Malaysia awaits

In Malaysia, we stepped, with barely a ripple, into the lives of a young British expat couple teaching at the British International School. They were honeymooning in Greece for six weeks, leaving two entertaining young cats as our hostages in a 12th floor apartment in Petaling Jaya.

Kuala Lumpur is an easy city to live in – much like Johannesburg, but a lot cleaner and with functioning public transport including a modern metro rail network, monorail and free bus services. Grab taxis (their Uber equivalent) are plentiful. The warm and humid weather is not oppressive. Electricity, though expensive, was paid for by our hosts, so we basked in the coolth of the aircons and fans in the condo and had fun working as digital nomads on their efficient Wi-Fi. We had no need to shelter in the many malls where Malaysians hang out in their droves to escape the heat.

Malaysia is safe and relatively affordable. The impression is one of modern shopping centres, high-rise office buildings and condos (we stayed in a 36-story building with swimming pools, tennis courts, gym and its own shop), and golf courses. Malaysians love their golf courses! We were astonished to learn from our hosts that they pay nothing for their water consumption, so perhaps the SA constraints on keeping golf courses green don’t apply.

Our cats needed far less attention than 14-year-old Beamer in Goa. At our hosts’ suggestion, we grabbed opportunities for overnight and weekend trips around the country. (Inter-city travel is cheap in Malaysia.) We went to Melaka, Penang and Langkawi (all on “peninsular” Malaysia though Penang and Langkawi are islands up north near Thailand) and to Sarawak on Borneo.

Both Melaka and Georgetown, Penang, are fascinating World Heritage Sites. The street art, famous in Georgetown, has spread to Melaka – simply wandering around is a fabulous treasure hunt (click here to see all the images of this remarkable and unique street art).

You never know what murals you will find around the next bend as random artists have caught on to the idea and are adding their own touches, some more inspired than others. (In 2012, Penang’s municipal council hired Lithuanian artist, Ernest Zacharevic, to breathe new life into the atmospheric inner-city Chinese shop-houses. He cleverly built real artifacts like bicycles and trishaws into his murals, creating fabulous photo ops for tourists. Read more at www.penang.ws/penang-attractions/penang-street-art.htm.

Those trips taught us about Malaysia, a more subtle culture than in India. A few things stood out:

  • Malaysians are incredibly friendly and interested in who you are, where you’re from and why you’re visiting. They are known for religious and racial harmony and actively welcome people from other countries. Malaysia is one of a handful of countries with special schemes to attract long-term foreign retirees.
  • It is home to an unusually diverse mix of nationalities. Apart from Malaysians, the permanent population includes Chinese, Indians, Koreans along with ex-pats from around the world. We had great fun socialising with a group from Australia and New Zealand who taught us to play Mahjong. Addictive!
  • Food is important to them. They don’t talk about the weather: always the same, there is nothing to say. They ask if you have eaten recently – they routinely eat five meals a day. That opens a discussion about what you had and where, your favourite dishes and what to try. They embrace food from other Asian countries: it’s as easy to get Vietnamese, Chinese, Korean and Indian meals as Malaysian. Penang modestly calls itself the Food Capital of the World, with some justification.
  • Bahasa Melayu (the Malaysian language) is apparently easy to learn and we enjoyed picking up common words and phrases to entertain Grab drivers and shop assistants who seemed appreciative of our efforts. English, though not the official language, is widely spoken.
  • They are hard-working, a common trait in South-east Asian countries, but love celebrations; everyone happily adopts the different religious holidays – perhaps more public holidays than SA!
  • It is a regulated society where newspapers toe the party line, alcohol is heavily taxed and driving is conservative.

While we were in the region, we explored Borneo, where we saw a different side of Malaysia: exquisitely beautiful jungles, beaches and rocky shorelines … and even warmer hospitality than in Western Borneo, if possible. The highlight was seeing orangutans in their natural habitat.

Of course, we couldn’t miss the opportunity for a return visit to Singapore, a longtime favourite city. It blew us away yet again, particularly with the technological and artistic brilliance of its astonishing visual displays. We arrived just in time for their Night Festival.

We both find travel enriching. We immerse ourselves with wanton curiosity in the culture, languages, food and lifestyle of other communities. As we interact, we become richer, not in pecuniary wealth, but as more informed, understanding and rounded human beings. Perhaps we also leave a tiny bit of ourselves as we engage with a shop assistant or Grab driver enough to brighten their day.

What’s your next adventure?

If you haven’t already taken a turn on the streets decorated with street art, click here.

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