southern Fujian and the Chaozhou region of Guangdong province. This makes Hokkien the most commonly used dialect in the area, specifically Southern Malaysian Hokkien, which is different from Penang Hokkien and Medan Hokkien in Indonesia. Southern Malaysian Hokkien is also a combined Hokkien-Teochew dialect, with many loan words from Malay and English. The locals are supposed to speak Mandarin too, but I mainly heard Hokkien when I was there.

Thanks to the local community, there are more than 400 temples in Batu Pahat, due to the high concentration of people who practice Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. It is a hotspot for those who want to make their pilgrimage to these houses of worship, so if you go on the weekend, public or school holidays you’ll have to battle quite a bit of traffic and crowds.

Our trip was on a normal weekend, but thankfully we were cycling mostly on Sunday, Johor’s start to the week. This allowed us to fully explore the old Chong Long Gong Temple at Kampung Segenting without having to battle crowds of tourists, and we also managed to sneak in a quick petting session with the resident arapaima fish - also called the dragon fish due to its massive size. More than one local will tell you stories of lottery winnings after managing a single touch of its scales.

Luck wasn’t with us though, because it soon started pouring cats and dogs, so a subsequent visit to the nearby Lover’s Bridge to watch the sunset had to be cancelled. The wooden bridge used to be a simple pier used by locals to catch fish, but is now famed for its beautiful views as the sun goes down. Later, we had a scrumptious dinner of the most amazingly fresh seafood steamboat to make up for our mild disappointment.

The Batu Pahat Birdy club that rode with us for the day helped make the necessary arrangements, a nice treat since we didn’t speak any Hokkien to order for ourselves. We realised then, that there are still Malaysians who are not at least bilingual in this day and age.

The next day we woke up early for a morning ride to the nearby town of Senggarang, joined by the Nature Bikers Club MTB group, for a local Chinese breakfast at a kopitiam. There was a nice bit of cruising along the rolling hills through kampung area with a lot of greenery before hitting the busy main road and town area via a stretch of Route 5.

After a quick group shot of all the riders at another beachside spot, we had a quick bite before heading back to the Lighthouse Lodge. Soon enough it was time to pack up and return to the concrete jungle that is Kuala Lumpur. We bid a fond farewell to Batu Pahat that day, but don't be surprised if you see us there for a longer touring ride sometime.