A Malaysian medley
This photo-essay is just the “overture” to Malaysia.
Expect the unexpected
Malaysia is a magnified study in contrasts; a nation in which sensory, sociocultural, historic, and abstract experiences challenge the traveller constantly.
This relatively young nation — in 2007 it celebrated 50 years of nationhood and release from colonial rule — is also a delightful and exhilarating travel experience because of the sheer pleasure that results from being truly in Malaysia!
It is the kind of multilateral destination that repeatedly defies simple definitions. In Malaysia your powers of observation and perception are put to the test from moment to moment; for anyone with a sensitive bone in his or her body it is impossible to remain aloof in this kaleidoscopic nation.
When I travel on assignment I try to do my homework well — you can take the teacher out of the classroom but you can’t take the classroom out of the teacher — in order to arrive in the destination in a state of preparedness that assures little time or effort will be wasted.
I think it is safe to say, however, that Malaysia did, almost teasingly, take me unawares — from moment to moment. Malaysia made sure that I was not detached and complacent. Although I attempted to do my research and reading in advance in order to gain some degree of an a priori upper hand, time and time again I was astonished and amazed by the multidimensional Malaysian experiences.
The Malaysian metaphor
A visit to Malaysia is a poetic and philosophical experience; but also the kind of travel experience that engages both sides of the brain. Many destinations have an inherent duality; visitors to Canada, for example, are often surprised by our official French-English bilingual status and realities. In Malaysia however, there is a multiplicity of social realities that are captivating and extraordinary.
It may have been the shadow puppets in the National Museum in Kuala Lumpur that established a working metaphor for my travel throughout this diverse landscape “at the crossroads of Asia.”
This art form, which is traditional to the whole peninsula of which Malaysia is part, is all about story-telling and interpretation. And in the 21st century this is the heightened role and responsibility that travel journalists are required to assume.
The art of the shadow puppet evokes a dance of perception and reality: alluring shapes, elusive shadows, voices and undertones, tales of glory and sacrifice, and an artful blend of meaning and truth. This is also the essence of multicultural and multidimensional Malaysia.
A cultural cornucopia
In many ways, Malaysia is all things to all people; it has a diverse landscape that evokes descriptors such as idyllic, serene, sublime, awe-inspiring, and lush. Its cultural heritage is the stuff of dreams for ethnologists. Its history and politics are imbued with a passion and complexity that can keep scholars and political commentators busy indefinitely. It is a land of many, varied, and subtle cuisines. ( I could hardly restrain myself from rushing off to the next meal, usually outdoors and usually surrounded by friendly locals.) Malaysia also has a never-ending wealth of “tourist” attractions that constitute a non-stop photo op, as well as extraordinary opportunities for lifelong learning.
Above all, the people of Malaysia are some of the most welcoming and engaging that we have encountered in our travels.
Where to begin?
In Kuala Lumpur of course; or KL as it is usually referred to. In this Asian supercity, you will see why Asia has become such a stupendous cultural and economic engine in the 21st century.
KL, however, is not a city that will overwhelm you in a negative sense; but it will indeed overwhelm you — excite you, absorb you, gratify your appetite for alternative realities — and it will do this because of its inexhaustible energy and its cultural resources. And although you will find yourself very much caught up in the rush of KL, with a little resourcefulness you will have no difficulty finding delightful discreet spaces where Malaysian culture will speak to you one on one.
A window on Malaysia
The images below, the slideshow, and the text and recommended websites are designed to present an introduction to and overview of the mosaic of Malaysia as I experienced it.
I wish to emphasize, however, that I found Malaysia to be an almost infinitely experiential destination.
The following will get you started on a virtual visit to Malaysia.
Malaysia in general
National websites like this one have of course their own “agenda” but decoding, understanding, and appreciating that cultural mission is a travel experience in itself.
The official e-Tourism Portal for The Ministry of Tourism, this website is also a media culture experience. If you are at all business-oriented, you will begin to get an understanding of and appreciation for how Malaysia markets itself to the world.
For reviews of the national airline of Malaysia visit Skytrax.
This site is very well-organized from both a thematic and informational point of view.
From the top of this tower you will be able to get a visual perspective of the city that is difficult to get “on the ground.” On the other hand, meandering the quite safe streets of downtown KL gives a whole other perspective and sense of immediacy. No sense in sitting alone in your room; come to the KL cabaret.
