Is This Malaysia's Moment?
Published: June 2009
By Jonathan Kandell
Everything that defines modern Asia can be found here:ancient villages clinging to tradition, grandcolonial relics, and the buzz of a new prosperity
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?
Bashir Shariff, an investment fund manager whose family emigrated from southern India generations ago, guided me to the best of these retro hangouts, places that his father-- an official in the British colonial administration-- would not have been allowed to enter before Malaysia was granted independence in 1957. The most accessible spot for inhaling colonial nostalgia is the Coliseum Café & Hotel, once a favorite with British rubber plantation owners on leave from their jungle redoubts. Nowadays, the patrons are mainly Chinese, Malays, and Indians, who affect a bored British look as they lounge in old leather chairs, blowing smoke rings toward overhead fans after a dinner of steak-and-kidney pie. A half-century-old newspaper clipping on the yellowed wall advises readers, "How to know when your servant has malaria."
Another former colonial stronghold, the Royal Selangor Club, is now a multiracial gathering place for the business elite. But some prejudices remain in this marble-floored, mock-Tudor building: the bar is still restricted to men. Photos on the walls hail early-20th-century cricket and rugby stars, and the drinks are overly generous. "Wives don't like this place anyway, because so few of the fellows come home sober," confided Bashir.
Karim Raslan, a noted journalist and lawyer of Anglo-Malay parentage, and his friend Valentine Willie, a Borneo aborigine who owns the leading K.L. art gallery, are the sort of affluent intellectuals too young to remember-- or care much about-- the colonial era and its secular shrines. When evening comes, they gravitate to the Bangsar district, with its low skyline of former warehouses. "You don't have all those buildings towering over you," says Raslan. The free-spending hordes are also drawn by the district's countercultural feel and the fact that the Bangsar-- unlike much of the rest of the city-- is as friendly to walkers as to drivers. Patrons flow in and out of the English-style pubs and spacious minimalist restaurants and crowd around street stalls.
The mostly Chinese residents of the island of Penang, some 230 miles north of Kuala Lumpur and the scene of my durian hunt, seem a lot more determined than the capital's denizens to prevent rapid development from obliterating their cultural landscape. The most visible part of this heritage lies within the 40-square-block core of Georgetown. I couldn't wait to abandon my taxi and explore the narrow streets on foot.
In the center of Chinatown is the 19th-century Cheong Fatt Tze mansion, built by a trader of such extraordinary wealth that he was dubbed "the Rockefeller of the East." He hired China's finest artisans to erect his ornate blue house in a traditional courtyard plan, with ceramic bas-reliefs.
Laurence Loh, a local architect, is spearheading a restoration campaign, along with several other conservationists. "We don't have a clear notion yet of what we'll do with it-- besides saving it from being torn down for an office or condominium tower," Loh says. The pace of the work has been painstakingly slow. But the project has spurred other private preservation efforts on Penang. The so-called clan halls, which once operated as hostels and mutual-aid societies for Chinese immigrants, are being renovated to serve as schools and cultural centers. Shattered roof tiles are being replaced, and snarling marble lions guarding entrances have been polished. The largest of these halls have open-balconied theaters for Chinese opera performances.
The rest of Chinatown needs no help. The dynamism of its shopkeepers and artisans is boldly on display. Signs in calligraphy advertise antique furniture and tea sold in lacquered boxes. The cool blast of air conditioners lures shoppers into the goldsmiths' stores on Campbell Street. Nearby, Carnarvon Street is devoted to the needs of the afterlife: its shops sell miniature paper replicas of limousines and household appliances to be burned at Chinese funerals. On Jalan Kuala Kangsar, pajama-clad Chinese grandmothers balance parasols on their shoulders while they scrutinize the fruit, vegetable, and prepared food stands or nibble on nonya kuih, coconut and tapioca pastries, at the cake stalls.
I wandered down Market Street and found myself in the Indian merchant community, where BMW's nudge rickshaws aside and sidewalks are crowded with women in luminous saris, traders wearing ties (despite the stifling heat), and polo-shirted hipsters lugging boom boxes blaring Hindi songs. I bumped and slid through the throngs past shops selling spices, bolts of silk, and jewelry spun as fine as spiderwebs. On Queen Street, I stopped at the Sri Mariamman Temple just as Hindu holy men with long beards and sarongs emerged after hours of prayer.
Later, for respite from the midday heat, I headed to the top of Penang Hill, where it's usually 10 degrees cooler than in the city. From the base of the hill, the ancient cog train began a 30-minute crawl 2,700 feet up to the summit, past moss-covered boulders, prehistoric-size ferns and bamboo, and packs of monkeys leaping through the jungle canopy. Over tea and scones at the aptly named Bellevue Hotel, I could see the mainland across the ship-laden straits. It's little wonder that Penang once had a reputation among Europeans as the most livable place in the Orient. The makers of the film Indochine used a villa on this hilltop to convey the lavish lifestyle that kept colonials rooted in Asia.
