Zulhairey Rahman

ASPIRASI for this time wants to introduce a young Sabahan guy who has traveled and worked overseas. Besides traveling and working, he also has managed to make more friends from around the world. Let’s get to know his story of living abroad. May it be an inspiration for all Sabahan youngsters as well.

Where Should I Start?
It all started when I just wanted to earn a bit of extra money to fill up my free time. Back in early 2015 I was competing like everyone else in Malaysia or Kota Kinabalu in particular, to become the best, getting a better job, buying a car, and purchasing a house. Those were my life goals like many of you reading this. I found an app called “WithLocals”, where you can earn extra money by creating day trips for tourists. This would entail designing a program, giving a personal sightseeing tour or bring them to a natural feature like a waterfall.

However, as the app was quite new and they needed at least five locals to create “trips” in their app listing, which leads me to find a group of locals who’s willing to participate. Most of us Sabahans can speak English, but when it comes to holding a conversation with foreigners it will rather be “yes, no, I don’t know” because of the lack of confidence. Therefore, I ended up with another app for travelling called “CouchSurfing”, which allows you to stay with people for free, or in my case, to mingle with advanced English-speaking locals and travelers.

Hi New Friends!
I figured out that there is an active community of CouchSurfing in Kota Kinabalu and they organize weekly gathering, so I decided to attend. For the first time I was surrounded by large groups of foreigners, westerners in particular, which made me feel relatively nervous, as I was not sure what to talk about, or how to get into the conversation. All I could manage was to listen to their conversations; to build my confidence in communicating back. One week after the other, I finally managed to adapt to their level, with more ease and confidence. I met new local friends, expats, and a countless number of travelers who were passing through. We became a very close group of friends, meeting up almost every day, taking part in many activities; picnics in Tanjung Aru, karaoke, movies, dinner parties, trips to waterfalls, camping, and road-trips.

Interesting Conversations.
At one point, I ended up running the weekly gathering and I forgot my actual purpose was to find locals to start a “trip” by using WithLocals. At this point, I enjoyed their company and it was one of the best experiences of my life. I slowly grew fond with these other cultures, and it helped me to open my mind, and understand differences between their world and ours. We talked about cultural differences, how things are different in their country compared to Malaysia.

One of the interesting talks was about sending your parents to the elderly house when they get older. Let’s be honest, in Malaysia you would be the “anak durhaka” or “si tanggang” when you were to do this to your parents, more like a shame. In the western world, it would be the best thing that they could do for their parents, because they provide proper facilities, there are nurses who take care of them, and they get to talk and become friends among each other. But in Malaysia, we would prefer to take care of our parents till the end of their lives. In the western world a common family would have two to three children maximum, where this limit the “ability” for the children to take care of their parents, some may live in different cities either studying or working. While in Asia, or at least Malaysia, we generally have five to eight children in a family, and mostly the single ones are still living with the parents. There were many other interesting discussions, including why their tax system is way different and imposes higher tax rates compared to Malaysia. On the other side, the government provides free education and healthcare which benefits the society.

As time passed, I spent most of my time with random travelers. I invested my time showing them around and hosting them, taking them for trips, and at the same time I get to travel and see more places of Sabah that I had never seen before. I invited them to my friend’s wedding, Ka’amatan Festival, even brought them back to my hometown to experience “Hari Raya” – these are one of the best experiences for them, as they can never find such experience with any travel agency.

I Wanna Go There!
After all this fun, obviously I have them on Facebook, and as they continue their travels, it was strange to me that I would not be a part of their journeys. I remember a friend uploaded a picture of “Kuang Si” Waterfall in Laos, with the incredible turquoise water, and I was only able to “Like” their pictures by then. I told myself “I want to go there and see it for myself!”, I was not even sure where Laos exactly is, let’s just say my coordinative and geographical skills were not the greatest. This is when I started to develop an interest in travelling, looking up for interesting places to visit on Google and doing research on how to get there – I then asked myself, “What do I want to do with my life? Do I really want to settle down in Kota Kinabalu? Buy a house? Get married? Have children??” And the answer was a big NO, I want to travel, and see the world!

