When one thinks of a beach holiday in Southeast Asia, the usual suspects come to mind: Phuket, Bali, Koh Samui, or for those who stick to the regular backpacking circuit, Koh Phangan. Beaches in Malaysia usually come as an afterthought.
And when one finally does think about Malaysia, just about every other tourist ends up in Perhentian Islands, Langkawi or Sipadan in East Malaysia. As a local, I knew better but despite that fact, and having escaped to many islands on the east of Malaysia (not just the ones mentioned), Pulau Kapas was strangely never on my radar.
I hope this postcard finds you well. It’s been a while since we last heard from each other. If there was Internet in Heaven, you might have probably read here that I’d quit my job to travel the world. Don’t worry, before you get yourself too worried, yes—I’m still in one piece despite having travelled to more than 65 countries.
And no, dad didn’t sponsor me. How could he have afforded to? He had only saved up enough to allow me to finish my degree in an Australian university. I am eternally grateful to him for doing so but I had a hard time persuading him that the world has more to offer than a regular pay cheque. He couldn’t have understood my intentions then but now, I’m glad that he has come to grudgingly accept that I would never be quite the regular Malaysian girl next door.
I unscrewed the large metallic screws that held my cabin’s porthole tight and looked out. The real threat of Somalian pirates has passed-we’re free to enjoy the transient but majestic ocean vistas once again. Looking out from Deck 3, the ocean appears close; occasionally a whiplash of water would graze the surface of the porthole. The night was jet-black, the horizons indistinguishable except for the lash, swash and slosh of the waves against the vessel, illuminated by the neon on the promenade deck. I pressed my face against the porthole, unable to take my eyes off the constant motion of the ocean and thought, “I never want to stop wandering.”
What exactly is this insatiable wanderlust that has urged me to throw myself into the maelstrom of romance and ‘consummation’ of far-flung lands? I am not an explorer, a historian nor even an avid tourist, yet consumed with a certain kind of restlessness, I had packed my bags and had set out for the unknown.
67 countries and counting. I wander, I meander, I get lost. I've no check lists, own no guidebooks, nor maps. I'm an incredibly ordinary girl, from a developing country, who had worked hard to sustain my travelling life. If I can do it, so can you.
I write travel & lifestyle features. I craft persuasive content for clients like MINI, Renault, SMEG, FUJIOH and more. If you need help with content writing or have a story that needs to be told, I can help.
To awaken alone in a strange town is one of the pleasant sensations in the world. You are surrounded by adventure. You have no idea of what is in store for you, but you will, if you are wise enough and know theart of travel, let yourself go on the storm/stream of the unknown and accept whatever comes in the spirit in which the gods may offer it. (1929, Baghdad, Freya Stark)
The Long Story Of How I Started Roaming The World With Only 400 USD
In Amsterdam, 2007.
HI, I’M YING AND I’M A TRAVELHOLIC!
I’m 32 years old and have lived out of a suitcase for the past 6 years. For many Malaysians, this is a dream come true. Whenever I upload photos of my travel, friends would comment wistfully that they wish they could do what I did.
Questions like ‘Where are you now?’ would come first, followed by ‘Dammit, Ying! How do you do it?’ and then ‘Argh, how do you afford to travel so much? I hate you.‘
Perhaps, people who don’t know me very well think that my travels are sponsored by my rich and generous dad, or by a handsome sum of inheritance that a relative left or that I have a tree that grows money stashed somewhere in my closet. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on how you see it), that’s not the case.
IS IT ALL ABOUT THE MONEY?
Yes and no.
You need some money to travel but you don’t need much to start off. My secret weapons were my sheer determination to see my dream through, a lot of effort and a bit of luck. Once little hesitant steps were taken, the idea that I had anything to lose no longer applied. My confidence grew, my leaps got bolder and at some point, I literally threw off the bowlines and sailed away from the safe harbour to explore as Mark Twain has wisely preached.
