A List Of Things I Learned From 8 Years Of Travel As A Malaysian Wanderer

IMHO, the world can be a great teacher.

Cover image via Ying Tey

Almost a decade ago, I told my father that I would quit my PR job to volunteer in a local village school in Myanmar. My mind was already made up and I was leaving in two days.

An overnight train journey from Bagan to Yangon, Myanmar, which I didn't get much sleep on

Image via Ying Tey

“When are you coming back?” he asked. To his horror, I shrugged my shoulders and said I don’t know. I had less than RM1,000 in my bank account.

That one-way ticket to Myanmar led to other one-way tickets in and out of 67 other countries. Over the span of 8 years, I wandered across the different continents via trains, busses, planes, motorcycles and ships.

I made dozens of new friendships, experienced fascinating situations and encounters, slept on dozens of strangers’ couches, picked up a couple of interesting jobs and learnt a couple of languages along the way.

Rest assured, I will not be preaching to you about how I’d "found myself" along the way. Life on the road has offered me endless ups and downs, success and failures, doubts and certainty, boredom and excitement. This is not a happily-ever-after story.

However, did I regret the unconventional path that I had chosen to take in 2006? Not at all. Was serving coffees in Melbourne or making salads in London to fund my wanderlust worth the while, while my peers were moving up the corporate ladder and acquiring more worldly possessions? Absolutely, you bet!

If you’ve started travelling yourself, perhaps you can relate. But if not, here's a list of things that you can think about:

1. It's really not that hard

Walking back to the guesthouse from a day in the woods in Tolmezzo, Italy

Image via Ying Tey

Yes, it’s really not. I wasn’t the first person to do it. So many people have done this before me, even before the Internet era came along and made the whole travelling thing easy. Back then, people relied on compasses and oversized maps. Then, guidebooks. Now, I have access to millions of options: websites, forums, blogs and mobile apps. I can find answers to almost everything, from free stays to cheap flights.

So why not take advantage of that and just go?

2. There will always be haters and naysayers

I may be every Malaysian dad’s worst nightmare but I was not born that way. On the contrary, when I was younger, nothing gave me greater pleasure than making my parents proud of me. I was the A student who sailed through my teenage years with grace and ease. I was independent, mild-mannered and obedient.

But somewhere along the way, I learned that life is too short to please everyone. To truly experience life, one must grow. The world can be your teacher if you dare venture out of your comfort zone.

However, some peers still think I’m crazy while others find my wandering ‘unsettling’. Why can’t you be normal?

If you find yourself in a similar position, I’d say, trust yourself. Have faith in your own dreams and opinions. Don’t be afraid to swim against the tide. Seek out your own tribe and surround yourself with inspiring mentors instead.

3. If you want it, you’ll have to hustle for it

Wandering around Hsipaw, Myanmar

Image via Ying Tey

Let’s face it: we don’t share the same advantages and privileges that Western travellers automatically have. Instead, the odds are stacked against us. For example, you may speak perfect Queen’s English but the American who spells ‘your’ instead of ‘you’re’, would still be preferred by schools in Japan or Korea for English Teaching positions over you because they’re from in an English speaking country.

Initially, I balked at the unfairness of it all. Why do we have it harder? I ranted and complained but that got me nowhere, so I got off my whiny throne and started to find ways to get around it. If I had to work ten times harder, just to get that job or that visa, so be it. Keep knocking on every door, keep trying your luck because sometimes, all you need is that one door to open.

4. NOTHING beats authentic Malaysian food

Starting my day with a packet of nasi lemak at the mamak is sometimes what I crave for whenever I'm away. Badly.

Image via Ying Tey

Nowhere else in the world provides more variety than the Malaysian food scene. There’s only so much pizzas and croissants you can take before you think about home fondly and crave for a packet of nasi lemak for breakfast. This is THE ultimate sacrifice. Thankfully, through the wonders of YouTube, I learned to make my own nasi lemak and chicken rice while living in Germany. Still, what wouldn’t I give to eat the real thing by the roadside?

