Inspirational,  Travel Stories

#WhyITravel: I Travel to Challenge Stereotypes

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When I was younger, I had the greatest opportunity to study and live in Australia for three full years. Yet despite those years, I never learned what it meant to be Australian. I was too caught up with my studies and working to fund my living. Meeting Australians and expanding my social circle were the last things on my mind. My Australian life was exactly the same with my Malaysian life, only more expensive. Then I realised, most Malaysians who went to Australia for their tertiary studies fell into the exact same trap. We had lived in a foreign land without being curious about our surroundings, without having our comfortable lives challenged and without learning anything new. After graduation, I went back to Malaysia, vowing that I would do it differently the next time.

I was never a bucket list checker. I never had a list of things to do and places to visit before I turn 30. But when I turned 23, I knew that life had to be more than just doing eight hours (or more) in the office and waiting for the next paycheck.

“Is this it? Is this all that is?” I kept asking myself. I was restless. I hungered for adventures that didn’t include taking the LRT from Kuala Lumpur to Petaling Jaya every morning. So I resorted to taking my passport and taking an overnight train from Butterworth to Bangkok. When I found myself conversing with a Thai lady who had lived in Penang for a while and spoke some Hokkien, I was thrilled. My Hokkien was not great but making the effort to communicate had given me an opportunity to connect with a stranger.

Then I thought, maybe this is what it’s all about.

1. I travel to indulge in my curiosity

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From Enid Blyton’s children’s stories to colourful pages of National Geographic, I caught myself wondering often, what’s life like as someone else in a place far away. What is it like to be a baker, a sailor, a Pad Thai seller, a smuggler, a dancer? Curiosity turned me into an explorer of sorts, where I get to travel to other lands and immerse myself into societies so different from mine. Without a familiar identity that I normally hold on to when I’m home, I learned quickly how easy it is to just be. In essence, just going with the flow. 

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I revelled in being foreign. Everything in life has to be relearned again—from knowing how to order a plate of noodles to looking for public toilets. The sensation of waking up somewhere strange allows me to wake up every day with an exciting blank canvas to paint my day on. I have no idea what is in store for me but by submitting to the unknown, it allows me to discover things that I didn’t plan for.

2. I travel to feel uncomfortable

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This might go against some people’s idea of a holiday but the further I am from my comfort zone, the better. This is the time where I get to push myself to the limit and find out what I’m truly made of. As I trusted my journey, I plodded on despite obstacles. I learned first hand that what doesn’t kill me does make me stronger. It made me more resourceful whenever I’m broke.

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It made me get over my shy self and make conversations with strangers whenever I’m lonely. It made me learn another language when I realised the vocabulary that I know is not sufficient. It made me appreciate how good life was at home as I rode on long, uncomfortable overnight bus rides and toilet stops in between meant squatting in dimly-lit and filthy stalls, crawling with large spiders. The regular me wouldn’t have done all these crazy things but travel made me braver and more open-minded. Feeling the first signs of discomfort means I’m about to discover something about myself that I hadn’t known before.

3. I travel to collect experiences

During my decade of travels, material goods had very little importance in my life. Having just a 45L backpack as a home, I needed only the most necessary things like toiletries and some clothes. Everything else was expendable. If the things made no impact on my travels, for example fancy clothes, sophisticated gadgets or even souvenirs, I don’t carry them with me. For a while, my only asset was time and freedom. With these two essential components, the opportunity to break routines and do something else with my life is always on the table.

I’ve since swum with whale sharks, slept in a total stranger’s home in the middle of nowhere at 3:00 a.m., caught uncountable sunrise and sunset in obscure parts of the world, chased some reindeers in Norway, partied in the jungles of Mauritius, worked in a café in London and Perth, survived a taxi scam in Egypt, worked on cruise ships and so on.

Chasing reindeers in Norway, yes it's true!
Chasing reindeers in Norway, yes it’s true!

With all these experiences and stories tucked under my belt, I can’t wait to share them with my grandchildren in the future. These stories I hope, would inspire them to dream big and seek their place out in the world like I did. Stories that could fuel their imagination and ignite their sense of adventure would have a far greater impact than all material possessions put together. A house, a car, a shiny gadget may offer one some joy and function for a while, but can they leave you a legacy?

4. I travel to challenge stereotypes

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My dad was wary of my first solo adventure to Myanmar. In 2006, the country was closed to the rest of the world and apparently dangerous. He was worried that I’d get into trouble, be kidnapped by the Junta and/or get mixed up in some civil arrest.

Yet when I went there, it was exactly the opposite of what I had imagined from the horror stories I’ve heard. Yes, there were some parts of the country that were closed off to foreigners due to unrest and so, but in general the Burmese were one of the gentlest and most genuine people I’ve ever known. Hence, the more I travel, the more I discover about what’s truly going on. The media is known to propagate stereotypes that I like to take with a pinch of salt. I prefer to find out first hand if Albania is truly dangerous, if Romania is full of thieving gypsies or if there’s nothing more to Cambodia than just the ancient wonder of Angkor Wat. I usually discover the opposite, and the opposite is always exciting.

5. I travel to be educated and inspired

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Having the chance to admire historical landmarks, behold picturesque landscapes and study magnificent art and culture are good reasons to travel, but more importantly, being in another country can help you see the world in a different light. Instead of holding on to certain ideas, you get to let the world teach you a thing or two about things that you’ve always thought to be ‘true’ or ‘normal’. Different cultural practices can offer you different ideas of beauty, of peace, of success, or of happiness. Doing things differently may help you discover a greater set of solutions and ways to live life, paint, dance, love, write and more. Encounters with people from all walks of life will offer you joy and an education of connection. Travel ultimately will teach you more about life than any book or teacher could.

Travelling has enriched my soul and has filled my life with possibilities. It has allowed me to be friends with people that I would not have normally met. It has dared me, pushed me, made me think of the bigger picture.

To be honest, I travelled because I wanted to see how far, a girl-next-door like me—without a trust fund to my name and extraordinary skills, could go. The answer I later discovered is this: very far. A friend once said, if you dare throw yourself out there, the world will open up to you.

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