Posted by Rachel Kyes
At the end of last semester, I traveled to Malaysia with Matt Salm ‘14. This was my first chance to travel outside of the United States and I was both nervous and excited. I was given the opportunity to travel to Malaysia to attend the World Federation of United Nations Associations conference on the role of youth in achieving Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG 16). The targets of SDG 16 include the promotion of peaceful and inclusive societies, providing access to justice for all, and building accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. The conference brought together 30 young Malaysian leaders and 30 leaders from the rest of the globe for four days to learn from social workers, diplomats, and advocates and develop projects to implement in our communities.
The flight from DFW to Hong Kong is the 5th longest flight in the world. This was my first time on a flight longer than six hours, so I decided to go all in and sit on a plane for 16 hours. It was a bit shocking to scroll through the movies available on my seatback tv trying to decide which one to watch and realize that I could actually watch all seven if I wanted to. We flew right over the Arctic six hours into the trip– quite the experience until I realized we still had ten hours to go and the flight attendants yelled at me for opening my window shade and letting the light in (goodbye Arctic views…).
We arrived in Kuala Lumpur at 12:15 am, two days after we left. After getting through customs and immigration and taking an Uber to the university campus where the conference was held, it was 2:30 am. About six hours later, we were up and at it again, ready for the three days of conference — including a dinner downtown complete with traditional dances, a trip to Malacca, and a nasty case of vertigo on my part.
Visiting Malacca was one of the highlights of the trip. A UNESCO World Heritage site, it was the first place that Europeans stopped in Malaysia. A river runs through the middle of the historic downtown, splitting it into the formerly European government side and the Chinese market district. We explored Dutch buildings from the 1600s—now museums—and beautiful old Chinese temples, and experienced the sights—and smells—of the small shops that peppered the narrow roads.
Back in Kuala Lumpur, we had another day to see the city. We visited the (terrifyingly tall) Kuala Lumpur Tower and one of Kuala Lumpur’s giant malls, which happened to have excellent food. That night we went to Jalan Alor (apparently the best place to get street food in Kuala Lumpur) and had the second great meal of the day at the “hawker stalls” crowding the avenue that was full of both locals and tourists who wanted to experience authentic Malaysian cuisine.
Everyone I met was incredibly welcoming and warm; they wanted us to learn more about their country and culture, and were excited to learn more about life in the United States (many were particularly interested in our opinions on the recent presidential election). These conversations and the experience overall were exceedingly eye opening. Malaysia has much more ethnic and cultural diversity than I expected, one of the surprising parallels between Malaysia and the United States. There were so many different types of food, some stemming from China or India, others seafood-based coming from the coastal regions. The Malaysian attendees of the conference were predominantly students and while they had a relaxed attitude towards schedules, they were incredibly serious about school and secondary education. They also drive on the left side of the road, which almost confused my sense of direction a few times.
Although all I brought back was a bookmark, too many unspent Ringits, and photographs, the memories and experiences from Malaysia will continue to influence my life going forward in ways I didn’t expect when I got off the plane that morning in Kuala Lumpur. I can’t wait to explore more of the beautiful world and meet new people to learn about the cultures around me.