A hunter with a blowpipe in the jungle of Taman Negara. During the 18th, 19th and even 20th century many Orang Asli women and children were sold as slaves, with the men often being killed. High infant mortality rates and low life expectancy persists.
Malaysia – Long Read

Melting pot of cultures, religions – and food

Photo by Jochem Wijnands

Malaysia – Long Read Melting pot of cultures, religions – and food

Hello Malaysia, a melting pot of cultures and religions. It is a place where you can go in hours from jungle blowpipes to Cyberjaya, the silicon valley of south-east Asia, and where a best buy is a genuine copy of a Rolex watch. Underlying all these contrasts is Malaysia’s true passion and real highlight: food. Enjoy Malaysia, or, as the locals say: “At-home yourself!”

Daphne Huineman
Daphne Huineman Travel Writer

In the darkness of the cave, the two eyes shine in the dim light filtering in from the narrow entrance. At almost two meters in length, the creature I have just woken has me at its mercy. Fortunately, this isn’t Jurassic Park. I am scuba diving the perfectly clear waters of Malaysia, and the giant animal eying me is the frightening but harmless Napoleon fish. It looks more interested in going back to sleep and I leave him to his lair as I swim back and join the coral reef with its abundance of colors.

When my time is up I follow the bubbles from my air tank to the surface and the beach on Tioman Island, where a barbecue of fresh crab and shrimp awaits. In the jungle behind, monkeys howl. Such is the contrast in Malaysia, where tropical beaches and jungle, different races and religions progressive architecture and the long-houses of indigenous tribes exist side-by-side.

And then there’s Kuala Lumpur. Just yesterday, still suffering from jet lag, I stepped into my hotel in the capital, overlooking the highest (452 m) paired buildings in the world: the Petronas Twin Towers. In the room my angelic butler, Raphael, had laid out fresh orange juice and chocolates. “I hope it brightens your day,” it said on his handwritten note. With colonial monuments next to ultra-modern high-rises, luxury shopping malls contrasting with traditional markets and extensive parks in between, Kuala Lumpur (KL, as most call it) is an amazing metropolis.

This is exactly what former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had in mind when he took office in 1981: a showpiece of Asian wealth looking to the future. And, although many of his methods can be questioned, the fatherly former Prime Minister took his people from the so-called Third World a long way toward the First.

A walk in downtown KL is a perfect way to see the contradictions of this country. Right next to my hotel, where lunch costs $30, you can find a delicious local meal for $2. Wooden houses on stilts seem to have escaped the country’s ambitious building plans. And passersby are wearing anything from western suits, through dresses with modest Islamic veils to trendy hipsters and colorful saris. This is a city where a Chinese temple, a Hindu shrine and a Muslim mosque sit side-by-side, as in few other countries. Malaysia is roughly 67 percent Malay (Muslim), 25 percent Chinese (all religions) and 7 percent Indian, with numerous tribal peoples. A tour of religions is one way to gain a little insight into this diverse nation.

I start in the red and gold See Yeoh temple on the outskirts of Chinatown. There I find a confusing mix of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism, which many Chinese profess. No wonder the Chinese have a reputation for gambling when they seem to like betting on so many horses at once. Well, who knows what beautiful things Allah, God or feng shui might have in store for you? Unfortunately the Chinese are not allowed in the mosque to pray, unless they convert to Islam.

Grinning broadly, he tells my fortune

The image of Kuan Yin, the goddess of mercy and – most importantly – fortune, is of a fat man. A priest shakes a bunch of sticks in a bamboo case until one pops out and falls to the ground. He looks at the number on the stick and reads the corresponding message for me, grinning broadly as he tells my fortune: “Good message, good for my business.”

A woman lays out an offering of oranges while a priest nearby tries out the ringtones of his new mobile phone. Clouds of incense fill the air to placate the ancestors, a request to the next world for help in this. In the Hindu temple opposite, things are less hectic. Two women are walking around their favorite idol and throwing flowers, while men in towels visit the bathhouse, eyed by Lord Shiva who has a permanent presence in a sculpture on the wall. The atmosphere in the mosque is different again. I need to borrow a veil and am sent away when it is time for prayer. Men and women are separated. Yet the attitude is uniformly friendly: “Come in, look around but do not get under our feet.”

