Hanging in Muar

(written by Dave)

Based on suggestion from the LWOP CIO (Donaleen) today I’m writing about the difference between business travel and adventure travel. In case you are wondering, this trip is officially adventure travel –even though Nancy and I are President and CEO of LWOP respectively, there is no mysterious company paying for our trip.

Throughout most of my professional career in Australia I was responsible for various parts of Asia, working for large American companies. This meant a fair number of business trips throughout the region. Counting back to the mid-90s, I’ve made a half dozen trips to Malaysia alone. Having said that, most of what I’ve written below is not Malaysia specific. The business vs. adventure comments apply to just about anywhere I’ve travelled.

Let’s start with water. Outside Japan and Singapore, when travelling on business in Asia, I always drank bottled water. (Japan and Singapore are known for excellent tap water). Based on corporate travel advice before my first business trip to Malaysia in the early 90s, I wouldn’t even drink bottled water if I was unable to personally open the bottle and hear the cracking of the seal breaking. Ice, forget about it. You have no idea where the water going into the ice machine came from.

With adventure travel, especially by bicycle, you need a lot of water. We started out thinking bottled water only and skipping ice. This lasted about a day. All the fresh juices we get come with ice. Every restaurant provides ice in a glass and you can’t really enjoy warm juice or warm canned drinks – ice is required. We’ve heard that most ice is made in large ice making factories and the very basic standards of many places we eat, it easy to believe this. As for not letting wait staff open the bottle, that now seems quite silly. I mean, what restaurant would really “re-fill” bottled water. We are still “steri-penning” our hotel tap water – but we are drinking it regularly as well. Time will tell.

On to food. On business travel you are most often with a group. Sometimes this means local banquets prepared for the group, but most of the time you just eat whatever is on the buffet of the 5-star hotel where you are staying. There is some local cooking but these buffets always have a good deal of western options. And since it is a buffet, you just have to point. There is no need to read a menu and figure out what to order. When travelling to/from business functions we would often drive past street stalls/carts and I’d think “wow, no way would I eat there”. Groups also suffer from tasting down to the individual with the lowest tolerance level. On one trip to India, I travelled with a corporate guy who would only eat at Pizza Hut when out of the hotel. And there was a time in China when my boss insisted on always finding Italian food.

With adventure travel you eat when you are hungry. As you are travelling and not staying in 5-star hotels, your options immediately become whatever is available at the nearby roadside restaurant or stall. At a stall you can point, even if you don’t know what’s in the thing you are pointing at. At roadside restaurants they do not generally have menus per se – if you are lucky there is a list of some of the available dishes on the wall and you have to get out the phrase book and figure out what to order. That’s why you end up sticking with the same thing (roti canai for example) – it’s the only thing you know. If you are lucky, someone in the restaurant speaks English. You can always mime “chicken” by making wings with your arms but it is best to learn a few local words pretty early in the trip. It is also best not to look too closely at every corner of the restaurant for cleanliness – the food so far has been amazing and touch wood, we’ve not gotten sick. So far, a less than sterile environment adds to the flavour, it seems.

Sleeping without 5-stars. Business travel is always 5-stars, thick bed coverings, fluffy towels and complementary slippers to wear in your room. There is always an iron and kettle in the room (except in Japan where for some reason they never include an iron). The TV always has CNN, BBC, ESPN and an English movie channel.

With adventure travel, you can’t afford 5-star (or we can’t, anyway). Even if you could, there probably won’t be a 5-star hotel in every hole-in-the-wall town which you find yourself at the end of a day. You have to take what you find. Quality varies considerably. So far we’ve had beds ranging from ok to downright back bruising exposed springs. Towels are provided most of the time but not always and you can forget about fluffy – anything thicker than thread thin is a pleasant surprise. You don’t need an iron – you’re on adventure travel. You probably won’t find a kettle but that’s why you bought the water heating coil anyway. No slippers are provided and because you are not sure about the carpet, you wear your flip flops, all the time (per Nancy’s orders). As for the TV, channels in the local language are the norm. More than likely, you’ll have a broken remote, one or more broken TV buttons and jiggling the cable connector still won’t generate a snowless image. But you aren’t out here to watch TV anyway.

