„Malaysia truly Asia” is the Malaysian advertising slogan for foreigners. We are accompanied by it from the moment of getting our Malaysian “entry stamps” in our passports and I must honestly admit – the more we get to know Malaysia, the more I am struck with the inadequacy of that slogan. Why?
A Traveler’s Maths
Within the context of Asia, Malaysia is a moderately expensive country. The prices are not so high as in Japan, Singapore, or, recently, even in China, but it is not as cheap here as in Pakistan or Cambodia either. However, as we have been traveling for over a year now, our budget is inflexible and we cannot afford compromises. The USD 15 we had planned for Malaysia at the start of our journey is the absolute maximum we can spend to have enough money left for reaching Australia. Therefore, we started to to think hard about how the heck were we to travel for USD 15, have 2 to 3 meals a day, find accommodation, and maybe even visit the places we were interested in (the last kind of expenditure, after all, was the major part of our travel expenses).
Cambodia, Vietnam, and Laos are cheap and USD 15 is really sufficient for a backpacker, however, CouchSurfing is not well developed there (to say nothing about the fact that even in cities such as Luang Prabang, Vientiane, or Ho Chi Minh City, where the chances of couch surfing are greater, we had the bad luck to arrive during our New Year and later during the Chinese New Year!). Our experiences with hitchhiking in the abovementioned countries had been rather uninspiring, to say the least. For all those reasons, the predicted budget surplus (from spending from 8 to 10 dollars a day in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and saving for the more expensive Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Papua New Guinea, and East Timor) was not quite achieved (we did manage to save some money in Pakistan, spending not more than USD 7/day, but we overspent in China). So we only had USD 15 per each of those countries as well. We had to come up with some ideas.
Traveling with the Wind, i.e. Give In to the Fate and Let it Help You On entering Malaysia we slightly altered our traveling style. The country is well developed for the most part and the Malaysian cultural mix makes people more open, especially to foreigners. So we took advantage of it. We made a decidedly greater use of hitchhiking and the Malaysian hospitality allowed us to spend only 10 out of 40 nights in that country in hostels and similar institutions. But let us start from the beginning…
Although we wrote more about Jeeva and his creatures in our report from Kuala Lumpur we cannot fail to mention him here. Quite a lot of time has passed from the day of our meeting but I still hold very strong memories of the first hours we spent in his house. Jeeva works from about 10:00 PM and we arrived at his place shortly before 08:00 PM. We were greeted with big smiles of his mother and sister who were just getting ready for the Sunday ceremony at a Hindu temple. We chatted for a while about general topics and, after 20 minutes, the ladies left the house, leaving us alone there. Alice looked at me, I looked at Alice and we started to wonder if we would do the same thing. Would we have so much trust in complete foreigners? Umm… and maybe Jeeva’s mother has read something in our eyes and decided she could trust us? It remained an inextricable mystery.
We spent about a week with Jeeva and his family. From the start we were treated like family members. One evening Jeeva’s mother found out that we had dined out and were not hungry on returning home. She then wagged her finger at us and told us off, saying that it should never happen again and that dinner was always waiting for everyone in the evening. We abode by the rules with great pleasure, the more willingly as Indian food prepared at home is quite a different thing than that had in an eatery. Everything is super good and fresh, and we also got comprehensive explanations of what we were eating, what it was made of, etc. So, we spent a week in Kuala Lumpur, getting to know Indian cuisine and getting used to snakes…
Singapore – an Ideal City
We were quite afraid of Singapore because we had heard it was very expensive for Asia. However, we wanted to go there for at least 4 to 5 days as we were very curious about that strange country. Some people call it sterilely clean, others say it is boring and nothing interesting happens there, and I will just say it is different. There is no such country in any other place of the world. Our guide in that strange land was a Filipino who had lived in Singapore for some time and worked for a NGO which helps third world countries and countries suffering from war and other conflicts.
Junner invited us to his high-class apartment on the 20th floor of a 30-story high rise building equipped with a swimming pool, a sauna, a fitness club, and what not. I have to admit that we felt rather uneasy in those luxurious conditions but, in the words of Junner: “This is how you live in Singapore, so enjoy it and feel it as it is.” That was what we did and, although we were in Singapore, our nightly conversations frequently gravitated toward Pakistan which was closer to our hearts, and where Junner had worked for a long time; he had also worked in Afghanistan. So, at night we spoke about the Near East and in the morning we woke up and set off to conquest Singapore.
