I was excited about visiting Malaysia for many reasons. It’s a nation built on trade and diversity, where the cultures, spices and languages of many peoples mix. It’s a former British colony with a legacy of lovely architecture, calm hill stations and a kind of order amidst the chaos. Yet it’s also a nation with a strong Malay identity, a friendly, generous heart and a conservative mind, and a proud adherence to Islam. Put all this together in a tropical hot, jungle-covered peninsula – and a good chunk of Borneo too – and you get a bowl of curry spiced and sweetened with a rich diversity of cultural flavours.
My first taste of this all was Penang, the lovely island state off the west coast of Malaysia. A historic trading port whose past and importance once rivalled Singapore; a mercantile, multicultural island where varied Chinese, Malay and Indian groups – along with their food, architecture and religion – flourish side by side. And then there’s Georgetown, the island’s capital, and a World Heritage enclave loaded with beautiful Chinese shophouses, temples and colonial relics.
I stayed in Penang with my aunt, uncle and my three cousins – all under 6, and just gorgeous. They live on the 20th floor of a massive apartment overlooking the water. It was a little hazy, and the beaches weren’t quite Australia worthy (like anywhere is) but the views were spectacular. In the afternoon the cool winds picked up over the bay, and in the hill behind, the lanterns of a Buddhist temple glowed red in the evenings. And the food, for which Penang is famous, was brilliant.
From Penang I crossed over to the mainland and into the neighbouring state of Perak, starting in the old Chinese tin-mining boom town of Taiping, now a quiet place with wide streets and a beautiful garden. From there I went up to the Cameron Highlands, the cool, wet hill station with tea plantations cut straight out of the jungle. Then I spent two days in Ipoh, a bigger, but still sleepy old city set amid brilliant limestone karsts full of cave temples, and the neighbouring royal capital of Kuala Kangsar, with its golden-domed mosque and the sultan’s palaces.
I never had a bad day in Malaysia. However, it did rain every afternoon, and the service in shops and restaurants in Malaysia is famously, and truly, dreadful. Shopkeepers barely move, watching you with a cold, languid eye, like a monitor lizard on a hot rock. Waiters take your order without even listening, and give you the wrong meal, barely shrugging as they take it back. This was frustrating. But aside from that, Malaysian people, be they Chinese-Malay, Indian-Malay, or just… Malay, are a friendly and welcoming people. Although I’ve been the fortunate recipient – and sometimes, the unfortunate victim – of Asian hospitality in every country I’ve been to, the relaxed friendliness of Malaysian people really stood out.
Malaysia doesn’t rate highly on South-East Asian travel lists, but it really has something for everyone. Culture, history, architecture, food or natural beauty – and a whole lot of animals – Malaysia is triple-blessed in every aspect. And I spent less than two weeks there, visiting only two of its smallest states. It may have been a filling, spicy and diverse curry, and I was certainly satisfied, but really, it was only just a taste.