by Risa Wyatt
When writing about Malaysia, I could start by describing the palm-lined beaches of Redang Island, the tigers that stalk beneath umbrella palms in the central highlands, or the earth’s oldest rainforests on the island of Borneo.
But instead, let me tell you about the young women studying tourism at the Melaka International Islamic College of Technology. At a reception a student asked where I was from. “The United States,” I replied. Soon I was surrounded by eight women wearing tudungs — bright-colored, beautifully draped scarves that covered their hair. Smiling and giggling, they invited me to pose as they beamed our group portraits — live —over cell phones to their friends.
With current events, even well-traveled Americans like me often feel, if not unease, a certain unbalance when journeying in Muslim cultures. What will the people be like — and will they like us?
Malaysia is a Muslim country. Sixty percent of its citizens practice Islam and the country’s flag depicts the religion’s crescent moon and star symbol. Yet — like the U.S. or U.K. — it also is a melting pot: 20% of its people are of Chinese descent (generally Buddhists) and 8% are Indians (Hindus and Sikhs). This diversity is not divisive. Along Jalan Tolong Street in Melaka a mosque lies a few doors down from a Buddhist shrine that sits across the street from a Hindu temple and around the corner from a pub and a disco.
At the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur I chatted with a docent named Rapiah Abdul Aziz whose lipstick and nail polish matched her pink headscarf. “Islam is a religion of knowledge,” she said. “You study, learn, and follow it all your life.” “Which of these pamphlets about Islam would be most interesting for me to read?” I inquired, pointing to a rack of booklets. “Take this one,” she replied with a mischievous smile. It was titled “Sex and Islam.”
Set between Thailand to the north and Singapore to the south, Malaysia has always existed at the crossroads of cultures. The country became an independent country in 1957. Malaysia’s 50th anniversary in 2007 provides a golden opportunity to showcase the country’s Eastern intrigue along with its Western modernism.
Looking like spiral spaceships preparing for lift-off, the twin Petronas Towers rise 88 stories above Kuala Lumpur. When constructed in 1998, their futuristic design was modified to preserve an ancient tree that still stands in an entrance courtyard.
Old and new come together in Malaysia’s capital, where domed and turreted Victorian structures contrast with high-rise, Moorish-nouveau office buildings. Attractions include the National Museum and nearby Lake Gardens, setting for an aviary, butterfly park and orchid garden. Most of all I’m captivated by the energy of the city — the locally manufactured Proton cars that zip through colonial-era traffic circles ... the hubbub of shoppers in the Mid Valley Megamall.
A smell of incense hangs over Chinatown, known for its open-air market. Vendors hawk fresh, squirming fish and bootleg Superman DVDs, as well as knockoffs of Ralph Lauren, Fendi, and Burberry. Here, the idea of “chicken to go” means that your chosen fowl is slaughtered, plucked and sectioned as you wait.
Stands are piled with fresh lychees, mangosteens and rambotan, which resembles a hairy strawberry. I examine what looks like a fuchsia artichoke. “Dragonfruit,” the vendor explains. “Take some.” He gives me several fruits for free. Cutting them open, I savor a sweet, pink, papaya-like fruit flecked with black seeds.
Like Venice, Melaka (aka Malacca) is built on canals and reigned as a great trading port in the 15th and 16th centuries. Merchants traded perfumes and carpets from Persia; tea, silk and porcelain from China; embroidery and opium from India; and precious gems from Burma. Most prized of all: fragrant cloves, nutmeg and sandalwood from the Spice Islands (which today include Java and Sumatra in Indonesia).
After the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama quashed the “world is flat” theory, European powers competed to control this entrepôt of the exotic. The port was taken over successively by the Portuguese (1511), the Dutch (1641), and finally the British (1824).
Today the old part of the city remains a living museum. Of the thick-walled A Famosa fortress that once defended (not too successfully) the city, all that remains are ruins of St. Paul’s Church and the entrance gate. The city’s Dutch heritage survives in the 17th-century, red-painted buildings around Town Square including the Stadthuys (city hall) and Christ Church, which has its original pews. Garlanded with tinsel and colorful plastic flowers, trishaws wait in the plaza. Some have roofs fashioned after butterfly wings; others are tricked out with police sirens or horns that blast Beatles melodies.
Many Chinese traders intermarried with local Malays. Known as Straits Chinese or Peranakans, they became an influential, wealthy part of the community. Set in a 19th-century townhouse, the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum conveys their opulent lifestyle. Heavy, carved furnishings bear inlays of mother-of-pearl; silvered bas-reliefs of winged dragons gleam on the walls. I stay at the nearby Puri Hotel, which is built around a courtyard that holds a pink-blossomed plumeria tree and panoply of palms — tall, squat, arching, rounded. Here I set up my laptop and pick up e-mails using Wi-Fi.
Later I hop into a trishaw adorned with red and gold flowers to visit the Maritime Museum, ensconced in a replica of a Portuguese treasure ship that sank in 1511. Exhibits trace the rise and fall of Melaka as a port that could accommodate 2,000 vessels.