By late afternoon, tired and hot, I retreated to my beachside hotel, the Rasa Sayang Resort, a 30-minute drive from Georgetown up the northern coast. After a long swim around the pool, in and out of the shadow of a mammoth rain tree, I lounged on the balcony of my soothing beige-toned room, sipping a gin and tonic. On that sultry night, a haunting full moon peered through veils of clouds, a foghorn announced a freighter's silhouette on the horizon, and waves slapped the sandy coast.
The following evening I joined Suleiman Tunku Abdul Rahman for dinner. The honorific "Tunku Abdul" gives him the right to the title of prince, but he prefers to be addressed simply as Suleiman. In modern Malaysia even nobility must earn a living, so Suleiman spends most of his time working in administration at the Rasa Sayang.
Suleiman suggested that we drop by a new theater restaurant-- the kind of supper club that features ethnic dance numbers and has proved popular among tourists in Kuala Lumpur-- on the crowded strip of shops and hotels near the Rasa Sayang. The show kicked off with authentic Malaysian dancing. But even my untrained ear began to pick out distinctly Western 1950's melodic strains as the evening wore on. My suspicions were confirmed when the guests-- mostly members of a Japanese tour group-- were invited to join the performers onstage for a basic lesson in the boria, a local variant of the hokey-pokey. The club owner personally came by our table to urge us to join. But I was taking my cues from the prince, and fortunately Suleiman had a "no dice" look on his face.
Locals told me i would be able to experience a more pristine version of Malaysia in Langkawi, a 20-minute plane hop from Penang and the largest of a string of 104 islands. According to legend, an ancient island princess, the beautiful Mahsuri, was put to death here after being falsely accused of adultery. In her dying gasp, she vowed that Langkawi would not prosper for seven generations. In 1987, after heart-to-heart talks with the government and leading real estate developers, the local shamans declared that the curse was over.
This might explain why the rave reviews of the island seemed grossly misinformed when I arrived. The southern stretch, around the airport, looked like a construction site for a new Florida resort: faceless hotels, sprawling golf courses, and shopping centers. Then I was greeted by the mother of all rains, a monsoon downpour so heavy that I couldn't see the road. My taxi driver assured me he could navigate the 20 miles north to my resort blindfolded.
The rain ended just as we pulled into the Datai, the kind of resort that makes architects and interior decorators salivate. Parts of it are reminiscent of a Japanese castle, with pagoda-like roofs; designer-furnished rooms face the island-dotted Andaman Sea. Nearby, waterfalls thunder down mist-shrouded, jungle-covered mountains. A 10-minute walk through virgin rain forest leads to a crescent beach, where the owners of the Datai recently built a 188-room resort called the Andaman.
It is easy enough to confine oneself to the Datai. During my stay, I spent hours floating in the pool on the terrace overlooking the sea, and training the hotel-supplied binoculars on the red flying squirrels soaring between the trees just beyond my balcony.
But most of the time I resisted temptation, and with good reason. Along much of its northern shore, Langkawi is still a naturalist's dream. From December to March, it is a stopover for hundreds of bird species migrating from as far away as Siberia. Three-foot-long black monitor lizards-- sharp-toothed survivors from Cretaceous times-- dash along its pure-white beaches. From the sky above, skittish Brahminy kites and majestic white-bellied sea eagles plunge into the turquoise waters offshore, emerging with fish in their talons.
Granted, there are some human blemishes hidden among the orchid fields, monkeys, and hornbills. Mahendra Dev, the Datai's naturalist, took me on a boat tour of the coastal mangroves with six other passengers, from Pittsburgh, Melbourne, and Osaka. He pointed out an island once famous for its bat cave. A hotel developer decided it would be more appealing if the dense mangroves were replaced by pine trees, stone benches, and picnic tables. This resulted in an ecological domino effect: the long-tongued bats, which fed on the mangrove flowers, have starved or moved elsewhere. In the absence of bats, wasps have infested the cave. The pines don't have the mangroves' extensive root networks, which protected the beach from erosion, so the waves have shattered the benches and tables.
Before leaving Langkawi I wanted at least a glimpse of more traditional Malay society. Malays call themselves bumiputra, or "sons of the soil." Driving through the mountains, I could see thousands of acres of green rice fields stretching across much of the central part of the island far below. Surely, there were still plenty of bumiputra villagers living in their airy wood houses on stilts.
At a local café I met Shukri Shafie, who grew up in Langkawi and had recently built himself one of those traditional-style Malay dwellings. We drove through the jungle, then along a clearing of rice paddies, and finally up a hill to Shukri's house. It was a wonder to behold. Shukri explained how carefully he had followed local custom and architectural style. He had hired a religious shaman to approve the location of the land and decide the most propitious day to begin construction. From his ancestors' plot, Shukri had brought earth in a coconut shell and buried it with a gold coin under what would be the central pillar. On the sides of the house, artisans had carved wood panels with traditional Kedah motifs, such as spice plants, flowers, and animals. The high roofs and open windows provided natural ventilation even during the hottest part of the day.
Perhaps it was indiscreet, but I couldn't help asking Shukri how he could afford to build this residence worthy of a sultan. He had spent much of his adult life, he explained, as an advertising executive in the United States and Europe. "I once handled the Coca-Cola account in Malaysia," said Shukri, who had set aside enough savings to enjoy a simpler, more provincial existence.
