After all, don’t we all know how best to sell our beloved nation to visitors? The Petronas Twin Towers, nasi lemak, our mix of different races and religions — that should do it, shouldn’t it? We are all sterling examples of Malaysia, Truly Asia. Or are we?
Chok Yen Hau, author of the aforementioned book, believes we can do more. The 41-year-old journalist turned travel photographer who hails from Kluang, Johor isn’t interested in selling Malaysia to foreigners; he wants to market Malaysia to Malaysians who may not know their own country as well as they think they do.
Travelling across all 13 states, Chok has uncovered a side of Malaysia that may surprise you — from padi fields that may eclipse the lavender farms of Hokkaido in beauty to mangrove forests that look like they came right out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.
Chok’s wanderlust wasn’t apparent during his early years. He says, “When I was young, my parents were very protective and controlling so I wasn’t even allowed to join my friends on trips after high school.”
It was only when Chok went to Taipei to study naval architecture in 1992 that he started backpacking on a student’s shoestring budget. He says, “During my university summer breaks, I would travel around Taiwan and after that in China. Once I started, I couldn’t stop. Before, I didn’t know anything about travel but now I am addicted to it!”
While his early adventures were with coursemates, later trips had him trekking around the globe alone. “When I went solo backpacking in Europe for three weeks, there were so many unpredictable experiences. I had no buddies to talk to so I had to learn to chat with the locals, complete strangers to me. It was unnerving but also very exciting.”
This meant that sometimes Chok was truly alone, without a soul in sight. He recalls, “The time by myself, with only my surroundings as company, helped me realise that my future career should allow me to travel, write and photograph. Once, back when folks still used film in camera, I put the film in incorrectly as I was a novice then. Imagine how, after 50 days of travel, I ended without a single image to show for it! I was heartbroken but this made me determined to learn photography properly all the more.”
Taking a leap of faith, Chok left his field of study and joined Sin Chew Daily as a features writer. During this time, he continued to travel and started to blog about his experiences.
“When I was backpacking in Europe, I met a lot of people. Some were Europeans, some were from other continents. They’d ask me where I’m from. Back then Malaysia was not as well-known so they’d ask me what were the good places to visit in Malaysia. I suddenly realised I did not know! I was more familiar with countries other than my own homeland! It was so embarrassing, to be honest.”
Rather than being discouraged by his ignorance, Chock decided to rectify it immediately. He says, “If one loved one’s country, one should know more about it. I must learn more. The first image to come to mind when I thought of Malaysia was a pristine beach against a blue sky. Add some coconut trees and traditional wooden houses, and I realised it had to be the East Coast.”
Upon his return, Chok headed to Terengganu and discovered it with fresh eyes. He says, “It’s so beautiful, just like what I experienced overseas or even better. I wondered why some Malaysians hesitate to travel within our own lovely country? So I started sharing about it with others, through my now defunct blog and also through my articles in Sin Chew Daily.”
Positive response from readers showed Chok that most Malaysians preferred travelling abroad because they wanted to experience something new and different, and not because they didn’t love their homeland. “Once they saw that there is plenty in Malaysia that is completely new to them too, some wanted to start exploring too.”
However, even with the convenience of the highways and budget airlines, Chok finds that many Malaysians still don’t bother. He says, “Many of the beautiful spots are off-road or along the old routes. What I find strange is that most Malaysians focus solely on the destination when they think about travel. For me, our journey has started the moment we lock the door of our homes behind us. The journey is the real travel experience.”
Given that much of the beautiful scenery and great food he found are off the beaten track, Discover Malaysia comes with GPS coordinates even though it isn’t a travel guide but more a book of personal travel stories.
One of Chok’s favourite discoveries is Kemasik in Terengganu. He says, “It’s not an ordinary beach. The sand dunes and river create an unusual “Grand Canyon” structure. This disappears completely every July and August due to the changing tides and wind directions before reforming in March and April. What a wonder of nature, and it’s in our own backyard!”
Chok is a fan of everything Malaysian — from our unique, multicultural architecture and history to our flavourful, world-class cuisine. He adds, “We also have some of the most beautiful sandy beaches in the world. I love Sibuan Island in southeast Sabah. Known as the ‘Battleship Island’ due to its distinctive shape, it’s located half an hour by speed boat from Semporna. The sand is clean, white and powdery, and absolutely stunning.”
Food-wise, Chok recommends a Terengganu delicacy called sata or satar. A close cousin of the more familiar otak-otak, a paste of fish meat, shallots and ginger is wrapped in a banana leaf before being grilled over charcoal fire. The sweet taste of the fresh fish is imbued with the aromatics of the spices and the banana leaf.
Ultimately Chok hopes by sharing his book and stories, more of his fellow countrymen will realise many parts of Malaysia have scenery, food and culture that rival overseas destinations. He says, “It’s up to us to discover Malaysia for ourselves. I certainly hope more of us do. Otherwise it’s a shame that foreign tourists know more about our own country than us.”
Discover Malaysia Sharing session (English & Mandarin)
Date: Saturday, September 20, 2014
Venue: Await Café, 9-1-5, Jalan 3/109F, Taman Danau Desa, Kuala Lumpur
For more information, visit www.myroadplanner.com and www.facebook.com/myroadplanner.english