I was always curious about Malaysia. Sure, Thailand is a popular destination for travellers who want to explore the tropics; it receives the lion’s share of tourism in the region. While it’s on my list of places to visit, Malaysia was a priority for personal reasons.
As a solo female traveller who sometimes felt uncomfortable being alone in a new place, it was reassuring that most Malaysians spoke English. Getting around was easier than I anticipated. I was also lucky in that an old friend from my life in Kuwait helped me get a local cellphone line for very low fees and directed me to the best restaurants that I wouldn’t have found otherwise. He also invited me to attend a Malaysian wedding, which was a memorable experience; immersing with locals is always a rare gem of a time when you’re away from home.
I’ll admit when I was younger, I thought marrying a Malaysian man would have been a good compromise; marrying (pun intended) my Islamic and my Asian roots. But life had other plans for me. I realized I may be a little too unconventional, a little too nomadic, and a little too daring to have settled for a traditional life. Not to say that all of Malaysia is traditional, but I’m pretty sure my life would have turned out very differently if I made a sequence of alternative choices.
Religion in Malaysia
I was raised in a Muslim country with a strong Arab influence (Kuwait). Islam originated in Saudi Arabi–Kuwait’s neighbour, so many Arab practices are misconstrued as Islamic (that’s probably a separate post on its’ own). When travelling to Malaysia, I wanted to see Islam practiced in a non-Arab environment. I was enamoured.
While I classify myself as a non-practicing Muslim, it was comforting to see mosques and hear calls to prayer. I liked that there was no pressure to drink alcohol to have fun or add it to my meals. I think that’s one of the reasons it’s cheap to travel within Malaysia–because while alcohol is available, it’s not sold in many establishments and drinking isn’t a huge part of a fairly conservative culture.
It inspired me to see many women in positions of power in Malaysia, which was a reflection of Islam’s commitment to equal treatment of the sexes. In Kuwait, most members of parliament, for example, are men and there has rarely been a female head of anything; the patriarchal Arab influences are still very strong.
I made it a point to visit the Islamic Arts Museum in Kuala Lumpur. My love for jewel tones and intricate design was partially born from Islam’s influences (can’t wait to go to southern Spain to see more), and the museum had a comprehensive collection. I knew it was a successful trip because my camera was almost never in my bag, as I took snap after snap. For the record, I hate taking photos, so if I was trigger-happy it was because my surroundings were mesmerizing to me.
In addition to religion, the multiple generations of interracial communities intrigued me. Yes, western countries like the United States, Canada and Australia are diverse since many of them have active immigration programs. But countries like Malaysia have been openly interracial for many generations, where mixed cultures are permanently entrenched into its’ people’s identities and ways of living. I was curious about the three major ethnic groups that co-existed and made up the Malaysian population: people of Malay, Chinese and Indian descent. Observing people around me, I won’t say there are no divisions, but co-existence was possible.
When I visited Malacca, a city close to the Singaporean border, I was exposed to Peranakan culture. Peranakans are a multiethnic group whose ancestors are a combination of southern Chinese and Malays (there are also Peranakans in Indonesia and Thailand). Due to interracial marriages, they evolved into their own (mixed) race. When you’re in old parts of the city of Malacca–which is where I stayed– you could see influences of Chinese culture mixed with local Malay. The architecture was distinct and the cuisine heavily reflected it.
Unique Food and Drink
One persistent quirk I loved about Malaysia was its’ availability of Horlicks-flavoured bubble tea at Chatime, a huge bubble tea chain that’s presently expanding worldwide to as far out as here in Toronto. I drank it at every opportunity knowing it wasn’t available back home. Horlicks reminded me of my childhood. Sure, I could have gotten a jar of it in powder form at an Asian supermarket in Canada. But having it as an ice-cold beverage on a hot humid day trotting down a street in Kuala Lumpur put me on a tropical sugar high.
Jonker Street in Malacca–one of the main hubs for street food– was fresh, delicious and bustling. Many vendors only served one (or two) dishes their entire lives to the point where they’d perfected it. What I found extremely ironic was, with the plethora of flavours and ingredients, one of the most popular dishes was plain Hainanese chicken and rice, made in their own way of course, which was puritanically delicious.
Sights and Sunsets in the Islands
I ventured to the island of Borneo, which has memorable sunsets. They’re a tame, bake-like sunny yellow.
While I was on the waterfront at dusk taking photos, I saw a bunch of market vendors packing up. With the captivating sunset in the backdrop, I couldn’t help but wonder; we weren’t in some resort drinking champagne and watching the sun go down. For these vendors, it signalled the end of a long hard-working day of hustling. The sunset signalled it was time to go home and have dinner with their families; it was a visual reminder to tend to the business of living by seeing your loved ones. I smiled, seeing a man buy a doll for his daughter.
I cannot write a post about Malaysia without mentioning the island of Penang. George Town–the capital– is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It is idiosyncratic, with a selection of modern/ traditional and edgy street art, many of them accompanied by 3D props. Many of the murals paint life in Penang in a raw and happy light evoking a sense of community.
I also hiked at Penang National Park–the smallest national park in the country. Let me tell you, the park was technically small compared to other national parks. But when you’re walking uphill in the humidity and your body isn’t acclimated to tropical weather–it’s one long-ass haul to the end. I’d done most of my hikes in British Columbia, Canada where the weather is temperate; the Asian jungle is a whole other beast.
The Strangely Familiar
There was something about Malaysia that made it feel like home. I was pleasantly confused. It was the combination of:
- Being in Asia and going back to tropical weather and food (I lived in the Philippines for a year).
- Islam’s influence (spent my childhood in Kuwait).
- Glimpses of multiculturalism–similar to Canada– with different communities living together (Malay, Indian and Chinese).
The Philippines, Kuwait and Canada were (and are) my homes at points in my life. And even though I was only in Malaysia for three weeks, there was a familiarity about it that made me wish I could stay just a bit longer. It created a domestic mosaic for me.