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Malaysia – The Country, Kuala Lumpur, Malacca…

Selamat Pagi – Good Morning

'Selamat Pagi' is the Bahasa Malay expression for Good Morning. Selamat Datang means Welcome.

SO WELCOME TO MALAYSIA! We hope you have a great time here.

Malaysia is made up of a long peninsula which extends from Thailand in the north to the island nation of Singapore in the south. It also includes Sabah and Sarawak, which were originally called Borneo, a large island off the southern coast. Brunei is also on the island, but a separate country, not part of Malaysia. You have no doubt heard of the Sultan of Brunei, one of the richest people in the world.

The Malay Peninsula also roughly divided into the East Coast and the West Coast, with a long mountain range running down the spine of the peninsula. The biggest city, and also Capital City of Malaysia is Kuala Lumpur (KL) and it is on the west side of the Peninsula, as are Penang and also Malacca. Johor Bharu (JB) is at the southern end of the Peninsula, just off Singapore.

The most populated part of the country is certainly the Malay Peninsula, particularly in the Klang Valley which extends from KL eastwards through PJ (Petaling Jaya) to Port Klang on the coast. Development is rampart – and you will almost see new housing, retail and commercial developments everywhere that you look. Malaysians usually use the short-form of KL, PJ, JB when referring to these cities.

When you fly into Malaysia at KL there are two International /Domestic Airports – KLIA and KLIA 2. Malaysian Airlines and other international carriers fly in and out of KLIA, but KLIA 2 is equally big and it services AirAsia flights. The two airports are a few kilometres distance from each other, and both are around 60 kilometres from the Centre of KL.

As the main part of the country, the Malay Peninsula has a history dating back many centuries, with Sultans ruling over different regions of the country. Chinese traders came to this coastline for spices and other goods, as early as the 13th Century bringing with them ceramics and other goods to exchange and also the Islam religion. As trade developed the Chinese also brought with them Chinese girls as gifts for the Sultans and their courts, and this as well as other Chinese followed with the start of a new culture emerging – what are called Nyonya and Babas, people of mixed Chinese and Malay descent. Their influence is most apparent in Malacca, where you can see Nyonya and Baba houses, as well as experience Nonya cooking styles and food – a blend of Chinese and Malay cooking that uses tropical ingredients such as coconut milk, pineapple and other such local ingredients.

In 1511 the Portuguese captured Malacca and the Portuguese traders were then followed by the Dutch who came to Malacca as Spice Traders with the Dutch East India Company establishing its influence on the country. Today you can still see the old Fort in Malacca on the Malacca Straits – the Malacca Straights being a long standing trading port for Chinese, Indian and Arab traders. It also became the route for ships heading to or from Batavia (Today's Jakarta) in the Dutch East Indies (today's Indonesia) and the ships heading to or from Europe.

The next wave of influence came from the British in the 1800's with the British establishing Colonies in India, Sri Lanka and then taking over the Malay Peninsula from the Dutch.

Just as they had established Tea Estates in India, they set about creating rubber plantations, and tin mines in Malaya– with Tin and Rubber both becoming Malaya's biggest industries until around 1960. Many of the former tin mines with mining became deep holes in the ground, and some of these have now been made into lakes – including Sunway Lagoon, now a substantial theme park.

The British also brought with them large numbers of Indian workers to work in the plantations and as civil servants – so what you have now is a very interesting racial mix – those of mixed heritage, Indians, Chinese and Malays, with another indigenous tribal group on the Malay Peninsula, the Orang Asli and in Sarawak and Sabah other indigenous tribes.

For many years too, maids have been brought to Malaysia as servants, mostly from the Philippines and Indonesia, and in recent times from Myanmar and Cambodia. Having a maid or even a number of maids is very common in Malaysia, and it is not just the rich who have maids working and doing such tasks as cooking, cleaning, washing and looking after children. Maid agencies supply the maids, and they are paid by the employer with maids in most cases remitting most of their pay back to their homeland to families. It can be a hard life for them, but this system has been used for many years in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong and in the Middle East too.

Malaysians gained their independence from Britain in 1957, and with the predominant three races of people – Malay, Chinese and Indian, they instigated a policy of what they call "Mutibah" – a policy that promotes the success of Malaysia based on all living together in harmony. There have certainly been outbreaks of racial discord, but overall this policy has worked well. As an added element to this mix – there is are also the different religions to the mix. Most Malays are Muslim, Indians practice Hinduism, Chinese mostly Buddhism, and there are a large number of Christians too. Officially the country is a Muslim country and a democracy, with an elected Prime Minister but there is also a King and Queen – who are elected by the Sultans, who also remain as Sultans over the state that they rule.

