Mei Mei Chu
Mei Mei Chu
Malaysian. Solo backpacker and travel writer at Meimeichu.com
Countries Travelled: 20
Just a small town girl, living in an exciting world. Mei recognises the hurdles of female solo travel, and the struggles of stretching the ringgit to travel afar. But she doesn’t let that stop her. She’s found her way to pursue her passion to travel, and that has taken her to familiar Asian destinations, but also some further afield - like Jordan, Tonga and Mauritius. This storyteller charts her adventures in her award-winning blog Meimeichu.com, which she hopes encourages other women to find their own adventures.
The Call To Travel
What made want to become a traveller and start your mission to see the world? Was there a significant pivotal moment or did it just happen gradually?
I come from a small town in Malaysia called Klang, I had a very sheltered upbringing and a very small education. We have a saying in Malaysia for people like me -“Katak Di Bawah Tempurong” or “frog under the coconut shell”. When I was 18 and had a chance to work and travel in the US for 4 months, that coconut shell was lifted and this frog stared jaw-dropped at how big, foreign, scary and wonderful the world is! I jumped as far as my tiny legs could, falling into snow and learning what it meant to be independent.
You could say it was love at first travel. But I didn’t want to be just a tourist, I wanted to live, learn and really experience a country. As soon as I got back from the US, I started searching for other travel opportunities. That led me to an environmental internship in Mauritius, which led me to backpacking in the Middle East… For some reason, I kept finding a need for new adventures. It took me a while to understand why – the process of travelling was making me a more confident, strong, free-spirited woman. It showed me a world where dreams are possible. I didn’t want to stop travelling when I knew there was a chance for me to keep growing.
Tell us about your favourite trip ever.
Two weeks solo backpacking in Tonga. I knew very little about Tonga when I booked my tickets. All I knew was I wanted to swim with humpback whales, but the tiny island kingdom surprised me with its big heart.
One afternoon, I was on a 24-hour ferry from the capital of Tongatapu to the island of Vava’u when I asked an older man the name of an island we were sailing past. The man, whom I had earlier spotted with his wife and granddaughter, wasn’t friendly and quickly walked away. About 30mins later, he returned and invited me to stay his family at their village in Vava’u! He explained that he was acting weird because he wanted to first ask his wife if it was appropriate to offer me their home, as he was concerned about my safety. They even insisted I take their bedroom while they slept in the living room.
John and Taita became my parents for a week. I followed them to work and church, where the pastor prepared a special sermon in English just for me. We spent so much time cooking, exploring, learning about each other’s culture. These memories from Tonga lives in a very special corner in my heart.
How big a role does travel play in your life?
I’ve grown very dependent on travel as a form of escape, education, and empowerment. If I didn’t travel, I’d still be that frog under the coconut shell who isn’t aware of what she is capable of achieving.
The Power of Travel
For Women & Personal Growth
As a female traveller, did you face any barriers or naysayers when you first wanted to travel independently/lots? How did you overcome them?
The most difficult barrier I faced was my own family. When I first announced my plans to backpack solo around 10 years ago, their responses were: 1) Do you have depression? 2) You should see a psychiatrist. I was heartbroken, and angry at how unfair it was that my parents would’ve let my brothers backpack solo, but not me.
So I did what every disobedient Asian daughter would do – I lied to my parents about travelling with some friends for a month in Egypt and Jordan. I only admitted that it was a solo trip, AFTER I arrived in Egypt! (Disclaimer: Please do not try this at home) From that trip onwards until day, it is a continuous learning process for both my parents and I – Me learning to assure them; they learning to trust my ability to take care of myself. Once mum and dad saw how important solo travelling was to me, they cautiously gave me their blessing. It was all I needed to overcome other people’s unsolicited advice.
Would you say that travelling has had a strong impact in making you who you are today? Meaning, if we took away all your travel experiences, if you had never travelled, would you be a different person?
Of course, I am the combination of all my experiences. Travelling has been inspirational but also painful – I have been robbed, followed, cheated, sexually harassed… The happy parts of travel is why I am confident and foolhardy; the difficult parts is why I am resilient and pensive.
What is a great lesson that’s come out travelling for you personally?
