If Kim Kardashian were a country she would be Malaysia, or at least the capital, Kuala Lumpur – inexplicably popular, more or less redundant and only world famous due to the bright lights, fancy clothes and ships that have historically docked in her harbour. Malaysia was sculpted from the outside to be what the Asian world needed of a trade port – simple, safe and everything orthodoxy; consumer driven and with a complete lack of anything with semblance to soul, character or individual identity.
The Kingdom of Malacca (let’s just call this modern day Kuala Lumpur) was almost the precise mid-way point in a sea voyage between the two ancient (and contemporary) Asian powerhouses – India and China. This made it the perfect half-way house for trade and commerce across the region, becoming even more appealing to Indian seafarers when the Sultan of Kedah, and later, the Sultan of Melaka converted to Islam some 800 years ago. In addition to bridging the two giants, Malacca was also conveniently accessible to the majorly influential kingdom states of present-day Cambodia, Vietnam and Indonesia with evidence even of a reasonably healthy and ongoing trade with Rome. Down the line there would be a few hundred years of Dutch rule interposed with Portuguese control, British colonialism and even a year or two under the typically brutal Japanese. Malacca might have invented the term “multiculturalism” without ever knowing it – people coming from all over, throughout the course of many years to form what is now known as Malaysia.
Interestingly enough the multitude of cultures have never fused and she has failed to forge her own unique identity. In most, if not all countries, cultures blend over many years and form a peculiar take on food, dress, music, sports. This has not happened in Malaysia. The two most lasting and defining cultural influences have been China and India and they remain split today almost as evenly as the distance that each lies from Kuala Lumpur. If you’re not conversing in the fluent and most popular cross-cultural Chinese and Indian dialect of “dinero” then you can never really be sure what language is about to be spoken – will it be the official language of the country, Malayu (essentially the same language as Indonesian), or will it be Mandarin, Cantonese, English or Hindi? Of the four languages written on the wall in the photo to this blog, none of them say “do not write on the wall” in Malayu.
In terms of population the indigenous peoples of Malaysia make up less than 1%. The Chinese take out pole-position and the Indians come in third. Nestled between these two is a group that the census calls “Malay”. Some of the national Malay dishes include Nasi Campur – the Indonesian fried rice dish, Hokkien Mie – the popular noodle dish from Hokkien, China (also claimed by Singapore) and Nasi Kadir in Penang which is an unmistakably northern Indian curry. Hardly anything one might call unique let alone uniquely “Malay”.
Then again, perhaps there is something unique in that itself? I can’t think of another country similar – a country with two major and conflicting cultural influences in almost equal proportions living together in almost absolute oblivion of the other? Similar scenarios tend to civil war but in the case of Malaysia the Indians and Chinese seem to go about their own ways under one flag but with separate customs, food, dress, language and literally everything else…except for deep-state politics and commerce, to which the Chinese have a definitive hold. Electoral politics has been race-driven since day dot however the everyday lives of ‘Malaysians’ remains more or less unaffected. To that extent, I guess the situation is sort of…unique?
And we come back to the word of the day – unique. It is at this point, after a little ‘history’, that I would generally share a unique cultural experience from my time in the country, maybe having been introduced to some special food or one-off experience particular to a certain region or state. As you may have guessed, I cannot do this for Malaysia as there was simply nothing to stand out. Malaysia is said to rival Bangkok as the Mecca of street food. I couldn’t wait to hit the pavement and order one (or two or three) of everything I set my eyes and stomach on. First up was Kuching in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo (said to be a better food destination than Kuala Lumpur) and home to the famed laksa which was ‘meh’ at best – a sweet and sour soup that lacked any real punch or flavour. After Sarawak the bike was shipped to Kuala Lumpur (a story in itself) and there was the chance to hit up Petaling Street in China Town and Jalan Alor before riding north through the Cameron Highlands to the world famous Penang. What an absolutely monumental, biblical, behemoth…anti climax.
The food in China Town was not particularly cheap nor particularly delicious. After two days gorging up and down the other eat streets the most memorable meal was a Vietnamese banh mi (multicultural?). All in all, the food scene scores a 3 / 10. Those 3 points come off the back of Roti Canai – the one peculiarly Malaysian creation which comes from the Indian community. This is a delicious flaky flat bread served with northern Indian curry sauce. Such a thing is not available in its namesake of Chennai or anywhere else in India, and so remains the sole entry in the ‘uniquely Malay’ category (but we did have this at an Indian street store in Bali and believe it is popular in Singapore).
The Cameron Highlands was the next major attraction as we worked north. I’m sure these tea plantations in the hills are impressive if you’ve flown into KL from your own concrete jungle to shop yourself into a Louis Vuiton and Prada stupor. For some, taking a day out to visit the mountains amidst an all-out assault on the many multi-level department stores could be a nice change up – setting your eyes on the first real greenery you’ve seen in years might be as dazzling as the new season’s line of Jimmy Choo available in Pavilion KL, but it pales to insignificance coming only 2 weeks after climbing volcanoes in Java. A gentleman’s 5 / 10 when taking out what is, admittedly, a wholly unfair comparison to Mt Bromo.