The British Colonial Empire brought with it many things, but most apparent of all is that they brought with them education teaching English as the language– so you will find most, but not all Malaysians speak English. Bahasa however is the official and most commonly spoken language in Malaysia but you will also find the Chinese will speak Cantonese or Hokkien and Indians will speak Hindi. You will also see Arabic writing with this language being in Jawi.

Bahasa with a few word and pronunciation variations is also spoken in Indonesia and in the southern island parts of the Philippines.

In Malaysia there are Muslim Mosques, Hindu, Buddhist and Chinese Temples as well as Christian Churches, and one of the great things that you will also see is this ethnic mix of people living, working and socialising together. In broad terms, the Malays control the politics, the Chinese business and Indians law and finance, but then there are all levels of workers across the spectrum. There is also an Indian caste called 'Chettiars' who are the money lenders. Remember this is a very sweeping statement.

While Malaysian's religion and racial heritage may be different, they all share a common pride in being Malaysian.

Where in western societies, eating in a restaurant is in most cases a special occasion, eating in
"Kopi Shops" (coffee shops), "Hawker Stalls" and "Restaurants" in Malaysia is something that everyone does with the food stalls and restaurants operating from early morning until late at night.

"Malaysians love food" and they have many, many uniquely Malaysian foods to eat, and wherever you look you find food, with some of the most basic hawker stalls selling some of the best food, usually specialising in a particular dish or dishes that may be from recipes that have been handed down through generations.

Some of the food restaurants may just open at night and spread out in a car park. There might be a Satay man, and others cooking from woks on a gas flame – and the dishes can be spectacularly good and cheap too. Food has to be one of the great joys of coming to Malaysia – and you could well head to an Indian restaurant for breakfast of Dosai, Roti Chanai, a banana leaf Goat curry or other delicacy in the morning, then have Chicken Rice, Nasi Lemak at lunch, and then at night enjoy Chilli Crab, Fish Head Curry, steamed fish with ginger, Beef Rendang or other food.

Drinks too come in lots of varieties – many sweet ones from coconut water, watermelon juice, Lychee juice , to Kopi, Kopi O, Milo, Chrysanthemum tea (in a TetraPak) to Malaysia's favourite tea – Teh Tarik – what is sometimes called "Stretch Tea" – which is a sweet tea made with condensed milk and stretched by pouring from one container to another a number of times to stretch it before being served. Great fun to watch! They even have Teh Tarik contests to see who can make the best one using their acrobatic skills.

In Malaysia foods and drink are also seen in terms of being "Heaty" or "Cooly". What is meant by this is that the food or drink heats up or cools down the body.

Due to the hot climate, you want to try and balance your internal temperature with your external temperature – so eat and drink liquids that help you do this. Wine and Coffee tend to heat the body, whereas a Gin& Tonic, tea and beer tend to cool it. The same applies to different foods too, which is why eating a curry works fine in this hot climate. Here in Malaysia, you will hear people say "no" to a particular food as it "being too heaty!" – and it may be a new concept to you, but it is certainly true.

Some of the restaurants may be just a rough building with corrugated iron roof and a bunch of plastic chairs under it, but if you see a crowd there, you can be pretty sure that the food is good too.

There are also up-market restaurants too, and some of the big hotels in the city have special food events, with star chefs and an amazing array of food choices. They also have 'western' food choices too.

There is also the "Wet market" – a place where fresh chillies, vegetables, spices, fish, fruit, chickens and meats are sold, even shredded coconut being made along with Coconut milk. As Malaysia develops, younger people are becoming more likely to buy their produce from a supermarket, of which there are many, but the "wet market" is still a great place to see and feel the real Malaysia, and this is more apparent when you go "outstation" – a term they use for going out of town, a throwback to the time of the British Empire.

There are also lots of tropical fruits in Malaysia – and you will be able to enjoy fruits like Dragon Fruit, Starfruit, Rambutans, Longan, Pomelo, Mangos, Bananas (specially the really small Finger Bananas), different melons, jackfruit, Mangosteens and a fruit called Durian – which has a very distinctive pungent smell, has spikes all over the outside green skin and when cracked open there are pods of seeds inside which are covered in a fleshy creamy yellow smooth fruit which is the part you eat. In season, they score each Durian in terms of quality, and people pay a lot for the right Durian. You may or may not love the taste, but while here in Malaysia, you should try it. Most car rental companies have special notices to say that you can't have Durian in the car – due to the smell.

