award-winning solo travel blogger

Interview: The Dream Life Of A Solo Travel Blogger in Malaysia

This has been one of my favourite media interviews so far!

In the run-up to ZafigoX 2018 of which I was a speaker, I was interviewed on radio station BFM89.9. It was for a show called HerVantage, a weekly segment focusing on women of leadership and influence in all strata of society.

In the BFM89.9 studio recording my interview for Hervantage, a weekly show on women of leadership and influence.

This was my second radio interview with BFM. It turned out to be a realllyyyy fun chat with the lovely Christine Wong about travel blogging, the realities of travelling solo as a woman but also how travelling can be an empowering tool for women. I really wanted to highlight how travelling can put you in a vulnerable position as a woman. But if you choose to embrace this vulnerability, travel can teach you about the world and expose your hidden strengths and abilties.

Listen to the interview here, or scroll down for the transcript

A quick photo with BFM89.9 host extraordinaire Christine Wong after recording the show.

Interview transcript: Mei Mei Chu on BFM89.9

Christine Wong: Many people dream of wandering the world but feel it is an unreachable fantasy. However today on HerVantage, the show about women of influence and leadership, we’re speaking to Mei Mei Chu who is a full-time journalist and award-winning travel blogger in Malaysia about how that dream isn’t as unrealistic as one might think. Thank you so much Mei Mei for coming into the studio and speaking with me today.

Mei Mei Chu: Thank you so much for having me, I’m so excited.

On how the first trip that converted me into a traveller

CW: Right, so, I can imagine you run a travel blog and you’re also a full-time journalist, but we’ll be focusing mainly on your travel blog and your experiences travelling and stuff like that as well because you have been travelling from a pretty young age by yourself. And from what I can understand, the kind of love that you have for travel started from when you were about 18. So, tell us about that experience.

MM: So, when I was 18, my brother was working in the United States as a chef, and he decided that it would be a terrific idea to ship me there to get a bit of international experience since I was studying solely in Malaysia. Initially, I was quite reluctant to go. You know, I was really scared of leaving home and going to this foreign place; but when I was there, I just fell in love with travelling so much because it forced me to be independent; it forced me to wash my own clothes and cook my own food, and go around and explore this town and this city, and even going skiing on my own. And learning about the people in the US – this has made me fall in love with travel so much.

CW: Right, I mean that’s something that I can see travel does wonders for; it really forces you to step out of your comfort zone, and really kind of address that you have to support yourself sometimes as well, right? So, you’ve been travelling since you were 18 when you went to Colorado, on this kind of working holiday sort of thing, and since then you’ve travelled to many, many different places, and you’ve compiled them all into your blog. So, could you share with us some of your main highlights from your travels so far?

On my most harrowing trip

MM: So, I’ve been blogging on meimeichu.com for about 5 years – so many experiences that I’ve chronicled on it. One of my most recent story is also one that is very close to my heart. Last year, I brought my household to China, including my grandparents, my parents, my brother.

We went to China to look for my great-grandfather’s village. So, it was this big adventure because we didn’t know if the village still existed, and we’ve lost contact with the people there. We didn’t really know who to call, so it was just literally us going there and going to the police station, and finding where our relatives are, and then finding the village. In the end we found them, but the village doesn’t exist anymore. It was razed down and it’s now just big apartment buildings.

But what happened during the whole trip was that it was really difficult to travel with both my grandfather who, is really old and struggled walking and keeping up, and my grandmother, who has Alzheimers. And, we made it through for 2 weeks, but at the end of the last day, my grandmother went missing.

CW: Goodness, oh my gosh!

MM: Yeah, around 3 in the morning, my grandfather knocked on our doors and said: ‘Grandma is missing.’ So, she had one of her spells where she would just roam out of the room and walk around. She just walked out of the hotel while my grandfather was sleeping- he didn’t notice. I think he was so tired that he didn’t notice, and she just walked out of the hotel and disappeared literally into the night. So that was really, really scary and we spent the whole night trying to look for her.

CW: And how did it turn out, in the end?

MM: The police wasn’t very helpful. It was really frustrating. In the end, about an hour or two later she just walked back into the hotel lobby- just like a miracle- and I was just so grateful that she came back. Otherwise, how do you look for a missing person in China?

CW: Absolutely, right? Oh my goodness, that sounds like such a heart-stopping event to happen in your life as well, especially when, you know, when you are travelling with the family, and it can be so difficult, especially when you’re used to travelling solo. I think, there’s this kind of element of, ‘Oh, my goodness now I have to look after everyone.’