In the centre of KL, at the base of the KL Tower.
KL is a city that has grown out of a rain forest. Fortunately that rain forest has not completely disappeared and there are a number of areas within the city where you can “return to nature” and the rain forest. The Bukit Nanas Rainforest, a mini ecotourism experience, is one of them.
The National Museum (Muzium Negara)
You will get an historical and social perspective on Malaysia at this attractive and traveller-friendly museum. Like many museums, it does require that travellers apply their media literacy skills to the way in which information is presented stylistically but also in terms of the historical and culturally determined themes in the messages.
The museum contains numerous excellent archival and informational exhibits which are arranged in a very aesthetically pleasing environment. Understanding the history of Malaysia and its role at the Crossroads of Asia (especially in post-colonial times), requires some critical thinking, but the story is fascinating. At the museum you will start to get a sense of why the democratic process is still very much ongoing in Malaysia and the challenges that this relatively young nation (50 years) continues to face.
As is the case in many nations, the socio-political situation in Malaysia should not be “interpreted” from an ethnocentric point of view, North American especially. At the same time, it is important to understand the universal democratic issues that continue to be worked out in Malaysia.
During my visit, a major public demonstration occurred in Kuala Lumpur. A second one occurred after I returned home. According to news reports, the first demonstration was organized by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (BERSIH), an organization demanding more transparent and “clean” elections. The second “anti-government” demonstration was organized primarily by the Hindu Rights Action Force (HINDRAF) in protest against what they perceive as a lack of educational and business opportunities for the ethnic Indian population (seven per cent of the total population of Malaysia). They have argued that a government affirmative-action policy that favours the majority ethnic Malays, who at the time of independence in 1957 were generally considered to be an underclass, has marginalized the ethnic Indian community.
With elections looming in Malaysia, the demonstrations were a significant challenge to the government. The police deemed the demonstrations illegal and responded with tear gas and water cannon. While potentially disruptive public demonstrations occur in all major cities (recently in Paris for example), these events did not pose any threat to me; I monitored events from a “neutral” distance. What I found very interesting, however, was how many individual Malaysians actually initiated discussions with me about the political issues and, even though I did not raise the topic, they were obviously eager to discuss them with me. This reinforced my awareness of Malaysia as an open society on many levels.
In my experience, there is a strong and healthy heritage movement (politically, culturally, and architecturally) in Malaysia, the obvious outcome from the independence movement that led to the newly formed nation 50 years ago when three main ethnic groups — Malay, Chinese, and Indian — began working together to create a new Malaysian state. These events confirmed for me that there is also at the heart of Malaysian culture a very strong and collective sense of self and cultural self-determination.
If you have not travelled in an Islamic country before, the above institutions will give you an excellent overview of Islamic art and Islam itself. The Islamic Arts Museum especially is stupendous.
The Heritage of Malaysia Trust is an antidote to “hyper-vertical” Kuala Lumpur and another very important perspective on heritage preservation, and its importance in urban development.
A fascinating concept, this pre-planned national capital area and seat of the federal government was a little too “manufactured” for my tastes although stunning in its design. Time will tell whether it proves successful and whether it develops a genuine community “feel” and culture.
Known as “The World’s Largest Walk-in Free Flight Aviary,” the KL Bird Park is in another area of Kuala Lumpur that makes you realize that you are still in a tropical rain forest.
This extensive orchid garden and botanical treasure is not to be missed.
Bintang Walk (for some great outdoor Asian dining). Bukit Bintang Walk in the heart of “downtown” KL is a superb area for dining and shopping, especially hawker-styled eateries. It is fun, authentic, and quintessential KL.
Understanding the symbolism and the power of these towers is a KL experience in itself. Although the world struggles to reduce its dependency on oil and gas, the “Petroliam Nasional Berhad” (PETRONAS) is in many ways a highly significant part of this young nation. A Malaysian-owned oil and gas company, it was founded in 1974 and is wholly state-owned.
I am not a shopper … but I did. Arts and crafts centres like this one throughout Malaysia are also where you can see some of the best handcraft products made in the country. They are also an indication of the support for indigenous arts and crafts in Malaysia.