In 2005, like any other starry-eyed youngster, I yearned for adventures after I graduated from university. I harboured the dream to wander and to write stories from the road. It didn’t matter where and it didn’t include the amount of countries; all I wanted to do was to emulate the humble beginnings of George Orwell when he wrote Down and Under in London and Paris.
I was hopelessly ordinary, wishing that I had an extraordinary life. Mum passed away when I was 18 years old. Her death left me with a sense of urgency to live. To pursue my dreams or whatever I wanted out of life before it’s too late. Everyone has an expiration date.
However, it didn’t sound possible then, when I have an empty bank account laughing back at me. So I bought myself a pair of heels and a briefcase and went to work in PR. I had an exciting professional life but the wanderlust in me never dimmed. In fact, it blazed, danced and roared as I worked late into the nights, churning out press releases. To cope with the feverish restlessness, I read Vagabonding in bookshops and memorised the tips taught in those pages.
When I had a little more in my bank account (only 400 USD but still better than nothing) than when I started, I did the only crazy thing I can think of: quit my job to travel.
THE FIRST SOLO BACKPACKING TRIP
A 5-hour ride from Bangkok to Aranyaprathet
I don’t know how Marco Polo or Ibn Batutta did it, but I couldn’t have done much without the Internet. After going online, bombarding Thorn Tree Forums and backpackers from all over the world with my questions, I found a way to volunteer in a village in Myanmar for free. I was to help out in an English school set up by this visionary Swedish bloke and its organsing team that included an Argentinean yogi monk, two American travellers, a gutsy Australian girl and a shy Kiwi. Mainly, two of the American travellers, read my email, told me to come over and welcomed me with open arms. They put me up in their very simple apartment where I slept on the moth-eaten mattress and under the mosquito net, FOR FREE. The apartment had no fans and sometimes, no clean running water. We stayed next to the train station and due to the constant noise, I slept through a bomb explosion once. I learned that true travelling means living simply and like the locals.
I made my 400 USD stretch for two months. And as Kika and Hibickina wrote in Off The Map , pay a lot and you get an expensive life, take what’s free and you have freedom. I was penniless but I was happy. Poverty has taught me a few things: compassion, humility, gratitude and mindfulness. People offered me food, accommodation, money and support. When I was down to my very last cents, I went officially high on life.
With my heart thumping and my cheeks flushed with anticipation, I went back to Kuala Lumpur to work again, this time as a creative writer for a magazine. I was thrilled by the fact that it was THAT simple to leave and travel. I acted on impulse and my folly rewarded me with the knowledge that you don’t need to be rich or be some kind of genius to hit the road. I knew I would heed the words of George Monbiot , learn enough from my job, save a little more and take off before I start getting caught up in routines and habits. I forsaw a future of constant change but a life lived well, brimming with possibilities and growth.
It was a future with a lot of potential.
HOW COUCHSURFING AND THE UNIVERSE HELPED
CouchSurfing around the world
7 months later, with RM 4000 (1290 USD), I’d set off to explore Indochina. The slow journey spanned for 6 months, where I took in sights and sounds of Malaysian neighbouring countries, in small sips, hungrily but gently. In my tattered jeans, grimy t-shirts and a not-too-heavy backpack, I slept soundly in strangers’ couches or 3 USD a night dorm beds, I met a slew of travellers and bonded with those who shared similar travelling philosophy and most of all, through the CouchSurfing network. I met one particular hero who not just believed in me but also loaned me some money.
Steve is an American wanderer who taught EFL (English as a Foreign Language) around the world. We hung out a few times and he simply told me that I could do the same. It was a particular hard thing to hear because this crazy dude wouldn’t listen to my laments of how crappy my Malaysian passport was and how earning Ringgit wouldn’t get me anywhere, or how my Chinese facial features wouldn’t get me a TEFL job in Japan or Korea, etc. He told me that I could either complain while sitting on my ass the whole day or do something about it. That had shut me up and I told him that I wish I could do something about it. He then proceeded to give me more information about TEFL as a career and more importantly, how to do it on a cruise ship.
