Malaysia Melds Three Cultures

Chinese, Malay and Indian Cultures in one Country: Malaysia

By Max Hartshorne
GoNOMAD Editor

Shopgirl in Malacca, Malaysia. photo by Liz Chow.
Shopgirl in Malacca, Malaysia. photo by Liz Chow.

What is Malaysia Like? As I prepared to tape a radio interview on a West Coast travel radio show, I pondered this.

I realized that the points I’d make on the air during the 10-minute segment were exactly what our readers want to hear about as they read this story.

Our trip in July 2006 began with the longest scheduled flight we could take… Singapore Airlines from Newark all the way across the polar cap to the Malaysian Peninsula below Thailand. We spent eighteen hours inside an Airbus A230.

But these long-haul flights are not nearly the dreaded experience you’d think… and not having a long layover got us to Malaysia in less time. The plane’s configuration also includes a stand-up bar in the back of coach, where people can mingle, stretch their legs, sip on coffee or juice and enjoy snacks.

KL Not That Hot

Finally arriving in Kuala Lumpur, the summer temperature was not as hot as I expected. Back home it was a broiling New England July, here it was just mid-eighties, nothing drastic, no sweat.

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.

These hardy trees produce palm oil and are now being harvested for biodiesel, similar to what we’re doing in the US with our corn, and Brazil is doing with sugar cane. There were billboards, mostly in English, but some were in Arabic, and others had Roman letters with Malay text.

Malaysia’s Three Cultures

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.

Even schoolgirls wear the headscarf in Kota Bharu. photo by Liz Chow.
Even schoolgirls wear the headscarf in Kota Bharu. photo by Liz Chow.

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.

Mosques and Minarets

You see monuments, mosques, and minarets, but generally, people here are low-key about their chosen religion.

As an American, I’ve become somewhat indoctrinated by irresponsible media stereotypes about Muslims and the general perception that all members of this vast religious group are bent on terrorist acts. Of course, Malaysia proves a wonderful example of how wrong-headed this is.

The nation is peaceful, full of lovely mosques, and the Islamic force is really one that tones down alcohol use and keeps families together.

During our trip, for example, the World Cup soccer final was being played; it came on at 2 am. I set my alarm and made my way down to the coffee shop, to find a rowdy group of fans screaming and cheering while eating noodles and drinking teas and juices. No booze here, no hooligans either!

The Capital City, Kuala Lumpur

My trip to Malaysia began in the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, known as KL to most people. It is a vibrant city, which means terrible traffic jams and thousands of busy people on their way here and there.

The name means “muddy estuary,” and it was founded in 1857 as a tin mining outpost. Two rivers converge here, and we walked past them and saw the riverbanks encased in stone and the river indeed, running muddy.

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 super towers, at the midway point.

Buses Around KL

It’s easy to get around KL by city bus. Bus ticket online portals have a notification feature that will provide you with frequent updates and alerts regarding your trip. Moreover, when it comes to boarding the bus, there are systems now that allow you to scan your ticket and access your entry into the bus only if the details match.

There are distinct neighborhoods for each ethnic group, such as Chinatown, where we spent a morning shopping and enjoying warm soy milk from street vendors. Shopping here is a delight since in Chinatown there are so many little nooks and crannies with tiny shops and friendly shopkeeps. Plus most are willing to bargain.

Man with beers, which you don't see as much up north, this was in Kuala Lampur's China Town. photo by Liz Chow.
A man with beers, which you don’t see as much up north, this was in Kuala Lumpur’s China Town. photo by Liz Chow.

One afternoon we set out to buy computer software, hearing from our local guide that the deals were stupendous. When I got home I tried to install the cheap knock-off copies of MS Office, to find that they didn’t work!

While the software might have been of dubious quality, the experience of shopping at the five-story computer/peripheral/software market called ‘IT World’ in the heart of the city was a blast. You’ve never seen anything like it. You might have better luck with hardware than I did with software!

A highlight of the city is Lake Gardens, a large park that includes a bird park, where hundreds of species of birds live under gargantuan netting.

Nearby are a butterfly park, a deer park, an orchid garden, and a hibiscus garden, in the National Mosque, with its eleven-sided blue roof, which corresponds with a number in the Koran.

Malaysia’s Delicious Food

Malaysian food was inexpensive and delicious. The liberal use of chiles, lemongrass, turmeric, ginger, coriander, cinnamon, and coconut milk makes a wonderful base for treats like Nasi Lemak, often eaten for breakfast.

It’s rice cooked with coconut milk and served with chicken, beef or squid, anchovies and groundnuts. Another staple is satay cooked always over a little charcoal grill.

Nyonya food, a combination of Chinese and Malay cooking styles, is another favorite here. This cuisine uses a lot of shrimp paste and the juices of certain seeds and fruits that are added to gravies and curries to further enhance the flavors.

Durian Fruit, a famous and beloved fruit of Asia that stinks! photo by Liz Chow.
Durian Fruit, a famous and beloved fruit of Asia that stinks! photo by Liz Chow.

Famous dishes include Otak-otak, (fish with curry paste wrapped in banana leaves), Buah Keluak (nuts cooked with chicken), duck soup, Laksa Lemak (noodles and prawns cooked in a rich spicy coconut sauce), Jantung Pisang (banana shoots), Mee Siam (a light noodle dish) and Nasi Kunyit, (yellow rice served with curry).

Malaysia Tidbits

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.

No Mortgages

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 upfront.

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.

A Soda from 12,000 Miles Away

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.

Pirates in the Straits

Towers at the entrance to the city of Malacca, symbolizing the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures that blend into one. photo by Max Hartshorne
Towers at the entrance to the city of Malacca, symbolizing the Malay, Chinese and Indian cultures that blend into one. photo by Max Hartshorne

We visited the city of Melaka, also spelled Malacca, which is famous for the pirates who ply the Straits of Malacca. The sign you see on government buildings and as you first enter the city; the sign is of 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 Terengganu, 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.

Redang Island

Chinatown in Malacca, on Malaysia's west coast. photo by Max Hartshorne.
Chinatown in Malacca, on Malaysia’s west coast. photo by Max Hartshorne.

We took a ferry to Redang Island, off the coast near Terengganu, 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.

Much Public Work Being Done

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.

There were 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.

And there was 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 Durian fruit, Malaysia’s favorite fruit, protected by a 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.

Radio Days

My segment on the radio show went well. I realized that I was full of enthusiasm for Malaysia, and told them about the aspects of the trip that stuck with me:

* It’s an Islamic nation that feels truly peaceful.

* The food has a medley of flavors from chicken satay to Chinese breakfast noodles, and cheap!

* There are striking mosques with vivid colors, matched by the colors of the head-to-toe clad women in the streets.

* You see rolling hills of palm trees contrasted with light blue and white colors of the shoreline.

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 deserves a look and is worth the long journey.

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