Alex Roulette has been traveling around the globe for 16 months (check out his trips to Australia and New Zealand). Recently in Malaysia, he slowed down the pace of his journey to experience traditional jungle homestays and trek through the clouds to the peak of Mount Kinabalu.
In this Photo Essay, Alex shares details about his time in the diverse Southeast Asian nation, and candidly discusses some of the highs and lows of his last year and a half on the road – including possible plans to return home soon.
How long did you spend in Malaysia? How does the country differ from the others in Southeast Asia that you’ve traveled to?
I spent about three weeks in Malaysia: the first half in Borneo and the second in peninsular Malaysia. We flew into Brunei and used that as an entry point to explore Borneo. The water village of Kampung Ayer in the capital Bandar Seri Begawan was a surprising highlight.
We spent most of our time in Borneo trekking and participating in cultural homestays in both the Sarawak and Sabah provinces. In Sarawak, we flew into the remote town of Bario to begin a multiple day trek through the jungle. The trail connected a number of secluded villages in the Kelabit highlands, all of which were very friendly and welcoming. One night, we were privileged enough to stay in a traditional longhouse, consisting of many homes all connected to one large communal living space. Out host was one of the few women in the region who still practices Kelabit traditions; she even wore the typical heavy earrings that stretch the ear lob down to her shoulders. This used to be a traditional practice of the Kelabit tribe, but she explained to us that culture is vanishing as the young people are no longer staying in the villages or practicing the tribal traditions.
Once the highlands trek was over, we headed to Kota Kinabalu and organized another homestay, this time in Abai, an isolated fishing village along the Kinabatangan River. Getting there required a few-hour trip by boat and it was all part of the fun. We spent the mornings picking rambutan fruits from the trees and getting to know the local hornbill. Afternoons were spent out on the boat spotting the endemic proboscis monkeys, and in the evenings we watched the river light up with fireflies. It was an incredibly relaxing experience that was difficult to part with.
Finally, we ended our time in Malaysia with an abrupt jump over to the busy cities of Kuala Lumpur and George Town and then a few relaxing days on the Perhentian Islands.
In Southeast Asia, I’ve also visited Thailand, Indonesia and Singapore. Malaysia seemed most similar to Indonesia culturally, particularly because of the predominance of Islam and the similarity of their languages. One thing I really loved about Malaysia was how multi-cultural it was; that felt very unique to me.
What experiences would you recommend to others visiting Malaysia?
First, I would recommend the homestays in Borneo. It allowed us to slow down our pace of traveling and experience what it’s like to live in that environment. All the people we met were so warm and welcoming, and it was an undeniable trip highlight
Secondly, climb Mount Kinabalu, which ended up being one of my favorite mountain treks. The climb to the summit begins around 2am so it’s still dark by the time you reach the top. The sun reveals the strange, surreal landscape below with twisted rock formations and stunning valleys. The peak was isolated above a sea of clouds and hid the jungle below. Combined with the soft morning light, it felt like we were in another world.
And thirdly, I’d encourage a visit to George Town in Penang. This is where you can really get a feel for how multicultural Malaysia is. You can walk past various dilapidated British buildings from their colonial past, and then come across a beautiful Chinese Mansion. One street will smell of incense emanating from the Buddhist temples and the next street will be full of colorful Indian markets and loud Bollywood soundtracks. It’s a fascinating and photogenic place to explore.
Do you ever find yourself feeling tired of the road, or itching for the comforts of home? What do you do in those moments?
Yes, all the time! Traveling certainly has it ups and downs. Most of the time I’m so excited to be in a new place that I’m too distracted to miss home, but other days I’m so exhausted I can barely think straight. When I do miss home, it’s often for the simple things, like good coffee and comfort food, which I can usually find temporary replacements for. I do miss the ease of communication and the familiarity of home, too, and when I hear another American accent I can’t help but get a little excited.
The hardest part has been the exhaustion that comes with constant transit. Over time, the unavoidable stresses and annoyances that come along with taking buses, trains, and planes get more difficult to tolerate. Lack of sleep and food will catch up on you quickly. I just remind myself to be patient, keep things in perspective, and look at the whole picture. I’ve had to learn to accept the good parts with the bad. Today, I may have to deal with a long miserable bus ride, but tomorrow will hold some incredible experiences that will make it all worth it.
You’ve been fortunate to share images from your travels as you go, be it on social media on blogs like ours. How do you think technology has impacted travel and how, in particular, has it impacted your experience.
I’ve been incredibly grateful to be able to share my travel experiences. It’s wonderful that there are so many platforms on which travel information is shared, and I love getting inspired by other people’s travel photography. It’s helpful when I’m researching new place I want to travel to. I’ve been using photography to record my journey because I’ve never been very good at keeping a written journal. In some ways, photographing places has enriched the experience as I try and challenge myself to look at everything a little harder and seek out new perspectives. I try to be aware of my surrounding at all times so I’ll be ready to capture the next special moment that comes around the corner. I love trying to find new ways to capture various places.
I think that traveling certainly become easier as technology evolves. I used to carry around a huge folder full of paper maps and heavy guidebooks, and now I’ve gone entirely paperless. I use Kindle guidebooks, Google maps and applications like “Trip It” which organizes all reservations and tickets. Probably the biggest improvement in travel has been the smart phone, especially for Google maps. The built-in GPS can show you where you are on the map even if there is no cellular service, so it’s become almost difficult to get lost. Also, it’s getting easier to get SIM cards for unlocked phones so I usually pick one up if I’m in a country for a few weeks. Some countries like Sri Lanka started handing out SIM cards on the plane, so by the time you land you’re already connected.
You’ve now been traveling for 16 months. What sort of changes have you witnessed either in travel or in yourself, from the time you started on this journey until now.
When I think about the changes in travel over time, the first thing that comes to mind is how tourism has affected places and cultures. I’m not opposed to tourism – of course, it has so many benefits – but it’s a complicated matter. I’ve noticed a distinct difference between countries that have a great number of tourists verses those that have fewer. For example, when I crossed into Bangladesh from India I felt a noticeable difference in the way people behaved towards me. I felt like there was a genuine curiosity towards foreigners with less hassle. In other countries, that hasn’t always been the case.
There are many ways in which I’ve personally changed on this journey. I suppose the biggest area of growth has been with ability to stay patient in stressful situations. Though I’m still not always successful, I am getting better. I’ve always been good at planning and researching, but on this trip I had to become more comfortable with improvising and problem solving at the last minute. Now, when I arrive in a new place, I usually have a goal and a general path and then I let things unfold as I go along, finding a balance between planning and spontaneity.
This trip has forced me to be mentally in the present in a way I’ve never experienced. Over the many months, I’ve become more entrenched in the journey before me, embracing the new adventure that each day brings, pushing aside distractions, and focusing on what is happening around me: the sights, the smells, and the people. I think about the future only enough to figure out where to go next.
It’s difficult to quantify all the ways in which this journey has personally affected me. It definitely opened my eyes to new things. Corners of the world which I once found difficult to even imagine are now very much reality. I look at places on the map and recall all the many memories I’ve had there and all the faces I’ve met along the way. Once my life has returned to ‘normal’ – once I am back home and settled in one place for a while – I believe the changes and growth will become more apparent.
I’m finally beginning to wrap things up and making plans for a homeward route. I have mixed feelings about it and I can’t help but feel a little emotional when I think about this chapter of my life coming to a close. But part of me is also a little excited to not having to live out of a backpack any more and to get my life set back up. I can’t wait to get back into the studio to start making art again.