Enlightenment, it seems, can take many shapes. And so, at journey's end, I had finally come across somebody able to effortlessly sort out and balance the conflicting strains of traditional and modern life in Malaysia.
- A day trip to Malacca, a coastal town 90 minutes south of Kuala Lumpur that was once the center of the spice trade between Europe and Asia. Stroll past Dutch colonial buildings and inspect the antiques shops on Jonkers Street.
- The Art Deco Central Market in Kuala Lumpur for puppets, kites, batik, and native crafts.
- In Georgetown, one of Malaysia's best collections of street food stands: the New Golden Phoenix, on Gurney Drive. Try seafood laksa (a classic Nonya noodle soup), lacquered chicken and duck, and roasted stingray in curry sauce.
The coastal boat tour among the mangroves off Langkawi with the Datai's naturalist: you can spot white-bellied sea eagles plunging into the turquoise waters.
Malaysia's weather is humid and sunny year-round. Even during the western peninsula's monsoon season, September to December, the rains tend to be brief. Kuala Lumpur, Penang, and Langkawi are on or just off the peninsula, which makes for easy south-to-north airport hops, instead of the usual cat's cradle of plane trips over this geographically complex country. Round-trip airfare from New York, plus flights between the three destinations, costs about $1,500 in economy class.
Carcosa Seri Negara Taman Tasik Perdana; 800/ 447-7462, 212/750-0375, or 60-3/282-1888; doubles from $398. A colonial atmosphere. Afternoon tea is served on the veranda.
New World Hotel 128 Jalan Ampang, at Jalan Sultan Ismail; 800/468-3571 or 60-3/263-6888; doubles from $140. It shares all the amenities of the adjoining, pricier Renaissance Hotel.
Shangri-La Hotel 11 Jalan Sultan Ismail; 800/942-5050 or 60-3/232-2388; doubles from $214. Among the best of the city's business-oriented luxury hotels.
Penang Mutiara Resort 1 Jalan Teluk Bahang; 800/ 440-6256 or 60-4/885-2828; doubles from $145. A contemporary lobby-- marble floors and chandeliers.
Rasa Sayang Resort Batu Feringgi Beach; 800/942-5050 or 60-4/881-1811; doubles from $136. Head and shoulders above the rest of Penang's hotels. Request a sea-view room in the new Garden Wing.
The Andaman Jalan Teluk Datai; 800/447-7462, 212/ 750-0375, or 60-4/959-1088; doubles from $201. A newly opened beachfront resort, done in native style.
The Datai Jalan Teluk Datai; 800/447-7462, 212/750-0375, or 60-4/959-2500; doubles from $289. Unless the Datai happens to be full, don't even consider staying anywhere else on the island.
Radisson Tanjung Rhu Mukim Ayer Hangat; 800/ 333-3333 or 60-4/959-1033; doubles from $240. A four-story hotel with a small saltwater pool.
Kapitan's Klub 35 Jalan Ampang; 60-3/201-0242; dinner for two $35. A warehouse-size restaurant with a prewar atmosphere and live music.
Bon Ton 7 Jalan Kia Peng; 60-3/241-3611; dinner for two $40. The hangout for K.L.'s golden youth.
Rama V 5 Jalan U-Thant; 60-3/243-2663; dinner for two $40. An elegant Thai establishment, with a lotus pond and a garden. For dessert, sample durian with sticky rice.
The Mango Tree 4 Lorong Maarof, Bangsar Utama; 60-3/284-6268; dinner for two $100. Euro-Asian fusion. Go with the local catch of the day.
Dragon King 9 Lebuh Bishop, Georgetown; 60-4/261-8035; lunch or dinner for two $20. Just put yourself in the owner's hands and let her prepare a medley of dishes at this no-frills spot.
Bon Ton at the Beach Pantai Cenang; 60-4/955-3643; lunch for two $20. Try the Nonya fried rice with chicken, prawns, and vegetables.
Travel Survival Kit: Malaysia, Singapore & Brunei (Lonely Planet)-- Where to stay and eat, what to see, along with maps and a good phrase guide.
Knopf Guide: Singapore and Malaysia (Alfred A. Knopf)-- A pocket-size volume that covers the country's history, culture, and food, plus hotels for all budgets.
The Long Day Wanes by Anthony Burgess (W. W. Norton)-- This early trilogy by the famous novelist depicts post-World War II Malaya as the sun is rapidly setting on British colonial rule.
-- Martin Rapp
On the Web
Malaysia-- Fascinating Destination (http://tourism.gov.my) -- Excellent tourist info: maps, culture, shopping, accommodations, events.
Malaysia Homepage (http://www.jaring.my)-- A far-ranging site filled with news, politics, and the "Laws of Malaysia" section, which explains why rap will never top the local radio charts.
-- Mark Orwoll
For the best in modern Malaysian painting, check out Valentine Willie's two Kuala Lumpur galleries (22B Jalan Taman U-Thant; 17 Jalan Telawi; 60-4/245-1262; by appointment only).