Best of both worlds in Malaysia
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Kuala Lumpur - It was upon walking into a bookshop in the refreshingly air- conditioned iOi City Mall in Putrajaya that I first realised just how diverse and vibrant Malaysian culture is.
Having only just arrived that morning, I was struck by the oppressive heat and humidity.
However, within a few hours it felt no worse than the peak of summer in KwaZulu-Natal, though that’s not to say the mall’s climate control wasn’t welcome after a 10-hour flight and bus commute.
It was inside a Malaysian version of Exclusive Books that I saw a magazine rack near the entrance.
On one side, fashion publications featuring waifish Asian models, Chinese characters filling up the headline space.
Next to them was a bevy of magazines using an assortment of hijab-clad women as their cover-models. And next to these were animated digests targeted at Muslim teens, and beyond those were Malaysian women in Batik-fabric gowns covered in hibiscus. Naturally, Cosmo, Elle and Women’s Weekly were right next door.
While this was only a brief glimpse of the amalgamation of culture I was going to experience on my trek through Malaysia, it helped set up in my mind how much the country values its diversity.
This beautiful melding of cultures is featured nowhere better than in the local cuisine, architecture and fashion. When I arrived, the country was in the throws of celebrating Deepavali, just one of the multiple religious and ethnic festivals held each year. The festival of lights open-house celebration in Kedah was a flamboyant spectacle of dance, song and food. The Bollywood-style musical numbers were punctuated with comedy skits – performed in Bahasa and Hindi, so most of the humour was lost on me – and speeches that celebrated the local Indian community.
Hundreds if not thousands of spectators arrived clad in traditional gear, with food parcels and other gifts handed out throughout the night to all those in attendance.
An array of Indian cuisine was also on offer: aloo gobi, masala, tikka, samoosas and satay. While most South Africans are probably familiar with north and south Indian cuisine, Malaysia’s usual gastronomy is a spicy mix of Thai, Indian, Indonesian and Chinese, always available in any part of the country.
From the celebratory beef rendang – caramelised meat creamed with coconut milk – to a super spicy curried seafood laksa, you’ll rarely be searching for stronger flavours.
The national dish, the mildly spicy nasi lemak, you’ll find just about anywhere, from street vendors to petrol stations to upmarket restaurants. It’s a combination of fried, almost desiccated anchovies, peanuts, egg and rice, smothered in a chilli sauce. Even those who aren’t a fan of anchovies – such as myself – may be converted by this delicious dish. I can certainly say I was.
Another flavour often used, especially with seafood, of which there is an abundance, is sambal, a blend of chillies, shrimp paste (belacan), and lime that’s cooked with just about every type of fish.
A dessert-style soup also seemed to follow me throughout the trip, the colourful and tasty bubur cha cha. Tapioca “dough”, sweet potato and banana is boiled in sugared coconut milk, creating a creamy flavour without the use of dairy.
I noted that food prices in general were more than reasonable, actually significantly lower than what most would pay at mid-level restaurants in Joburg. I can also honestly say that even when I was buying street vendor food on the streets of Penang, I was never disappointed in its taste.
But it’s not just the food that takes little bits and pieces from cultures across the region. The country’s majority Muslim population means elaborate and beautiful mosques are located countrywide, but the cities of Penang and Kuala Lumpur have become filled with modernist buildings, though with traditional Malaysian and Islamic influences.
A visit to Kuala Lumpur would be incomplete without seeing the 452-metre Petronas Twin Towers, the largest double structures in the world. The glass-shell surrounding the building has a spectacular geometry that is best seen at night, and the streets surrounding it are still bustling with activity late into the evening. There’s a reason it’s one of the top tourist spots in the city, and it’s surrounded by restaurants, bars and hangouts that allow you to enjoy the spectacle.
The nightlife of both Penang and Kuala Lumpur is what you’d expect from cities comparable to those across the first world. And for those wondering, while the country has a majority Islamic population, you won’t struggle to find alcohol. While journeying through the coastal city of Penang, myself and two fellow travellers decided to check out Georgetown, a district with one street known for its bars, hotels and clubs. Being a Thursday night, the venues weren’t particularly packed, but one spot, Slippery Senoritas, proved supremely entertaining as a cover band travelling from Thailand mangled a few English tunes. Fleetwood Mac might never sound the same to me again.
While it’s easy to get lost in the nightlife and food, the cities are also full of cultural hubs and attractions that rival those of the rest of Asia.