5. Malaysians make awesome travellers!

Zaed and I introduced the Dutch and American CouchSurfers to the wonders of Malaysian food

Image via Ying Tey

After having travelled with Americans, Italians, Germans and other nationalities, I have discovered that I don’t fear different languages, weird foods, traditions and ways of living as much as they do. Instead, the more different the other culture is, the more fascinated I get. Every contrasting nuance between my culture and the other becomes an engaging study of geography, history and economics.

I believe our multicultural Malaysian society has played an important role here. We are used to people around us looking different and speaking differently. Being constantly surrounded by differing tones and sounds - Malay, Mandarin, Tamil and English - means we don’t expect the world to be homogenous. We celebrate diversity. Since we celebrate everything from Hari Raya to Christmas, from Mooncake Festival to Thaipusam, it helps us move through the world fluidly, as we travel from one country to another.

6. It helps to go with the flow

It hurts to cling on tightly to your expectations. The journey is never always smooth. I was constantly tested by unfortunate circumstances: denied boarding in Thailand (on my way to Amsterdam), lost luggage in Guadeloupe, scammed in Cambodia, had a dismal first impression of Italy, missed flight connections, got lost on my way to a job interview while no one around me spoke English and so on. What happens then? Roll with the punches.

Problems will teach you how to manage a crisis first-hand. It’ll also train you to look for that silver lining, the brighter side of things. You may not know how it’ll all turn out but more often than not, it’ll always be better than what you’ve expected.

7. You’re more adaptable than you think

Packing light had allowed me to wander around Donsol, Philippines, easily

Image via Ying Tey

Being Malaysian helps with one thing: flexibility. Growing up in a semi-efficient society, we have been trained to cope with a variety of situations easily. 'Nothing' runs like clockwork in Malaysia, so why would I expect it to be any different elsewhere?

I never had problems eating street food everywhere, issues with bus-rides from hell or dirty toilets. I am just as happy to sleep in a car or in a hotel. Locals don’t stare at me and I don’t get scammed as much. I don’t complain about my less than punctual bus connection because I’m happy enough just to be able to travel.

8. It's not that cheap but it’s affordable enough

I come from a middle-class background where holidays abroad are as rare as a unicorn. As a kid, I didn't have expensive Barbie dolls but rather hand-me down storybooks from my aunts and uncles.

So whenever I read an article or a blog post written by an English or American about how cheap South East Asia is, I scowl, “Yes, you have no idea.”

For someone who possesses the currency that is of three or four times the value of the Malaysian ringgit, it is indeed cheap. But for a Malaysian, USD1 for a bowl of pho in Ho Chi Minh city isn’t dirt-cheap in comparison. It costs just as much for a plate of char koay teow in Malaysia.

Having said that, while we can’t live like kings like someone from the UK coming to Thailand, I dare say most travels are affordable enough. We just have to forgo some convenience and work a little harder to stick to our budget.

Instead of booking direct flights, we can choose to do a few layovers. Instead of eating restaurants, we can make do by snacking on street food or making our own food. Instead of training it in Europe, take the bus instead. All these seemingly inconvenient choices will help us stretch our budget a little longer.

9. If you are fearful, just jump anyway

Christian, my boyfriend, pondering about his life, in a train from Bangkok to Kanchanaburi, Thailand

Image via Ying Tey

We have many reasons to fear before and during our travels. Everything is so uncertain. You never know what’s going to happen next. What the plane crashes? What if someone steals your money? What if your parents disown you? What if you get lost? What if you get kidnapped? What if it sucks?

It’s easy to get cold feet. It’s easy to let the negativity get to you, especially when you’re surrounded by unsupportive peers. It’s normal to dream up of thousands and thousands of situations where you’re a victim in.

The point is to stop thinking too much and just go.

Take one step at a time.

When you're halfway through, you'll find that it isn't as terrifying as you'd imagined it to be. And maybe, you might actually like it.

This story is the personal opinion of the writer. You too can submit a story as a SAYS reader by emailing us at [email protected]

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