MM: Exactly!

CW: And that can be so stressful – and then for something like this to happen it’s like the culmination of all your potential paranoia about travelling with other people as well that you care about.

MM: Yeah. I’ve been travelling for so long, and I’ve had a lot of unpleasant experience – I’ve been harassed, I’ve ended up in police stations – but, losing my grandmother was by far the scariest thing that could have happened.

On the writing about dark side of travelling solo as a woman

CW: Yeah, absolutely. I can totally identify with that and sympathize with that a lot. And, you know I’m glad the situation worked out in the end and you managed to kind of find her again. And, you know, a lot of the stuff on your blog does cover that – you’re not particularly shy about the kind of potential risks or dangers. I mean, you do talk about some of the incredible things that you’ve experienced travelling, but you also do talk about some of the darker side of travelling as well, especially, solo on your blog.

For example, you’ve got articles about “Is Brunei safe for solo women travellers?”, you’ve got “The biggest fears women travellers face and how to overcome them“, you’ve even got things about the kind of feeling such as, when you’re out by yourself, especially when you’re in a foreign place, it can feel a little bit weird, right? You’ve got “Is it weird to go to a music festival alone?” as well on your blog. So, you’re very, very honest about your experiences travelling and you don’t sugar-coat it.

MM: I think it’s really important to share both the good sides and bad sides of travelling because most of the narrative you see on social media is like, ‘Wow, travelling is so much fun! Look at this awesome photo, I’m in this amazing place!’ But the reality of travelling as a women solo is, it is dangerous. Like, our parents are not lying. When they say, ‘Don’t travel alone, it’s dangerous as a single women.

It is risky, but there are ways to overcome it and to prepare yourself. And I don’t want to sugar-coat it because, women need to realise that they are putting themselves in a vulnerable position when they travel; but this position that they are putting themselves in can also be an empowering one if they know how to take care of themselves.

On travel blogging

CW: Okay, I mean, well, we’ll kind of get a little bit more into those sort of experiences and how to deal with them, and some of the tips and lessons you’ve learnt from being a solo female traveller in a bit. But before we get on to that, I wanted to ask you, actually, about what actually drove you to start your blog, and what actually drove you to start curating all of these experiences into the written form five years ago.

MM: It started as a hobby because I just loved travelling so much that I wanted to write about it. But then, what I realised 10 years ago when I first started travelling, was that the stories and the narratives and the resources were all from the perspective of men – specifically white men. There wasn’t much resources from women, and not from Asian women. I struggled finding contents that were relevant to me and my experiences. I thought that there was a gap and I wanted to fill that gap, so I started writing more in-depth stories about the experiences specific to me being Asian, female, and Malaysian.

CW: I tend to agree with that. I think that there isn’t a lot of content- especially the kind of media-related content or personal content- about people who are kind of like us; you know, Asian and female specifically, even Malaysian, right? You know, that’s why when ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ came out, everyone freaked out because it was the first that we’ve ever seen close to our own experience reflected on the mainstream level.

And clearly, your travel blog has resonated with a lot of people because you have won a couple of awards for your blog; You’ve won a ‘Site of the Year’, a Malaysian website award 2017, ‘Site of the month’ as well from the same place. You’re one of the top 30 Malaysian travel bloggers and also Malaysia’s top 2 travel blogger as well. So, talk to me about that. What did it feel to actually win awards for your experiences being written out and what do you think it is about your blog that has resonated enough to earn these accolades?

MM: Winning that award was amazing, because it was a recognition of my work. I think a lot of people underestimate how much work goes into writing these stories and maintaining a blog, and the amount of money that goes into it as well. They just see the beautiful side of it. But it is a lot of hard work. Weekends, the midnight oil. So that was a really, really special recognition.

And I think people really appreciated reading honest stories that get into the nitty-gritty, dirty details of travel and not just beautiful photos of you know, people on mountain. So, I think there was a lack of honest stories, a lack of quality stories- long form reads- so people really appreciate it. And I was surprised, because I thought in this age, people wanted quick, snappy information. That was a pleasant surprise.

CW: Yeah, I think that’s a really fantastic point to make. A lot of the travel writers out there really put forward a very idealistic idea of what travelling is and tend to, not ignore exactly, but to downplay a lot of their hardships that can come with travelling. Cause it’s not necessarily easy and I think it is played up as a kind of fantasy, in a way, for a lot of people.

MM: It’s very romanticised.

