A few things hit us all at once when we stepped off the plane after arriving in Kuala Lumpur. First, was delirious exhaustion. Neither of us were able to sleep in any appreciable amount throughout the eight-hour flight, so walking around the airport with our approximately thirty-five-pound packs on our backs and no sleep made us feel like we would collapse at any moment. Second, as soon as we stepped outside, we were overwhelmed by the humid, hot air. We had just come from a place where we wore our winter coats almost every day and for some reason, we did not comprehend just how hot our destination was going to be in early February. Finally, we realized as we got on the train into the city from the airport, how little we knew about Kuala Lumpur, and Malaysia for that matter. We are embarrassed to admit that the first thing that came to mind when thinking about Malaysia was the movie Zoolander and how they were trying to kill the Malaysian Prime Minister. In other words, our perception of Malaysia was based almost solely on portrayals in the TV and movies and not in facts.
Our goal was to get to the town of our next Workaway, Lurah Bilut. However, the departure time for the bus was 8 hours from when we arrived, so we decided to try and find a place to eat and rest. We were cranky, tired, and hungry. We went to a nearby mall and it turned out, one of our favorite restaurants, Din Tai Fung, had a location there. We had been trying to be penny pinchers, but in this scenario, we gave in – we needed a proper place to rest and relax before moving again to Lurah Bilut. Afterwards, we had a very unsuccessful time trying to nap in the humid heat at a nearby park and came to the conclusion that we needed cool air to think properly. We gave up on the idea that we were going to make it to Lurah Bilut, so we booked a night at a nearby Hilton hotel (hotel points for the win!) and, after a knocked-out-cold nap, finally felt human again.
One would imagine that giving ourselves this afternoon and evening to recharge our batteries and get acclimated to our new surroundings would have led to us being more on top of our plan to get to Lurah Bilut from Kuala Lumpur the following morning. This of course did not happen, and we missed our 9 am bus, thinking that it actually left at 9:30. Thankfully, there was a bus that left at 10 a.m. that went close to the village, and the bus driver told us that if we gave him a little extra money he would take us the additional distance there. This was the first sign that the buses in Malaysia were much different than those in Turkey, and that was made abundantly clear upon boarding the bus, where a woman sitting in the front row had her legs stretched out and her bare feet resting on the back of the bus driver’s seat.
A little less than two hours later, we were walking along the flat, wide streets of Lurah Bilut. The village was small, with only a handful of business and lush, tropical vegetation surrounding the roadsides and homes. It felt like a village in a dynamic equilibrium between wildness and purposeful planning. We followed the directions our host, Zaki, had given us and arrived at his property only to find it empty. We loitered, unsure of what to do next since we didn’t have data to contact him, until a car turned in the driveway and out popped Arian, another guest of Zaki’s that had been there for the past 8 months. He told us that everyone was out having a late breakfast and told us he would bring us over. He drove us about two minutes to a pop-up canopy near where we had just been dropped off and there, taking up a picnic table under the covering, was our group. Our attention was first grabbed by little Sophia, a precocious two and a half-year-old, who was squirming around energetically in her father’s lap and pulling napkins one after another from the napkin dispenser. Her father was, of course, Zaki, and we were greeted by his big smile and accompanying dimples. Also at the table was Sara, a fellow American from Connecticut who had been traveling extensively throughout Thailand. We all made the awkward small talk one makes when they are first getting to know others and we came to learn that Arian knew to come get us at Zaki’s place when someone from town had driven by and seen us walking up the street and then alerted Zaki that we were there.
Ah, the joys of small towns.
Zaki was very much a jack-of-all trades type of guy. He was an excellent chef, could speak knowledgeably on a variety of topics, and had a clear outlook on the world that he was happy to express to you, but wasn’t about to push on uninterested ears. He made us feel at ease very quickly at his home, and told us that, unlike our previous Workaway, there was no set of defined tasks or projects we needed to work to complete; our time at his home was to be shaped the way we wanted to shape it as long as we contributed in some way to the well-being of the group. It’s funny because most people aren’t used to that kind of openness to share one’s life with complete strangers and we would be remiss if we did not mention that for the first few days, we wondered: what is Zaki’s angle here? Why would he welcome all these strangers from around the world to his home, allow them to stay for free, cook for them, share his knowledge with them, and show them around his township and the surrounding areas and ask for nothing in return?
The answer to that question didn’t immediately reveal itself, and eventually, we realized, it didn’t need to. A person’s openness and kindness didn’t need some sort of singular ulterior motive and regardless, it was undeniable that the environment he fostered at his home made for some of the most interesting encounters and experiences we had on our trip. Within a few days after we arrived, our group expanded to include Amin, an avid explorer and vlogger from Iran, and Nydia, Jaco, and Nyjah, a young family of travelers from the Netherlands. The 7 of us adults and one little 1.5 year-old Nyjah were quite the troupe, and while it wasn’t apparent what we would have in common at first, we found that just the reality of us crossing paths in a place far from all of our homes made us eager to want to get to know one another.
