Thu 31 Mar 2011 - Fri 6 May 2011
Travelling South from Thailand, the landscape began to change. The gold roofs of Buddhist temples were traded for minarets, as the majority of Malaysians are Muslim. We were looking forward to learning about another religion, especially since the stereotype of a Muslim is an Arab with a long beard. What would Malaysian people be like?
In our first stop of Georgetown, we learned that most Malaysians fall under one of three different categories: the Muslim Malay majority, the descendants of Buddhist Chinese immigrants, and the descendants of Hindu Indian immigrants. It was fascinating to watch these distinct groups live with each other, often in direct contrast. For example, pork is a staple of Chinese cooking, but avoided by the Muslim majority. Therefore, each restaurant which was halal and did not serve pork was clearly labeled by the front door. Food stalls, hotels and other shared-space buildings would request that pork products not be consumed or brought on the premises. Another distinction we noticed was in the norms of dress. Chinese Malaysians were comfortable in tank tops and shorts, while the Malay Muslims always covered their arms and legs, and women also covered their hair. I couldn't help but wonder if these groups ever felt that the other was off the mark, misled or just plain wrong.
In this Islamic country there were strict rules and times for non-Muslim visitors wanting to see inside mosques, but once the rules were met you were made to feel truly welcome. Often mosques had a rack of "graduation gowns" that visitors could borrow to cover their legs and arms. Either a hood or scarf was provided for women to cover their heads. In several mosques we were greeted by friendly volunteers or caretakers who offered to show us around and tell us a bit about Islam and Malaysia. In Putrajaya, a kind lady spoke with us for over an hour, giving us her perspective on women in Islam, polygamy, Islamic law and requirements of Muslims. We really appreciated her honesty and enthusiasm! She gave us several books for further reading. When we ventured into the off limits area, a friendly man approached, asked our country of origin, asked if we were Muslim, then gently told us we should stay in the open areas.
Crossing the border into Malaysia, and again when heading into Singapore, we saw women wearing veils in the immigration line. Intrigued, I watched to see what the protocol would be. Both times, after the woman approached the counter, the immigration officer looked at the passport, made a gesture, the woman lowered her veil for about 5 seconds, then with the nod from the official placed it back on the bridge of her nose. It seemed like this was a happy compromise for the identity check, one that other countries are currently debating, though I didn't get the chance to ask the woman how she felt about showing a stranger her face.
It was interesting for me to watch these women in veils, often with young, modern-looking husbands. I was curious as a young couple entered the theme park in the Times Square Mall, she in full niqab, he wearing trendy jeans and a polo shirt. In Putrajaya, a group of men chatted around a lunch table while their wives sat in silence, staring at a wall, putting each mouthful of food under their veil. I need to speak to these ladies before making a judgment, but it piqued my curiosity since it is far from what I am used to. Veiled women were the minority in Malaysia, as most women wear a headscarf of various styles over modest clothes.
In Malaysia I started to gain another perspective about Chinatowns. A staple in North America and South East Asia, Chinatown is a burst of colour that has attracted me as a tourist - or someone looking for some quality Chinese food! I have always enjoyed seeing the joss sticks burning in front of Chinese-style temples, Chinese signs, red lanterns hanging, lucky cats, and the large gate announcing the entry into a new community. After spending some time in China, seeing a Chinatown brings me back to the best memories of that visit. But in Malaysia, I started to wonder if the host country is ever annoyed or insulted that the Chinese immigrants and descendants don't adopt more of the new culture, and perhaps feels threatened by the strength of the Chinese community. In Malaysia, it was common to see Chinatowns, Little Indias, and in Melaka, strong Baba-Nonya cultural ties.
Malaysia's tourism slogan, "Malaysia - Truly Asia" started to make sense to us as we explored the different areas of each city. The cities themselves represented a mix of attractions as well - the Colonial cities of Georgetown and Melaka, the mega-city of Kuala Lumpur, the national parks such as Taman Negara on the peninsula and Gunung Mulu and Kinabalu NP on Borneo, the "fruit basket" of the Cameron Highlands, the wild rainforest on Borneo and the beaches on the coasts.
At the Asian History Museum in Singapore, an interactive media display compared Malaysia to a rojak. A rojak is a fruit salad made of small pieces of fruit covered in a black sauce. Each culture is like a piece of fruit, and retains its original flavour. The black sauce is Malaysia, unifying it all and complimenting each flavour.
Speaking of rojak, the food in Malaysia is first class! You can find it all, from Chinese, Indian, Baba-Nonya, and Malay dishes to other Asian and international cuisine. There were so many combinations of noodles, rice, spices and sauces that we were spoiled for choice and rarely ate the same thing twice. Food courts, bursting at the seams, were a godsend and often the focus of our days. Cendol and ABC were unique creations that may seem like a strange combination of ingredients but work together surprisingly well. Just like Malaysia.
Now a practical note for readers planning on visiting Malaysia - and so you should! While we went through the peninsula booking our accommodation the day before we arrived, things changed on Borneo. I recommend booking your flights to and accommodation in Gunung Mulu NP, Mount Kinabalu climb (don't bother with an extra night in Kinabalu NP - overpriced and not worth it), and Turtle Island on the East Coast far in advance. We didn't go to Turtle Island because it was fully booked for months. Be forewarned, if you add those three activities to your itinerary, your costs per day will skyrocket! For budget travellers, stay on the peninsula and you'll be just fine.