CW: Yeah, perfect word; romanticised is a very good word for that. So, it’s really great to see a more holistic view and a more realistic approach to writing about travelling as well. And this is not even your first time on BFM; you’ve actually been on BFM before. You were actually on an episode called ‘Ticket to Ride’ and you talked about the Polynesian Kingdom of Tonga. Can you talk to us a little bit about that, in case people haven’t listened to that podcast?\

On my fav trip – swimming with humpback whales in Tonga

M: Oh, Tonga was amazing. So, I booked a flight- I was in New Zealand, and I booked a flight to Tonga at the spur of the moment decision because I heard you could swim with humpback whales in Tonga.

CW: Oh wow!

MM: Yes! I thought this was something only people in Discovery Channel or National Geographic could do, so, I thought there was an opportunity for me to be one of those people. So, I just went and just tried my luck and went into the water with a whale swim tour.

And I met them. I met the whales. And it’s so amazing being face-to-face with this… yeah, fish, but they’re the size of a bus, and I’m like, 5 metres away from them just looking at the details on their body, the scars, the little colours and the sunlight from the waves playing on their body and watching them swim. It’s amazing, it just made me realize how small I am in the scheme of things, and how amazing and how big the world, and the significance of being alive is.

*music break*

On balancing work and travel

CW: Before the break were discussing her initial love for solo travelling and some of the awesome stories that she has on travelling. And I say awesome not in the positive sense, I mean awesome in the actual definition of the word, which is awe-inspiring, or related as it were, and why she has decided to write about travel in a more holistic way- to remove the romanticism of travel in a sense. But what I wanted to actually ask you about now is the fact that you are holding up a full-time job in addition to travel blogging. You currently work for The Star as a journalist as well as do the travel blog.

MM: A lot of people has this perception that to have a life of travel you need to quit your job, or you need to live a life of a nomad before you can live a life of travel. That is not true. And how I do it is the way every other people do; I work really, really hard, I save all my money, and then I use my annual leave to go on holiday!

CW: Wow, I mean, yeah but I think the perception as well, as you’ve mentioned, is that you have to sacrifice one for the other, and you’ve managed to somehow, balance all your schedule to be able to do both, essentially.

MM: I must say that, one of the reason that I picked journalism, is because it is a job that allows me a bit more flexibility when it comes to arranging my annual leaves. Also, journalism is a job that combines my love of being able to meet people, and being exposed to the new experiences. Journalism offers that. So, even when I go to work every day, I feel like I’m travelling, in a sense.

CW: Oh! That’s so nice! I think that it’s interesting to draw that parallel as well- between journalism and travelling. And it’s a good point to mention that this is a more flexible job than, let’s say, like a typical kind-of corporate 9 to 5 where you can kind of move things around slightly, but still the fact of the matter is, it is very impressive that you’ve managed to balance both as well as you have.

On travelling as a woman

We’ve talked earlier before the break as well about the fact that you have mainly travelled solo, and a lot of your blog posts are about specific experience about being a solo traveller, but also someone who is female and Asian. There are a lot of paranoia I guess, and amount of fear, especially, for female travellers, and also for Asian travellers, to go solo travelling. So, can you talk to us about that, what are the kind of lessons, or tips that you’ve learnt from your experiences?

MM: The first advice I could give any women who want to travel solo is to research about the country first and to really understand the cultural sensitivities and customs, and what is expected as a women in their country. Because unfortunately, a lot of the world is still very patriarchal. They have a lot of limitations and regulations for women; they expect differently from women than men.

So, is it okay for you to sunbathe in a bikini on a public beach? Or should you be more covered up? Is it okay for you to wear shorts? This seems really basic, but a lot of people don’t understand how important it is to respect the local cultural sensitivities. Because it’s not just respecting them, but it’s also making sure that people don’t take advantage of you and you’re putting yourself in a safer position.

We’ve all seen the stories where you know, people stripping on sacred mountains right? You know, take nude photos in front of mosque and they end up on the news and they end up being attacked, maybe. So, you don’t want to put yourself in that position; so yeah, always research about the country that you are going to.

CW: Absolutely, I mean, it is as you’ve mentioned, that I think it’s more an issue of respect than kind of anything else. I think, also, when we think about those kinds of situations where people find themselves in a bad place, or in a bad situation when they travel, a lot of it is because they are kind of singled out, right, as a tourist for not following the cultural flow, I guess, in the country that they are in.

So, if you do your research, hopefully you would be able to avoid a lot of those things. But have you ever been in a situation where you felt, you know, scared or worried about the place that you were in?

