Life | Personal Stories | Article
Here’s How This Malaysian Couple Saved RM200,000 to Live the Van Life
by Ooi May Sim | 6 Apr 2023 | 8 mins read
If you’ve spent enough time on social media, you would have chanced upon a genre of videos showcasing well-groomed individuals exploring exotic destinations so perfectly-edited that it almost makes you want to quit your job, pack your bags, and live on the road.
So, it’s no surprise that the idea of nomadic living has become very popular in recent years. One Malaysian couple decided to embrace a life of travel and adventure by living out of a van, even though it came with financial uncertainty. They’ve traded in the comforts of a stationary home and a stable career for the freedom of the open road and the flexibility to explore new places and cultures.
We spoke to them to find out how they made their dream possible, their experiences living on the road so far, and the challenges they face, financial and otherwise.
Saving for the adventure
Living the van life doesn’t come cheap. Lim Kah Xuan and Lim Wee Han estimated that they needed about RM200,000 to transition to van living, and spent three years working to save up that amount.
Luckily for them, they managed to save a large sum of money when they were living in the United States.
“After graduating (from university), we (enrolled in) a programme that was open to students. They gave us a visa that allowed us to work in the US for four months, and travel for one month,” says Kah Xuan.
We worked very hard there and tried to save up as much as we could, says Wee Han, who adds that he sometimes worked three shifts as a cook at different restaurants.
“The salary there was quite high, and we managed to save USD20,000 in four months,” shares Kah Xuan. With currency conversion, they returned to Malaysia with a whopping RM88,376!
To accumulate even more money, the couple lived frugally by only buying necessities and cutting out online shopping, which is one of Kah Xuan’s guilty pleasures.
We don’t have any loans such as housing, so we don’t have a lot of monthly expenses except for insurance, explains Kah Xuan on how they managed to save so much money in such a short time.
Once they reached their target of RM200,000, the couple set aside around RM100,000 for travelling and spent the remaining amount on the van (on its purchase, refurbishment, and repairs).
Living the dream
A new van would have set Kah Xuan and Wee Han back by at least RM150,000 so the couple settled on buying a second-hand van for RM31,000. They then spent an additional RM45,000 converting the passenger van into their dream home.
To further minimise costs, the 27-year-olds spent months learning how to refurbish the van themselves by watching YouTube videos. Their mobile home is now fitted with a bed, a tap with a sink, and solar panels.
Since November 2022, the couple have been travelling across Malaysia and have visited states such as Penang, Perak, Terengganu, Kedah, Kelantan, Pahang and Johor.
Their Facebook travel page, Okoktravel is filled with postcard-worthy pictures and videos that capture Malaysia’s natural beauty of rolling hills and breath-taking waterfalls which make you want to jump into their van and follow them on their journey.
In March, they crossed our border into Thailand and plan to spend the next one to two years travelling. While the couple do not have any no concrete plans, schedules, or routes to adhere to at the moment, they hope to travel to Vietnam, Cambodia, China and India.
Let’s see how far we can go, says Kah Xuan who explains that they chose to live in a van as it is a more economical way to travel the world.
“I think it’ll be more expensive to buy air tickets and stay at a hotel. For us, we just have to pay (a fee) whenever we stay at campsites, so it is quite cheap. Thus, we are able to explore more places,” she says.
Plagued by money insecurities
Even though they have a huge travel fund, they still find it hard to shake off the insecurities they feel when it comes to money.
“When I resigned from my job, I felt very insecure because I wasn’t earning any money,” says Wee Han.
Kah Xuan adds that the expectations in our Asian culture to work and earn a stable income doesn’t help. “Everyone expects you to go out to work and earn money. So, when we are not doing any job, we feel insecure.
“After (living the van life), it made us realise that money is important, but not so important that you spend your whole life chasing it.”
To sustain their travel fund (and supress their insecurities), they create van life content while travelling, which they hope to monetise. Kah Xuan also does accounting part time and adds that they can pick up freelance work along the way.
“It’s good to have some earning so we can travel longer,” says Wee Han.
Unexpected costs of van living
The couple have spent thousands of ringgit on repairs and the upkeep of their van, especially since their vehicle has broken down multiple times since they purchased it.
Currently, their monthly expenses are close to RM5,000 as they are still fixing and upgrading the van. Wee Han and Kah Xuan reckon that once all these upgrades are complete, their expenses will be reduced to RM2,000 a month, which will mostly go towards petrol and food.
I think the spending expenses of living in a van are quite similar to that of a property, says Wee Han. “If you live in a condominium, you have to service the aircon and change the hose pipe in your toilet when it (leaks). You also have to pay for utilities such as WiFi and electricity bills. It’s similar when you live in a van because you must maintain the (vehicle) and (change) its parts.
“Living in a condominium is more comfortable but there is more freedom to travel when you live in a van,” he adds.
Stepping on the brakes
As exciting as it may sound, living the van life comes with its own challenges. Without a plumbing system to dispose of waste, Kah Xuan and Wee Han use a portable toilet whenever nature calls.
Do you know how the toilet works in a van? Kah Xuan asks. She explains that as the van doesn’t have a plumbing system for waste management, they use a portable toilet and empty out its contents at public restrooms. They must then wash it before placing it back into their van.
It’s not very convenient or hygienic, says Wee Han, to which Kah Xuan adds that because of that, they try to use public toilets whenever they can.
Another issue is space constraints. Being couped up in a tiny space for long periods of time can take a toll on any relationship. When they need some time to themselves, they take individual walks outside.
Surprisingly, when asked if this lifestyle is sustainable in the long run, Kah Xuan answered, “No, I wouldn’t say (it is). These days, a lot of people are promoting the van life as (being) very glamorous, but I believe it’s not true because you cannot live in a tiny space for a long time.
“Maybe in the future, we have to buy a house or settle down. We can’t always be on the road.”
Switching gears and enjoying the ride
Right now, the couple live each day as it comes and, in the process, are discovering new things about themselves.
“For now, we are living every day as we go. I used to be a person who likes to plan everything. Before we go somewhere, I would plan and do research. If I don’t plan, I feel insecure.
“After this journey, I realised that I really love unplanned things. I feel excited about the unknown and just (want to) explore. It has made me a different person,” says Kah Xuan.
When they began their journey, the couple shared that they often felt insecure about where they were going to park for the night and had concerns about safety.
They have since learnt to trust other people, and even themselves. “You just have to believe that people are kind. We have met many people who have asked us questions about our van and about what we are doing. But they don’t disturb us. Malaysians are just very curious,” says Wee Han.
His mantra is to be respectful of people and not be a nuisance.
You can park anywhere but don’t block the road and disturb anyone, and they won’t complain about you, he says.
When asked about their travel plans, the couple hopes to go as far as they can. “We would like to travel around South East Asia for a few months and if our van can take us to Europe, then great!” they reply optimistically.
This happy-go-lucky attitude is a testament to how much they have grown and changed along this journey.
For those who are looking to embrace the van life, Kah Xuan’s advice is: “Don’t simply jump into it. Rent before you buy because living the van life is a big investment”.