Malaysia -The often overlooked piece of South East Asia

by Ernie Yap, Nov 26, 2007 | Destinations: Malaysia



The often overlooked piece of South East Asia


Malaysia; when examined on the world map juts out from the Indochina mainland like an appendix, not unlike Italy from the Europe continent. The South China Sea on the east separates the peninsula from its eastern parts, which are Sabah and Sarawak; two states that lie on the Borneo land mass. Lying on the west of the peninsula is the Straits of Malacca, a busy shipping canal known to every naval merchant worth his salt since the 15th century.


Since the Bronze Age, the lush tropical lands have been populated by tribes of natives who somehow managed to fall in with the malevolent rainforests and they do so till this very day. Civilizations; with Hindu and Buddhist influence thrived and fell in the river deltas as the wheel of fortune made its rounds. This land made its international debut when ‘founded' by a runaway prince from a neighboring kingdom and was thus declared a sovereign territory with its seat of power in Malacca, a territory facing the sea strait that bears its namesake.


Malacca thrived as a trading empire/sultanate. Its rulers deftly maintained peace by appeasing Siam and China (Han dynasty) in turn, the two big brothers at the time. With merchants from Europe, India, Arab, China, the Maluku islands, it was truly a metropolitan city. If one would walk the streets of Malacca at that time, one would hear languages from all over the world, see strange sights, trade in different currencies, and meet people with wonderfully diverse costumes.


The relatively insulated politics at that region was startled violently by the presence of Western powers. The Portuguese arrived first, very much impressed by the diversity and wealth of the port-city and promptly invaded it with their galleons for themselves.  About 130 years later, Portuguese power fell to the Dutch who later traded the port city, which by this time has shrunk to 1/10 of its original territory to the British in exchange for what is today Indonesia.


And thus it was the British; which colonized that area for about 300 years that made the most indelible imprint on Malaysia today. It brought in indentured laborers from India to work in the rubber estates, which were cultivated all over the peninsula. The British also encouraged migrant workers from southern China to work the tin mines, an important resource that greased the Industrial Revolution in Europe. This changed the demographics of Malaya forever. By wielding its influence from behind the thrones of rival sultans; nine Malay states and three Straits Settlements (under direct Colonial office rule) were crafted on the Peninsular. Sabah and Sarawak over in Borneo had interesting independent development. Sabah was owned by a British trading company and Sarawak was actually a kingdom ruled by an Englishman!


Like many parts of the world, the Second World War became a catalyst in dismantling western colonialism. Malaysia was granted independence in 1957 and became a nation, gingerly groping to find its identity on the world stage. (The name Malaysia was chosen over ‘Malaya' in 1963)


Malaysian culture today is a fusion of Malay, Chinese and Indian. It is not unusual to find local eateries serving these cuisines in their respective décor and restaurants with fusion dishes. Since the government retained colonial practices in not adopting the ‘melting pot' principle, these cultures remained essentially intact, with some colorful overlap. A mosque, Chinese temple, a Hindu temple and a church could be found existing in juxtaposition, within walking distance. The official language is Malay and almost everyone speaks English.


To feel the Malaysian pulse, one should stay in Malaysia for at least a year. The reason is this: the three biggest festivals of the year are celebrated with much pomp and grandeur; Ramadan, Chinese New Year and Deepavali. Interestingly, since the three festivals operate by different lunar calendars, there are years when they overlap; which means double the festivities! These festivals are close to the heart of the people and they are public holidays throughout the country. Schools close for long periods of time. (These make up for summer break; since it is summer all year round in Malaysia)


The weather is warm (30-360C) and humid (95-99% saturation) interspersed with monsoon rains. This means evergreen forests and white sanded beaches! Indeed, the offshore islands off the coast of east and west Malaysia have been touted as one of the best in the world.


Since the mid 70s, the country rode on a giant wave of rapid industrialization. Today, the capital city of Kuala Lumpur boasts of a giant shopping district with world-renown brands (and prices). True to the spirit of contrasts, within walking distance is a long composition of open night market stalls to cater to the backpacking traveler. Amidst its proximity to water and low laying valleys, a magnificent mountainous range courses through the spine of the land; providing picturesque waterfalls for recreation and hydroelectric energy. Yes, Malaysia is one the few places in the world that one can climb one of the tallest peaks in South East Asia one day and sip red wine to a live band the next.


            It is truly a singular destination where English is widely spoken and Asia thoroughly displayed.  I've met so many travelers to South East Asia who expressed regret for whizzing past Malaysia from Singapore en route to Thailand. I hope you won't make that mistake.