Transport on business trip starts with arrivals at the airport. There is almost always a man with your name on a big sign board. This man carries your bag to the car and ushers you in air-conditioned limo comfort to your 5-star hotel. If you travel while in county, you always have a local company staff member guiding you and you are always in a private car. Sometimes if there is a large group, a bus will pick you up at the hotel and cocoon you safely to the next event. Local traffic/transport interaction is limited to staring out the window at the chaos and thinking “look at all those scooters, I could never drive here”.

With adventure travel, you notice the difference as soon as you land at the airport. Forget about nice little signs with your name and start thinking “how do I get these massive bicycle boxes off the luggage belt and to the taxi rank”. Once you solve that riddle, you’ll need to find a jumbo taxi – add more time delays here as unlike a regular taxi, there won’t be a jumbo taxi at the ready. Eventually you’ll reach your lodging , crash, before spending the entire next day reassembling your bike. With luck, nothing will be broken and no parts will be lost – and you won’t have to mime “spoke wrench” to non-English speaking bike mechanic.

So finally, you’ll start riding – right in the middle of the scooters, taxi, buses, trucks and sometimes animals. While all this traffic looks chaotic it turns out to be much less threatening than it first it appears. At least in Asia, road users are much more comfortable with slow moving vehicles and they know how to overtake safely – often “just in time”. As a cyclist, you have to ride defensively and you must remember that you are at the bottom of the food chain but the thing is, Asia traffic is so organic, there is a real ebb and flow. So long as downright terror doesn’t paralyse you, you’ll be fine… (it helped that we started the first day riding in Malaysia at the end of a car-less ferry). And don’t forget that all this is taking place at 30c/90% humidity – you’d better make sweat your new friend as it will be with you all the time.

Before you know it, you are zipping in/out of traffic, eating street hawker meals, chewing on the ice at the end of your drink, snoozing comfortably in complete hovels (editor’s note – some of us have a way to go before we would say comfortable), all the while blogging it in a way that everyone reading it thinks “wow, what a great adventure you are having”. Excuse me now, I have to stop as the wait staff at the coffee shop where we are hold up in the rain today have just given us the evil eye. Remember, being an adventure traveller also means you have no nice desk to sit at while playing on the internet.

Tomorrow we take our adventure to Melaka. It’s a short ride and we’ll stay there for 4 or 5 days. There is lots to see as it is a very historical area and we have booked what looks like a great guest house to stay in (at least according to Trip Advisor). We’ll report back later on how bruising their bed springs are and if they get ESPN on the tele.

Below are some pictures from our wanderings around Muar (and more food, of course).

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10 thoughts on “Hanging in Muar

  1. Thanks for those clarifications….both have their perks but the “adventure” traveling sounds more fun, not to mention, there is no pressure to produce results. But I guess that is why you get a paycheck….all the food looks delicious..picky eaters should stay home or perhaps find a pizza hut? EAT UP! Stay safe.

    • No pressure for results? Are you kidding? As CEO of LWOP every night I put my job on the line when we picking a hotel room. Get it wrong and there isa direct tie to my renmeration!

  2. That was a great post….However, I wondered if you saw Malaysia and its people and how they live in a different light now.

    • Good question – on business travel, everyone is always very polite. I assumed that part of this was because I was a client/supplier/boss or the like. Turns out at least in Malaysia, none of that is required for folks to be very warm and welcoming. We’ve had more toots and waves than you can imagine. And all the folks on the street great us as well. Plus there is the “rock star” moments when we are asked to pose in someone elses holiday photos. All in all, Malay folks are great.

  3. Reading the last post, reminded me a little of the book “Where the Pavement Ends” by Erika Warmbrunn.Erika did a 8 month bike tour from the shores of Lake Baikal through Mongolia, China, and Vietnam. During her trip she often stayed with local families and ate the local food.

  4. Nancy, the pictures of the food look great…but have you come across bacon and egg roll so far in Asia?


  5. Your comments on business vs adventure travel was very interesting. I hope you both will publish a book on that topic!

  6. Hi guys, what a great post and what a great trip you’re having in Malaysia. Its amazing how your view of the world changes when you take time to get to know how things really work in various places – we travelled to Timor with a chef friend last year and he only ate at street stalls and restaurants where there were lots of locals eating – we all did in the end and these were our best meals by a long shot! Peter and Pauline

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