Travel and Dining

Malaysia: So Near, So Far

Malaysian girls bicycling to school (Photo: J.L. Mausset).

It’s so near, yet so far, but only because it seems so different from us. For one, everything seems to be going skyward, led by the Petronas Twin Towers, which, at 452 meters, are the world’s tallest, that is until China is done with its construction of its record-breaker. In Kuala Lumpur, one is reminded of Seattle or Sydney, what with steel and glass, all shimmering in its ever-changing skyline, and the roads well paved and clean and new, as clean and new as the cars traveling on them. But in this Malaysian capital, one glimpses relics of a golden age: domes and turrets and palaces, as well as women clad in traditional costumes (although some of them wear modern signatures for their headgear, a Dolce & Gabbana scarf, for instance).

Kuala Lumpur is home to 1.5 million people, 40 percent of whom are Chinese. It is roughly divided into three different areas, namely the Golden Mile, otherwise known as Chinatown; the Golden Triangle, where lies the business district; and the Greenbelt, which is the lung of the city, with forests of trees and no modern buildings, just colonial ones housing government offices. Nevertheless, even outside the Greenbelt, birds and trees are at home, despite the rapid pace of development in the city. Frequent visitors are amazed at how fast Kuala Lumpur is changing.

Only 10 years ago, according to them, the city was barely a shadow of what it has become. Of course, many claim it’s Malaysia’s Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s “no fear, no excuses” policy that is keeping it on its toes.

Kuala Lumpur began as a mining settlement in the late 1800s with the discovery of tin at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Today, it is the pulse of the nation, leading Malaysia’s fast-paced development in trade and commerce, banking and finance, manufacturing, transportation, information technology, and tourism.

Because Malaysia is in the neighborhood, I never quite thought of it as an exciting, let alone exotic, destination. So I was surprised that tourism plays a crucial role in Malaysia’s continued success, being number four in its list of important industries. Petroleum, of course, is the backbone of Malaysia’s economy. It is the reason it is running into trouble with its neighbors, specifically Indonesia and the Philippines, with whom it has yet to conclude once and for all a tug-of-war with Sabah playing the rope.

During my first visit, I stayed at the Melia, which is situated in the center of the Golden Triangle. Just behind the hotel, on Jalan Sultan Ismail, over which the Petronas Twin Towers soar from a distance, I found myself inching my way through a thick crowd at 2 a.m. On the sidewalks at this ungodly hour, I found tourists reclining on chaisettes, availing themselves of a foot massage, which a masseur told me would only cost me 30 Malaysian ringgit (RM), about US$8.

Everywhere, tourists share the space with locals, whether in the restaurants or in the bars, the Internet cafés or the 24-hour convenience stores, or even the late-night stalls peddling all manner of merchandise.

In nearby Chinatown on Jalan Petaling, there is almost no room for buyers, as there are three rows of stalls occupying this narrow street. It is the place to be if one is looking for “genuine imitations,” unless one has been to Guangzhou, China, where the fake items come with fake certificates of authenticity. (Louis Vuitton, take note!)

But in Kuala Lumpur, there is much to buy for the counterfeit addict. You can get a Rolex for RM25 ($7), and it will last you three years, provided you buy a battery worth another RM25. It’s not so bad a deal, except that it’s not the real thing.

Beyond Kuala Lumpur, it is just as exciting, albeit in a different way. I heard so much about Kuala Selangor, barely an hour away. This coastal riverine town is popular with birdwatchers for its large population of marshland and migratory birds. Within the vicinity is Kampung Kuantan, where fireflies at dusk along the upper reaches of the river attract nature lovers.

I personally had the chance to visit Melaka. Perched midway in the Strait of Malacca, it is a state so rich not only in natural resources but also in history and folklore. Its tourism slogan, in fact, only underscores its pride of place in the history of Malaysia: “Where it all began.”

Founded in 1936 by Parameswara, who named his sultanate after the “melaka” tree, this state, which lies next to Singapore, has provided the stage on which the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and English played their roles in shaping history.

I was forewarned by friends to keep my pockets safe from the lures of antiques there. Unfortunately, I was barely able to explore Melaka by foot, save for a brief stop at the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum. Originally the home of three generations of a Peranakan family, the museum is in the exquisite Chinese Baroque style, characterized by neo-classical European elements such as Greco-Roman columns, floral and pictorial motifs, and gilt carvings. Although I did not have enough time to experience more of it, I found Melaka quaint and charming, with trishaws pacing up and down its narrow streets that wind through a mishmash of architectural styles.

I also visited Genting Highlands, a poetic destination on top of a mountain that, in the morning, seems to be afloat on a bed of mist. The poetry, however, has to give way, as it now houses a casino and a theme park, as well as a hotel crowded with replicas of the world’s most famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, and Big Ben.

If what one wants is peace and quiet, Genting is the last place to be on Earth, but it is, in fact, teeming with people. Soon to go full blast in this City of Entertainment is First World Hotel, which is set to be Malaysia’s biggest hotel with a total of 6,300 rooms.

Since December, 1,000 rooms have been ready for occupancy. The rest will be opened in the next few weeks. What I found exciting on Genting Highlands, however, is the cable ride to the Genting Highlands Resort, which I do not recommend.

The Genting Cable System is the fastest in the world and the safest route into the heart of the city. What’s more, it plies a route breathtaking in its vista of lush vegetation and steep mountainsides and, at certain times of the day, awesome cloud formations.

Overall, I think Malaysia’s most irresistible attraction is its people. It’s not because of their smiles or their hospitability. Malaysia’s wealth of history has wrought a state of cultural diversity. The influx of immigrants and traders from China, Arabia, and the surrounding nations of the Malay Archipelago, as well as of seafaring conquerors from the West—Portugal, the Netherlands, and England—in search of riches and resources has left an indelible imprint on the country. As Leisure Guide Malaysia puts it, “Some stayed, Chinese and Indian immigrants chiefly, to form part of the triumvirate that constitutes the majority of Malaysia’s multiethnic, multi-religious population today. Others left, but remained in spirit, as we are sometimes reminded by a merry Portuguese jig, a dusky red church in the center of an historic town, and cricket matches on a brilliant green lawn.”

Nevertheless, it is Malaysia’s national pride that best lures in the tourist and, perhaps more important, the foreign investor. Unlike us, the average Malaysian offers no apologies about his country, where he is safe and secure and his needs are met and where things continue to happen to make his life better. Unlike the Filipino, the average Malaysian has all the opportunity in the world to enjoy his country and share it with the rest of the world.