Round The World, or RTW, is shortspeak for travelling long distances across multiple countries, circumnavigating the globe, over long periods of time.

Market in Singkawang, West Kalimantan, Malaysia

This definition however, is subjective.

I come from a family of curious explorers. I was born and raised in Malaysian Borneo, where the lines between urban and rural living is often blurred. We would enjoy holidays in my parent’s villages to the north or south, usually overlanding in a car for 12 hours.  We spent weekends in ancestral farms, trekking to waterfalls or picnicking by the beach. It was a simpler life that left an indelible mark in the way I view the world today.

The first time I heard of the term RTW was on my first solo backpacking trip to another state in Malaysia in 2012. The concept itself blew me away. I met so many travellers who shared their experiences living the life, travelling across multiple regions. 2 months, 6 months, 1 year, 5 years. It got my imagination fired up.

Market in Pontianak, West Kalimantan, Malaysia

One thing that struck me was RTWs are usually a thing of developed nations like Europe, Australia or North America. As a Malaysian I have never heard of fellow countrymen who RTW-ed. And then budget airlines exploded onto the scene. AirAsia, Cebu Pacific and Lion Air began ramping up their promotions and a new way of flying was born. Literally “Now Everyone Can Fly”!

More and more younger Malaysians started travelling overseas, exploring the greater region of Southeast Asia and beyond. Formerly obscure terms like backpacking, shoestring, location independent, became the new norm. Out of this budget travel mindset, a niche and highly independent subgroup began making a name for themselves. They were pioneer Malaysians who RTW-ed. There isn’t an exact figure but a few articles from Google suggest that Malaysian RTW travelers are a rare breed.

Why is that? Why won’t anyone want to be free and roam across the vast lands that lay outside our home? It comes down to a few simple factors. And the biggest one is, you guessed it: MONEY.

Sun-dried noodles in Kuching, Sarawak

With a relatively weak currency against the US Dollar or Euro, it might take an average Malaysian twice or 3 times as long to save. With a depressed economy and uncertain job prospects, saving up for the future seems like the more logical and sensible thing to do. For example, a part timer in Malaysia is paid MYR 6 (USD 1.40/ Euro 1.20) per hour. I don’t want to get into the intricacies of cost of living and median household income, since I’m no economist, but you get the gist. A Westerner can fly home and earn enough from a part time job in a supermarket to travel again, a Malaysian needs to hold down a stable source of income.

Fear. A primal instinct designed to preserve us long enough to pass on our genetic code. Many Malaysians, like so many of their brethren out there, are scared of the unknown. Fear of terrorism, fear of death, fear of insecurity and loneliness. Social media and instant news has not made things any easier for us to explore the wider world, or try to understand our fellow human beings. Not everyone is adept at being surrounded by the unfamiliar for longer than a week.

It might seem like an alien concept to Westerners, but the Asian culture has always prized family over individuality. Living with parents, even after marriage, is not rare. Responsibilities and obligations are high on our list. Those who could afford the freedom to travel are usually the middle class, with healthy, financially stable parents and siblings. Fo the vast majority, major concerns like putting food on the table and caring for sick parents always trump less important wants like travel.

The author, overlooking Pugu Beach, Sarawak, Malaysia

So if travel can be a luxury, why do I aspire to RTW?

Simple, because I want to. My plan is to save up for 5 years and hopefully, against all odds, have enough to RTW travel for a year, or 6 months, on a moderate budget, backpacking. I am privileged to have a family that is financially stable and understanding. I love traveling, learning new cultures, eating new food, meeting locals. I collect stories. I get high on the sensory assault. I might even learn more about myself. That and the added advantage of having one of the world’s most powerful passport!

For now I’ll just take shorter trips and explore my backyard more.