That sweet gig, teaching English on a cruise ship* (Note: the Crew Lecturer position now no longer exists. It has evolved into a Training position instead ) was EVERYONE’S DREAM JOB. Imagine-working and travelling at a same time-who would complain? I jumped at it, and applied and guess what: I got rejected.
I did what every traveller would do after that-I wandered some more. I was a little forlorn and almost beaten but not completely. I was chagrin that I didn’t win the dream job lottery but I was no defeatist so I bought a one-way ticket to Amsterdam-which was strange because my savings were in an appalling state. The loan that Steve gave me was diminishing but I’d heard that Spain and Italy were good places to look for TEFL jobs so I thought I’d go visit Teun and Steff, two good friends that I had met during my travels, in Amsterdam, before heading south.
THE DARKEST HOUR IS BEFORE DAWN
I was well-taken care of by friends that I met while travelling, in Amsterdam.
In Amsterdam, I was well fed and taken care of but panic crept in every time I looked at my bank account’s balance. I had sent many emails to schools in Spain and Italy but had no positive responses. Some told me that I didn’t have enough experience; some told me that I didn’t have the right passport or origins; and some were skeptical of my skills. € 500 trickled away to € 100- it was only a matter of time before I had to take up a dishwashing job. I didn’t see it as a menial task, but I just thought I wouldn’t be very good at dishwashing. Did I imagine that I’d end up at that point: skint and have no clue what the future holds? The good thing was, I was still surrounded by good friends and I knew they would continue to put a shelter over my head regardless of my situation.
One fine day, the golden email found its way to my inbox: the cruise ship company that had initially rejected my application was wondering if I was still keen on the Crew Lecturer position offered. I found myself hyperventilating at the miraculous prospect and set off for Genoa, Italy where the interview was held.
Needless to stay, my poverty status changed after I was hired. Within 2 weeks, I found myself marvelling at how the universe had scooped me out of the rut and put me in paradise, all within perfect timing. Any day later, I’d have flown home, with my head bowed in shame.
HAPPILY EVER AFTER? (NOT QUITE)
Anchoring near Mykonos, Greece
Living and working on the cruise ship weren’t easy but each time I finished a contract, my savings flourished and the story bank filled to brim with all sorts of tales and misadventures onboard. With the money saved up from each contract, it allowed me to travel further and longer.
Colleagues from the ship
THE TAKE AWAY LESSONS FROM THE GODDAMN LONG STORY
Travelling doesn’t require a huge capital. Start stretching your legs and stride across the border with what you’ve got. Baby steps will lead to giant strides.
While money isn’t THE main thing, it is STILL something to get you started. However, money doesn’t save by itself. If you really want to travel, you’ll have to learn to save. It takes a lot of determination at first, to keep what you earn and not burn them carelessly on stuff that brings you instant gratification.
Have confidence in the Universe/the Divine/God/Allah, etc. KNOW that things will work out and fall into place. Just do your part and take the initiative to take that first step. The rest will follow.
Don’t sightsee but wander. Sure, we all have a bucket list of destinations that we should see and experience before we die, but sometimes you just can’t afford them all. Instead of paying a great deal to see the award-winning museums and expensive monuments, take a walk through the alleys, markets and parks instead. They are mostly free and offer a more honest reality of a country. There is so much to learn from the locals who are not paid to tell you the best of what the country has to offer. They will offer you a greater perspective. Also, the best adventures come when you’re not seeking them.
CouchSurf when you can- I can’t emphasize this enough. I wouldn’t have travelled this far if it wasn’t for the locals and travellers that I’ve met through CouchSurfing. They all played an important part in my growth as a traveller. They have nourished and supported my dreams; they gave me hope when I thought there weren’t any; their friendship are infallible and their generosity boundless. Granted these days, there have been complaints and concerns about the network but apart from the caution that you should practise while looking for hosts, I’d say it’s still pretty worthwhile to check it out. Afterall, I’m still here, aren’t I?
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Due to my petite stature, my Italian friends have nicknamed me Piccola, which translates into little Ying. If you’ve seen a tiny girl standing at an armpit height of a Dutch giant, clutching a pint of Amstel that is probably larger than her hands, or find yourself thinking that you thought you just saw a walking backpack sprouting two legs, disappearing into the crowds, then you’ve probably seen me.
