Malaysia: A Melange of Three Cultures
KL Not That Hot
During the drive from the airport, we passed hill upon hill blanketed with rows of palm trees. Our guide told us that these were once all rubber trees, but that in recent years many more acres of fast-growing palms were being planted.
We soon learned that this country is a mélange of three distinct cultures: Malay, Chinese, and Indian. We would see symbols of all three identities here throughout our trip, in the buildings, the cuisine, and the way people dressed. We visited the capital KL, Malacca on the west coast, and Kota Bharu up in the Northeastern corner in July 2006.
Malaysia is made up of eleven states and two federal territories, stretching across a vast area above and to the east of Indonesia near the South China sea. We would be visiting Peninsular Malaysia, just below Thailand. The states of Sarawak and Sabah make up the other half of the nation, more than 500 miles to the east.
The country was once a British colony, so there is a leftover legacy of English speaking, which makes getting around pretty easy for Americans. Even though there are distinctly Chinese and Indian enclaves in the big cities as well as in most small towns, Islam is the state religion. You see monuments, mosques and minarets, but generally people here are low-key about their chosen religion.
The Capital City
Today two of the city's most famous landmarks are towers: the KL Tower where we had dinner,features a rainforest jungle at its base, and a revolving restaurant up top at 1403 feet.
It's the world's fourth highest such tower, but more impressive are the Petronas Twin Towers, which at 1482 feet apiece, dominate the city skyline. If you get there early enough, you can get a free pass to walk between the two supertowers, at the midway point.
In the Star newspaper in Kuala Lumpur, there was a story about a rubber tapper, who went out for his morning rounds in the jungle and came face to face with a tiger. Small tigers still inhabit the dense jungles where rubber trees are grown in long rows for their latex. The tiger had a cub, and the man was batted in the head with the animal’s sharp claw. But he stared right into its eyes, and it ran away back in the jungle.
Our guide told us that here people own their houses outright; they don’t take out mortgages to buy homes. They pay a portion before, then a bit after, and before they take ownership of the house, they’ve paid the entire cost up front.
There is a movement here now to allow people to pay in installments after the houses are built, but it is a radical new idea, and one that has met opposition from builders here. There is a fear, (justified by the rate of foreclosure in the west) that if they allow this the builders will get stuck with unsold houses.
In a Kuala Lumpur Starbucks, I drank a Nantucket Nectars juice, and read the top of the bottle -- a story about how the founders of the company like to surf at Cisco Beach on the island in New England. It amazed me that I could spend three bucks on a soda that traveled 12,000 miles to reach me here all the way from my home state. The Starbucks was the only place I could find with free WiFi. Unlike in the US, there was no charge to log on. The other coffee shop made you go through the same complicated routine as in the US Starbucks, so I gladly forked over eight ringgets (about $3.00) to for the chance to check my email.
We visited the city of Melaka, also spelled Malacca , which is famous for the pirates who ply the Straits of Malacca. Here there is a coat of arms you see on government buildings and as you first enter the city; it shows two mouse deer leaning up against the official town shield. This comes from a story where the mouse deer showed great valor fighting off a bigger foe, and was rewarded by being memorialized on the state seal.
Malaysia has the world’s only rotating monarchy. Every five years a new king is named from one of the nine original provinces, so the nation takes turns with who gets the royal treatment. We watched the King’s procession make its way into the royal Palace in Kuala Lumpur and later saw him during the opening ceremony at the Citrajarna colors of Malaysia festival in the downtown streets.
There are vestiges of old regimes throughout the country, and a marked difference in the work ethic and pace from the west coast to the east. We spent time in the hustling, bustling traffic of Kuala Lumpur and Malacca, on the west, and then flew to Terrenganu, on the east, which was much more slow-paced. There were also far fewer women on the streets without the headscarf; here nearly every woman wore the long head-to-toe saris and scarves required by Islamic tradition.
We took a ferry to Redang Island, off the coast near Terrenganu, and a video was playing as we entered the small enclosed saloon. It showed a sailboat being capsized by a giant wave, spilling over and over, tumbling into the drink, and then scenes of other boats being overwhelmed by huge monsoon waves, and people spilling out of the boats and perishing at sea. It was a peculiar choice of a pre-departure movie, perhaps it was an inside joke by the captain.
Everywhere we went we saw men working on the roads and trimming hedges along the roadsides. There were endless construction projects, from new memorials, new bridges, and beach reclamation, dredging and high-rise buildings going up.
What was noticeable most was how much work was being done to public works such as roads and public buildings. It was comparable to what you might see in the US, and this came as a surprise. Malaysian tax dollars hard at work!
People were busy by the roadsides. We glimpsed a monkey running across the highway, big groups of schoolchildren with the very young girls wearing white headscarves and the boys in navy pants and crisp white shirts, goats tethered and munching on grass, a few water buffalo in a soccer field, keeping the grass trimmed, a man in a rice paddy opening a channel with a large hoe to let the water flow from one paddy to the other, a naked little boy sleeping in a red plastic chair on the front porch, the yellow gold dome of a mosque with adjoining minaret with loudspeakers on all four sides, billboards proclaiming “Kota Bharu, the Islamic City,” and lots of Arabic script on road signs and on buildings.
We passed stacks of green dorian fruit, Malaysia's favorite fruit, protected by tough spiky exterior that smells like horrible body odor once it's opened, scrawny roosters chasing scrawnier hens, groups of people gathered in the shade sitting on plastic chairs in an outdoor café sipping tea and chatting, a man using a weed whacker wearing a sarong, ornate new schools with fancy fencing around them painted in grey and orange.
* The food has a medley of flavors from chicken satay to Chinese breakfast noodles, and cheap!
Malaysia is a place where the people, the temperature and the mood are all mellow. The tourism board is kicking off an initiative to make 2007 the year to travel to the country. Malaysia's melange of three fascinating cultures deserve a look and are worth the long journey.
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