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The Mystique of Malaysia

Photos by Emily Grey

Last May, I boarded Malaysia Airlines in Newark, N.J. and set-off across the Atlantic for a 20-hour flight. After a brief stop in Dubai, we landed seven hours later outside Kuala Lumpur. The 88-story Petronas, the world’s tallest twin towers, and other architecturally unique skyscrapers illuminated the capital of Malaysia.

Worldwide media had gathered for the annual Citra Warna or Colours of Malaysia parade. More than 6,000 performers, including royalty, school children, and residents from the nation’s 14 states, presented a glorious nocturnal array of pageantry, dancing, and music. At the fireworks finale, a smiling lad handed me his grass-woven crown.

Malaysia is a diaspora, a remarkable pocket of international ethnic groups. In 1957, the nation gained its independence from Great Britain. Driving on the left side and widely spoken English are remaining remnants of the motherland.

Around 5:50 a.m.,daily, I awoke to the unusual chant of the prayer caller. Moslems are summoned to pray at least four times a day. Airports, malls, and hotels furnish secluded rooms for devotion. Except for the monsoons, from late fall through early spring, the nation’s overall climate is sunny, hot, and humid. Zipping in a speedboat over the South China Sea or ducking into Batu Caves, a Hindu shrine brimming with Rhesus monkeys, brought relief.

To alleviate overcrowding and heavy traffic, the capital city’s administrative and governmental infrastructure is relocating to the newly planned city of Putrajaya, meaning “victorious prince.” There, we strolled through beautiful botanical gardens and removed our shoes before entering an intricately designed mosque.

A Chinese-speaking couple, Malay travel agent, Moslem guide (Ning), and driver traveled with me. Despite a slight verbal challenge, we managed to communicate effectively. I even learned a bit of Malay, the country’s main language.

We enjoyed sampling fresh papaya, durian, and other succulent fruits. Some spicy dishes like beefy randang made my eyes gush. Tempting feasts of seafood, chicken skewers, and crisp garden salads decorated every banquet table. Among the exotic dishes, I especially relished barking deer, indigenous to Sabah and Sarawak (Malaysia’s two states on Borneo A 2-1/2-hour flight whisked my group to Sabah, “land below the wind.” To my surprise, the state capital city of Kota Kinabalu, like Kuala Lumpur, is largely Americanized. Golf courses, vast beaches, and resorts, landscaped with flame of the forest and golden shower trees, have replaced the island’s notorious headhunters.

The globe’s largest flower, the over three-foot wide Rafflesia, bloomed in a small woodland edge on a private estate. Flies buzzed about the parasite’s pungent center. [PARASITE?] Rafflesia arnoldii is a kind of parasitic plant (more about that in a few pages) that parasitizes Tetrastigma, in the grape family. Rafflesia only lives in the rain forests of Sumatra and Borneo.

On the same day at Kinabalu Park, we observed the world’s tiniest flower, a delicate white orchid. Mount Kinabalu, Southeast Asia’s highest peak, rose 13,432 feet in the distance.

After a 30-minute plane ride to the city of Sandakan, we drove for several hours to a rustic river lodge. There we cruised in a sampan on the Kinabatangan River framed by a jungle. Rustling overhead in the branches was a family of endemic proboscis or Dutch monkeys. The male proboscis flaunts his oversized, fleshy, pinkish nose to lure females. We watched in awe as a group of six swung from vines and adeptly leapt over a wide stream. A yellow-ringed cat snake, blue-eared kingfisher, and pig-tailed macaque loomed from the overgrowth as dusk shrouded the trees.

Nearby, the fearless “wild man of Borneo” swayed from ropes and raced to a wooden feeding platform for a banana brunch. At Sepilok, the world’s largest orangutan sanctuary, orphaned, injured, and ailing orangutans are nurtured back to health and, when ready, released in the wild. Like their proboscis cousins, this species continues to suffer tremendous habitat loss as farmers clear land to grow palms for cooking oil and cosmetics.

Before leaving Sandakan, our Buddhist guide, Juan, introduced us to the kampung or water village where he lived. The conglomeration of small stilt-raised, spartan homes reminded me of the crab shacks of Tangier. Laughing children and their mothers welcomed us to their abodes where they sold handmade jewelry and paintings.

After my amazing journey, I accepted Tourism Malaysia’s invitation to speak at the Malaysian Embassy in Washington, D.C. I gladly told the ambassador, the press, and other distinguished guests about the warm hospitality, kindness, and graciousness of my Moslem and Buddhist guides. I never feared SARS or terrorists. In fact, authorities at Malaysian airports carefully screen passengers for both. Travel and meeting people of various cultures is a crucial educational step toward obviating media-hype, bias, and fear. Boundaries divide. Open-minded passages unite and bridge gaps.

For more information on Malaysia and how to get there on Malaysia Airlines, visit the following sites:

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