I was born and bred in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia yet I have left the good old shores of home so many times that I can’t really remember when I first did so. The most mundane reason for leaving was to pursue my degree in Australia and the most exciting was my first solo-backpacking trip to Myanmar.
I’d return when I ran out of money but at some point in late 2006, I left my job as a PR consultant and bought a one-way ticket to Myanmar. It has been 8 years now but I’ve never regretted my audacity and impulsive decision.
When people hear what I’ve been doing, they often arch an eyebrow and give me that look.
One that says: “You? A world traveller? But you’re so small…and so very ordinary!”
I wasn’t brave and I definitely didn’t have enough money in my bank but I’d left anyway. Working in Malaysia didn’t help in the savings department and my nationality didn’t automatically open all gates but I was indomitable and was lured by the unknown.
I’m a wearer of many hats: a writer, a trainer, a teacher, a photographer, a waitress and many more but the biggest hat that I wear is of a traveller’s. My perpetual hunger for new experiences propels me to continuously wander and explore. I enjoy getting lost and finding stories. Conventional notions of success bore me but unfortunately, it drives my poor Malaysian Chinese dad up the wall that I wouldn’t conform to status quo. “Why can’t you be normal?” he’d ask. Sorry, dad.
Curious about I quit my job to travel the world at the age of 23 and without a trust fund?
It has taken me far too long to stay consistent to keep a travel blog but it’s never too late. Here, you will find honest accounts about my current adventures and previous journeys. With insights discovered and lessons learnt, I hope you will find this blog amusing, entertaining and perhaps even mildly inspiring.
Here, you will find more treasure trove of narratives inspired by the foreign lands or seas where I once was. They document my musings, the certain feelings that developed during that particular time of travel or the sort of misadventures that I got into. I’m not that sort who tells you where to go or give you a list of reasons why you should visit Indonesia or Iceland. I suspect you already know all that. You’re here because you need someone to tell you that, it isn’t really so difficult to travel after all. You’re here because you have big dreams and so many plans. You’re here because if I can do it, so can you!
Living it up, as a cruise ship crew (Catalina Island, Dominican Republic)
The Tiny Wanderer is best read when you have a cup of tea by your side and all the time in the world to dream.
I also hope to connect with like-minded travellers, and with those who aspire to be one: especially those who haven’t dared to take the leap for fear of lack of savings, the wild unknown or lack of a golden passport.
To all those who found it possible to wander, despite the obstacles and personal circumstances, I’d say, travel on and keeping walking along the open road.
Where are you now and what are you doing?
Since June 2013, I’d traded freedom for a pay cheque. I now pull daily cubicle shifts as a Senior Copywriter at an advertising agency in Singapore.
(as of 2018) I now live and work in Hamburg, Germany. Chances are, you’ll also find a fair bit of blog posts about how’s it like to be a Malaysian living in Germany.
I’m by default shy though talkative when prompted
What’s with the bits and pieces of Italian?
For the past five years, I’d finance my wanderlust by working as a crew trainer onboard several Italian cruise ships. Having to survive daily onboard where Italian is generally used as the common language (depending on the route of the cruise ship), I was forced to pick up Italian and gestures quickly so that I could communicate easily with the crew. Naturally, making new friends over a glass of wine became easier and I was no longer perceived as unapproachable. Till now, Italian phrases are still at the tip of my tongue and occasionally they roll out faster while my brain struggles to find its English equivalent. I now speak English, German, Mandarin, Cantonese, Malay, Italian and un peu Français. I’m picking up as many languages as I can because I hate sobbing into my drink while everyone around me is having a good time, speaking a language that I don’t understand. So far, avoiding isolation is a strong motivation.
Fine print: I used to blog at Where Is Ying Now? (but it was appalling so I’ve taken it down) and am hoping to put together my cruise ship adventures into a novel. Meanwhile, for fresh, up-to-date goodies, please subscribe to this blog and stay with me on this joy ride.