I feel most at home when I’m somewhere else. But somewhere else didn’t have to mean far-flung lands; it just means being away from home—the one with familiar smelling sheets of my childhood home—away from the Kuala Lumpur suburb (for me).
When I was first consumed by the idea of travel, countries like Norway and Brazil elude me. My limited bank account had not afforded me to travel far, so the raging flames of restlessness drove me to improvising. If I could not venture so far out, perhaps I could start having adventures within my own backyard.
These travels were usually spontaneous and without prior planning. One place usually led to another. Because of that, I had spent a few times wandering around towns in the dark to look for a place to rest, slowly meandered through alleys looking for food or something interesting to do, started conversations with town locals, camped by the beach and so on. Slowly peeling the layers of the country, town by town, has led me to startling discoveries. Here’s what I had learned from wandering my own land.
1. Malaysia is not as dangerous as the media claims she is
Headlines like these—car park robberies, motorcycle snatch thieves, deceitful taxi drivers—circulate regularly on Malaysian digital and print media. It is no wonder that my dad freaked out initially when I told him that I would travel solo. Yet, I had taken overnight interstate buses, lingered around Pudu Sentral bus station at night, slept in mixed-dorm rooms, camped at Cherating Beach, ate a 2:00 a.m. supper around Chow Kit, did a cross-country motorcycling trip with another friend, hitchhiked with a family in Cameron Highlands, slept at a rubber plantation and yet, I had not felt threatened or scared at any point. There was not a moment where I had feared for my safety or where I had a nagging feeling of doubt of a stranger’s company. People left me alone but they were mostly kind when approached for help. Nobody had acted aggressively. I didn’t hug my backpack to sleep in the bus, in fear of someone who may rob me. Vendors didn’t scam me, despite the fact that I never revealed I was a local.
I felt no more vulnerable than in other countries like Vietnam or England.
2. Malaysians are genuinely friendly and a relaxed bunch
We often think we live in a hostile society where people are rude and unfriendly. When you chance upon an idiotic and inconsiderate driver on the road, you hiss and curse. Where have all the good people gone, you think. Well, my friend, they are still here. I have always felt genuine warmth from Malaysians. Unlike some countries, where people carrying backpacks are sometimes seen as sales targets, local Malaysians are more thrilled just to engage in a conversation with a traveller. Based on my personal experience, they had no hidden agendas apart from a smidgen of curiosity about my travels or my background. Their faces often break into a bigger smile when I reveal to them that I am actually Malaysian (I’m often mistaken for a Japanese backpacker). A dessert vendor at the town’s pasar malam (night market) in Kota Bharu even gave me more kuih because he thought I spoke Malay reasonably well. This was until he discovered that I was in fact Malaysian and we both shared a good laugh together!
Moving around within my home country also helps me connect with the different strata of society that I normally would not come into contact with otherwise. Watching the fishermen sail away in the wee hours of the morning and the village kids playing by the roadside make me feel like we are all part of a bigger picture. It helps me realise intrinsically that not every Malaysian share my background, my interests or my privilege. It makes me realise that there’s a bigger world beyond my own, and the irony is that this bigger world is just next door.
3. Who needs a car when a luxurious interstate bus would do the trick?
Have you taken a south-bound bus from Terminal Bersepadu Selatan? Have you noticed how sleek the station is, how efficient the ticketing system has become and how many ticketing booths are available? Once you get on the bus, you get to sink into a plush seat with plenty of leg space. A two-hour ride to Malacca costs only RM10! Even the interstate busses in Europe could not compete in terms of cost and comfort.
This is a reason why I always prefer taking buses around. Almost everyone who works in the tourism industry speaks English so there is little chance that confusion can happen.
In most cities and towns, their network of local buses is so good that you don’t have to resort to taking a cab. Local maps are easily available, affordable guesthouses are not difficult to find, seeing the country’s attractions are definitely manageable on your own via public transportation.
Travelling around on public transport had allowed me to be with other Malaysians and learn about them deeper. I had learnt so much from observing other passengers. It was refreshing to see everyone going about his or her everyday tasks in their own way. Occasionally, I even got to meet other interesting travellers, for instance, the time I was on a bus ride from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur. A middle-aged Malaysian Chinese man, who was travelling home to attend his daughter’s wedding, had eagerly shared his photography portfolio with me. He was a budding photographer who had only discovered photography at a later stage of his life. Along with his photos, were little tales about his family, which I would have missed if I hadn’t opened up to a stranger.
4. Diversity is what makes us interesting
Malaysia offers a bubbling variety of all sorts: a brimming pot of cultures, a clash of the old and new, the ugly and the beautiful, mountainous landscapes and sweeping coasts, sleepy towns and chaotic cities. It is all tangled up and jumbled together, making the country a rich tapestry out of a million different coloured thread. It is not unusual to find Chinese char kuey teow sellers whipping up dishes in a corner while an Indian Muslim man across the road cooks up a similar dish but a spicier version: Mee Goreng Mamak Pedas. Twangs of different languages and dialects spoken can be heard within a small, shared public space. An Indian Muslim surau (an Islamic assembly building), a Buddhist temple and a Tamil Methodist church can be found within close proximity to each other. This fact did not present itself to me until halfway around the globe later (I’m based in Germany now), I realised that Malaysia is one of the most captivating countries to visit in Southeast Asia. For a traveller, it is just impossible to get bored of Malaysia!
5. There are still pockets of spots that are unheard of
I had two chances in creating my own version of The Motorcycle Diaries; once around Peninsular Malaysia and another around Sabah. As a pillion rider, I got to marvel at the surroundings as we whizzed by. My motorcycling buddy and I drove through long stretches of village roads, tranquil reservoir lakes, lush jungles, hushed rugged coastlines.
These were the times where I got to explore beyond the local tourism highlights of Malaysia. Some quaint towns and stunning spots were chance encounters when we drove by. Others were hidden gems revealed to me by someone knowledgeable with local surroundings. It was amazing to see how many ‘secret’ spots there are in Malaysia, where nature is still at its most pristine and largely unaffected by development.
These realisations thus led me to this conclusion: we should all start by pursuing adventures in our own country before flying into another. The next time a Malaysian laments about how routine their daily lives are, dare them to pick a spot on the map of Malaysia, just any spot at all, and get them to go and discover it in person. Chances are, getting there would be an adventure of its own. Try it!