Setting up home as an expatriate on the little red dot island of Singapore in 1986, Malaysia changed from a vacation destination to a weekend getaway haven for Michael Smith.
The 63-year-old Briton said, “My wife and I went on a Southeast Asian tour back in 1981 and we had a wonderful four-day vacation in Penang. So, when an opportunity came up for me to work in Singapore in sales and business management for a multinational chemical company, I took up the offer without a second thought, bringing my wife along.”
Smith’s company supplied fuel and lubricant additives to oil companies such as Petronas and Shell, which meant Smith had to make regular trips north across the Causeway.
But when vacation time came around, Smith and his family would head to Malaysia for some adventure, unlike most in Singapore who would come for the food only. “We would go for diving expeditions to spots like Tioman, Aur and Sipadan or go on adventurous trips to Mulu caves and up Mount Kinabalu. This went on for about ten years. On our subsequent trips, we became more open to other sights and delights of Malaysia. Perhaps we have had enough of scraps on our knees, or was it because age caught up with us?” Smith questioned with a chuckle.
The Smiths are no foodies, therefore, most of their more recent Malaysian breaks were a mixture of shopping, cultural experiences and getting close to nature. Since their first ever trip to Malaysia in 1981, Smith reckoned that they have visited the country more than a hundred times over three decades.
“Among the many trips, there were a few that particularly stood out for me: my successful ascent to the peak of Mount Kinabalu to witness the sunrise on a cool crisp day, a visit to Sepilok Orangutan Rehabilitation Centre, Satang Island turtle sanctuary, Taman Negara and the Borneo Rainforest World Music Festival. As you can see, I am partial to nature!” declared Smith.
Upon his retirement from full-time employment in 2004 Smith turned his travel writing and photography hobby into a retirement career, and established asiaphotostock.com which focuses on niche stock photographs of people, places and nature of Asia. Hopping across the Causeway again, Malaysia became a treasure trove for Smith as he looked at sights with renewed appreciation.
“‘Malaysia, Truly Asia’ is a very apt tourism tagline. Both East and West Malaysia offer contrasting attractions. Even though I have visited a good part of the country over the years, there are still many aspects waiting to be discovered. Malaysia has so many untold stories, what I uncovered surpassed the school History lessons on British colonies and World War II. Top on my list of attractions are obviously nature and wildlife but as a travel writer, I have taken a keen interest in the tribal cultures of Borneo, traditional music and picturesque kampungs. I am willingly forced off the beaten track as I traverse the countryside in search of interesting stories and photography subjects,” explained Smith.
Indeed, after more than a hundred trips and counting, Smith’s most recent to Kuala Selangor and its neighbouring areas to ‘Discover Selangor, the Heart of Malaysia’, was still an eye opener. “Although I missed out on the Sky Mirror at Sasaran, Malaysia’s very own version of Salar de Uyuni, for visiting on the wrong day of the month, the boat trip was still interesting. I was not as disappointed as I thought I would be. Instead, I was able to see for myself fishermen trawling for cockles. Now I know how cockles in my curry mee come from! Also, there were plenty of photo opportunities with the wonderful bird life in the area,” said Smith as he described how he excitedly photographed hundreds of egrets and herons in flight.
Smith should know Malaysia like the back of his hand already after many decades of visiting in different capacities. However, if there was one thing about the country that confuses him, it would be the ad hoc changes to policies on foreign cars. “Because of this, I make it a point to find out the latest information each time I plan to drive in. Malaysia would be a lot better if there were improvements in organisation skills and service. Don’t settle for ‘average’,” he added.
Note: An edited version of this article [So many untold stories] was published on 25th March, 2017 in the now-defunct The Malay Mail.