Posted by: Anna | August 1, 2011

Malaysia Wrap Up

Before our trip, I couldn’t tell you much about Malaysia. As we met other backpackers, they consistently declared Malaysia the most boring Asian country, with the caveat of “good food”. I added Malaysia to our itinerary for the sake of diving and because it was on Anthony Bourdain’s tv show. The diving certainly exceeded our expectations, and the rest of Malaysia pleasantly surprised us.

Malaysia can be divided into two sections – mainland (or peninsular) Malaysia and Borneo (half of Borneo is Malaysia and half is Indonesia). We visited both – Borneo for diving (and Osman, for Tommy) and peninsular Malaysia for — eating? Borneo (we only visited one state of two), and that one not fully, is more raw. The gloss of development has not smoothed off all the rough edges of a developing country, although many of the standards of a developed country exist. It is more wild, less connected with the global pulse. Peninsular Malaysia, on the other hand, was the most developed area we visited in Southeast Asia (except Singapore, which was part of Malaysia until the mid-20th century). No people sleeping in their shops on the floor, higher food safety, fabulous public transportation, and just obviously more economic opportunity in professions and jobs that matter on a global scale than anywhere else, though you still can’t drink the tap water.  We saw a lot of help wanted signs in Malaysia…the big countries may be economically struggling with employment, but not Malaysia. Malaysia chases the standard of Singapore with Thailand on its tail.

Because I was hurt with a sprained ankle, we saw less of Malaysia than we originally intended. A good lesson in going with the flow and adapting your experience to your limitations. I still left Malaysia finding it intriguing and enjoyable. Slower allowed me more time to process the experience and to understand the bigger picture better. I’m grateful for the speed bump, looking back.

Malaysia offered the best food of Asia, and possibly our whole trip, although I think India probably holds on to first place for me. Even in the tiny little town we had to spend one night in transit after diving at Sipadan (in Malaysian Borneo), the food stunned us. We ate every meal at the same restaurant because it was so fantastic we dared not venture out. We found the most amazing food court (in the world?) in Kuala Lumpur (capital of Malaysia) with about 25 food stalls offering most, if not all, Malaysian culinary specialties. We ate there three times — with 25 stalls, it’s really like 25 different restaurants, not one — and had different delicious options every time.

Sorry this is a bit blurry – still working on my food photography skills. Anyway, this is one of the most tasty things I’ve ever eaten…fatty pork that melts in your mouth with deliciously complex and meaty noodles. Mmmm…

Rice Porridge with Raw Fish. When reading food blogs in preparation for eating in Malaysia – that’s right, I carefully researched what I was going to eat – this is one dish that intrigued me as something so incogruous I just had to try it. This is one weird dish that totally works. The rice porridge is topped with an assortment of fresh herbs, and the cool raw fish provides a nice foil to the warm homey porridge and freshness of the herbs.

Another weird one I had to try. Who knew you could eat stingray? This one didn’t wow me – it wasn’t bad, it just wasn’t good.

Malaysia holds the current honor (Indonesia will surpass it when we go there) as the largest majority Muslim country I’ve ever visited. I never really thought of Asian and Muslim together – but somehow, halal fried noodles works just fine. I never got over staring at the women in the full burka. It bothers me. The headscarf seems like no big deal, but the full burka covering the face violates my sense that every woman should be free to choose. I suppose you could argue that those women chose that (certainly it’s not a law in Malaysia – we saw tons of women wearing booty shorts and tank tops). We never saw a woman in a burka working – shopping, eating, taking care of a child, yes — working, no. I get an uncomfortable feeling seeing a guy in a tshirt and trendy jeans walking around with his wife in a burka at a mall shopping. Where is the fun in shopping if your clothes are covered under a giant black shell whenever you leave the house? I would see them in the bathroom — I would catch a glance of their lime green jeggings, or some similar flashy alternative…it just makes me wonder. I find it completely foreign, and I cannot imagine what they are thinking. It’s a mystery – perhaps that’s what makes me uncomfortable. Perhaps it really does violate my feminist side. I remain somewhat undecided.

Malaysia is the most visually religiously diverse place I have ever been, perhaps excepting Israel. In a fifteen minute time span, we walked by a Buddhist temple, a mosque, and a church. It’s impossible to say that person looks Malaysian since the racial heritage of Malaysians is primarily Chinese, Malay and Indian. Plenty of caucasians roam the streets as well, both as tourists and residents. It is not a perfect melting pot – none are – we thankfully missed some massive protests by ethnic and religious minorities in Kuala Lumpur while we were diving in Sipadan. The melding of different cultures, especially three that are exotic to me, creates an interesting environment, even just wandering down the street. Melding is never a fully peaceful process, it seems, but a fractured road that reveals all the flaws of human nature in turn. (See American history).

Malaysia has a higher cost of living than any other Southeast Asian country except Singapore; however, that did not extend to the cinema. While I was hurt, Tommy occupied himself seeing Transformers. We spontaneously decided to go see Harry Potter on opening day in Kuala Lumpur. Surprisingly, the movie was not sold out and we got tickets thirty minutes in advance for a 3D screening. Even more amazing — our tickets cost $2 each, plus an extra $4 for a large popcorn, two drinks, a bag of wasabi peas (great movie snack!), and a hot dog. Seriously!! Of course, Malaysians don’t have the same movie “manners” as Americans. I did at one point turn to the guy next to me, who answered his phone and continued to talk on it for a while and ask him to go outside if he wanted to talk on the phone. He seemed surprised that it would be an issue for me, but obligingly headed out.

The number one tourist thing in Kuala Lumpur is the Petronas towers. We struggled out of bed at the unfriendly hour of 6 AM and taxied to the towers. We waited two hours for tickets to go up in the towers. We returned at our appointed time to see the sky bridge (the only place for tourists to go). It was generally a pain.

View from below of the Petronas Towers – beautifully imposing.

That said, the Petronas Towers prompted me to see the parallel between those towers and the twin towers in NYC. Architecture is rarely a sight worth visiting for its pure aesthetic merit, but for me is often a giant sized revealing symbol of self-image. That rings true to me with both sets of twin towers I know – NYC and Malaysia. Both serve or served as a symbol of the city itself – for NYC, a symbol of the power of commerce and its defining value to the city — and for Kuala Lumpur (capital of Malaysia, in peninsular Malaysia) — symbol of the aspiration of Malaysia to be the leading city of a first world, fully developed country, and not just a country, but a Muslim country. Constructed with clear influence from traditional Muslim architecture, the towers dominate the skyline of Kuala Lumpur with the stunning gleam of modern silvery steel tempered with the allusion to Islamic traditions.

Malaysia in total has not quite reached the promise of the Petronas towers; however, it achieves far more of the hallmarks of a developed country than any of its neighbors, excepting Singapore. Singapore should be excepted – a country so small does not face the same challenges as a large country like Malaysia. Malaysia may not have Angor Wat or cheap beer, but it does offer a fascinating glimpse into one possible future for many countries, Muslim or not, around the world. Flawed though it may be, I hope it’s an example with many imitations.

Pygmy elephants
Turtles, rays, sharks and monkeys
Wild Malaysia!


Ankle woes stop me

From much of Borneo

Still I’m a big fan.




  1. I’m like you, Anna, I do’nt understand the full burka thing…and the guys get to dress how they want! I feel sorry that the women are supressed in so many aspects of their lives. Have fun in Australia…and watch out for the Great Whites!!! We want you to know that UBE got an “all clear” report on his CT scan last week…YEA!!!!!!! my love to you both, Kita xoxox

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