Unseen Tours Kuala Lumpur

28 August 2018

An initiative to train homeless people as tour guides is helping to put lives back on the map.

Josh, as he prefers simply to be known, used to sometimes sleep rough on the streets of Kuala Lumpur. These days, at the age of 57, he’s a guide for Unseen Tours, a social enterprise launched in January this year that offers themed walks around the city led by former street dwellers and the urban poor.

“Before, I was more or less retired. I wasn’t working. Like street people, I had already been left out of society,” says Josh.

Josh gives a tour of KL as a guide with Unseen Tours

Originally from Penang, Josh previously travelled and worked as a fisherman, factory worker, technician, lorry driver, car washman – you name it – and lived in many different places, such as Negeri Sembilan, Singapore, and Japan. But he started to sleep on the streets, and ended up in a government-funded rehabilitation centre for the homeless in Kuala Kubu Bharu.  

Unseen Tours was founded by 43-year-old Shyam Priah with a seed grant from the Volunteering International Professional programme under the Ministry of Finance. It’s an initiative to help marginalised communities find new purpose and a means of living.

“We’re not just taking them off the streets; we’re also preventing them from going back to the streets. They have talent. We just need to know how to bring it out and give them a platform to show themselves,” says Shyam.

As a guide, Josh leads the Temple and Heritage Tour, which starts at the Chow Kit Monorail Station and ends at the iconic Sri Mahamariamman Hindu temple. Along the way, he takes travellers – usually a small group of six to eight people – to the Sikh Tatt Khalsa Diwan temple, the Taoist Sin Sze Si Ya temple, the Catholic St Mary’s Cathedral, and Masjid Jamek. He also drops in on a wet market and a jamu shop, and takes a stroll along the revamped bridges and promenades that overlook the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers.

Unseen Tours also offers walks taking in haunted sites and street art. All last about three hours and cost RM55 per person, with 60 percent going to the guides while the rest go into training new guides and operating costs.

If this endeavour proves successful, Shyam hopes it will work as a scalable model for other cities. Already, she says, there is encouraging interest from Singapore and Thailand.

Josh and Shyam first met in September last year, when she visited the government-funded rehabilitation centre where Josh was living. Josh says he had spent two months there after a sweep by Kuala Lumpur City Hall to clear the streets for the Merdeka celebrations, which coincided with the Southeast Asian Games.

Shyam remembers a timid man on first impression, unlike the friendly and optimistic man today who converses easily with locals and foreigners alike.

“Actually, I’ve always wanted to a be a tour guide,” Josh says.

He explains that he wasn’t actually homeless at the time. “I had a room in a house my brother owns in Petaling Jaya, but I enjoyed myself in Kuala Lumpur, and I would stay out late and miss the last train home. When I had money, I would stay at a hotel. When I didn’t, I would sleep on the streets near the 24-hour KFC,” he says.

“Actually, many street people have homes, but a lot of them are rejected by their families. They may be divorced, or they may be drug addicts and alcoholics. I was an alcoholic,” he adds. The night Josh was swept up along with 300 others, he had succumbed to an old friend’s exhortation to drink to good old times. But since leaving the rehab centre, he’s stayed sober.

Guides with Unseen Tours are required to attend counselling sessions and social responsibility training. They also undergo random urine tests every month. Before leading a tour, they have to practise with at least 50 people.

Unseen Tours is just one of the projects under Yellow House, a non-profit organisation Shyam founded in 2013 out of her own home in Ampang – a natural progression from her work as a corporate social responsibility strategist.

Beyond Unseen Tours, Yellow House pairs volunteers from all over the world with a network of local organisations that need assistance, such as those working with refugees and children. Yellow House also doubles as a hostel for visiting volunteers. It’s received more than 600 volunteers to date – while Shyam continues to call it home, as does Josh.

However, Shyam faces challenges in retaining guides for Unseen Tours. At the start, there were ten; now, there are two. Some succumb to substance abuse, and some simply lose interest.

Josh, tour guide, and Shyam, the founder of Yellow House

“Some want instant monetary gratification, but we currently only have bookings once or twice a week – a guide gets about RM600 to RM800 a month. They’ve already decided to transform their lives and they don’t want to go slow, so we find them jobs with our partner hotels instead. All together, around 170 street people have been employed through Yellow House,” she says.

“Now, leading tours, I am meeting many different people, and I have started to come back to society,” says Josh. “I teach refugee children English. I go along for swimming classes with those with physical disabilities. It’s the beginning of a new life.”

Book a tour at yellowhousekl.com/unseentourskl

By Emily Ding
Photos by Wong Yok Teng



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