playing gamelan music aboard one of the boats at the Regatta Lepa

On Neverending Road Trip

What was originally planned as a one-night stay in Kuala Lumpur to extend his Indonesian visa where he had been doing a motorcycle trip from Java to Nusa Tenggara for the past sixty days, turned out to be a three-week adventure for Derek Freal. The American, who put up for the night at a backpacker’s hostel in Chinatown chatted with fellow travellers, and the next thing he knew, he had spent three weeks exploring as far north as Penang and as far south as Melaka.

Freal said, “It was in 2013 and I knew nothing about Malaysia, except that this is a country with a name that ended the same as Indonesia. It was during that visit that I fell in love with Malaysia and always try to fit in a road trip every time I come.”

Since that maiden trip of Freal’s, he has visited the country five other times, sometimes packing his days to the brim with one adventure after another, at other times, just hanging out, like the 1.5 months he spent in a Melaka kampung, house-sitting for a new friend.

Having set foot in Asia for the first time in 2009 just to use up his six months’ worth of accrued paid time off (PTO) when he was attached with a multinational technology conglomerate in Austin, Texas, Freal fell in love with Japan where he spent all of his time. Returning to his job, he discovered that he could not concentrate at work anymore.

“Mentally, I was still in Asia. So, shortly after that, it didn’t take much for me to tender my resignation and flew to the Philippines to become a nomad. For two years, I did nothing but travel, going from Southeast Asia to the Middle East to Central America solely to explore. By the third year, I ran low on money but realised that I could never return to working in a cubicle. That was when I began travel blogging, which then evolved into photography followed by video creation,” he added. Today, Freal’s bread and butter, and what continues to fund his travels, is in video production for clients such as resorts, excursion companies, tourism boards and the likes.

These days, Freal is no longer technically a nomad, as he had set up base in, according to him, “A small Thai village that no one has ever heard of in eastern Thailand, between Pattaya and Cambodia. However, I’m just rarely there. It’s the third quarter of the year now and this is only the second time I’ve been back home in my village since last year.”

scuba diving at Sipadan Island
scuba diving at Sipadan Island

Despite being on the road all around the world for eight years now, many of Freal’s best memories were created in Malaysia. It included earning a scuba diving certification in Tioman Island, where bad weather shut down the ferry service for nearly a week. During that extra time on the island, Freal met some of his closest Malaysian friends – “family” whom he still visits every time he’s back in the country.

playing gamelan music aboard one of the boats at the Regatta Lepa
playing gamelan music aboard one of the boats at the Regatta Lepa

“Then there was the month-long trip in Sabah. I had only planned on spending a week there but everyone I spoke to while planning my trip told me that I would love Sabah, so I flew in with an open flight ticket. That one week became one month as there were just so many things to see and do in Sabah. Moreover, it was the beginning of the Harvest Festival, so there was even more going on than usual. Needless to say, it was an eye-opening encounter with a different culture,” he recalled.

holding up the first newspaper article after Freal's tweet went viral
holding up the first newspaper article after Freal’s tweet went viral

Also, who can forget Freal’s five minutes of fame when he tweeted in Kuala Lumpur, “Hey Trump, I’m in a Muslim country right now and guess what? People here are friendlier than in the USA.” The tweet went viral when it was picked up by netizens, garnering 18,000 retweets along with dozens of articles in mainstream media.

Declaring his love for Malaysia, one of the main factors that endeared Freal to the country is her people. “Malaysians are so friendly. The new friends that I have made are why I keep returning – to visit them!

“Obviously, Malaysian food is another major draw. The amazing fusion of Chinese, Malay and Indian, with a touch of Thai thrown in at certain border towns, makes eating an adventure by itself.”

As a regular visitor to Malaysia, Freal is very much in the know about development in the country and he has a word of caution: “Watch out for your nature. She is disappearing faster than you realise. In various parts of the country, the forest is being cut down in the inevitable name of progress. The hills outside of Kota Kinabalu are a great example. The same is happening to the hills near Shah Alam Botanical Park. There is nothing worse than hiking to the top of a hill expecting a spectacular view only to be greeted by a huge patch of dirt where everything has been demolished for a parking lot to replace it.”

Note: An edited version of this article [On neverending road trip] was published on 22nd July 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.

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