Introducing Malaysia – Truly Asia
by Mark Heng
While the state religion is Islam, Malaysia is first and foremost a multicultural society. As such, the wow factor of this colourful nation is its cultural diversity and range of ethnic influences – Malay, Chinese, Indian, Eurasian, Peranakan, as well as indigenous peoples. Diversity is also evident in the landscape of Malaysia's cities and towns, where kampung (village) friendliness and colonial heritage run deep, even with modern developments and skyscrapers looming above. Malaysia is a prime destination to get in touch with nature. It is where rainforests and mountains, beaches and idyllic tropical islands, blue seas and coral reefs, and diverse ecosystems are never far and usually accessible. Perhaps the biggest draw for travellers is the balance that Malaysia strikes so well – a rapidly developing country with modern infrastructure and a well-developed tourism industry, while remaining a bit untamed and largely affordable.
Malaysia is distinctively divided geographically by the South China Sea into West (or Peninsular) Malaysia and East Malaysia (on Borneo). West Malaysia is generally more economically developed and divided by a mountain range into the more urbanised West Coast and the more rural East Coast. East Malaysia is popular for eco-tourism in its nature reserves and national parks, and is partly covered with impenetrable jungle where headhunters still live in longhouses.
The main gateway to the rest of Malaysia is its capital, financial centre, and largest city, Kuala Lumpur, known informally as KL. Landing at the modern airport, you enter a wonderful gem of a city – with some of the world's cheapest 5-star hotels, great shopping and even better food. The nation's crowning jewel is the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest twin buildings in the world, which offers panoramic views of the city and beyond. Another landmark is the nearby KL Tower, the world's second tallest telecommunications tower. These landmarks anchor the “Golden Triangle”, home to most of the city's hotels, offices, and malls. The original city centre at Merdeka Square is the core of KL's history, rich in colonial architecture with Moorish influences. Chinatown and Little India are the engaging ethnic districts, while the Lake Gardens are a green sanctuary in the city.
For culture vultures and history buffs, the best historical sights and museums are located in the sleepy town of Malacca, and Penang, Malaysia's most popular destination. Malacca retains much of its old-world charm, with evidence of previous Portuguese, Dutch, and British colonists mixed with the cultures of Arabs, Indians and Chinese who came here to trade, and subsequently settled, centuries ago. Once the seat of British power in the region, Penang bustles with charm – old shophouses on narrow streets, the smell of incense from places of worship, and the taste of famous dishes in this food paradise, make for a true feast for the senses.
Nature lovers and tree huggers will enjoy exploring the rich biodiversity and untamed forests of Malaysia's national parks. Taman Negara National Park is famous for jungle treks through its canopy of 130 million years old primary rainforest, night hides to observe flora and fauna up-close, cruising down the rapids and through caves, and meeting the indigenous Orang Alsi community. Kinabalu National Park is home of Mount Kinabalu, a prominent peak in South East Asia and known to be one of the most accessible mountains in the world, which makes for a great climb.
Thrill seekers and beach lovers will find their paradise amongst the many beach resorts offering watersports in idyllic tropical island destinations. Off the West Coast, Pangkor is a secluded hideaway while Langkawi is one of the region's best island paradise destination. Tioman, once nominated one of the most beautiful islands in the world, is accompanied by Perhentian and Redang off the East Coast – these islands are popular for scuba enthusiasts and snorkelling.