We spent a week soaking up the sights, sounds, and pace of life in Lurah Bilut. Zaki’s property consisted of a main house, where his brother lived, an outdoor kitchen and seating area, a back house, where Zaki and his family slept, a platform sleeping shelter, where we slept most nights, and a treehouse, where on average about 3 people slept each night. The treehouse had a lovely view of a wide pond that came up to Zaki’s property line and there were several hammocks for us to stretch out on and look out over the water. Each day was without an agenda; our days were free to be spent as we pleased. It was the first time on our trip where we took things easy almost every day and didn’t feel a hint of guilt about it. We had the opportunity to go to not one, but two weddings that took place in town within the week we were there. We were able to go to a night market as well as hike up to a hillside one morning and watch the sunrise together. In the mornings, we ate roti canai and drank tea and during the days we played cards and Mike worked on a Rubik’s cube that had been left by a previous traveler. In the evenings, we watched the geckos wriggle along the walls and a mother hen take her place by the brick oven in the same exact spot every night with her five chicks nestled warm beneath her wings.
Looking back, it felt like the microcosm of our time in Lurah Bilut matched the macrocosm of where we both are in our lives. In both cases, the feeling is similar to: we got ourselves here and now what? Now what do I want to do with my day? Do I want to pick rambutans from Zaki’s rambutan tree or watch Ice Age with little Sophia, catch up on some journaling then maybe take a sunset walk through the quiet streets of the village? Similarly, we are both at places in our lives where we think we’ve got ourselves here—now what? We’ve left our jobs, we’ve seen so much more of the world than we ever had and we’ve sidestepped the inertia of our lives pushing us in a particular direction. Just as our days in Lurah Bilut were wide open for us to experience the time as we pleased, our lives feel similarly just as wide open, waiting for us to decide how we want to experience the next chapters.
After saying goodbye to the gang and Lurah Bilut, we took a bus up to Penang to further explore Malaysia. If we could describe the areas we visited in Penang in a word, it would probably be: trendy. The day after we arrived was Amanda’s birthday, so Mike arranged a wonderful multi-course dinner at a vegan restaurant in the city called Pinxin. He then went completely over the top the following morning with an appointment for a 90-minute couples massage at a small, beautifully decorated spa and we spent a few hours luxuriating in bliss. We checked out what a Malaysian hipster hangout looks like at the Hin Bus Depot and surprise! It looks pretty much the same as in the U.S.—complete with a gallery, outdoor murals, a vegan café/ yoga studio, a cute ice cream shop, and a small- batch artisanal kefir producer. Mike’s cousin lived in the city and was able to show us around to the more off-the-beaten-track and less commercial spots. Despite not sharing a common language, we got to enjoy each other’s company and our day helped prove that the presence of family is plenty fun by itself. We knew we were in good hands with her when we went to a restaurant that had “Lamb and Seafood” in the title and yet somehow were served a completely vegetarian meal, with none of the dishes we enjoyed being listed on the menu.
One evening we hiked up to a Hindu temple called Arulmigu Balathandayuthapani Temple. On the way, we were followed by a stray dog for about 1000 feet until we entered the temple area, where a different pack of stray dogs ran the turf. The dog dared to try to follow us into the temple grounds and was met with a cacophony of barks and bared teeth. We nodded our thanks to the resident temple guards for their dutiful protection of their territory before beginning the ascent of 513 steps to the temple. Along the way, in between watching monkeys scamper up light poles and reading about the history of the temple, we met a couple from Oceanside, which was less than an hour from where in we lived in SoCal. We took photos for each other, chatted about the heat, and when we got to the top, took in the stunning view of the city from the temple’s overlook.
Penang was also home to the lush Tropical Spice Garden. Here you pay a small admission fee and are welcomed into a diverse array of flora from around the world. It isn’t like any botanical garden we have visited in the past where everything is indoors in tightly temperature-controlled rooms, here everything grows intermingled with one another outdoors and the grounds are broken up into sections with themes like poisonous plants and plants used for tea and coffee. We saw palm trees with leaves the size of a motorcycle and touched the precious bark of a cinnamon tree. It truly inspired awe to see the plants that humans around the world hold significant for their taste, structure, appearance, and medicinal properties in one place. We could have easily spent all day there, soaking in the peaceful ambiance that being among the trees promotes, but hunger got the best of us and we headed back towards our hotel.
All the while we were in Penang, we did not have a plan as to where to go next. We had multiple half-formed plans and instead of pulling the trigger on any of them, we continued to extend our time in Penang. It was mid-February at this point, and we were due back in the U.S. in May. Our time was starting to feel increasingly limited and we wanted to move throughout Asia strategically in order to minimize the number of flights we needed to take. We came to have an appreciation of Malaysia in that it seemed to be the perfect melting pot of Asia, so it felt like we got a decent taste of other cultures. Finally, we made the decision to go directly to Amanda’s most desired destination. In a flurry, flight tickets were purchased and the following morning, we were off to a land that was unlike any other place in the world- the wild and wonderfully enigmatic Borneo.
See you there!