I grew up being dependent on the men in my life to take care of me and keep me safe. But what I have discovered from travelling solo is that I have a secret superpower – I can take care of myself. It was a new strength that I took home with me and used it to look after myself at work and at home. It was also an independence that allowed me to make things happen for myself without having to wait for someone else. I think that is pretty powerful and I want to inspire other Asian women to find that realisation too. Being able to help them with that through the stories on my travel blog Meimeichu.com is very meaningful.
Have you ever encountered a difficult situation that tested your strength, and taught you something new about yourself?
Two years ago, I had travel burnout and wanted to stop travelling. I had excitedly brought my family, including grandpa and grandma, on a trip to China in search of my late great-grandfather’s village. I wanted it to be a fun family adventure, but the entire trip was filled with drama and mishaps. Having to care for dependent family members with Alzheimer’s, autism, and physical limitations from the old age, while worrying whether everyone was having a good time, was insanely stressful.
On our last night, my grandma, who has Alzheimer’s disease, walked out of the hotel and into the night. A few hours of frantic search in the dark later, she miraculously walked back to the hotel looking dazed and confused. That was the breaking point for me – I was exhausted from the travelling stress. I wanted to go home immediately. I wanted to stop travelling.
But something unexpected happened right before my flight home. I shared an airport taxi with a young, bubbly Chinese girl who was fascinated to meet me – an ethnic Chinese who travels solo. She had a million questions and by the time she said good-bye, she promised to overcome her doubts and make her fantasy to travel solo a reality. She really lifted my jaded spirit, and I was so happy that I could help other girls open the doors to the world by sharing my experiences. I wasn’t going to retire from travelling after that! Three months later I was itching to go again.
Under Her Cape
Experiences on the Road
What are the best and worst parts of solo travel?
The best part: Having the time and space to explore yourself. Falling in love with people and places.
The worst part: Witnessing how the world is not made equal for everyone. Another drawback of travel is that you start to miss the people and places you fell in love with.
How do you make friends while travelling alone?
I say “hi” to locals on the streets or when I’m feeling extra sociable, to fellow backpackers in my guesthouse or hostel. It’s surprisingly easy.
Does it get lonely when you travel on your own?
Sometimes, but I’ve also grown to enjoy spending time being solo.
“Many people travel to have a fun time, really let their hair down and forget responsibility. What made you decide to work and help others instead (such as the elephants in Kelantan)?
As travellers, we take so much from the place we’re in, sometimes we forget to give back. Unfortunately, overtourism has altered the cultures of many rural communities, caused environmental damages, and create abusive industries that exploits people and animals. Travelling is about personal growth, but it should also be about giving back to the communities who opened their doors to us. As travellers, we have an accountability to use our power and privilege to travel responsibly, and to increase compassion through our global experiences.
Reflections and Pearls of Wisdom
Empowering Other Women
To someone who is planning her first solo long-term travels, what is the most important bit of advice you could give?
Travel is most fulfilling when it’s to learn and experience, not when it’s for Instagram.
Despite everything you have accomplished, I’m sure you sometimes still get negative comments. What is the no.1 sexist nonsense you get most often, and how do you shut them down?
“Your parents/boyfriend must have sponsored your holidays.”
Ignorant assumptions like this devalues everything I’ve done and sacrificed to afford my travels. So I tell them the blunt truth: I’ve done everything from scrubbing toilets in New Zealand, to working every weekend of the year to save up. I work 3 jobs, I consciously lead a simple lifestyle where I have no debt, and I save more than I spend.
If there is one thing you could say to your younger self what would it be?
Dear young Mei, stop comparing yourself with other travellers, especially the European vagabonds you meet so often. They do not live the same life circumstances nor cultural values as you, so do not put them as the standard of traveller to become. A few years from now, you will learn to appreciate your Asian values and the burdensome responsibilities it comes with. Then, you will craft your own way of travelling that balances responsibilities with exploration.
“How can I live the western travelling style?” I came to develop my own Asian way of backpacking. Balancing responsibilities with exploration.
What would you say to any girl who is out there thinking she would like to travel the world, but is afraid to do it because she’s been told she’s “just a girl”?
Being female is not a limitation, it’s an advantage. “Just a girl” is becoming an archaic term especially at time when travel is becoming inclusive; for gender, race and nationality. Admittedly, navigating patriarchy in foreign countries comes with some restrictions in freedom of movement, but overcome that and you will develop new superpowers that will take you far.
If fear is holding you back, try seeking out other women travellers, and find stories or travellers you identify with to get that nudge of confidence you need to take that first of a thousand steps. Good luck!