Easily accessible from Kuala Lumpur were the Batu caves, a series of caves and tunnels that have been transformed into a shrine and – of course – tourist attraction. To reach the inside, travellers have to ascend 272 steps, passing by a massive golden construct of Hindu deity Lord Murugan, the tallest statue in Malaysia at 43 metres.
The only thing distracting from the sheer scale of the statue were the hordes of monkeys who monitor the stairs leading up to the caves. Clearly used to human attention, they barely register the clicking of tourists’ cameras capturing them and the statue. But that doesn’t mean they’re totally tame, as I saw one little girl bawling after one of the animals stole her packet of snacks and ran off to gobble it down.
By the time one reaches the top of the stairs, the inside of the massive main chamber is positively breathtaking – though I wasn’t sure if this was caused by my level of fitness or the sheer natural (and man-made) beauty inside.
Small shrines have been carved into the rocks themselves, with a colourful main shrine in the deepest part of the cave. Beams of light from openings above give the area natural light, and the ivy and moss lining the walls of the cave create a beautiful melange of plant and rock.
Despite the large number of tourists, it remains a deeply spiritual space, with the smell of incense and chanting of temple worshippers filling the air. Another cave adjacent to the shrines is specifically aimed at spelunkers who wish to explore, with tour operators guiding tourists through the pitch-black section of the caves. Even though the tours are totally safe and even open to children, I was far too much of a klutz to even consider doing this, fairly sure I’d find a way to fall off of some precipice inside.
But for those craving even more natural beauty, it is virtually impossible to beat the experience that comes with visiting the Malaysian rainforests.
A few hours outside Kuala Lumpur in Perak lies Lake Temenggor, an area surrounded by a rainforest that is four times the size of Singapore.
Using a speedboat, our group travelled across the huge lake, visiting numerous spots known for their natural beauty. The humidity was an initial shock to the system, but the sheer vibrancy of the flora immediately took my mind off the heat. The first section of our trek was a search for the rafflesia, a plant that takes years to bloom, and when it does so it only remains in flower for less than a week before it dies.
The flower can be more than 100cm in length, and while both bizarre and beautiful, it has a smell akin to rotting meat. It uses the smell to attract insects that then disperse its pollen, though as mentioned, it takes years to mature and bloom, often functioning as a parasite on other even larger plants.
Sadly, our group was only able to find the closed pods, with our guide saying that venturing any further into that section of the forest could prove to be difficult because of the steepening landscape. Another hiking trail we visited later proved our guide’s point that walking through uninhabited nature can be rough. Sliding through muddy, barely-there paths and stepping through leech-infested puddles was hard, but oddly invigorating, even for someone like myself who’s not a huge fan of the outdoors.
Populating the rainforests surrounding the lake are the indigenous people of Malaysia, the Orang Asli, who still live off the land. A visit to one of the villages that has been opened to the public was an ambiguous experience.
While it was fascinating to see the thatched huts and wildlife intermingling with the people of the tiny village, being a gawking tourist felt intrusive. Each day, multiple groups of tourists arrive and interrupt the lives of the villagers, often with only gifts of sweets for the village children and a few ringgit for the village elder.
Clearly the people live in a state of extreme poverty, though we were informed that the government insists on providing health and education services for each village. I felt a bit guilty when taken to the Belum Rainforest Spa and Resort, a luxury spot in the depths of the forest with 5-star accommodation and, again, equally delicious food.
As you enter your cabin, it is completely normal for some of the wildlife to approach, as I discovered when a rather large macaque followed me upstairs, made some sort of waving movement and then scurried off.
The resort offers night walks through the adjacent forest, which houses tigers, elephants and a huge variety of birdlife. Sadly, the weather was too harsh on the night we spent there to take a midnight hike.
Of course, being in a rain forest means you need to expect the occasional torrential downpour.
Thankfully the monsoon-like storm only arrived after we got to the resort, and it was incredible to hear the heavy rain from the soft beds of our beautifully decorated rooms.
Had it started during our hike, I’m sure I would have probably been less enthusiastic about the weather.
Regardless of whether you’re searching for a relaxing beach holiday, a rainforest adventure or a shopping holiday in a beautiful cityscape, Malaysia has it all.
Because of its sheer diversity, the country can cater to people of all backgrounds and ages – serving what I believe to be an incredible introduction to Asia.
Shain Germaner, Saturday Star