Malaysia: a destination often placed on the list of locations we know of, but don’t know a great deal about.
Situated in tropical Southeast Asia, the terrain that constitutes Malaysia was fought over for centuries – by the Portuguese in the 16th century, the Dutch in the 17th, and the British and Japanese through the 19th century. Today, the nation consists of 13 states and three federal territories (Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya) in Peninsular Malaysia, to the north, and two states and one federal territory (Labuan) on the island of Borneo, to the east. There are dozens of reasons that make the country worth visiting, but here are some handpicked highlights.
Because of its past, the architecture of Malaysia is all over the place – literally! Depending on where you visit, it’s easy to spot infrastructure with British (Tudor and Victorian), Portuguese, Dutch, or Mughal influence – Mughal being an amalgam of Persian, Indian and Islamic architecture. In some places, you may even see buildings with Gothic influence, although they are considerably fewer and farther between. Wherever you venture, the buildings there will offer subtle clues as to which colony attempted to settle there, and when.
Meshed in among foreign influence is Malaysia’s own unique architecture, known as ‘Straights Eclectic’ or ‘Peranakan’, which is the culmination of Chinese and various Western designs. These designs, often found on traditional shopfronts, tend to be built into two-storey buildings, employing bright, bold colours on their exteriors with ceramic artworks and elaborate plasterworks on inside.
As all the designs clash, not only do they function as a nod to the country’s potholed past, but as respected art. Art that covers the shops, restaurants and residences that are still very much in operation.
As time has progressed, naturally, so have the thoughts of architects. Now Malaysia’s skyline is in sync with any other major metropolitan world city, littered with skyscrapers. Perhaps the most famous among the larger modern buildings are the Petronas Towers, which have acted wonderfully as a memorable backdrop to big-budget films, including Entrapment in 1999, starring Sean Connery and Catherine Zeta-Jones.
If we’re to believe the anecdotes of travellers past and present, one of the key reasons we go abroad is to immerse ourselves entirely in another culture. What makes Malaysia unique in this regard is that visitors will find themselves not solely partaking in Malay culture, but also in Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese, Arabic and Persian cultures.
While it’s easy to note the cultural influences on architecture, the diversity of Malaysia’s population has also had a strong impact on art, music, storytelling, politics, and possibly most favourably for those with a penchant for spice, on cuisine. Though the dishes in some regions are divided by stricter ethnic lines, the food in greater Malaysia strongly reflects its multiethnic makeup – and all for the better.
Fans of highly complex and diverse dishes have reason to rejoice – Malay cuisine makes use of ingredients from all over Southeast Asia, sharing many of its most popular dishes with Indonesia, including satay, sambal, and rendang, a spicy meat dish (pictured).
Used for thousands of years by fishermen as a source of fresh water and wood, but also as a point of navigation, the island of Pulau Tioman rests just 32 kilometres off the east coast of northern Malaysia. Because the island played host to both British and Japanese soldiers during World War II, the waters around the island are riddled with sunken war ships, including the HMS Repulse and the HMS Prince of Wales. Consequently, snorkelling and scuba diving are among one of the most popular activities available.
Strictly protected by the Pulau Tioman Wildlife Reserve, the 20×12-kilometre island is the largest in the volcanic group of islands off the coast. It was selected by Time Magazine in the 1970s as one of the world’s most beautiful islands, and with buildings disallowed from exceeding three storeys and beaches claimed to have been the settings for the classic film South Pacific, it’s easy to support their selection. Evidence, however, has since suggested that the South Pacific claim is false.
Despite false claims, the island’s natural beauty remains to be marvelled at – the impenetrable jungle rises high into the sky, mounted atop steep, ancient ridges. Its appearance, in fact, is said to be the reason behind the legend of its origin: that a dragon princess, on her way from China to Singapore, stopped to rest in the warm sea waters, becoming so comfortable that she stayed, taking on the form of an island.
Legends aside, travellers wishing to visit the island can arrive there via a ferry service that leaves the Johorean town of Mersing at least once daily, with exceptions in the monsoon season when the weather is restricting. It can also be reached by air, with flights from Kuala Lumpur or Singapore, if you find yourself down that way.
Once there, you can choose to kick back, let the warmth do wonders for your muscles, or engage with the environment. Despite thick jungle, there is and 18-hole golf course, duty-free shops and spas. With over a dozen resorts to choose from, options are not scarce.
In tight competition with Queensland’s Daintree Rainforest, at 130 million years old, the Taman Negara Rainforest is one of the planet’s oldest. At roughly 240 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur, the Taman Negara website recommends that you rent a car and drive there, thus tailoring the experience to your wants and needs. With a balmy average year-round temperature of 30 degrees Celsius, to spend time in this ancient rainforest is to truly embrace the heat.
And it only gets better – for a unique experience, Taman Negara can be negotiated by its wondrous suspended canopy walkway. Originally built for researchers to traverse the forest some 40 metres above the ground, the walkway is the longest in the world, stretching out 530 metres. Guides ensure the safety of those wanting to wander among the treetops, by allowing only four or five people are standing in a section simultaneously – there’s one way to escape a crowd! For more information, head to www.tamannegara.asia
“With a balmy average year-round temperature of 30 degrees Celsius, to spend time in this ancient rainforest is to truly embrace the heat.”
Not surprisingly, Borneo, the largest island in Asia, can cause a bit of geographical confusion regarding its landholders. To break it down: the island is divided among three nations – Malaysia in the northern half, Indonesia in the southern half, and Brunei also to the north, encapsulated by Malaysia but for its shoreline. Like Taman Negara, Borneo is home to some of the oldest rainforest in he world, and, interestingly, is antipodal to the Amazon rainforest.