Ilya Houben, owner and founder of www.wonderfulmalaysia.com and www.veelzijdigmalesie.nl . I asked him about his life as an expat in Kuala Lumpur and his success with his travel websites which are published in Dutch and English version. Veelzijdigmalesie.nl has won the 2nd place in Travvies Awards 2013 for travel websites under the category travel destination specialist.
When did you start to write about Wonderfulmalaysia.com and Veelzijdigmalesie.nl?
I started Veelzijdig Maleisie back in 2002 as a school project. We just got back from our first visit and I thought it was a great subject as there wasn’t much to be found online (in Dutch). Wonderful Malaysia was launched in 2011, though I already started working on the website in 2007.
What inspires you to write about Malaysia?
This may sounds strange, but our first visit to Malaysia (2000) wasn’t all that great. It was a mediocre resort in Penang, and though we had a great time we felt like there had to be much more to see in Malaysia. This was together with the simple website I made was our main motivation to go back a few times after that first trip. That is also where we fell in love with the country. Seeing the website become more popular after each successive trip was quite rewarding. Nowadays, it is fun to get so much recognition and thanks by all those travelers that visit the country after getting all excited when browsing through my website.
I know you moved to Kuala Lumpur Malaysia with your wife. When was that and what was the factor that made you both move to Malaysia?
It was you guys that got us thinking about life somewhere else back in 2006 already, the year we met for the first time (when I had that massive cold and didn’t say a word). Over the years that followed we kept dreaming about an adventure. First our plan was to try to settle in Singapore, but as KL developed fast in that time we also started exploring our options to move there instead. Early 2009 I fell victim of the economic draught. Deciding to move suddenly became much easier. My wife had a great job, but knew moving to a foreign country would mean a lot for her career. In August 2009 we moved to KL and started our adventure there.
How do you feel about living in Kuala Lumpur and living with the locals?
We had many local friends, besides the usual fellow expatriates. Together we formed quite a nice mix of people, all bound by Malaysia and its delicious food. We knew KL from our travels already, but never thought we could be able to grow that fond of the city. KL is great for all kinds of foreigners, ranging from expatriates with high paying jobs, to simple adventure seekers that just want to live in a tropical climate for a few years without too much hassle. You can find luxurious housing for absurd prices, but also enough affordable accommodation among local residents. We loved KL from day one. Because of our many local friends, we were always visiting local areas where we usually were the only foreigners.
How easy will it be for European expats like yourself to integrate socially and culturally in Malaysia?
Social integration was easy. Within a week we were having dinner with groups of people, most of whom had never met each other before, but were all introduced by someone else. We all had great nights out, always revolving around food outlets, that lasted until we left again after four fun years in KL.
This is going to be a tough question but name us ONE place or destination in Malaysia which you love the most and why?
I love Singapore the most..hahaha. Indeed difficult to answer. Especially due to my travel websites I am biased about certain places. I think if may chose either Langkawi or Penang, with a light preference towards Langkawi. With that I leave out other awesome destinations like Perhentian Island, Pangkor Island, Lake Kenyir, Kuala Lumpur, Cameron Highlands, Bako NP, Kinabatangan, Mt. Kinabalu and so many more. Langkawi would probably get my top vote as this island has everything, from great accommodation to great food, from numerous great highlights to exciting night markets. We visited the island quite a few times and it was always a great stay.
Which destination in Malaysia do you think is a hidden gem?
The thing is with my websites no gem stays hidden for long. The downside of writing about and exploring new places all the time. Once I write about it, the influx of new travelers start. Examples are our page about Perhentian Island. Many years ago not many Dutchies visited the island(s). Nowadays there are many Dutch travelers, especially during peak season. Same goes for many other places. I think Lake Kenyir is one of the few places that actually still is a hidden gem; I think it is because it is not on the usual route and therefore many tourist skip it.
Which food places do you recommend for tourists to try in Malaysia?
Check my website www.wonderfulmalaysia.com and www.veelzijdigmaleisie.nl. I write about the best places I visit :). In general I’d recommend starting the first few days with safe meals, like Japanese restaurants in posh shopping malls. Once your stomach gets used to the new food, try the food courts. Later you can check out Mamak places, and if you’re bold you try out the little road stalls. Nasi Lemak is a definite must-try. Same goes for an Indian Banana Leaf meal. There is so much to chose from in Malaysia, I wouldn’t know where to start :).
What are the 3 things that you missed about Malaysia after you moved back to The Netherlands?
Not having to schedule months ahead for a dinner date. Here we have a rule not to schedule more than two weeks in advance and this has proven to be quite difficult. In Malaysia, dinner dates were made hours to minutes before actually meeting up. I also miss how easy it was to decide on your meal in Malaysia. Just drive to a food court or food street, or to a fancy shopping mall and decide on the spot in which restaurant to eat. Every day of the year a different place, only in Malaysia? Lastly, I miss being able to travel to the most beautiful destinations in the world with ease. There, a weekend to Siem Reap, or a few days diving at Bunaken was always an option. From out of NL, a trip to SE Asia is a complete holiday.
What are the 3 things that people say about your website?
My Dutch website: Great content, Great advice on how to organize a trip by yourself, One of the best Dutch country-specific travel websites. My English website: Nr1 Travel ambassador, Pride among locals that I promote their country, Great non-official non-governmental travel guide.
What are your advice to travellers going to Malaysia?
Don’t bring sweaters or jackets, one light sweater will suffice (when you are visiting a mall where it is very cold due to aircon). Do not cramp too many sights in one trip, take the time to really experience each destination. You can always come back again to explore other areas. Don’t do things you wouldn’t normally do in your own country. Do not start with extreme locals meals from the moment you set foot in the country; make sure your stomach can get used to the new ingredients, the climate and the change of pace.
Can people book their holidays via your website?
Both Veelzijdig Maleisie and Wonderful Malaysia have arrangements with high quality providers of tours and holiday packages. We always explain that Malaysia is very easy to visit; either by pre-arranged package deal, or just by arranging everything yourself. At our websites we have clear guides on how to arrange things yourself. Also, for people that do not want the hassle, we offer links to numerous agencies that offer great round trips through the country, visiting all major sights along the way. As both sites are 100% travel guides, we do not offer trips and packages ourselves.