For Thomas Foo, life is a 4X4 adventure

By CARSIFU | 18 September 2013


Foo’s travels have taken him to six continents. Today, this explorer extraordinaire continues to map out new frontiers to conquer.

At 57, Thomas Foo has gone on 4x4 adventures to over 100 countries. Little wonder he is hailed as king in the off-roading circle. Every year, Foo is away for a stretch of three to four months on expeditions.

Foo is currently leading a group of 25 explorers from China, South Korea, Singapore, Argentina, the Netherlands and Malaysia, on Trans-Outback Australia, a two-month 4x4 expedition from Perth to Sydney, across one of the toughest and most remote tracks in the world.

The 2,000km track passes through aboriginal settlements and the Great Sandy Desert which is hailed as a 4x4 paradise.

Foo’s past adventures include expeditions into Inner Mongolia, Africa, Asia, Tibet, India, South America and the Amazon. In the pipeline are trips to Central America, North America, Canada and Alaska.

“Travelling broadens your mind, opens your heart and purifies your soul. When you’re travelling, you feel humbled by the world and its beauty. You absorb information, culture and images. It makes you feel good and puts you in a better mood. You learn to be kind and more humane. You want to do good things. When you travel the world, you become a better person,” said Foo, in an interview before his big trip Down Under.

In 1998, Foo visited Tibet for the first time.

“Tibet is a magical land of mountains, vast terrain, monks and monasteries. You feel inner peace. The vast terrain and beautiful scenery bring joy to the soul.

“We shouldn’t be so caught up in the rat race that we forget to live. I believe in living life to the fullest,” said Foo.

In the late 1970s, armed with a degree in mechanical engineering, Foo joined British Aerospace in Longbridge, England.

The company was a British aircraft, munitions and defence systems manufacturer. Foo loved the job as it entailed much travelling.

At that time, British Aerospace and a French company were working on a merger.


Foo leading adventure travellers in the Trans-Asia expedition. - 4x4 World Explorer Sdn Bhd

“The job was perfect as I was sent off to Madrid (Spain), Toulouse (France) and Hanover (Germany) due to the merger process. After several years, I was sent to the United States.”

During his student days, Foo went to Israel.

“I saw an advertisement offering the opportunity to see Israel in its original state, with air tickets paid for. All I had to do was to work for a month,” he said.

“During that period, the Israeli government opened its doors to students from all over the world, for help to rebuild the country. Volunteers had to work in a kibbutz (communal settlement). The students worked like farmers: they toiled the land and grew vegetables.

“About 300 students from all over went to help in the reconstruction of Israel. We offered help on humanitarian grounds. We worked for 10 hours and slept in tents,” he said.

After Israel, Foo toured the Middle East, visiting Jordan, Lebanon, Iraq and Iran. Iran was going through a turbulent period then, and Foo witnessed much suffering and hardship.

Foo attributed his passion for adventure to his father. As a child, Foo’s father loved to tell him stories about his travels from China to Thailand to find his then girlfriend, whom he eventually married. Foo’s parents went to the same school in China. However, when the war broke out, his mother’s parents took her back to Thailand.

Foo’s father was so smitten by her that he took a boat to Thailand to look for his girlfriend.

“It was like looking for a needle in a haystack. My father told me about his adventures, how he saved up enough money to buy a third-class boat ticket to Thailand,” Foo recounted.

His determination was rewarded when he found his girlfriend two years later in Surat Thani in southern Thailand.

Foo himself caught the travel bug when he was nine. When his Cubmaster was transferred from Kuala Lumpur to Ipoh, he told his class: “When you’re older, come and visit me in Ipoh and I will take you to Pangkor Island.”

But Foo could not wait. The next year, Foo and a friend showed up at their former Scout master’s doorstep.

When he was in Form Three, Foo suggested to his Scoutmaster that they make a trip to Thailand. When his Scoutmaster did not know how to organise the trip, Foo volunteered.


Foo soaking in the beauty of the Namib Desert during the Trans-Africa expedition in 2008. — YUSUF HASHIM

“My mother was Thai and I had an uncle in Thailand. So I rang him up for help,” said Foo. Eventually, he organised the trip to Thailand by bus, for 75 Scouts.

Foo grew up in a village in a rough part of Kuala Lumpur.

“The urge to explore was great. Initially, we wanted to catch fish,” he said, recalling how he borrowed a friend’s bicycle to go fishing.

Then they felt the urge to travel further and he borrowed a friend’s motorcycle.

“We rode a kapcai from Port Dickson to Kuantan which seemed to take forever,” he laughed.

When Foo was 15, he mustered enough courage to ask his father for permission to buy a bicycle using his piggy bank savings. But he brought home a motorcycle instead, and cheekily explained to his father that “it’s a bicycle with a motor”.

After Form Six, Foo was sent to England to further his studies. He enrolled at the Polytechnic of Central London (now called University of Westminster) to study mechanical engineering. He ended up working in England for 10 years.

Foo juggled three part-time jobs while studying to save enough money to go travelling.

“I woke up at 4am to clean offices before going to class. In between lectures, I worked as a courier with the Pony Express. At night, I was a bartender at a pub,” he said.

During the first year, Foo and three other students rented a big “haunted” house in Hendon, north London. It came cheap.

The house had seven rooms which they sub-let to other students to make extra money. Three years later, Foo and his friends spruced up the house and turned it into a mansion to accommodate 20 Malaysian students.

During semester breaks, Foo worked hard to save up for his travels.

“Within five years, I had travelled to every corner of Europe,” said Foo. I can understand how (Tan Sri) Tony Fernandes (of AirAsia) made it. We’ve a built-in attitude to save money, go low-cost and do big things. He inspires me a lot – dream big, start small.”

In Madrid (Spain), Foo washed cars for a second-hand car dealer and did housekeeping chores at a hotel for a week.

“In those days, there was no Internet to search for travel information. I had to write letters for enquiries on accommodation, and make travel plans. It was very troublesome,” he said.

In his 10 years in England, Foo had organised 30 trips to destinations such as Normandy (France), Prague (Czech Republic), Cairo (Egypt) and Latvia.

Foo lived out his dream to travel all over Europe as a young man. Today he continues to relish his role as guru in adventure travel, as director of 4x4 World Explorer Sdn Bhd, specialists in trans-continental expeditions.

Foo is a partner in Explorer Outfitter, an adventure outdoor retail store in Publika Solaris Dutamas, Kuala Lumpur. Foo also owns a camping shop, Outdoor Centre, in Jalan Ampang, Kuala Lumpur.

He is a member of the 4x4 Adventure Club of Kuala Lumpur, and helped pioneer overland expeditions and the Monsoon Challenge, now known as the Malaysian Rainforest Challenge, one of the toughest off-road races around.