Malaysia: a dream everyone can enjoy  

November 19 2005
By Tweet Gainsborough-Waring

Like most travellers heading for Asian countries, we packed imodium and antibiotics to ward off the dreaded traveller's runs.
We needn't have worried: due to a combination of plenty of rice (which appeared to block everything) and a big dose of toilet skrik (fear of unusual toilet conditions), what we needed was a good dose of Senokot.
Despite this, backpacking in Malaysia is a pleasure: the people are super-friendly, the climate is great; food and accommodation are plentiful.
Add to this an efficient transport system and you have all the ingredients for an inexpensive adventure in a foreign and very different country.
Peter and I are predominantly wine drinkers, but the high cost of wine prompted us to switch to the local brew, Tiger beer, which because Malaysia is a Muslim country is heavily taxed, so it turns out to be our most expensive commodity, at 7 Malaysian ringgit, or RM (about R14).
The food is great and at our first stop, The Pondok Lodge for Backpackers, we found ourselves in a street with restaurants from around the world.
Croat, German, Spanish cuisine, you name it, it was there along with Asian favourites such as Thai and Chinese cuisine. Rice and noodles are the staple diet and you can get these from open-air street restaurants at all hours of the day or night. This is breakfast, lunch and supper.
Some restaurants offer a wide variety of toppings, many of which are seriously hot. Most have plastic tables and chairs. Here you can eat and take time out to watch and absorb the colourful and vibrant surroundings.
Just about everywhere, you will see Oriental cats, which anywhere else you would probably pay a fortune for.
In Kuala Lumpur cats with attitude are part of the streetscape. Many have short tails. Very few are neutered, and as a result they strut their stuff proudly with tails upright.
Moving away from the city we took a bus and ferry to Pulau Pangkor, a small island sustained by fishing and an emerging tourism industry. Getting around its 8km circumference is best done on a moped.
The island offers a few swimming beaches and a couple of up-market resorts.
We stayed at Teluk Nipah (Nipah Beach), where cats reigned supreme. Leave your towel there for five minutes and you'd return to find a cat on it.
There's a bit of jungle here, home to the pied hornbill and the occasional greater hornbill, which we were lucky enough to see through the lens of a very expensive telescope owned by a group of birders who had come to the island in search of this colourful creature.
Our next stop was Georgetown on the island of Penang, renowned for its Chinese flavour.
We booked in at 75 Travellers Lodge in Lebuh Muntri, a rollicking backpackers' with a constant turnover of travellers all ready to exchange experiences over a beer or coffee on the porch.
We walked the narrow winding streets and loved the busy ambience and streetscapes of crumbling shop-houses in the older part of the city where time seemed to have stood still.
Wandering the streets, we came across one of the last remaining producers of handmade joss sticks.
Lee Beng Chuan described his age rather graphically as two walking sticks - translated as 77. He had been making joss sticks in all sizes from the same house for more than 60 years.
Even at his advanced age he makes at least 100 sticks a day, although not on days when it is too hot because the sandalwood used to make the sticks would crack and his regulars would scold him for poor-quality goods. Mr Lee, as he is known, is one of a handful of traditional craftsmen who still ply their trade from home.
Staying in a backpackers' hostel gives you first-hand knowledge of what is happening, and for us this meant being given the opportunity of going behind the scenes at an open-air production of Chinese opera.
Dr Ang, who offered his reflexology services at Travellers Lodge, was also involved in his family's amateur opera club. Ang invited us and a few others to join him and his family behind the scenes.
It was an awesome experience of colour, texture and sound. Contributing to this were stunning performers with voices totally different from anything we had previously encountered.
Ang explained that the make-up and costumes changed for every scene. In the tradition of Chinese theatre, good was rewarded and evil punished, leaving the audience spellbound and happy.
My best meal was at Shing Kheang Aun restaurant, where Chin Hong cooked Hainanese rice - absolutely delicious, especially with tiny prawns.
In most of the noodle and rice dishes that we sampled, seafood played a role.
One place not to miss in Georgetown is the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion. Two hourlong tours a day are run, costing RM10 (R20) a person.
The story behind the mansion is fascinating: Fatt Tze was a penniless teenager from China who worked his way up to become an extremely wealthy mandarin with as many properties as many wives. The mansion was rescued from ruin in the 1990s and received the Unesco Heritage Conservation award in 2000.
Georgetown is home to people of many religions, who are free to practise their beliefs without hindrance.
This was brought home to us most emphatically when arriving back at the backpackers' one night we found a Taoist funeral ritual on the go in the street.
Our neighbour across the street had died 100 days previously and the ritual taking taking place now entailed family and friends getting together to burn paper replicas of his worldly belongings to ensure his comfort in the afterlife.
These included an almost life-size replica of his luxury car.
A Taoist monk led the chanting, which took place around a fire in the road, with assistants to halt traffic whenever he needed space for a run-up to jump over the fire (the flames were huge as he spat paraffin onto the fire).
The chanting carried on late into the night with the eventual burning of the paper car, house and other replicas including the sound system.
Rituals such as this can be carried out only by the rich because a fire tender must be on hand, not to mention the specialist craftsmen who have to be hired to create the paper replicas.
What made Malaysia so great were the friendly people, the efficiency of the transport, the safety and overall value for money.
We took $2 000 (R13 500) for two weeks and came back with $800 (R5 400). Backpacking accommodation varied from R50-R70 for a double room (with shower and aircon).
Take your own towels and you may have to ask for a bed sheet. Although the toilet may be Western, you will probably need to ask for toilet paper since water from a short hose is the Asian way.
Street restaurant meals varied between RM20 and RM40 (R40-R80), much less if you had a cooldrink instead of a beer. Our meals at up-market restaurants averaged just under R200 for two, including beer.