Then I asked myself again, “Can I travel as much if I’m based in Kota Kinabalu?” I was never into travelling, lived in Sabah for 26 years and have never been to Kudat, Semporna and all the incredibly beautiful places we have, such a shame. I knew I needed to move to Kuala Lumpur if I really wanted to do this, obviously flights are cheaper, and I would earn a better salary. By then, I was working with a semi-governmental company as an IT Executive, and I would say I was “comfortable”. When I told my friends and family that I wanted to quit my job and move to Kuala Lumpur, they couldn’t believe it, everyone was saying I’m crazy to let go of such a good and stable job. But for me, there was no more excitement, so I decided to take on new challenges, and explore new environments.

Hello Kuala Lumpur!

I quit my job and landed a new job as a Customer Service Specialist for a travel company and moved to Kuala Lumpur in September 2016. It was a tough decision honestly, not knowing what the future might bring and leaving all the comfort behind. Due to the probation period with the new company, I couldn’t apply for an annual leave in the first six months, thus I was just doing domestic travels over the weekends. I travelled to Penang, Ipoh, Melaka, Taman Negara, Langkawi, and I also did Singapore. Because of the crazy traffic in KL, and me not being used to be crammed in a jam-packed LRT to get to work, I decided to live in a Backpacker’s hostel which is a stone’s throw away from my office.

I thought I would stay there only during weekdays and be at my friend’s during the weekend. But after some time, I became friends with the people who work there, and few Digital Nomads. I ended up staying there permanently, sometimes in a 16-mixed-dormitory, sometimes in a private room. Yes, I know it’s hardcore, I’ve never stayed in a hostel my whole life, and suddenly here I am, just to save the time getting to work. It’s even more expensive compared to renting a room somewhere else, but I guess I am so used to have people around me to talk to rather than being alone in a room, after all, this is what I am looking for, getting out of my comfort zone.

Six months after the probation, I finally was able to take a vacation leave. I was so excited, the first trip I did was to Chiang Mai, Thailand to celebrate my birthday. I rented a scooter and drove four hours up the highest mountain in Thailand, Doi Inthanon. Then I took a two-day boat trip from Chiang Rai crossing the Border to Luang Prabang in Laos to see the “Kuang Si” waterfall. I remember the moment I arrived at the waterfall, I stood there simply looking at it for ten minutes straight, it was like a live painting in-front of my eyes – surreal. The feeling of satisfaction & happiness I had was indescribable, I guess, this is the feeling that makes people addicted to traveling.

Adapting Minimalism

As I mentioned before, I lived in a hostel for quite some time, this limits the living space. I could not really purchase belongings because I did not have place to store them. I only had one backpack with me which contained seven t-shirts, two trousers and a few shorts. Every time I bought new clothes, I would discard the oldest ones. Whenever I travelled, I brought my backpack with me, as my life was all in one place. Little did I know that this is a lifestyle known as “Minimalism”. it’s about getting rid of excess stuff and living life based on experiences, rather than worldly possessions. There is a documentary about it on Netflix, if you haven’t yet watched it, you should – it will change your priorities in life and help with your financial priorities – “Less is more”.

More Travels, YAY!
As the year went by, my travels became more frequent. I flew out once a month, going to new destinations and meeting new people. My travelling list up to that point included; Singapore, Bangkok, Chiang Mai, Chiang Rai, Luang Prabang, Bali, Seoul, Hanoi, Jakarta, Bandung, Kanchanaburi, Krabi, Ko Phi Phi, and Phuket, as of December 2017. It got to a point that I felt tired of traveling, this was because wherever I went, the feeling was too familiar, with the zest of any waterfall in Thailand feeling similar to any other waterfall in Indonesia.