There was one saving grace for Malaysia – the Perhentian Islands off the north east coast. These are a cluster of islands right up on the northern border with Thailand which are easily home to the best snorkelling I’ve ever done (yes, found Nemo). The dive-crazy kids said that it topped the Thai mega dive destinations of Koh Tao and Koh Lanta (went down for one quick dive which was okay – another boat briefly spotted a whale shark that day). There are no vehicles on the islands and barely any wifi or phone reception – such that you can only pre-book accommodation at a small number of upper class hotels. For the most part, the swathes of tourists leap from the taxi boats and storm the beaches like the Normandy landing in search of somewhere to stay. Pro tip: catch the early boat if you want to sleep under a roof, otherwise there are some extortionate 2 man tents set up on the beach without sleeping mats, blankets or pillows (NB: it can rain. Heavily. All year round). The Perhentians score a solid 9/10 and should be right up in the mix when planning your next tropical island holiday. There is a very minor issue with trash which is to be expected (it is piled up on the beach and ferried off the island every morning) but the locals are obviously conscious of this as well as of environmental protection – there is a fairly strictly enforced moratorium on fishing or foraging within 1km of the islands – even for locals.
When tossing up between the Penang/Langkawi island duo on the west and the Perhentians on the east there is no room for negotiation – despite the Perhentians being far more difficult to access it is beyond comparison. Penang is a city just like any other, only this one happens to be on an island…linked by an 8 lane bridge. It’s busy, loud and has Subway. The beaches are ordinary at best. The food is standard hawker food. I missed Langkawi because at some stage the bike battery wore through from behind and leaked acid into the electrics – the days set aside for touring Langkawi were spent touring bike and electrical shops in Georgetown in search of a 12volt high-cranking battery. You would not believe me if I told you how infuriatingly difficult it was to find. Eventually I learnt that I was looking for an “American motorcycle” part. This would eventually lead me to the inspiring and interesting Mr Lim who travelled from Downing Street, Penang to the other more famous, vacuous Downing Street address in London back in 2015 on a 125cc Honda scooter. We shared wonderful stories and saddening ones – a member of his tour party was hit by a truck in India and died just outside of Delhi. Mr Lim sourced a battery through one of the sponsors for his own ride and off we headed to the Thai border to see if we could sneak in under the cover of darkness.
Recently Thai regulations changed to now require drivers of foreign owned vehicles to be attended at all times by a guide, just as in Myanmar – a huge cost and major inconvenience when traversing such a large country. There was said to be a little known border in the mountains where on a Sunday between 5pm and 7pm you can slip through undetected. Due to the battery fiasco we missed Sunday by a long shot. The options were to wait it out or try our luck through the border and military checkpoints . We tried our luck and…
Anyway, Thailand is for next week – this is about Malaysia.
My mother always told me that if you don’t have anything nice to say don’t say anything at all…actually, Mum never told me that and it’s a ridiculous doctrine to keep which holds back constructive criticism and …oh, bugger it – I’m not going to try and justify my next words: Malaysia was shit. There was simply nothing to write home about (ironic given the length of this letter, I know). It wasn’t clean enough to be comfortable, nor was it dirty enough to carry that ‘filthy’ charm. The people weren’t difficult however nor were they helpful. If you fly in and out of the Perhentians that would be the best way to see the country.
The hard-headed nature of the two prevailing attitudes and a refusal to lend an inch has resulted in a fracture that is held together only by a consumerist drive for brand names and shining lights – ironic in a Muslim country. Where sea trade sustained Malaysia for many years history was destined to repeat somewhat when Kuala Lumpur, again, by pure geography became the Asian hub for air traffic – a perfectly situated (air)port linking the east and the west – a travel and trade epicentre once more. I wonder what the fate of Malaysia will be now with non-stop intercontinental flights and the prevalence of sparkly things with expensive names available on the internet – then, Kim Kardashian has somehow managed to hold on and stay relevant. Time will tell, I imagine. There has been a minor glimmer of hope with the Barisian Nasional losing its first election in 60 years and the new government of the day showing some sort of social conscience by moving to abolish the death penalty, but…the “new guy” is 93 years old and has already spent 20 contentious years as Prime Minister. Close but no cigar, Malaysia – you’re not fooling anyone. Life will, as I mentioned before, simply carry on more or less unperturbed, one painfully ordinary, over-regulated day at a time.
“Malaysia, truly Asia”? Actually, yeah, maybe…in a sense. It is a broad spectrum collection of the entirety of Asia from Bangalore to Beijing in one country (and more so in one town) – that much is true. But it’s a cheap street-market knock-off version you’d find in the backstreets of KL – trying hard to look real (and maybe fooling some people) but you know it’s fake; a Kardashian.