Guest post: Hitchhiking in Malaysia – To Malaysia’s east coast – by Nina Nooit (YouAreAllTourists)

Batu Layar Beach, Kota Tinggi, Malaysia - header

In this week’s guest post we welcome Nina of You Are All Tourists, a daredevil solo female hitchhiker who has just set off on a hitchhiking in Malaysia trip. See how it goes for her and if she manages to reach her destination, the east coast…

I’m leaving Melacca, a southern Malaysian city, moving east. The lifts I get that day are as follows: a mother and her small daughter in a pink headscarf, a Polish traveller with her local boyfriend, and a young father worring about his son who started to have high fever in the morning, as his wife told him on the phone. My destination today is an island in the province of Johor. I don’t even know its name, I just heard rumours that intrigue me –the quietest of all islands, no bars and music allowed on it-, and I am trying to find out how to get there by describing it to my drivers. My last one, the worried father, calls his cousin to find out more. He talks fast in Malaysian  and nods a few times. Then he hangs up and relays the information to me: “you have to go to Kota Tinggi, and from there a little up the coast.” He lets me out at a toll station from where I can get another lift. It does not take me long, I am gone quickly. A couple heading to their nephew’s marriage ceremony stop for me. We will drive together for almost two hours, but they invite me along almost immediately. I have my own plans, though, I decline.

Kota Tinggi is a lovely small town on a broad river, with palm trees along the central street, and a whole lot of fucked-up houses falling apart on all sides. When I see the state of the buildings here, I think to myself that Malaysia’s richness must be a bit overhyped. The country does not seem that much better off than reputedly poorer Indonesia. I haven’t been to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia’s supposedly sophisticated capital city, but as an Australian I met in Melacca observed, “the nature there is winning, it’s taking it all back“.

Just as we enter Kota Tinggi, we drive into a cloud burst. “It is not supposed to be rainy season at all“, my driver’s wife tells me, turning around on the passenger seat, “but it has been raining for months.“ It’s all climate change’s doing.

Batu Layar Beach, Kota Tinggi, Malaysia

Batu Layar Beach, Kota Tinggi. Photo by: Lan Rasso, used under CC

Once I’m alone I have some sop ayam at a street food stall, then hitch on. Somehow it seems to me that people stop faster here than in neighbouring Indonesia. Taking all my experience in Malaysia together (a good 500 kilometers at this point) I can say that this is a general tendency. Also, 8 out of 10 drivers speak English here, a much higher percentage than in Indonesia.

The next person to take me on is a young man going north along the highway. He tells me about the nice beach resorts where he is going. I coyly nod and don’t say anything. We have different ideas of what constitutes a good spot by the sea. The ride is nice, though, the road takes us into moody blue mountains, while the coast is hidden somewhere behind the hills to the east. “There’s another island at the village down here“, he tells me where a small road branches off from the main road; “but it does not have a ferry terminal; if you want to visit you have to charter your own boat. People go there a lot to have their wedding pictures taken.” We drive on together for another half an hour. When I see the name of the island I am searching for on a road sign –Sibu-, our ways part.

Sebana Cove, Malaysia

Sebana Cove, Malaysia. Photo by: Lan Rasso, used under CC

 From this turn-off the lifts I get are with a guy and his elderly mum in a hatchback, an old man in a leather hat on a motorbike, and finally, two young men going to a place near the spot on the coast that I need.

We pass rolling hills covered first by forest and then by palm tree plantations. At some point we come past a dark, stinking palm oil factory, blackening everything  in a perimeter of 50 meters around. A few times along the way I see the dead bodies of animals that look like small-ish crocodiles on the road, the biggest ones are just under a meter long. They are lying belly-up in the middle of the asphalt road. “They live here in the streams and irrigation canals”, the old man with whom I’m going on the motorbike tells me through the head wind. He calls them something like “piwaya“, although “buaya“ is the word for “crocodile“ that I learnt in Indonesian.  Malaysian and Indonesian are extremely close. This piece of vocabulary may be one of the few differences between Malaysian and Indonesian. “Kind of scary to think you’d meet one when going for a walk here!“, I think to myself. We see a few more of the animals, some of them dismembered, their bodies torn into pieces by passing cars. Then, finally, there is one that is lying face up. Only at that point I realize they are not crocodiles, but a type of big lizard, an iguana!