MM: Plenty of times. *laughs* I hope my mom is not listening to this. Yeah, but even if I always dress according to what the local people are wearing- so even if I dress modestly- I still find myself in precarious situations sometimes. Sometimes it’s just being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

One of the stories that I’ll be sharing at ZafigoX in November is my experience in Sri Lanka where I was essentially molested by a young boy. He was about 19, and I was just cycling, and he just ended up putting his hands on me. In that experience, I took all the precautions I could to not put myself in that dangerous position but it still happened.

CW: And you’re right, sometimes it’s just a case of extenuating circumstances that has led you to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but it also doesn’t mean that you should totally write off travelling as something that is worthwhile doing just because you’ve had some bad experiences, or just because that there is that risk, perhaps. Would you say that the benefits of travel outweighs a lot of that?

MM: Even with those experiences, I don’t regret it because, well firstly, I was fortunate that I escaped unharmed; otherwise it would be a different conversation. *laughs* But I don’t regret those experiences because I didn’t just overcome it; I used that experience to learn how to take better care of myself. So, as corny as ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ sound, it is very true. I learned how to stand up for myself, and how to overcome these experiences. And I bring these experiences back, and these lessons back to Malaysia with me, and how to take care of myself in my daily life.

On transformative travelling

C: Right. And one of the points that you make as well, is that, you know, regardless, travelling is empowering, so can you talk a bit about that, and how has it been empowering for you?

MM: I grew up in a very sheltered community, and my family didn’t travel, so, I was never exposed to the idea of travelling and all that. But when I started travelling, I ended up getting out of the comfort zone, and getting out of the routine and complacency of life, being forced to take care of myself.

I learned so much that I discovered these abilities that I didn’t know I had, because I’ve been so dependent on the people around me. Even something as simple as, ‘I can read a map!’ Especially when we all use Waze every day, how many of us open up a map? So, small things, from learning how to read map, to bigger things like, learning how to stand up for myself when some creep comes and try to approach me, and learning how to say ‘no’.

CW: Right, absolutely.

MM: Yeah, and these are really important lessons in life that sometimes you don’t get the chance to experience when you are stuck at home.

CW: Right, so travel is like the antidote to ignorance right? You know, when you travel you’re forced to learn so much in such a short period of time as well; Not only about yourself, but about the country that you’re in, or about the kind of situations you find yourself in, the kind of values that you have- you know, I think that it does reveal a lot.

CW: So, thank you very much for sharing a lot of those experiences- positive and negative- with me today, because I think it is definitely worth understanding the benefits and the kind of effects that travel can have on a person, you know?

MM: Oh, definitely. I always say that travel is my postgraduate education. *laughs* Yeah, so you are learning so much about the world. You know, before I started travelling, before I went to New Zealand, I didn’t even know French-Polynesia existed. I didn’t know there was something called Tonga. I didn’t know what they ate, and I didn’t know what a fjord was, so you’re learning about geography, and learning about fruits that I didn’t know existed. It’s amazing.

And to go back to the point of how it was empowering… Travel kind of opened up my mind so it allowed me to dream bigger and dream further- further than I thought I was allowed to dream. After travelling, I feel like I can dream my wildest imaginations, and I could actually make those imaginations come true as well.

So, it’s not just about travelling being an amazing experience because you are having an amazing holiday, but taking this experiences and these lessons and these empowerment home to your work and to your daily life and using that to, you know, make a better career women, for instance.

CW: Oh right, that’s fantastic. So, before we round up the interview, I mean, first of all, I guess that the biggest question to ask is, where are you planning to travelling to next?

MM: A lot of people ask me, and I never know how to answer because I don’t plan my trip in advance. It just sort-of happen.

CW: What’s like the dream place? The dream destination right now?

MM: I’m very curious about the African continents and I’m very curious about Kazakhstan, Tajikistan; the -stan countries in the region. I think it’s so foreign to what we know as Malaysians in our daily education. So… I hope to go there soon.

*discusses plug for ZafigoX*

CW: Yeah, excellent! Well, thank you so much for speaking to me today, Mei Mei about your travel experiences… That’s actually all the time that we have, this has been HerVantage.

– ends –

Thank you BFM89.9 and the lovely Christine Wong for featuring me on the show. I was actually more excited about meeting the face behind the voice more than anything else! :)

Read other interviews:

BFM89.9: On swimming with humpback whales in Tonga
The Sun: The Wandering Writer

I’m dedicating meimeichu.com to honest travel stories that’ll teach and inspire. If you like travelling through my stories and photos, do follow my personal Facebook and Instagram profiles for more armchair travels. <3