Like many countries which realise the importance of tourism dollar-spend, Malaysia has maintained its historical architectural installations and uses them to lure tourists.
Like many countries which realise the importance of tourism dollar-spend, Malaysia has maintained its historical architectural installations and uses them to lure tourists.
View of Kuala Lumpur from Petronas Towers. Pictures Isabella Morris
View of Kuala Lumpur from Petronas Towers. Pictures Isabella Morris

It’s a sweaty night in Kuala Lumpur, the sun is down but the liquid heat has in no way dissipated. To escape the humidity, Malaysian locals head to the air-conditioned malls or hotels in the KL triangle, eager to find what they refer to as “a little bit of winter”. In the Park Royal Hotel, local singer Aida performs for residents and businesspeople, her repertoire a combination of Adele, Sinatra and Malaysian or Indonesian stars. Her songs are a mix of yesterday, today and tomorrow and are a seamless reflection of her homeland.

Tourist brochures and videos proclaim a country that offers a bit of everything. However, the surprise for the tourist is that it lives up to its promise – Malaysia is a unique destination for the traveller who, in a globalised world, wishes to encounter the evolution of a country in contemporary comfort.

Malaysia’s colonial history is similar to SA history with its historical ties to Portuguese, Dutch and British colonisers, so it was with a feeling of familiarity that I was able to relate to its colonial history. However, unlike SA, Malaysia’s earliest foreign settlers were the Indian and Chinese.

Like many countries which realise the importance of tourism dollar-spend, Malaysia has maintained its historical architectural installations and uses them to lure tourists – Dutch forts, English cathedrals, Chinatowns and Indian temples. The SinoIndian and Malay history links arms with European colonialism, and together elements and traditions from these groups have evolved into a country that respects and showcases its multiple ethnicity.

The City of Kuala Lumpur, which means Muddy Confluence, is situated in the Klang valley at the convergence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. The city was originally settled by Chinese migrants employed by Malay Chief Raja Abdullah in the 1850s to work at the large tin mines at Ampang, Pudu and Batu, and the frontier town was born.

Wooden and atap (thatch) houses were built to accommodate the city’s fast-growing population. Extensive trips through the city reveal no remnants of the rustic buildings that would have been built during that time to house the migrant workers and the settlers who moved there to service the sprawling town.

In 1881 a fire swept through the town, burning the traditional-style homes, and a short time later floods washed through the valley. The British Resident of Selangor, Frank Swettenham, ordered that future buildings be built of brick and tile and Kapitan Yap set up the Brickfields to rebuild the city. These new homes emulated the shophouses of southern China and are still found in parts of the city that haven’t had to make way for the mega-storey commercial and high-rise residential buildings.

The tin industry has been in decline since the 1980s and the Malaysian government has set a limit on exports of the non-renewable source. Tin is, however, still used in the vibrant production of the Royal Selangor pewter products which are a mixture of aluminium, tin and pewter. The factory prides itself on employing many handicapped workers and the work that is produced is world-class.

Among the range of products are the beaten pewter tumblers. The woman who beats the tumblers offers visitors the chance to try it. The object is placed on a rubber rotating prong and she demonstrates how to beat the marks onto the surface. It is no easy task, as it takes considerable force to make the slightest of dents in the pewter and it is punishing on the shoulders and wrist. The product range offers exquisitely engraved custom-made pieces to decor pieces, and the cheapest place to buy them is at the factory in Selangor as shops add a significant mark-up.

The old city of Malacca, which has been proclaimed a Unesco heritage site, is a popular destination for tourists.

Malaysia’s history has been shaped by its strategic sea-lane position in south-east Asia. The first colonial claim on the country was made in 1511 by Afonso de Albuquerque, of Portugal, who took control of Malacca to use it as a base for Portugal’s south-east Asian activities.

Portugal established the A Formosa fortress in Malacca in the 16th century after the advent of the tin mines in the north. Today the fortress is little more than a crumbling façade, but it offers a commanding view of the old city. It is advisable to visit early in the morning before the muggy heat becomes overwhelming; taking an umbrella is a good idea, especially for tourists who intend to undertake the Malacca walkabout.

WahAik Shoemaker store sells modern leather beaded sandals and traditional-styled bound-feet shoes using the original pattern used by storekeeper Raymond Yeo’s grandfather. “My grandfather made the bound-feet shoes until 1911 when bound feet were outlawed,” he says.

“I continue to make the shoes because tourists have a desire to own them.” The shoes are tiny, easy to cup in the palm of your hand, and made of satin. A yellowing photo-essay on the store wall illustrates the ghoulish disfiguration of the feet of the unfortunate women who wore these diminutive shoes.

For Yeo, it’s been an economic case of adapt or die. “My father, Yeo Sing Guat, started making the beaded slippers and I continue this tradition of being a specialist shoe-maker – however, there is a demand for both types of shoe.” The beaded slippers are a traditional art of the Baba Nonya, a mixed Malay-Chinese Malaysian ethnic group, similar to the Peranakans of Singapore. The beadwork is delicate and the patterns vary from flowers to fruit.

Baba Nonya cuisine is also featured on the tourist trail in Malaysia, but visitors should be selective about the restaurants they visit. A traditional Baba Nonya restaurant in Malacca was buzzing with busloads of tourists, but the food was more like bad Chinese fast-food and the service was appalling.

