WHEN the late Anthony Bourdain visited Malaysia a few years ago for his highly-acclaimed travel show of the same name, he stayed in Entalau, Sarawak to celebrate the Gawai festival with the Ibans in a longhouse.
The chef and writer turned traveller-cum-TV host imbibed the tuak (rice wine) and langkau (indigenous alcoholic drink) and ate rice cooked in bamboo with the natives. His earlier travel series, No Reservations, saw him savouring Air Itam Market’s asam laksa and the popular Line Clear nasi kandar on Penang Road, among others. He proclaimed Penang was indeed a food haven and that the Malaysian culinary scene was magical.
One thing that I like about Bourdain’s travel series is that he explored parts unknown (the title of his sequel series) in the countries he visited. Even the locals did not go, or rarely went to these places. And he devoured with amazing gusto popular street food as well as dishes that even locals may not have savoured before.
A few weeks ago, when I was in Gopeng, Perak writing a piece for the New Straits Times' travel section, Jom!, I was surprised to see that the sleepy town was popular with foreign backpackers. They came in droves for white-water rafting.
One tour operator, who owns chalets in Kuala Jelengat, told me white-water rafting is very popular with foreigners. Gopeng, also known for cave exploration in Gua Tempurung, receives tens of thousands of tourists every year.
I spoke to some tourists who said they learnt about Kuala Jelengat’s Level-4 white-water rafting from friends on social media.
There are usually six levels of rapids. Level-4 rapids have narrow passages and turbulent water that require precise manoeuvring. This extreme sport is indeed an adrenaline-rush activity. The pulsating raft ride will take you on an 8km journey down the river in two hours. That’s why Kuala Jelengat of Gopeng is popular!
There are many more unknown destinations in Malaysia that have become hotspots for foreigners. But Tourism Malaysia does not take enough notice of these places. White-water rafting destinations in sleepy towns like Pertak and Kuala Kubu Baru in Selangor, Sedim in Kedah and Selama or Slim River in Perak are hidden from extreme sport enthusiasts, both internationally and locally.
Then there’s food tourism. I have always admired how the Singapore government promotes its hawker fare and street food. Not only does the island nation promote them through engaging documentaries, the government and private sector work hand in hand to invite travel writers and bloggers to the country to savour the food.
I do not see much effort being carried out in Malaysia except for some cooking shows featuring traditional food on TV3 and TV1. Little thought is given to turning the food into tourism products.
What we have in Malaysia is more variety than what neighbouring countries have to offer. Just consider this: how is it that Thai food like Tom Yam is more popular in the West than our mouth-watering rendang or asam laksa or even roti canai and nasi lemak?
I reckon we have the best diversity of food that we can offer to the world. From Baba-Nyonya’s otak-otak to banana-leaf Indian rice, Penang’s nasi kandar to kuay teow th’ng, and from asam pedas Melaka to asam laksa. We need to continue popularising these foods through extensive promotions internationally.
Bourdain had said he loved asam laksa and laksa sarawak so much that he wanted to include them in his New York food market project (unfortunately abandoned due to his death) that would see a collection of the world’s greatest foods.
I wonder if there are any international food bloggers or travel writers, as good as Bourdain, who could do the same about our food.
Apart from these, there are many other places of interest and a variety of Malaysian food and cuisines that can attract tourists from the world over. Some of these places are known to foreigners due to connectivity through social media. What are we doing about this?
I think it’s about time state governments, through their state tourism committees and local councils, thought about popularising these unique places and delectable food.
Come to think about it, if we can’t do it for foreign tourists, including those hungry Singaporeans who make up the bulk of inbound visitors, do it for domestic tourists. It can surely give a boost to the national gross domestic product.
A survey indicated that domestic tourism showed a double-digit growth of 10.9 per cent in 2018, recording a total of 78.2 million domestic tourists compared with 70.5 million in 2017.
Since domestic tourism is doing well, we need to have more tourism infrastructure like homestays in places of interest in rural areas where fun and serenity can attract city folk while generating income for the kampung folk.
C’est la vie.
The writer is a former NST journalist, now a film scriptwriter whose penchant is finding new food haunts in the country
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the New Straits Times