I get that same feeling on the street. Nobody is bothering me, but everyone is helpful if I ask for anything. Live and let live. One thing has changed in the ten years since I was last here. Then, a minority of women wore a headscarf. Now, the vast majority of Malaysian women are veiled. The atmosphere has clearly shifted, with the feeling of being in a Muslim country starting on arrival at the airport.

In Chinatown, though, everything is still as I remember it to be: lively and noisy, especially at night. Against a backdrop of beautiful old merchant houses, there are the sights, sounds and smells of cooking. Families, tourists and merchants eat stir-fried and steamed delicacies, from noodle soup to satay.

“Rolex, my lady? Genuine copy!” shouts one man. You can go dizzy from the copies here: DVDs of films not yet on release in Europe, Louis Vuitton and Gucci bags, T-shirts from DKNY. Strangely, there are no veils to be seen. The population is mixed but not by much: Malays buy their fake Levi’s from other Malays in another market further away.

In Little India, colored robes and jingling anklets are the norm and even the policeman on patrol is an Indian. Silk scarves and shawls are on display alongside lavish jewelry and fragrant pastries. I wander through, to Chow Kit, a neighborhood once infamous for pickpockets and low-lifes but now - thanks to the ever-active police – much changed.

Polyester fabrics, shoes and tapes can not tempt me but the rough edges of this part of town are a welcome contrast to the neat businessmen, ultra modern skyscrapers and sterile shopping malls elsewhere. Strong smelling tropical fruit are piled high, a bunch of crabs are crawling around in a plastic container.

A basket is full of worms. “Want to try? Very special,” says a trader. “No thank you.” I do try teh tarik, a strong tea with milk, which doesn’t taste good, and roti canai, a pancake with curry sauce, which is delicious. At dusk, I stumble on some prostitutes. They look Chinese or Filipina, hanging around what looks at first like a karaoke bar but turns out to be a disguised brothels. As the sun sets, a few shady types have crawled out of their holes. In the city of the future, not everyone is in step.

The country may have over-reached itself for now

“Cyberjaya, 600 meters,” says a sign on the highway from Malacca to KL. Cyber City has entered the Malay vocabulary ever since Mahathir surprised the world with his progressive vision for Malaysia. He was Asia’s longest reigning head of state, from 1981 to 2003, so had plenty of time to implement his ideas. His magnum opus is the Multimedia Super Corridor, which stretches from the Petronas Towers in KL to the new airport 50 km away. In between are two new cities: Cyberjaya, the future Silicon Valley of South-East Asia, and Putrajaya, the paperless government center.

Development of Putrajaya started in the early 1990s and the government moved there in 1999 (although KL remains the capital). A high-speed rail link opened in 2002 but there are signs during the current worldwide recession that the country may have over-reached itself for now: a planned monorail stands incomplete and unused.

Putrajaya is quite something, however: swans on the new reservoir, a huge mosque and palaces. My guide’s language is equally bombastic about this Brasilia of Asia: “Everything is built by our own designers! Look, that’s our White House!” His name is Razak. “Razak means protector”, he says, “so I am your protector!” he offers with a smile. I feel safer already. The “White House” is actually a Green House, with the color of Islam predominating in the prime minister’s palace. Although Razak stresses that the city also features other ethnic groups and religions, it is clear which one is in charge. A cruise around Putrajaya in a small gondola is the coolest way to see it, if a slightly surreal one. Razak shows me the Botanical Gardens which offer some of the bewildering natural variety of Malaysia, but I have seen better. At night, the Seri Wawasan Bridge has a lovely view of the Putra Mosque – there is no getting away from it here.

One other quirk of Putrajaya is that it has some of the cheapest five-star accommodation in the world. Grandiose hotels and a lack of population and visitors leads to some of the lowest prices for top facilities you can find. Where else can you experience the renowned Shangri-La brand of pampering for $120 per night for a room for two? Happily, the infinity pool has a great view of Putrajaya and at night you can see, you guessed it, the Putra Mosque. Well, it is easy to smile at the quaint charms of a place like this but the dreams of Dr. M., as the visionary prime minister was called, have taken a lot of money to realize. The ambition cannot be denied. Spending on such grandiose projects kept a lot of people at work during the Asian economic crisis. The result is also that Malaysia has grown from insignificance on the world stage to a country with a lot to be proud of.

