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Is This Malaysia's Moment?

I'll always remember my Malaysia epiphany-- a moment that captured the essence of this maddeningly contradictory country. It came on the island of Penang, on a day of searing tropical heat. I had been craving durian, a pungent fruit shaped like a spiky rugby ball. It was too late in the year to find any good samples in Georgetown, the main city. But I was told that a stand in an industrial district near the airport sold the island's best durians, in and out of season.

A 20-minute drive took me from Georgetown's street bazaars, past suburban Victorian mansions, and into a rain forest partially crushed by factories that looked like huge Lego blocks. The architecture may have been unappealing, but the durian, cleaved by a machete-wielding Chinese youth, was delectable. I scooped out the oily meat with my fingers and slowly rolled each portion over my tongue, savoring the peanut-and-scallion aftertaste.

It was only after emerging from my durian-induced haze that I noticed a red temple with curved eaves poking through the jungle. The survivor of another era, it was almost hidden by modern buildings. I entered the temple gingerly, trying not to disturb the lone worshiper, dressed in a business suit, palms together in silent prayer. Suddenly, a three-foot-long pit viper slithered from behind the altar and across the incense table. In one gulp it devoured a chicken egg from a small pile left as an offering. I had barely absorbed the jolt when I noticed venomous snakes-- dozens of them-- curled around the altar's urns, incense holders, and potted plants. Serpents writhed in the dark recesses of the ceiling; several dropped to the floor around me. "Don't move," the man whispered with a British accent. "If you do not bother them, they will not bite."

He guided me to safety on the outside terrace and, after my heartbeat returned to double digits, introduced himself as Leong, manager of a nearby electronics factory. He explained that I had stumbled upon the Temple of the Azure Cloud, otherwise known as the Snake Temple. Vipers are protected and venerated here.

Glancing at his Rolex, Leong said it was time to head back to the factory. As he slid into his Mercedes, he offered a bit of advice: "Now that you're here, you really should try the durians. They may be the best in all Malaysia."

I've made several journeys to Malaysia over the last 30 years, and what has always appealed to me about this California-size country of surpassing exoticism is that it cannot be summarized in a sound bite or on a colorful poster. It has no Great Wall, no snow-crowned Alps, no berets and baguettes to conjure up easy fantasies. It is a jumble of religions, topographies, and races: the 20 million population is about half Malay, a third Chinese, and the rest Indian. In the western part of the main peninsula, sophisticated resorts sidle up to booming cities; virgin rain forests blanket the cool, misty central highlands; and unbroken stretches of near-deserted beach line the eastern coast. The country's portion of the huge island of Borneo, just across the South China Sea, possesses the same elements.

So, how to experience Malaysia when you can spare only nine or 10 days?Spend your time on the western side of the peninsula, where most of the people live. Take a few days to explore Kuala Lumpur, the futuristic capital, then head to the Chinese stronghold of Penang. Finish the journey on Langkawi, an island that is home to pristine wilderness, traditional Malay culture, and the Datai, one of the world's most fabulous resorts.

For the first night of my recent visit, I couldn't resist being assigned a personal butler and staying at a place that has played host to Queen Elizabeth. So I booked a room at the Carcosa Seri Negara, on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur. The former British colonial governor's residence has been converted into a 13-suite guesthouse; there's a 30-acre botanical garden right next door. You'll feel as if you have landed in a mysterious, ancient domain. At dawn and dusk, the calls to the faithful-- "Allahu akbar"-- waft in from the minarets of distant mosques, to be answered by the chirping of iridescent birds. On the far horizon, rising above trees draped in vines and orchids, is what looks like a tropical Emerald City.

But Kuala Lumpur is far from a Wizard of Oz scene. Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad has vowed that Malaysia will join the ranks of the world's developed nations by the year 2020, and nowhere is the frenzied race more apparent than in this 140-year-old city that seems intent on wiping out any trace of its brief past. Hotels and business headquarters vault to dizzying heights. The recently completed Petronas Twin Towers are the world's tallest buildings. If K.L.-- as the city is called-- had a symbol, it would be a mammoth construction crane. Residents joke about the city's edifice complex.

For somebody like myself, who was away from K.L. more than a decade, the skyline has changed beyond recognition. So have the streets, which were widened at the expense of the sidewalks. Once a pleasant place to stroll, K.L. is now an obstacle course for pedestrians, who are clearly relegated to second-class status behind motorists.

Guidebooks note the dwindling historic landmarks: the Moorish Railway Station and Supreme Court building; the National Art Gallery, which used to lodge officers and their families during the British colonial era; and Masjid Jame, the oldest mosque, near the confluence of the Gombak and Kelang rivers that gives the capital its name (kuala lumpur means "muddy estuary"). Except for Chinatown and the enclosed Central Market, what is left of traditional Kuala Lumpur is best viewed from an air-conditioned car.

There is, however, an upside to the forced march toward modernization. Even the most obtuse traveler cannot fail to be caught up in the city's sheer economic optimism. Rapid growth has erased much of the racial tension that used to pit the poorer Malays against the more affluent, better-educated Chinese and Indians. The hope is that prosperity will also bridge the society's other great fault line: the chasm between urban secular Malaysians and the Islamic fundamentalists in more provincial communities.

It took a recent visit by Michael Jackson (yes, the moonwalking musician) to bring this conflict to a visible simmer. Denouncing his onstage antics as lewd and his offstage behavior as damnable, conservative Muslims called for a cancellation of the Jackson tour. Despite these protests and the $70 ticket price, the singer filled K.L.'s 40,000-seat stadium for two performances. Adolescents were outnumbered by adults, who probably enjoyed the spectacle all the more as a rebuke to the fundamentalists.

The dichotomy between the traditional and the modern is a phenomenon in every developing country. But rarely is it so ever-present, so alluring, and yet so downright nerve-racking as in Malaysia. In K.L., I was struck by unmistakable signs of longing for a simpler past by many of the same residents who proclaim their eagerness to embrace the new. How else to explain the extraordinary survival and popularity of former British watering holes?


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