On the trishaw ride I consider how times have changed: the great harbor has been filled in to accommodate new malls and townhomes.
Terengganu and Kota Bharu
“The Malays were great seafarers — the forebears of the adventurers who sailed to Polynesia, Hawaii and Easter Island,” remarks Christoph Swoboda.
A slim, intense German, Swoboda dreams of keeping Malaysia’s sailing heritage alive. He works with local craftsmen to build a bedar — a schooner. Like Malaysia itself, its design holds a blend of cultures: elements of the dhow from India, junks from China, plus bows and transoms from Portuguese and Dutch vessels.
His shipyard is located in Pulau Duyong, a traditional boat-building area in the northeastern state of Terengganu. Instead of following plans, boats are constructed freehand with “the eye of experience.” Ironwood dowels — not iron nails — hold the planks together. Only two traditional boat builders still work in Pulau Duyong, both aged over 60. Swoboda crafts his bedar from chengal — a tree which grows only between 6 degrees and 8 degrees latitude. Trees can be 500 years old and measure 15 feet in diameter. However swaths of jungle are cleared to make room for palm-oil plantations, Swoboda informs me. “Everything is endangered in Malaysia — the trees, the boats, the boat builders.”
The East Coast Peninsula states of Terengganu and Kelantan remain the heart of traditional Malay culture. Terengganu claims Malaysia’s highest waterfall, largest manmade lake, largest museum and longest exotic beach. It’s the place to buy fine batiks and songket, a cloth threaded with gold.
Shadow puppets, top spinning, kite flying, merbok (bird-singing competitions) and other traditions still flourish in Kelantan. Kota Bharu, the main city, is known for jewelry made from 22-karat gold. While I browse for trinkets, the shopkeeper offers me a glass of cool rice milk. I finally choose a curvy-linked bracelet accented by tiny starbursts of white gold.
Kelantan is one of the country’s most devoutly Muslim states — policies include single-sex queues in supermarkets. Because it borders Thailand, it also reflects strong Buddhist influences in several notable temples. Located a short drive from Kota Bharu, Wat Machimmaram has a 100-foot-high Sitting Buddha, and Wat Phothivian houses a 135-foot Reclining Buddha. Both overwhelming figures convey the smallness of man compared to the enormity of the divine.
Back in Kota Bharu, I walk past the Masjid Muhammadi mosque — nonbelievers are not permitted to enter inside. I start talking with a tall man with a striking mane of grey hair. “Where are you from?” “America.” Immediately he launches into a Las Vegas-perfect Elvis imitation: “One for the money, two for the show.” He also throws in a jab at U.S. foreign policy. “Your President Bush should have listened to Elvis,” he comments. “Wise men say only fools rush in.”
A castaway spirit takes hold in the Redang Archipelago located 30 miles off Terengganu. Malaysia’s first marine park, it holds a constellation of isles that look ready for Robinson Crusoe — rocky outcrops surrounded by pearl-white beaches and topped by a single, askew palm tree.
I stay at the Berjaya Redang Beach Resort, set beside a strand that arcs around a deep, U-shaped bay. Powder soft and sugar white, the sand never gets hot in the equatorial sun. Clear and vividly turquoise, the sea lulls and lullabies the body with its 85-degree temperature.
Some of oldest coral reefs in the world surround these islands. On a scuba dive with the resort’s five-star PADI operation, I see stingrays, neon-blue basket sponges and a field of fairytale corals that look like lavender shiitake mushrooms. The resort also offers jungle expeditions on which guests may encounter monkeys, iridescent-blue butterflies and humongous lizards. Some Malaysians fill me in about how to appease the jungle spirits. Pray before going in (no matter what your religion). Never look up into the trees (that’s where the spirits dwell). And never speak your companions’ real names — instead assign each a number (so the spirits won’t follow them home).
To welcome guests, Malaysians extend their hands, bow their heads and then touch their palms to their hearts—a symbol of respect and acceptance. This hand-to-heart gesture embodies the warmth that I experienced throughout this multifaceted mosaic of a country.
FOR MORE INFORMATION: Contact the Malaysia Tourism Promotion Board for details: Tel: 212-754-1113 or 213-689-9702; Website:www.tourismmalaysiausa.com.
For information about adventure and special-interest tour operators; see “Find Your Adventure” above-left and use the Destination “Malaysia.”
Visit Malaysia 2007
• Marking the 50th anniversary of the country’s independence, 2007 has been named Visit Malaysia Year. The country has planned a full calendar of special events from cycling races (February) to Formula One auto races (March) to sailing regattas (September).
• Highlighting the roster will be the Colours of Malaysia. festival, which will be held at Independence Square in Kuala Lumpur on May 26, 2007. Thousands of singers and dancers will showcase the culture and traditions of Malaysia’s 13 states and varied ethnic groups. You’ll see Malays performing classic Indian dance, Chinese participating in the Malay rodat and Indians joining the Chinese dragon dance — all reflecting the country’s diversity.