After the sticky heat of KL and Putrajaya, I’m shivering by the fire. I am in the Cameron Highlands, named after the surveyor who stumbled on the area in 1855 that, in the early 20th century, became a cool highland retreat for British colonial administrators. The area still has a typical English atmosphere with its green hills, golf courses, cottages and inns with names such as Ye Ole Smokehouse. Orchids and carnivorous plants flower in a butterfly garden, while tea plantation tours and the delicious food seem little changed from the 1920s.

I get up early to pick tea. Well, nobody wants to pay for hand-picked tea, so it is actually cut with a sort of garden shears. The mist-covered rolling hills of Sungai Palas Tea Estate are a beautiful setting for what turns out to be hard work. Ahmed from Bangladesh does not have time to take in the breathtaking scenery, as he is paid per basket. Ahmed is in a hurry. The jobs of such “guest workers” here are under threat as, since the economic crisis started, the Malaysian increasingly want “their” jobs back. “When they send me home,” Ahmad says, “I want to have enough money to marry the woman of my dreams.” She is in Bangladesh waiting for him. He laughs. His fate is literally in his hands, in the tea leaves he picks in a blur of action.

Catapulted from a near-prehistoric way of life to the 21st century

While Malays have the power as the indigenous population of the country, with the Chinese and Indians seen as recent arrivals, this is a misunderstanding. The Malays are imported as well, albeit a longtime ago. The original inhabitants of the mainland are the 150,000 Orang Asli or ‘natural people’, standing out with their dark skin and frizzy hair. Some work in the mainstream economy, but others still live far from civilization in simple settlements, where logging and the advance of civilization threatens their original hunting and gathering grounds. They are being catapulted from a near-prehistoric way of life to the 21st century.

In the Taman Negara National Park, the oldest rainforest in the world, the Orang Asli are more or less left alone. An old man we call Michael takes me to see his family. He only speaks his own language and three English words, but his communication skills are impressive. With a real gift for mimicry, he points out the life of the forest and even has us laughing with him. Not so the babies and toddlers, who scream in terror when I arrive at the simple settlement of reeds and bamboo. They are only silent again when they all have a balloon in their hands. A grandmother smiles with her last two teeth: she is 69. She gets two balloons. Here, I become the object of curiosity. I am stared at, petted, ridiculed, questioned and have my toes bitten by a Winnie the Pooh Jr., a pet bear that is used to find honey.

Two boys show me how they shoot their blowpipe. They are not bamboo, like the beautiful ones you might find in an antique shop, but cheap plastic piping. They ask if I have a DVD player and have seen the latest Kung Fu Panda movie, surprising questions in a village with no electricity. The boys explain that they are here because of the school break; normally they attend a boarding school outside the forest. Their ambition is to work with computers. From blowpipes to internet: Malaysia prepares for its glorious future.

Some Malaysians are more equal than others. Under Colonial rule, the Chinese business class acquired much more wealth that the Malay peoples who worked the land. After independence in 1957, this gave them a head start in prosperity and led, in 1969, to riots in which hundreds of Chinese were killed. A positive discrimination policy was introduced to bridge to the economic gap and this “Bumiputra Policy” is still in force. Bumiputra literally means sons of the country. Malays and indigenous tribes override Chinese and Indians in gaining a place at university or buying land. They get seven percent discount when buying a house and government jobs advertised in the newspaper are often open only to bumiputra. Despite all these efforts, the Chinese are still much richer than the Malays. They work in business, with few in government departments, and stay away from politics. Hard-working, they read and write Malay, are fluent in English and, of course, at least one Chinese language.

