Malaysia has been in the news lately. I’m sure you know about the tragedies of Malaysian Airlines flights MH 370 and MH 17. Unfortunately, the coverage accompanying these terrible events doesn’t come close to depicting the Malaysia that I know and love. There’s much more to this Southeast Asian nation than the images of crash sites and flight maps. A caveat here: My husband and I lived, taught, and travelled in Malaysia for several years in the early 1990s. We have also visited since then. Recently I have been asked a lot of questions about the country, so I’d like to share some of what I know about this unique place and its culture.
Malaysia is a multicultural nation in Southeast Asia which was originally made up of the Malay Kingdoms that later became the British colonies known as the Straits Settlements. As a result, it is a melting pot (or stew as I like to call it) of diverse cultures including the majority Malay population and the minority Chinese and Indian populations. Most people speak several languages (usually Bahasa Malaysia, some form of English, and their “mother tongue” if they are not Malay). Different religions are also practiced. The Malay population practices Islam. The Chinese population practices Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, and Taoism. The Indian population practices Christianity and Hinduism.
This multicultural mix means that Malaysians observe several different kinds of holidays. (It also means that everyone gets a lot of vacation days!) Many of my fondest memories of Malaysia are those when my husband and I celebrated holidays with our local friends during their “open houses”. An open house is an event where friends of all cultures can drop in to celebrate the host family’s particular holiday. For my Malay friends, of course, this is Hari Raya Puasa which marks the end of the fasting month of Ramadan. For my Chinese friends it is the Lunar New Year which is the beginning of a new year signified by an animal in the Chinese zodiac. For my Indian friends it is Deepavali which is also known as the Festival of Lights.
Because Malaysia is in Southeast Asia, food is always an important part of these events. My personal favorites? At a Hari Raya Puasa open house it is definitely ketupat (rice in a palm leaf pouch) and beef rendang. At a Lunar New Year open house I am a big fan of long life noodles and love letters. At a Deepavali open house I am very keen on vegetable samosas and gulab jamun (a dessert). While these foods are all different, all cultures tend to agree that fruits like mangoes, papayas, and pineapples are definite crowd pleasers. The food presented enhances each holiday in its own special way.
In addition to having a multicultural population, the physical environment of Malaysia is also quite diverse and beautiful. Malaysia is made up of 13 states and 3 territories. These are distributed in two different geographical regions: peninsular Malaysia and the island of Borneo.
Malaysia’s natural landscape includes beaches, coastal plains, rising hills and towering mountains. One of the most awe-inspiring natural views of Malaysia is the view from the summit of Mount Kinabalu which is the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. It is also home to carnivorous pitcher plants. I am happy to say I made it to its top without incident. Getting back down that mountain was yet another matter. The steps on the trails must have been carved by giants as I literally fell down the mountain because I could not control my fatigued muscles. Thankfully, the guide and my husband were always there to help.
Malaysia’s human environment includes both rural villages and towns and large cities. Rural villages are known as kampongs and typically consist of houses on stilts, mosques, paddy fields, schools, and shops. In these places, I found a laid-back lifestyle that was a breath of fresh air for a visitor from the city. Malaysia also has larger urban areas. The best known is the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, or K.L. as it is known locally. It has high rise apartments and large shopping complexes, in addition to cultural sites and government buildings. Here, the way of life is quite bustling.
I’m sure you recognize the iconic K.L. buildings known as the Petronas Twin Towers. They were the world’s tallest buildings until 2004 and were featured in the movie Entrapment. Unlike Mount Kinabalu, I never made it to their top when I last visited the city because the line, or queue, to get tickets had closed by the time I got there. I’m sure the view of K.L. would have been spectacular.
So… I hope I have encouraged you to take some time to explore what Malaysia has to offer, and to possibly travel there someday. The official tourism website sums up the Malaysian experience perfectly: “Learn about a country in the midst of change. Leave with your eyes open and your heart amazed.” I know I did.