Malaysia’s beauty lies in its seamless blending of Malay, Chinese, Indian and pan-Asian cultures, says Paul Oswell
Malaysia’s tourism slogan, ‘Truly Asia’, has more than a little truth to it. The country is famously one of the continent’s genuine cultural melting pots, with Malay, Chinese, Indian and pan-Asian influences all apparent, even as you touch down in the glimmering capital Kuala Lumpur, or KL. Take even the most cursory tour of this bustling city and you’ll see Hindu temples, mosques, skyscrapers and Chinese joss-houses.
Possibly the most impressive part of this mix of religions and cultures is the distinct harmony in which they coexist. Tradition sits with progress, and even the many festivals seem to transcend belief systems and prejudice, forging a real ‘stronger together’ spirit that makes visiting a stress-free experience. A typically varied day out in KL might include a tour of the Islamic Arts Museum, lunch in Chinatown, shopping in one of many futuristic malls and dinner in Little India. It’s an accessible country with the infrastructure you’d want from a thriving tourist hub.
Malaysia is also a slightly less obvious choice than, say, Thailand or Hong Kong, with around 200,000 arrivals from the US each year, according to Tourism Malaysia. Yet the country offers an arguably more varied experience than its peers, not least as it’s geographically two countries.
Peninsular Malaysia is home to KL and the colonial cities, where you can learn about the country’s history and see ancient temples and modern mosques. East Malaysia, on the other hand, is part of the northern region of the island of Borneo. This is where the states of Sarawak and Sabah are located, and where people go to explore lush rainforests and coral reefs.
Low-cost air travel both domestically and from neighboring countries is shoring up Malaysia’s tourism industry. A swathe of luxury hotels and resorts has opened in recent years, offering very competitive value for money, so luxury packages (often twin-centered) as well as golfing vacations and the popularity of river cruises are keeping visitor numbers on the rise.
More traditional tours offered by US operators focus on the highlights, with a stay in the capital, before a few days in the jungle to see the famed orangutans and finally some beach time for relaxing and diving.
Kuala Lumpur is a modern capital in all senses of the word, having been founded as recently as the mid-19th century. Its first 100 years were mainly under British rule, though Chinese and Indian influences were already pervasive. Independence came in 1957 and the capital grew exponentially from the 1970s onwards.
The city’s unarguable modernity can be seen in its skyline, dominated by the twin Petronas Towers, the world’s tallest buildings between 1998 and 2004. The Menara Tower is another gleaming monument to modern architecture, as are the dozens of space-age shopping malls you’ll find around the city.
There are plenty of more historical sides to KL, though, and the Chinese and Indian neighborhoods evoke the tin-roofed mining heritage of the place, with dozens of small markets and street food stalls. Head to the minarets of Kuala Lumpur Railway Station on Jalan Sultan Hishamuddin, or the more regal surrounds of Merdeka Square, for a glimpse into colonial times.
The National Museum, Islamic Arts Museum and the National Mosque provide insights into the city’s cultural mix, and respite from the city can be found in the beautifully landscaped Taman Tasik Perdana (Lake Gardens), housing flora, butterflies and wild deer.
Food & Drink
Kuala Lumpur’s draw as a shopping destination is matched only by its seductive food scene, drawing from the full range of international influences that make up the city itself. The cuisine here is varied and affordable, making it a dream destination for anyone looking to expand their culinary horizons.
For a delicious sampler of everything under one roof, most people head to the Pavillion Food Court in Bukit Bintang, where traditional Malay dishes are on offer along with Indian, Chinese and Pakistani favorites. Authentic Malaysian classics include nasi goreng (fried rice), rendang (spicy meat stew) and satay (a rich peanut sauce usually flavoring chicken).
You’ll find regional variations of the main dishes across Malaysia, but expect the use of spices, coconut milk, shrimp paste and lemongrass. The street food stalls of Chinatown are a must, with food prepared in a wok in front of you as you sit down on a tiny metal stool.
Gourmands will find everything from beef noodles to peanut butter pancakes on offer — just let your nose and eyes lead you to whatever looks the most appetizing — while coffee fans will love the local coffee shops, called kopitiams. Similar food stalls with Indian food can be found in, unsurprisingly, Little India.
Wildlife & Jungles
You don’t have to travel far from the capital to see some of Malaysia’s best natural scenery. The dramatic Batu Caves are just eight miles north of Kuala Lumpur, and are both a revered Hindu shrine and a spectacular collection of chambers and stalactites.
Not far away is the Forest Research Institute of Malaysia, a scientific research center open to the public with walking trails and a 650ft-long canopy boardwalk, allowing a vantage point high in the trees. There are also jungle swimming holes for cooling off after a hike.
Malaysian Borneo, with the regions of Sarawak and Sabah, offers a contrasting experience, with many people favoring a twin-center vacation. Trekking around the hills of Mount Kinabalu is one of the most popular soft adventure activities, with a visit to Sepilok not far behind. It’s here you can track down Borneo’s most famous residents, the grand old lords and ladies of the primate world, the orangutans.
There are also myriad hiking opportunities around the ‘riverine forest’ of Sungai Kinabatangan, with lodges lining the river banks and small boats offering tourists the means to get close to the wildlife.
Island life is a great wind-down after exploring the cities and remote jungles, and Malaysia boasts some impressive beaches and resorts. Langkawi is perhaps the most famous of the resort islands, and one that’s attracted a wealth of luxury hotels since it started developing in the 1980s.
Langkawi is surrounded by the same stunning Andaman Sea as many of its Thai rivals, but manages to avoid an overwhelming nightlife scene, retaining a more tranquil poise. Take the SkyCab cable car to the top of Machincang mountain for amazing views.
Tioman Island is impressively unspoiled. In among the pristine flora and greenery, it’s possible to find long stretches of seductive beach, with coral reefs to explore while snorkeling or diving.
Penang has a very colonial feel to it, and reinvented itself after the collapse of the British Empire. After taking in the capital Georgetown, head to the Batu Ferringhi beach resort for watersports. There are also beachside bazaars and a reassuringly wide choice of modern international hotels.
Escape the heat of the lowlands in the Cameron Highlands, a colonial throwback that still has working tea plantations. Hill stations pepper the verdant slopes, and you could forget you were in the tropics thanks to the region’s microclimate.
Probably the best place to experience the indigenous cultures of the Malaysian peninsula is in the town of Kota Bharu, bordering Thailand on the east coast. Its night markets have a wealth of traditional food, locally made handicrafts and shows featuring traditional shadow puppets.
It’s a good place to be for national holidays or festivals, especially the Sultan’s birthday in March and the Kite Festival in June.
Sarawak also has ancient tribal villages to visit. Ulu Ai is one such place, where the Iban people have lived unchanged for centuries. Visit their longhouses, lining the banks of the Skrang and Lemenak rivers, and witness traditional life tied up in the local agricultural economy. Many wear the colorful tribal clothes of their peoples.
PUBLISHED IN THE SUMMER 2014 ISSUE OF ASTAnetwork