Our guide’s tips and advice enabled us to see Singapore one cannot find in postcards. We entered Hindu temples and observed strange rituals, watched a cremation ceremony near a park, and spied, surprised, on the Filipino minority which gathered in one place each Sunday and in that way spent the only day free of work. Now, how hard would it be to read about that in a travel guide! It would be impossible, and instead one would follow the paths marked on a map saying: Singapore in 2 days! Or: Singapore in 4 days!! Long live CouchSurfing!
Malaysia – the Second Approach
Malaysia surprised us so much that we decided to prolong our stay there. Before swimming to Indonesia we would return for a moment to Malaysia to better penetrate its eastern, less developed shore. So, traveling from Singapore we decided to stay for a while in Johor Bahru.
We intended to spend only one night there but our plans are apparently written by someone else. We were invited by a very nice Chinese family which treated us like royalty, to a degree which made us uncomfortable. They were our hosts for two days and we did not spend a penny and that was not due to our congenital meanness but to the fact that all our efforts to pay a bill in a restaurant were violently opposed. In fact, it was the first time we were in a real Chinese house. On the day of our departure we wanted simply to go on the road and hitchhike to Mersing, a town 90 km away, but our host did not want to listen to us at all. She put us in her car and took us to a bus stop. The moment we got out of the car the bus to Mersing arrived. Apart from the train to Singapore we had been hitchhiking in Malaysia so we did not want to change our ways at that moment but we did not know how to explain that to our kind hostess. So we said goodbye and got on the bus, only to get off at the next stop and…
Superb Hotel for One Smile
…get completely drenched in the rain which had just started raining. So, I was standing by the road, in a cape (Alice with the baggage was hiding under the bus stop), and smiling to all the passing cars. I was standing thus for about 10 minutes, the rain was intensifying, and nothing stopped. Had we made a mistake getting out of that bus? No, we guessed not. I felt, as they say, “under my skin” that we should not have gone on it. I turned back and went under the shelter because the rain was getting worse and worse. Suddenly, I heard a voice behind my back: “Where are you going? To Mersing?” I turned again and saw a smiling face of a man, about 40, sitting in a car, going to Mersing.
I had not had time to answer before he started to get our backpacks into his car. (It later turned out that he was some V.I.P. from Johor Bahru, the second biggest city of Malaysia). In that way we got acquainted with the second V.I.P. on our journey. We had a very nice chat. There was hardly any silence in the car and he seemed to like us because he did not only take us to a gorgeous dinner but also took us to the most expensive hotel in Mersing and he paid for it. Again, there was no saying “no” – “You are guests in my country and we treat guests with respect”, we heard as he was bidding us farewell. How can one not love Malaysia?
Johor Bahru – the Second Approach
Returning from the virtually * island I urgently needed to go to hospital. The nearest city was Johor Bahru – a dreadful, boring, and eternally jammed place but… the circumstances made us stay there for a week instead of the planned 2 days. In Malaysia we found another friend who trusted us completely from the first sight.
In JB we stayed with Josephine who, in spite of her misleading name, is a Chinese woman. She took us home from the shopping center in which we had first met. We talked for a few minutes and as she had to go to work soshe left us the keys and briefly described where the things were. After half an hour we were again alone in a completely strange house. Keys in our hands. How come that people in Malaysia trusted us so much? Do we look like trustworthy people? Or maybe at that stage we looked so dramatic that we evoked pity?
During the week spent at Josephine’s we prepared a Polish vegetable salad, talked for looong hours about the world, Poland, Malaysia and the political situation there, and about the incredibly varied Malaysian culture. Josephine is an incredibly experienced person who knows Asia very well but, having been in Europe many times, she also understood our point of view and train of thoughts. Therefore, we got along very well and the week spent in the superficially boring Johor Bahru was one of the most interesting weeks on our journey.
Malaysia appeared to be a country full of very friendly and helpful people who smiled to us at every step and always had time to chat. We felt a little like in Pakistan and Iran here, with respect to hospitality and all we received from the people. It was all very well, I only wonder how we can repay all those “good souls” after returning to Poland? How can one repay such a debt incurred on the journey?
Today, we know one thing for sure – had it not been for the multitude of wonderful people who helped us without any recompense, that journey would certainly not have been so long. In this post, we only described Malaysia and Singapore, and being already in Indonesia we are already convinced that wonderful people also live here, but that will be described in the next posts.
P.S. Although the title refers to Malaysia, I have also written about Singapore, but it is only because both countries have strong historical and cultural ties which are very apparent even today.