“We are very adaptable,” says a Chinese friend. “One advantage is that we can do business with China, because we are Chinese. A lot of companies in China prefer to employ Malaysian Chinese rather than Singaporeans because of our language skills. The Chinese always work very hard – recession or no recession – and save money for a rainy day. There is no social security system to protect us, so we protect ourselves. Although they do have EPF (Employees Provident Fund) in Malaysia, that is only for employees, not those who work for themselves.”

Malaysians remain very welcoming to foreigners

During Ramadan police have arrested Muslims who were eating in a restaurant when they should have been fasting. In one case, a Muslim women who had converted to Christianity went to court to have her religion changed on her official papers so she could marry her Christian fiancé, as marriage between a Muslim woman and non-Muslim man is illegal. The Federal Court refused her request and she had to quit her job and go into hiding. The fundamentalist states of Malaysia are also increasingly harassing female tourists for skimpy attire but, although such signs that fundamentalism is gaining ground are a concern, the destination is still a must. The vast majority of Malaysians remain very welcoming to foreigners.

However, there are two side affects that any visitor will run up against. First, alcohol is very expensive. There is alcoholism among Muslims, but a Malay will rarely take a drink in public. A beer in a pub is very expensive, the same price as a full meal. Second, partly because of that, the country isn’t a party destination. With the exception of several exuberant religious festivals, Malaysia has a subdued atmosphere. Restaurants or bars with which offer real nightlife are scarce. In Kuala Lumpur, you can find a Hard Rock Café but most of the action is in the hotels of Chinatown.

For most visitors, though, any underlying signs of tension are hard to spot. In Unesco-listed cities such as George Town in Penang and Malacca (Melaka), they come to shop, eat and enjoy the mix that such a fusion of cultures bring. Laid-back Penang (Pinang) is known as the food capital of the country, mixing the same blend of British Colonial, Indian, Chinese and, of course, Malay influences that are seen in the buildings of its colorful capital, George Town. In contrast, Penang National Park is rich in bird life, such as sea eagles, and four types of nesting turtles, including the leatherback, the world’s largest.

George Town has a strong British influence and I cannot resist having a gin & tonic on the verandah of the old Eastern & Oriental Hotel, now restored to its former splendor. Sister to the more famous Raffles Hotel in Singapore, this was a stopover in the days when traveling by steamship through the Suez Canal was the only way to reach “The Colonies” of India and Australia. Once known as “The Premier Hotel East of Suez”, the E&O boasted more than 100 rooms, 40 of them with adjoining bathrooms, and a 300 meter seafront: “The longest of any hotel in the world.”

Afternoon tea is still a grand affair

The days are long gone when it welcomed guests such as Rudyard Kipling Noel Coward and Somerset Maugham, or even Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, but afternoon tea is still a grand affair. Malacca (Melaka) is another city with a unique heritage, once one of Asia’s greatest trading ports, but with a strong Dutch and Portuguese influence. Its Jonker Walk market, great for handcrafts, comes alive every Friday and Saturday when the street is closed to traffic. Bars and cafes spill onto the roadway serving up a good time and good food, including the delicious fried egg ice cream. It sounds odd but I promise it is very addictive.

After a few weeks in Malaysia, I am learning there is one more richness from the mix of culture: the language. “Manglish” (Malay-English) uses words from English, Malay, Mandarin, Cantonese and Tamil with a dash of American slang. With similar roots to Singapore’s “Singlish”, the two have diverged over time but the strong Chinese roots mean it is used mainly by the Chinese population. Short and punchy, it gets straight to the point. “Please, at-home yourself” means “Please make yourself at home”.

Ask “Can you do this for me?” and the answer might be “Can”. If they are very sure, it’s “Can, can”. The suffix “lah” is also borrowed from Chinese to soften commands: “Don’t do that-lah!” Tune into it and you realize that incomprehensible babble you hear in the restaurant is actually English. “What you want?” “Whatever-lah.” “Got what?” “Chicken chop.” “Best! Two chicken chop-lah!”

And it is sitting in a restaurant in Malacca that I finally understand what all the different cultures that make up this amazing country really have in common. For Malay and Chinese, Muslims and Hindus, eating is a national pastime and it is the love of food that binds them together. From the street stalls of Kuala Lumpur, to the Nyonya cuisine of Malacca, the family that eats together, stays together.

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