Escape from the Urban Jungle – Malaysian Perspective on Iceland

Eemei Fan from Kuala Lumpur recently spent six months traveling and volunteering around the world. She and her partner, Justin Kijam, just launched a travel blog where they share their experiences from their travel. We interviewed Eemei about her travel and get the Malaysian perspective on Iceland.

Hey Eemei thank you for agreeing to be interviewed. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and background?

Thank you for the opportunity to share some of my travel experiences. I have over a decade of work experience in marketing and lived in New Zealand, China, Singapore and South Korea. I spent my 20s and most of my 30s climbing the corporate ladder including obtaining an MBA to advance my career. Because for the most part, society defines success along two metrics – money and power until recently, when I started to think ‘is this all there is to life?’ for fear I may not live to see tomorrow or that I wake up at 65 and wonder where the years have gone. Barely two years into a new career with a multinational pharmaceutical company, I decided to quit my job to see more of the world, while I am still healthy and energetic.

Lake Kleifarvatn in the South West of Iceland.
Lake Kleifarvatn in the South West of Iceland.

On your web site you mention that you guys go fed up with the rat race and decided to travel around the world. Can you tell me about your journey and the places you experienced?

“Who in the right frame of mind would do that!” so it took us more than a year to make the collective decision to quit our jobs to pursue our dream of travel. Asia in particular is where a collectivist culture prevails traditionally and individualism is often frowned upon. We have been socialised to lead a scripted life – graduate, build a career and work at it until retirement. Thankfully, Justin and I don’t play by the rules and having saved enough money, we decided to take the plunge.

We left Malaysia in September 2017 and visited Iceland, Norway, Italy, Belgium, Luxembourg and UK for six months. It’s our first time in these countries, with the exception of the UK where we have visited/studied in the past. We have travelled extensively (over 40 countries) except this time, it’s an exercise in privilege where we spent a month in each country; living with locals and volunteering our time and service – from pet/house sitting to teaching English and business consultation for a more authentic experience.

I am assuming this was your first trip to Iceland, what perspective on Iceland did you get?

Yes, it’s my first visit to Iceland and I witnessed the elusive northern lights onboard an Icelandair flight from London to Reykjavik. What a spectacular sight it was! My first impression of Iceland is reduced to only two adjectives – awe inspiring and jaw-dropping. From majestic waterfalls, mystic lakes, sublime rivers to moon-like lava fields, every sight is mind blowing and it’s true that there is no place like Iceland on earth.

Northern Lights near Grotta.
Northern Lights near Grotta.

You mention in your travel story that you lived in downtown Reykjavik. So you might say you lived like a local. What were the main difference in living in Reykjavik and in your home city of Kuala Lumpur?

I’m a born city slicker and grew up in a concrete jungle. Like most capital cities in Asia, the Kuala Lumpur skyline is dominated by gleaming skyscrapers while Reykjavik is a breath of fresh air. It is a quirky city that exudes a cool and artsy vibe. Reykjavik is a perfect destination to escape the hustle and bustle of big city living where the ubiquity of international chains like McDonald’s or Starbucks is non-existent. Back home, I spent most of my time in shopping malls – a meaningless escape from the daily grind. In Reykjavik, I learnt to embrace the whole nature in all its glory including the notoriously unpredictable Arctic weather.
Beyond the obvious, I think Icelanders have a stronger appetite for risk and are staggeringly creative. This is a result of social, educational and cultural attributes. This inevitably leads to business innovation and a thriving entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Rainbow at Seltjarnarnes at the western edge of Reykjavik, Iceland.
Rainbow at Seltjarnarnes at the western edge of Reykjavik, Iceland.

Iceland´s egalitarian society impresses

As a woman, I’m highly impressed with its remarkably egalitarian culture. Malaysia is a relatively conservative, hierarchical and conformist society. Respect for elders and deference to authority trump being confrontational, even in an awkward situation.

How did Iceland rank in comparison with other places you visited on your trip?

Europe is synonymous with medieval castles, gothic cathedrals, cobblestone streets and charming old towns. Iceland has none of these. Yet, it leaves an indelible impression on me. My biggest takeaway from visiting Iceland is that it helps to put life into perspective. I learnt that some of the most beautiful things in the world cost next to nothing.  In the process I gained a deeper appreciation and respect for nature. Some countries warrant only one visit.  Once checked off the bucket list, it’s certain there would be no second visit. I won’t say the same for Iceland – I would return every year if I could afford it!

How did you like Icelandic cuisine? Any restaurants or food you would like to recommend?

I couldn’t stomach whale, shark or horse meat but enjoyed some typical Icelandic food. These included skyr, dark rye bread, lamb, harðfiskur (dried fish jerky) and a variety of fish (herring, haddock, cod, salmon.) In fact, I prefer Icelandic fish and chips (thinner crust) over the English ones.

For a unique experience of traditional Icelandic food, I would recommend the Kjöt & Kúnst restaurant in Hveragerdi, which prides itself on unique ‘earth cooking’ and has a geothermal kitchen where it uses geothermal power for some of its cooking. For casual dining, Hamborgarafabrikkan in Reykjavik (across the street from Höfði House) offers Iceland’s best selection of gourmet hamburgers including lamburger.

What were your favorite places to see or things to do in Iceland?

Although I witnessed northern lights on a flight and outside my bedroom. I couldn’t get enough of this ethereal phenomenon so I spent two weeks hunting for northern lights – most nights by the Grótta lighthouse on the Seltjarnarnes peninsula in the north westernmost point of Reykjavik. I also spent many afternoons at Laugarnes, an oasis of serenity with splendid view of Viðey Island, a short ferry ride away from the nearby Sundahöfn harbour, which makes for a perfect getaway from Reykjavik.

Silfra gorge at the UNESCO site of Thingvellir in Iceland.
Silfra gorge at the UNESCO site of Thingvellir in Iceland.

One of my favourite places to visit is no other than Þingvellir National Park, the site of the world’s oldest parliament and its sheer breathtaking beauty makes it one of the best national parks I’ve ever visited. For a multi-day trip, West Iceland is a magical region synonymous with Icelandic sagas and heroes. The impressive Snæfellsjökull glacier encapsulates the epitome of beauty in this diverse territory.

What advice would you give to those who are visiting Iceland for the first time?

If you expect to see a vast white land covered in ice, then you will be sorely disappointed. Instead, Iceland has plenty of rolling fields of green. Contrary to popular belief, the temperature is relatively mild despite its northerly location. Most visitors underestimate the country’s danger from extreme terrain to dramatically changing weather. This has led to a spate of accidents. The weather in Iceland is extremely volatile. If you’re planning to drive, be mindful of wind speed and always check on road conditions before you go. If you’re going on a road trip, make sure to fill up the car tank. It can be pretty far between petrol stations. Exercise common sense and don’t stray off the path of designated areas.

The serenity of the Reykjanes peninsula in South West Iceland is a far cry from Kuala Lumpur.
The serenity of the Reykjanes peninsula in South West Iceland is a far cry from Kuala Lumpur.

Will you be returning to Iceland? And if so, what are things you would do then?

Absolutely! In my next trip, I will explore North and East Iceland and complete the entire Ring Road.

Anything else you would like to add?

There’s a saying in Iceland “If you don’t like the weather, just wait five minutes”. It has certainly served me well.

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Escape from the Urban Jungle – Malaysian Perspective on Iceland

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