Realizing that nature is very similar across South East Asia, I decided to save some money and travel to Europe. From January 2018, I worked as hard as I could taking overtime working 12 hours a day, 7 days a week non-stop. It was extremely exhausting, but I had a goal to achieve. In five months time, I was able to save up to RM20,000, and I pre-planned my travel in Europe based on friends who I had met previously. I was fortunate investing a lot of time with the people I met back in Kota Kinabalu, and when I told them that I was planning for a Europe trip, they were offering me to stay at their houses. On the 14th of June 2018, a day before Hari Raya, I flew to Europe for a month. The feeling was surreal, I could not believe I am flying to another continent that I thought I would never reach all my life. I don’t come from a wealthy family who can easily afford all this. For me, all of this was just a dream. All the travels I did was paid by my hard-earned money, giving me a sense of achievement and made me believe that dreams really do come true.

On this trip I did Budapest, Rome, Naples, Amalfi Coast, Positano, Milan, Varese, Portofino, Manarola, La-spezia, Lugano, Zurich, Interlaken, and Prague. Throughout this trip I was just staying at friend’s houses, some of them took me on road-trips and showed me around their hometown. The best part is, I only spent RM 10,000 for the whole trip, basically half of it was for food and entrance fees, and the other half was for transportation including flights.

New Job Who This?
After I returned from my Europe trip, there was a sense of loss in me. I am still working for the same company, but at this point there were no longer challenges in my work. Lucky enough, my company was looking for a System Engineer, and I studied Computer Engineering before, so I applied. I waited for three weeks, but there was no response, I however knew that I wanted this position so badly that asked my colleagues if I should write an e-mail to the director, most of them said no, “just wait and you don’t want to look desperate”. But I followed my instinct, so I sent him an e-mail. To my surprise, the next day he reached out to me and arranged an interview, leading me to be hired two weeks later!

Within six months, my company was looking for someone to work in Budapest for the same exact position, so I wrote again to my boss, and he was happy that I was interested and offered to relocate me. We worked on my visa and it took six months for the whole process to be finalized. Within this period, I travelled to Phnom Penh, Weh Island, Hanoi, Ha-Giang, Krabi, Ko Lanta, and I even went back to Kota Kinabalu to celebrate Hari Raya with my family after two years of being away.

Szia Budapest, jövök!
On the 21st of August 2019 – The day my entire life was packed in two suitcases, the excitement to start a fresh life, was indescribable. Happy and excited for the possibilities to explore more of the European countries, to experience living within four distinct seasons, a completely different culture, and of course different food. Ironically, this made me sad knowing that I would be thousands of kilometers away from home, from family and friends. But my desire to move was greater. I finally settled in, rented a house and made some great local and expat friends, thanks to CouchSurfing again, who made this experience possible and almost effortless. Few of my friends whom I met back in Asia came to visit me here as well, the feeling is still surreal, but I am definitely happy! Less than a year here, I have travelled to High Tatras, Bratislava, Vienna, Marseille, Copenhagen, Brussels, Ghent, Barcelona, Amsterdam, and Palermo. I was supposed to go on a two-week trip back in March 2020 from Porto to Lisbon to Seville, but unfortunately my flight was cancelled due to Covid-19.

As of today, I am still unable to travel out, but borders are finally opening in Europe. I have some places in mind that I wanted to visit and looking forward to being able to travel again. If you wish to see more of my travels, you can find me on Instagram @zulhairey or if you are ever in Budapest, do not hesitate to contact me!

I am sharing this story not to tell everyone how amazing or how blessed my life is, but this is to inspire the youth especially my fellow Sabahan to believe in yourself, ignore what people think of you, focus on your goals and what makes you happy. Whatever decision you make, at the end of the day, it’s what makes you happy that matters. Live a life full of excitement and cherish every second of it. End.

To get to know and communicate more with Zulhairey, do follow him at

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