As much as Malaysians love food, they also love to shop too – and you will find some of the biggest shopping centres in the world here – particularly in and around the big cities. From supermarkets to fashion, speciality foods, fast food, cakes, homewares, music, technology, furniture, toys, pets, movie theatres, shoes and other goods – you'll find them all here, and there seems to be no shortage of shoppers ready to buy. There are also some fun places to shop too, in a Pasar Malan (night markets) or Street markets like Petaling Street in KL (Kuala Lumpur), and in Penang (Pinang) and the old town in Malacca various artworks, paintings, antiques and tourist souvenirs.

Driving in Malaysia can also be an experience.

In western countries, drivers tend to own their lane like a prized possession. The driving style in Malaysia could best be described as a "drifting style" – more akin to the way you walk down a footpath or sidewalk moving or drifting to the right or left as you move forward past other pedestrians. The Malaysians drive fast though, especially on the highways, and with many motor bikes on the roads, driving can be an interesting experience. They drive on the left side too, based on the British system, and if you intend to hire a car here, also get a satnav to help you find your way.

The Malay word for Street/Road is 'Jalan', laneway is 'Lorong', and a common joke here is to say you're looking for Jalan Sahala – a sign post you see quite often. It means 'Dead end road'! In Malaysia it can also be quite challenging to find an address too – as areas are referred by a 'Section name' eg Section 5, with a street number after the section – for example 32 Jalan Merdeka 5/5B would mean 32 being the number in the street, 5 being the section name and 'stroke 5B' the street name.

In the centre of KL finding your way can also be a challenge – as the streets are not in a grid pattern, they are often curved, one-way, with overpasses, roundabouts and signage in Bahasa. Add to this a mass of cars, motorbikes, buses, trucks to contend with, just being in the right lane and heading in the right direction will pose problems. Rest assured you will get lost, and take a few wrong turns in the process of getting to the place that you wanted to go to. It is easier to walk, take the train or catch a taxi in the city centre, and not have the problem of parking. If you do hire a car, make sure yu get it with GPS to help. You will definitely use it!

Malaysia does have great roads, and most of the big highways are Tollways. In KL there is also an LRT (Light Rail) transit system in place too – that runs on elevated rail tracks with the network being extended into many parts of the wider KL city.

There is heavy traffic on most roads and in Malaysia, it is also the most common excuse for not being on time is to say 'There's a terrible jam"- meaning traffic jam, not something you put on toast!

When you look at the architecture in Malaysia there are some interesting things to observe too. The original Malay house was built in timber with an open area breezeway under the main living quarters – but sadly it is a style that you won't see around KL, but you will see on the East Coast and on the outskirts of Malacca and 'Kampong' (village) areas. It is also the subject of paintings that you see for sale in art shops and places selling Malaysian handicrafts. Many of the old Malay houses are being demolished and in their place are houses built in concrete, usually with marble or tile floors, and roof tiles, built as rows of houses, and you will no doubt see many of these in your time in Malaysia.

The most usual form of housing are what they call 'Bungalows' and 'Link houses' – rows of houses usually either one or two storeys, and sometimes with three storeys. The commercial and small retail areas are predominantly in 'shop lots' – located next to slip roads that lead off a main road thoroughfare. The Shop lots are all joined together with the ground floor being a restaurant or retail shop, with service industries above it on the first and higher floors. These 'shop lots' can be seen everywhere, many newly built, others much older, even some abandoned ones, depending on where you are.

In the KL city centre you will also see lots of high rise buildings, and some of these have really stylish architecture – the most notable of these being the Petronas Twin Towers, but there are others, one designed and modelled on a sugar cane plant. Some of the big buildings have quite imaginative designs, and you will also see this in both the KLIA airports too – KLIA 1 and KLIA 2.

When coming to Malaysia perhaps the most notable feature is the Palm Tree plantations that cover millions of acres of ground. These trees have largely replaced all the rubber trees that once grew here, with Palm Oil being the biggest industry in Malaysia. The Palm Trees originally came from West Africa, and are not native to Malaysia. The hot tropical climate with its wet and dry seasons, and massive downpours of rain makes for everything to grow fast, and if you look to the sides of the roads, you get the feeling that the jungle would very quickly overtake the countryside if left to its own. Beside the roads too, you will also see deep open drains (Monsoon Drains) and when the downpours come these rapidly fill, but just as quickly the water is gone. Be careful when you walk to make sure you don't fall into one!

Happy Travelling!

Geoff Stuart

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