  Christmas in Malaysia -  It's not what you might imagine  

December 23, 2005
By Justin Raimondo

To say that Malaysia is not what I imagined would be an understatement of epic proportions. Situated just south of Thailand, north of Indonesia, and quite close to the equator, the country describes itself as officially "Islamic," and this, at least in the minds of most Americans, means a stultifying uniformity, a monolithic apparatus of cultural and all too often political repression. It means women in burqas, gay people in hiding, and a society generally groaning under the weight of an enormous repression.
Therefore, when I was invited to attend the Perdana Global Peace Forum as a speaker, I was somewhat hesitant, to say the least: did I really want to venture forth into such a forbidding landscape? So my initial answer was "no." But after doing a little research, and in response to the urgings of's webmaster, Eric Garris, I reconsidered. What, I reasoned, could possibly happen to me? After all, I had lived in that most dangerous and forbidding realm, the New York City of pre-Giuliani days, where you were just as likely to be mugged as anything else, and in broad daylight, too. Yet I had lived to tell the tale. So, I thought, what the heck - why not?
I am now well into my second week of staying in Kuala Lumpur, at the fabulous Crowne Plaza Hotel, and it is clearer than ever that my prejudices were not only mistaken - they were and are the exact opposite of the truth. Malaysia is the virtual incarnation of religious and ethnic diversity, a veritable melting pot of racial and devotional groups that somehow manage to live in relative harmony far beyond anything I have seen even in that paradigmatic paragon of multiculturalism, California. Malays, Chinese, Indians, Arabs, and a generous smattering of Anglo expats swarm the streets of Kuala Lumpur, the biggest city in the country: yes, there is a Muslim majority, but non-Muslims are not subject to sharia law. Malay Muslims coexist with Chinese Catholics, and Buddhist priests roam the Bukhit Bintang plaza, begging, amidst crowds shopping for the latest fashions and punk rockers with pink hair stroll fearlessly down the street.
You never saw such diversity. And that's just during the daytime. At night…
I'm getting ahead of myself. Of course, I didn't come here for the nightlife: I came for the Perdana Peace Forum, which was favored with an impressive array of speakers: former Australian prime minister Bob Hawke, British MP George Galloway, former UN assistant secretary-general Denis Halliday, Pakistan-born Britain-based writer and filmmaker Tariq Ali, former UN assistant secretary-general Hans von Sponeck, Daniel Ellsberg, and anti-nuclear-arms activist and writer Helen Caldicott. Representing the Malaysians were former prime minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamad, current Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, and Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak.
I had some concerns about former Prime Minister Mahathir, but then I read this Paul Krugman column and my fears were somewhat allayed. Upon meeting Dr. Mahathir, whatever reservations remained were put completely to rest: the man seems to emanate benevolence and great gentleness, almost an aura of serenity, like some sort of Buddhist guru.
Another concern was the appearance of any connection to a government entity: does not accept money from any governmental source, nor do we affiliate ourselves with the activities of any government. Only after receiving assurances that not a penny of Malaysian government money was going into the conference did we agree to attend. The conference was, indeed, a model of private enterprise in action, with corporate contributions from Ambank Group, Berjaya Corporation Bhd, Country Heights Holdings Bhd, Kuala Lumpur Kepong Bhd, Malayan Banking Bhd, Multi-Purpose Holdings Bhd, Sri Inderajaya Holdings Sdn Bhd, the Sunway Group, and the Sapura Group of Companies. Nestle and Dell Computers were also among the corporate sponsors.
At any rate, the conference was… amazing. Literally thousands of ordinary Malaysians heard the speakers and then divided into discussion groups. Around a third to a half were young people, and their questions and comments provided an illuminating glimpse into the minds of non-Americans, who look on America with great affection and respect and yet object to the actions of the American government.
Eric Garris has gone into the incident involving Zimbabwe's dictator Robert Mugabe, who suddenly showed up uninvited, so I won't go into too many of the details. Suffice to say that I made a point of working a denunciation of Mugabe's thuggery into my speech, an event that seemed to catalyze general opposition to his presence. An event at which Mugabe was supposed to speak was canceled, and, in answer to inquiries about Mugabe's presence, Dr. Mahathir remarked: "Everybody can attend. If he wants to say how good it is to be a dictator, he can."
I have to say that there was none of the crude anti-Americanism at the conference that one has - sadly - come to expect at gatherings of antiwar activists. Eric and I made a point of linking the cause of peace to the cause of free markets at every opportunity, a viewpoint that was especially appreciated by the conference organizers.
I have to say that I am… astonished by Malaysia. Here is an "Islamic" country where a gigantic Christmas tree sits in the lobby of the hotel I'm staying at, and the café waiters in the plaza a few blocks away are dressed like Santa's elves. Here is a city where the nightlife puts San Francisco's to shame. Where the city's oldest gay bar, the Blue Boy, makes Baghdad-by-the-Bay seem like a dive in Podunk, Idaho; where people party well into the morning light, and you can have a good time for a few ringgits (the Malay currency: around 30 cents). The food is fabulous: Malay (spicy, somewhat Thai-like), Arab (there's a great place right off Bukhit Bintang), Chinese (you haven't lived until you've sampled the pleasures of Kuala Lumpur's Chinatown), and too many more to go into here. The place is a gastrointestinal paradise!
Modernity is juxtaposed next to traditionalism: on the one hand you have the soaring heights of the Petronas Twin Towers, the tallest buildings in the world, lit up like a vision of futurity against the night sky, and on the other hand you have women in traditional dress - colorful costumes of bright color and the requisite head covering - traversing its corridors. Two, three, many worlds coexisting: the past and the future converging into a new synthesis of creativity and entrepreneurial energy. The impression one gets is of a tremendous vitality, a restless yet directed life-force that seems to spring right out of the earth.
A final note: nowhere have I experienced more genuine warmth and such a feeling of welcome. When you come to Kuala Lumpur, you are made to feel very special. The gentleness and politeness of these people is a phenomenon that doesn't exist, to my knowledge, anywhere in the U.S. Malays are generally puzzled by the actions of the U.S. government abroad, and do not support the war in Iraq: but they love America, the country, and show great admiration and respect for the American people. And that is the kind of "anti-Americanism" that I can live with.