We arrive at the beach I wanted to go to. I guess it was silly of me to have hoped that the coast would be a lonely place. There is some holiday bungalows there. Behind  them local tourists are picknicking, mostly families. Further on there are makeshift shacks along a creek reaching inland from the sea. There, fishermen keep their boats, nets and other gear. A bit round the corner the beach continues, but I’ll have to walk past a big, grey shoebox of a building, quite the eyesore. This is a ferry terminal, I am told. I step out the car here, and wave my two drivers goodbye. They made a little detour to drop me off. The ferry terminal is deserted now except for some cleaning personnel at the end of the corridor, packing their stuff into a store room under a solitary light bulb diffusing a pale glow. Beyond the building the view opens onto a cluster of islands not far from the coast. They are wooded and in the descending dusk they are eerily dark. But before I can admit that this is definetely a very pretty sight, another monstrosity pokes its dirty finger in my eye: a second boxy building, this time with the lights inside on. It houses a fast food chain. I have to let that sink in: there is a KFC, there is light burning inside, and groups of people are going in and out… It definetely comes unexpected after all the trees we passed to get here, with hardly a village in sight.

Its presence seems incongruous only for so long: soon I notice I’m hungry, and this is the only place I can hope to find some food.

A friend and I recently chatted about how often we have been doing what we called “supersize-me, the freegan version“, that is picking people’s rests off the plastic trays left behind at fast food chains. I do this mostly at airports. When desperate for any kind of food, even fast food crap will do. A funny thing that happened once was when I handed in half a burger I had found, asking it to be warmed up in the microwave, I was given a whole new burger by the staff. There is no way to be sure this will happen every time you attempt this trick, but it is worth a try. I must confess that when I was given that new burger it only made me realize how terrible fast food really is: even freshly made I found it pretty disgusting.

Anyway, right now I have some money, so I’m not searching on tables and in bins; I just go and buy myself one of KFC’s overpriced meals. This is the first time in more than 10 years I spend money at a fast food chain and I promise it will be the last time in at least as much. Right now it’s just not like there is any other place I could spend money at. Heading to the terrace I take a table looking out over the water. I scan the crowd around me. There is two families and a few groups of young men. I guess Malaysian society is so conservative that most young women are not allowed to drive around in small groups of friends and stay out until late.

Batu Layar Beach, Kota Tinggi, Malaysia (2)

Batu Layar Beach, Kota Tinggi. Photo by: Lan Rasso, used under CC

After I’m finished, as I go and step outside, the last thing I expected happens: I’m cold. That’s a good thing, because that means I’ll be able to comfortably cover myself in my sleeping bag if I sleep outside, and this will keep the mosquitoes away. It’s still early now and I sit on the rocks staring at the sea for a bit, turning away from the KFC, trying to forget it. Strangely, this place feels remote despite the glaring lights that I will to ignore in my back.

About half an hour later I decide I’ll go to bed and find myself a shadowy spot under a tree.

In the morning the ferry terminal is packed with holiday goers, almost exclusively locals. The contrast with the quiet of last night is kind of comical. I decide to get out of there and hitch back to the bigger road. I move on a bit before turning back down to the coast again. A young man who knows neither English nor Malaysian takes me on his motorbike. I never find out where he is from, because we can’t communicate at all. He looks vaguely Mediterranean. For the rest, couples and families take me in their cars. Everyone is very kind. And the views over the sea are breathtaking! The sea comes into view in sweeping bays, one after the other framed by towering shards of rock and wooded hills.

At some point I ask to be let out, seemingly in the middle of nowhere – which puzzles my drivers. On one side of the road there are two single standing village houses with, in front of them, a little stall where a woman is selling fresh grass jelly drinks. I get one, and slurp it greedily. It’s delicious. The sea here is easily accessible, I saw that from the car. Here, finally, I will find something close to a deserted beach. In the shade of some trees, there are two tents next to each other with two families hanging out in them. They are not bathing, however, their men are fishing. Two men, who look like the two fathers of the families, plod into the water with a large net between them. They are about 20, 30 meters apart from each other and fully clothed, even with baseball caps on. They keep walking until the water reaches their chests. When, after some time, they move back out, both of their families come down to the beach to help pull in the net and look at the catch.

I walk a bit further on the sand, undress, and go for a swim. The South China Sea is turquoise and buoyantly salty. Looking back to the coast, apart from the fisherpeople, for at least a kilometer to each side no one can be seen, absolutely no one. It’s only me and the sea.

South China Sea, Hitchhiking in Malaysia

South China Sea. Photo by: Mark Thin, used under CC

written by: Nina Nooit

My first big trip took me to Black Africa when I was 20. On this trip I
crossed the Sahara desert by thumb and managed to get a lift on a cargo
boat from Guinea to Senegal and the Cap Verde islands. During the past few
years I have mostly travelled in the extended Middle East, which can
sometimes be quite tiring as a solo woman, but no obstacles put me off. I
have been to Iran three times, twice in Northern Iraq, and spent several
months in Pakistan.
Check out her blog:

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