Although this story was completed in 2006, I never managed to post in on my website...
"Malaysia - Truly Asia", is what the ads say. And yes, they are correct. I first went east five years ago, and since then, I've been drawn to light, the color, the sounds and the people of Asia. There are thousands of years of culture and religion intricately woven into the fabric of Asia, and the layers of history mingle exotically and cheerfully with modern, bustling, gadget-ridden and consumer-crazy cities of chrome and glass.
That's the irony and the attraction of the east. It's not uncommon, for example to see a monk in Thailand with an MP-3 player, or to find a small shrine in a huge shopping mall squashed next to a Cartier boutique selling jewelery at prices high enough to build a temple. Asian society is very pragmatic; religion blends well with consumerism, and life seems pretty free of the crises of conscience that one might expect.
Kuala Lumpur is a pretty relaxed place as far as Asian cities go. It neither has the mind-boggling frenetic pace of 24/7 Bangkok, nor the clinical sterilty of Singapore. It's compact, easy to get around and efficient. It has some wonderful modern architecture cheek by jowl with older Chinese shophouses, a busting Indian quarter and some great shopping.
But, the most intriguing thing about Malaysia is its society and the diversity this brings to it as a destination. It essentially comprises three groups...Malays, who are Muslim, the Chinese and Indians. It's hard not to stereotype people in a short essay...but in general, the country is largely run by the Malays, who are a fairly poor grouping economically. They have practised a form of affirmative action to bring Malay people into a wide range of government employment. They are a traditional group of people, with strong religious values. The economy, at least the retail economy is dominated by Chinese people. Most of the commercial enterprises right down to the small shopkeepers, are principally Chinese. Indian people are also either shopkeepers on a far smaller scale, and many do manual work.
It amazes me, coming from South Africa, as to just how tolerant this society is, and how well it all works in practice. The government seems to really try hard; they have created an economically progressive society from a poor country in a few decades. And, there are laws which seem to vary from culture to culture, and it all seems to work without any disdain other parts of society. For example, two unmarried Muslim people of the opposite sex are not allowed to share or be in a room in private. While we were there, a case of this happened in a hotel room (without any naughty stuff, I might add), made it into the newspapers and is considered a serious offence. Had two young Chinese folk been in the same position, no one would have bothered in the slightest. Muslim women dress conservatively; young Chinese women (who seem to have the most perfect and beautiful legs on the planet) happily sit next to them on the monorail in all but the skimpiest of mini skirts. It all seems to work. Coming from a country like South Africa, where everything is riddled with complexity, life in Malaysia is a pleasure.
I could not resist ending my trip to Malaysia without spending a week in Bangkok. Haphazard, crazy, upside down and inside out though it may be, Bangkok is still one of my favorite places on the planet.
Camera Nikon D2X