We met Julissa and her boyfriend Graham back in March on a hike in Banos, Ecuador. They were vibrant, career young and so positive about life, it was catching, so we were delighted to have dinner with them.
Six months later we sat in a cafe in Central Kuala Lumpur with Julissa enjoying a great catch-up, all thanks to Facebook. Julissa spotted we were in KL, sent us a message and three hours later we were having a long breakfast which rolled into lunch.
Julissa is travelling the world with a new start-up called Remote Year. In return for a fee, she and her cohort of about 60 digital nomads get accommodation and business centres in 12 different cities around the globe for a year, so they can carry on their job, with the added benefit of a global perspective and personal networking. Julissa was totally loving it.
We talked about everything and anything to do with travel. Even to the extent that Julissa gave us both a lesson on how to take the perfect selfie.
Shame Graham wasn’t there too, he’s back in the States teaching at school. But we hear they’ll be living together next year, and planning future travels. Hopefully, they’ll look us up in England.
A few minutes walk away from our hostel in Kuala Lumpur, there is a Malaysian food extravaganza.
Plastic tables and chairs, food frying in large pans, waiters thrusting menus into tourists hands. This is Jl Alor, better known to the tourist community as “food street”. It came alive well before dusk; a cacophony of smells, sounds and sights, eating at its most authentic.
Food is cheap here. Tourists tucking in. Washed down by beer. Attentive waiters taking your picture. A few drops of rain? Don’t worry we’ll simply put up a parasol before the downpour.
We had been in hotels for the last couple of weeks – since very cheap and excellent value – but now we wanted to be more sociable and interact with some young people.
So we booked up Special Bedz Hostel right in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Hostelworld described it as a clean, great location with a friendly atmosphere. The entrance was not promising, with a dark stairwell off a very busy, not very affluent street, with a band playing loud music outside.
However, once up the flight of stairs and having taken our shoes off, we were made to feel instantly at home with the two receptionists, fun and friendly Fatin and Iera, who couldn’t do enough for us.
The communal area was full of a multinational group of young people, mostly conversing in English about their travels past, present and future. This is what we miss at hotels; the fascinating exchanges with lots of very positive young people, many at the start of their travelling lives.
What makes Melaka interesting is its privatol role in the history of SE Asian colonialism. In 1511, the Portuguese arrived and displaced the local sultans. 130 years later the Dutch evicted the Portuguese and imposed a trade monopoly. And then in the late 18th century the British took over the administration.
The prize was a port bridging the east and west, a trading post between the spice islands and the European markets, ensuring Melaka, during the Dutch period, became one of the wealthiest ports on the planet. Today, it’s hard to believe. Melaka is a city of 0.8 million people, but looked to us like an industrial and trading backwater. It’s a tale of two cities; the British always preferred their other port down the Malacca Straits – Singapore.
As it’s called a highlight of Malaysia in the Lonely Planet guide, we stopped for two nights in the historic port city of Melaka (also known as Malacca).
In the past decade, there’s been an attempt to transform the town centre and its riverside into a tourism destination. There’s charming old streets and buildings for sure, but generally the place feels a bit run down and tired, with lots of unloved hotels. There’s a sense the tourism push hasn’t delivered.
Melaka’s an enjoyable place to wander around, sit in a riverside restaurant or take a short trip up the river, but with the sea now removed from the historic centre (due to land reclamation) it’s hard to picture the historical importance of this place. We’ll cover this tomorrow.
A feature of our gap year has been the wide range of travel. There’s the flights of course, most on our round-the-world tickets, and others added, liked the ones in Australia, to reduce the domestic miles. But also: trains, ferries, hired vehicles, and long-distance buses.
For our journey from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, we went by bus – rather than flying – as we wanted to stop-off at the port city of Melaka. It was a drizzly 8am departure from Orchard Road and we crossed the Tuas border causeway about an hour later. For the three hour journey through Malaysia, sitting in the front seats upstairs, we had a perfect view of all the palm plantations.
So here are some thoughts about choosing the right mode of travel for any particular section of your gap year…..
To save time covering long distances there’s no alternative to additional flights. We used Expedia.com to find the cheapest options from north to south Chile, around Australia and to travel from Hong Kong to Bali. Remember, to check-in your baggage on these low-cost routes will often cost extra, but with both our backpacks well under 10kg, it wasn’t too bad.
The use of trains depends very much on the country. In China and Japan they are fast, incredibly efficient and great value for money; in Japan don’t forget to buy in advance the railway tourist pass. But most countries we travelled through, including incredibly the USA, simply didn’t have a railway system that’s fit for purpose.
Often luxury coaches rather than old-fashioned bone-shakers, buses are the best option in South America and much of south east Asia, especially if you want to get a feel of the landscape. Given limited seats on many routes, we found it best to book our bus out as soon as we arrived in any town.
Use hire cars when public transport is limited and there’s much to visit out of town. For instance, in the USA and Hawaii there really wasn’t any alternative to hiring a car. Explore one-way routings, check insurance issues carefully, make sure it includes collision damage waiver, and of course in Australia enjoy the camper van experience. But do recognise, the downside of all the convenience and mobility of a car is feeling cut off from the locals.
This is one of our occasional tips for middle aged gap year travellers. To see the others, click below on the link – Travel Tips