As stewards of the region’s most sophisticated transportation infrastructure, clean, cultured cities, and a reasonably well-protected natural environment, Malaysians have much of which to be proud. Perhaps the world’s most tolerant Muslim state, the country’s Malay majority rubs elbows with a Chinese population that accounts for a full third of the population and a sizeable Indian community. While the interaction isn’t without tension, it is a credit to the Malaysians that in the wake of the regional depression their society has stuck together while their massive neighbor to the south erupted in a bonfire of racial hatred. Malaysia’s ethnic mix mingles most in the cities of the cosmopolitan west coast. The sparsely populated east coast remains a bastion of sea faring Malay culture but is equally welcoming to respectful outsiders.
We enjoyed our time most in this region and highly recommend a trip to Kota Bharu if you decide to head east.
Somewhere between its self-proclaimed splendor as the “garden City of Lights” and its literal English translation, “Muddy River Mouth,” lies the true capital of Malaysia. KL (as it’s almost exclusively called) has grown into a thriving city whose vertigo-inspiring towers and mega shopping malls are brilliantly balanced by verdant expanses of grass and rows of palm trees. Surrounded by an orgy of construction the locals exude contentment laced with the anticipation of good things to come. Its a nice respite from the sparse amenities in the rest of South East Asia but it sorely lacks in authentic culture. Probably the most unique sights are the women who sport Muslim scarfs and one-piece dresses. Aside from that, our suggestion is to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible!
Below are some pictures of the Petronas Twin Towers, currently the tallest buildings in the world, and the tallest flag pole in the world. I’ve also included pictures I took of the KL Railway Station complete with domes, minarets and arches and Menara or KL Tower.
This is probably one of the only sights in KL worth going to. In January and February, hundreds of Hindu devotees descend for the annual Thaipusam Festival, armed with hooks and needles with which to pierce their skin. For the rest of the year, the caves are home to a community of docile wild monkeys and are open to the public. We climbed the 272 steps to the main cave and viewed the Gallery Cave’s painting of Hindu mythology. Definitely worth a visit!
Melaka is a small city outside of KL. There are a lot of tour buses that shuttle people back and forth and my recommendation is don’t be one of them! Its not much of a city except for a few interesting tombstones shown in my pictures.
Discovered in 1786 by Francis Light and his British East India Company, the fertile Penang Island was then called Prince of Wales Island and remained under British control until 1957. The British never left much of a mark but the tourists who flock there every year have! This was probably one of the most disappointing segments of our trip because everywhere we went we were reminded that Penang has now become one of the biggest tourist traps in Southeast Asia! Probably the best thing to do (aside from enjoying the beaches) is to rent a scooter and head to the Snake Temple.
Kota Bharu is one of the most attractive urban centers in Malaysia. Among a handful of cities in Malaysia with a majority Malay population, the capital of Kelantan state brims with an amiable character that bucks stereotypes of Muslim conservatism. The daily performance of local cultural pastimes (top-spinning, kite-flying, silat, drum-beating, dancing, and puppeteering) are certainly worth a visit. If you go anywhere in Malaysia, go here!
Gelanggang Seni / Cultural Center
Since the state is largely agrarian, the work life of the people closely matches the crop cycle. Once harvesting is complete, the Malaysian people have ample free time thus they pursue many extracurricular hobbies. The city’s cultural center exhibits these past times for tourists by sponsoring free drum beating contests, kite-flying, top-spinning, and martial arts (silat) demonstrations. There are also performances of wayang kulit (shadow-puppet shows), dance and drama. One of the pictures below includes a Kota Bharu’s #1 Kitemaster preparing a top demo.
Tops are a big part of the Kota Bharu culture. Top fighting is a common past time and is a loose adaptation of marbles. In addition, the top spinning contest is won by the top that has the longest time.
Kota Bharu is also a fishing town so we visited the local fisheries and observed their daily catch.
The markets are an amazing place to visit. Much to Lauren’s chagrin, I ate some of the steet foods (mostly naans with curry) and negotiated on a few items. Some of the items I tried to acquire included songkets (cloths of gold/silver and cotton) and batik (wax with color on fabric). I quickly learned that Muslim women can be very tough negotiators!