Afia’s Travel Stories: Malaysia — Truly Asia
My childhood in Malaysia played a very important part in molding me into the woman I am today. I was five years old when my parents moved from India to spend a few years in Malaysia. I grew up speaking Malay (Bahasa Melayu), eating Malaysian food, and going to school there.
More importantly, at a very young age I learned to adapt to different cultures. To me, Malaysia felt larger than life. My parents tell me that I quickly began enjoying the company of my now lifelong friends.
Our family will always appreciate the hospitality and kindness of the Malaysian people. This was a time in the early ’90s — before the era of smartphones and social media — when human interaction seemed to matter more than it does today.
Mentakab, a mukim (commune) within the district of Temerloh in the state of Pahang, has mountainous terrain. Panhang was originally a sultanate. Archaeological evidence revealed the existence of human habitation in this area from as early as the Paleolithic Period, also known as the Old Stone Age.
Panhang gradually became an ancient maritime trading state by the third century BC. The state is recognized for its biodiversity — a combination of both mountains and bodies of water.
Climate and Wildlife
Located near the equator, Malaysia’s climate is humid with lots of rainfall and temperatures ranging between 23° to 32° C. The coastal parts of the country are usually sunny, tempered with a cool breeze.
As a child, my favorite vacations were in the Malaysian forests, where I heard the sound of exotic birds and I marveled at the sight of the free-spirited orangutans that are native to the area. I loved to eat rambutan, a fruit produced by the rambutan tree.
History and Cultural Heritage
Malays originally emigrated from mainland Asia, followed by the Chinese and Indians or South Asians. There’s also a Persian, Arabic, and British influence but there are customs that these groups share in Malaysia. Ethnic groups have retained their individual traditions with important festival days celebrated as public holidays.
Music in Malaysia dates back to the time of sultanates. There are at least 14 types of traditional drums. In the modern era, Malaysian romantic pop is popular. My personal favorites include songs of Siti Nurhaliza, a Malaysian celebrity singer. Her single, We’ll Be As One, gave this vocalist international fame.
The Malay language is an Austronesian language spoken not only by Malaysians, but also by people in surrounding countries. Family is the center of the social structure. The concepts of respect and unity are key. Malaysians avoid shaking hands, preferring to smile instead. Malaysians tend to substitute “no” with “I will try.” This highlights how much the people value harmony.
In terms of dress, most Muslim Malaysian women wear the tudung, a type of traditional hijab. Despite the adherence to custom, many Malaysian women have progressive values.
Malaysian food is strongly influenced by Malay, Chinese, Indian, Thai, Javanese, and Sumatran cuisines. Nasi Lemak, the national dish, consists of rice cooked in coconut milk and served with an Indonesian chili sauce sambal, peanuts, and ikan bilis (anchovies) wrapped inside a banana leaf. Nasi Lemak is a Malaysian breakfast staple.
Malaysia turned me into a foodie! I truly miss having authentic Nasi Lemak and roti canai, an Indo-Malaysian flatbread. Other delicacies include spicy noodles with fish cakes and steamed seafood balls, pisang goreng, a fried banana snack, and ayam rendang, chicken cooked in coconut milk.
Politics and Sports:
Malaysia, a common-law country where judgment becomes precedent, has a state legislative assembly and an executive council. Mahathir Bin Mohammad was the nation’s longest-serving prime minister. In March 2020, he was succeeded by Muhyiddin Yassin.
Sports in Malaysia are a direct influence of Britain, with badminton being a widely-played sport. In 1998, Malaysia hosted the first Commonwealth Games, where the torch passed through more countries than it did during the English games.
Significance of Popular Tourist Destinations
Malaysia consists of two distinct geographical regions: Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. The country as a whole was formed when the Federation of Malaysia merged with North Borneo (known today as the province of Sabah), Sarawak, and Singapore.
Malaysian ports, popular destinations for the spice trade in ancient times, brought settlers including the Chinese, Dutch, Portuguese, and the British.
Penang was a vital trading route between Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The main port of Georgetown in Penang, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008, is a mix of European colonial buildings, Chinese merchant houses, sculpted temples, white churches, and traditional mosques.
Malacca, another beautiful coastal state, has a significant Chinese community. You can find 17th-century Chinese temples, sultanate palaces, and Dutch Colonial buildings. I have enjoyed Malacca’s night market, where you can find a huge range of local handicrafts and antiques.
The Cameroon and Genting Highlands together are called the “Vegas of Malaysia.” Even in the ’90s, you could find lively casinos, amusement parks, night clubs, and 24-hour restaurants here. There has always been a flamboyant display of dance, music, and art in these highlands.
There are coastal islands of Sabah Sarawak, the third largest island in the world, in East Malaysia — originally part of the sultanate of Brunei. Its capital, Kuala Lumpur, is popularly referred to as the “New York of Asia.”
In 1998, the Petronas Twin Towers were named the tallest buildings in the world. Back then, I remember standing on one of the rooftops when Malaysia was not the popular tourist destination that it is today. Standing on that rooftop encouraged me to dream big at a very young age. Kuala Lumpur can still boast of skyscrapers, colonial architecture, and natural attractions. The Menara KL Tower, situated in a forest reserve, is the fifth tallest building in the world.
Malaysia is called Truly Asia because of its rich diversity. This country will always have a special place in my heart and I will always cherish the memories of my childhood.
- Personal Account of Afia Sengupta.
- “An Overview on Intangible Cultural Heritage In Malaysia”
Afia is a lawyer, journalist, an avid traveler, an avid reader, a foodie, and an amateur singer. She enjoys instrumental music with her glass of wine ?