Madam Kwan’s in Kuala Lumpur is the five-star establishment of Baba Nonya dining but doesn’t have a five-star price to match. I ordered the beef redang, which is a succulent shredded beef curry served with a bowl of rice. The dish is pure beef chilli, with no distracting potatoes or vegetables, and the meal was so delicious that it set up a quest for the best redang. I found no restaurant to beat Madam Kwan’s service, decor or quality of food. Street food is widely available and dining in Malaysia is affordable for everyone.

It is important to remember that tour guides are most likely to take tourists to restaurants with the best possible restroom facilities, so it doesn’t necessarily mean that the best food is available. Restroom facilities in Malaysia are not always up to Western standards, so the guides try to be accommodating when choosing places to visit or restaurants to dine at.

In upmarket KLCC shopping centre in Kuala Lumpur, the ground-floor restroom is considered to be the zenith of restroom experiences and visitors are charged MR2 to use it. The upper-level restrooms are free, but the standard of restroom is not up to the VIP ground-floor experience. The ground floor is where you’ll find Versace, Guess, Louis Vuitton, Cartier and other top world brand stores, so it’s not surprising that if a customer is paying thousands for a handbag, they’re going to want spiffy loos.

The old Malaysian proverb says “where there is sugar, there are ants”, and Malaysia has always had sugar in the form of tin, gold, pepper, coffee and rubber to lure foreign colonisers. But in the new millennium the sugar is shopping. Malaysia applies import tax only to cigarettes and alcohol, so all major international brands have a presence there and foreigners come to spend, spend, spend. And encouraged to spend they are.Ancient Tamils referred to Malaysia as the Golden Peninsula and the Department of Tourism aim to enforce this notion by holding the annual 1 Malaysia Mega-sale Carnival which is an 11-week shopping marathon that started on June 15 and runs until September 12.

There are more than 300 malls in the country and the tourist spend in 2011 was $4.3billion, with shopping turnover representing $22bn. The shopping malls erected in the 80s averaged 50-100 000m2 but in the 2000s they average more than 1 000 000m2.

Kuala Lumpur has the pinnacle in shoppers’ paradises – the mega-mall – and plenty of them. Shopping is the national pastime, with locals heading to the malls to escape the unrelenting heat and humidity, relentlessly trawling the marble hectares. Shopping is a social event – families and friends plan shopping trips together and make an occasion of it – and an estimated 20 percent of locals spend their weekends at the mall. In all likelihood, many are just window-shopping and socialising, but I did get the impression that a lot of shopping is done on credit when an in-store promoter cornered a fellow traveller and said, “You probably already have a lot of other credit cards, but would you be interested in another one?”

Besides buying brand-name couture and fashion, state-of-the-art electronic appliances by every top major brand are on sale in both specialist mini-malls and mega-malls.

When visitors have shopped and are ready to drop there are plenty of leisure resorts to pamper them. Pangkor Island is the ideal retreat for honeymoon couples or travellers looking for nothing more than a long white beach and a turquoise ocean. It can be reached by taking the ferry from Lumut. Sunset feeding of the hornbills is an interesting experience on the island, and after dark many torch-toting tourists walk along the deserted beachfront.

High up the pamper ladder is luxury spa The Banjaran Hotsprings Resort in Ipoh. Situated in the jungle and overlooked by towering limestone cliffs, the five-star villas are a sanctuary from the outside world. The thermal springs are a natural and relatively rare phenomenon. It is the perfect place to relax and indulge in spa treatments, peaceful surroundings and fine healthy dining, and boasts one of the most unusual wine bars in the world – Jeff’s Cellar, which is situated in a limestone cave and offers a wide range of organic and rare wines.

For the tourist-package traveller the Lost World at Tambun, Ipoh, is a pleasant mid-range alternative, especially for travellers accompanied by children.

Malaysia is always looking ahead, from the architectural masterpieces of the highest twin towers in the world – the Petronas Towers – to the 21st century planned garden city of Putrajaya that houses the new federal government administrative centre, the prime minister’s office and the majestic royal palace.

Putrajaya is an architectural smorgasbord, with hardly a detail that hasn’t been carefully considered and executed. The entire heating and cooling system of the city has been built underground so as to minimise heat creation, with the result that the energy-efficient city is 3°C cooler than Kuala Lumpur. The streets are spotless, with freshly painted white baskets on the islands filled with bougainvillea blooms, but there are few pedestrians as the residential areas haven’t yet grown in the new city and most of the residents are civil servants, presumably at work when we visited.

Much as Malaysia pins her star to the milky way of the future, many Malaysians have a good balance between striving towards a better future and maintaining ties to their traditions. A young woman who works at Tourism Malaysia also does traditional dance performances in her spare time, while a young fire dancer is an accountant. Most of the Malaysians I encountered were very patriotic and fly flags bearing the blue scales of the ruling party on their balconies to show their support.

Perhaps what South African hospitality service providers could learn from their Malaysian counterparts is that they perform their duties not because it’s a job, but because it showcases the country they are so proud to be a part of. Visit Malaysia, it’s a great place to rev up or kick down, a place where yesterday, today and tomorrow co-exist harmoniously. - Sunday Independent

l Isabella Morris travelled to Malaysia as a guest of Tourism Malaysia, Johannesburg. Tel: 011 268 0292, Fax: 011 268 0296; website:

Flights were sponsored by Singapore Airlines.

l Banjaran Hotsprings Retreat, Tel: +603 7495 1793 l For specialised packages to Malaysia contact: Sphinx Travel & Tours, Tel: 011 475 9726, and also tel: 086 111 2957. Email: [email protected]