Malaysia, Truly Asia

May 6, 2007

Malaysia’s catch-phrase, used by the people at the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board, is “Malaysia: Truly Asia.” As far as touristy slogans go, it’s bang-on accurate.

Malaysia boasts a rich diversity of landscape, from rainforests to mountain retreats to tropical beaches to bustling cities; in this sense, it is no different than its neighbors Thailand and Vietnam. However, what makes Malaysia “truly Asia” is the heterogeneity of its people. Nearly every major Asian religion – Buddhism, Hinduism, and Islam – are represented here. Cuisine-wise, too, the choices never cease. We’ve been here for two weeks and I haven’t yet been fatigued by the food, whereas in Vietnam palate exhaustion took about a week, Thailand, a few days, and Laos, a few meals.

Malaysia’s national language is Bahasa Malaysia, but Chinese and English are also widely spoken. I marvel at the locals’ linguistic prowess; it’s more common to meet Malaysians fluent in two languages than not. Turn on the television and the music video VJs pepper their Malaysian speech with English words until all of a sudden they full-on switch into English. Seconds later they’re back into Malaysian.

dsc02874.jpgUntil a few days ago, we were in Kuala Lumpur, the nation’s capital. Bustling, loud, and hot like most Southeast Asian cities, KL (as it’s called by the locals) is one of the most modern cities in the region in terms of infrastructure, but the city has a distinctly traditional pull. Muslim customs abound. It is a city with a relatively low-key nightlife, where a beer costs as much as it does in Japan thanks to prohibitive taxes, and where Muslim girls cover their heads in embroidered headscarves while still toting Juicy Couture handbags. Many of the city’s famous buildings are either directly or indirectly influenced by traditional Muslim architecture, the most famous example being the fabulous Petronas Twin Towers. Each tower is structured as an eight-point star, each point representing a virtue of Islam.

The Islamic Arts Museum, too, is a cool, modern building composed of glass and beige, Italian marble. Yet, the outside features adsc02868.jpg gorgeous blue and yellow tiled mosaic, and the whole museum is modeled after a mosque, with its turquoise domes and refreshing inner courtyards. Not only did I appreciate the gorgeous exhibits of jewelry, armor, textiles, glass, ceramics, etc. from all over Asia, the museum itself is an art piece representing the “simple splendor” which, in my mind, is one of the cornerstones of Islamic art. Along with the Jim Thompson House in Bangkok, this was the best museum I’d been to in Southeast Asia.

Moving on from Kuala Lumpur, we’re now in Malacca, which has a completely different atmosphere about it. Of course, there are still mosques. The Muslim women are more conservatively dressed here. But if KL is Malaysia’s future, Malacca best embodies its past. dsc02908.jpgIntricately stuccoed and tiled Chinese shophouses, meticulously preserved, line the streets of Chinatown. Stadhuys and St. Paul’s church, stark and simplistic and very Dutch, sit on Malacca hill, the eye of the city. Streets have Portuguese names. Malacca is also the capital of Nonya cuisine – a culinary creation of the Baba-Nonya (Malay-Chinese) people. While other places in Malaysia boast rich histories and varieties of people and food (Penang comes to mind), Malacca seems to have fused all of these together the best; on one street in Chinatown – you have a Hindu temple, a mosque, and a Buddhist temple. Around the corner is a museum devoted to the Baba-Nonya heritage. There is even a little corner of the city where descendents of the Portuguese still live, where they speak a patois of Portuguese and Malaysian.

If there is any religious, racial, or ethnic strife (which I’m sure there is, as with any place where diverse groups of people come into contact), as a tourist, I rarely see it. In general, it seems that most people respect and tolerate each other’s customs and traditions. Coming from Miami, another salad bowl but where no one really respects or tolerates anyone else, I’m impressed that Malaysians not only celebrate their country’s diversity, but use it as a draw card to tourists from abroad.

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