It is very hard to dispute this website’s “Penang Has It All!” message.
I can also vouch for the validity of its “multi-faceted personality of Penang” theme.
The Heritage “movement” is strong in Malaysia, in Penang especially, even though it faces many challenges. What this organization demonstrates most, however, is the adage that “the only real change occurs in the village.”
I found it encouraging that education is a priority in Malaysia on many fronts.
A small city, Penang may be one of the most integrated and in-depth travel experiences I have had.
Galeri Seni Mutiara (118 Armenian Street, George Town, Pulau Pinang, Malaysia, Tel: 04 262 0167)
Wong Keng Fuan is a glass artist in Penang. (I bought one of his pieces.) He is an example of the kind of artist we encountered in Malaysia — an arts-rich nation. You can visit his website at www.fuanwong.com
The Chinese community in Penang (the majority of the population of this city) is a destination and cultural experience in itself. The architectural jewels this city offers are splendid examples to any nation or community of the importance of heritage preservation.
I am also looking forward to seeing the new (Taiwan-produced) film Road to Dawn about Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s time in Penang. The film was shot on location here.
This venture headed by Manager Katharine Joan Chu is a wonderful mini ecotourism and botanical experience as well as a role model of the “public education” nature of unique environmental sites.
The architecturally splendid colonial buildings in Penang, like this one, are a tangible connection to Malaysia’s history.
“Comparative Religions” courses are popular in educational systems throughout the world. In Penang the study is experiential.
As Malaysia continues to play a larger economic role on the world stage, it also is becoming a travel and tourism destination of choice for many of the diverse niche markets of the global travel industry.
This unique ecotourism and holiday destination is very much an in-depth travel experience; and the sense of community and communal purpose that one gets on Langkawi is very real.
At this very interesting heritage agritourism site, you get a strong awareness of “the culture of rice” throughout Asia. You can also get up close and personal with a water buffalo.
At this excellent arts and crafts centre and shop, I also indulged myself as a cultural consumer.
An impressive bio-educational facility and aquarium, this facility fits in well with the environmental “education program” of Langkawi.
What can I say? Sublime views! This attraction is all about perspective.
Definitely not a glam and glitz guy, I found that this low-key, eco-friendly resort, which is very much on a human scale, suited my needs perfectly.
Private Malaysian travel guides I can personally recommend
All are licensed by the Malaysian Ministry of Arts, Culture, and Tourism, and all were very knowledgeable with excellent communications skills.
Jefri: Our very competent, experienced, and outgoing guide in Kuala Lumpur. He can be contacted at email@example.com
Eddie Lim Woi Hong: Also a retired teacher as well as a licensed member of the Penang Tourism Guide Association, Eddie knew exactly how to focus our in-depth visit to Penang. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vicky (Vikneswaran Saminathan) is a young man who left the hustle and bustle of KL to live on the tranquil island of Langkawi, and has never looked back. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
Goh Yong Choon: Working for SSpring Enterprise, a company that focuses on ecotourism on the island of Langkawi, Choon has excellent communication skills and advanced knowledge of the diverse habitats of Langkawi. He and his company provided our wonderful mangrove river safari experience. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The personnel of the Tropical Spice Garden just outside Penang are also excellent examples of the kind of entrepreneurial and sustainable tourism-friendly individuals we encountered in Malaysia. Manager Katherine Joan Chua can be contacted at email@example.com.
Mokhtar Mohyat. We can also recommend Mokhtar of Leisure and Incentive Tours. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Miscellaneous Malaysian travel information
The Malaysian Homestay Experience. Although I did not experience this, it would appear to be an alternative that the Malaysian Tourism Department is encouraging. An attractive and informative brochure is available from Malaysia Tourism Offices worldwide. The Malaysian Homestay Experience
Expatriate Lifestyle “Malaysia’s Biggest Quality Lifestyle Magazine” Expatriate Lifestyle
I often find that local media are cultural experiences in themselves but also help give a larger perspective on a destination.
The “medical tourism” phenomenon which is growing worldwide (I encountered it in India, Jordan, and Malaysia) is a specialized area of study in itself.
As usual, the issues are complex.
On most tourism promotional material I was given during my stay in Malaysia the following statement was included:
“Trafficking in illegal drugs carries the death penalty.”