29 January 2005

  Surviving the tsunami  

By Andrea McVeigh

The world is still coming to terms with the devastation and loss of life caused by the Asian tsunami.
But tourism bosses in many of the affected countries believe that bringing tourists back to south Asia is one way of rebuilding shattered economies.
While Mayalsia lies close to the epicentre of the earthquake which caused the tidal wave, it was spared the worst effects because its outlying islands broke the force of the waves before they reached the coast.
Now the country's director of tourism has called on travellers to return to Malaysia, which remains a safe destination for tourists, with attractions and flights operating as normal.
The Malaysian Association of Hotel Owners and the Malaysian Association of Tour and Travel Agents also announced that it's a case of 'back to business'.
Having spent a blissful holiday on the Malaysian islands of Penang and Langkawi last year, and seeing that the economy there relies largely on tourism, I know the welcome for tourists from Northern Ireland will be especially warm in these coming months.
There aren't many places in the world more different to our own rainy, cold northern European habitat, than the lush and steamy equatorial group of islands which make up Malaysia.
As a tourist destination, Penang has just about every ingredient required by even the most discerning holiday-maker.
The city of Georgetown boasts many attractions, including museums, fabulous traditional restaurants and the fine colonial architecture of the buildings constructed while the island was under British rule during the 19th century. Shoppers can also pick up some local pewter from the many family-run shops, or, for exotic bargains, try Little India or Chinatown.
The population of Penang is mostly Chinese, with a sizable proportion of Muslims and Indians, which makes for a real mix of cultures.
Mosques sit side by side with ornate Hindu and Chinese temples, as there is no friction between the religious communities.
From Georgetown, Batu Ferringi beach, the island's tourism belt, is a short trip to the north, and it's here you'll find most of the hotels (the physical impact of the tsunami on hotels here was minimal and all are now operating as normal).
On our visit, we stayed in the Garden Wing of the fabulous Shangri La Rasa Sayang beach hotel, considered to be 'the' place to stay in Penang.
It recently closed for renovations, and will re-open in 2006, with the addition of a health club and spa, more spacious rooms and the introduction of club floors.
In the meantime, try its sister hotel next door, the Golden Sands, which boasts so many restaurants, bars and shops you probably won't even need to leave its grounds during your stay.
But do try to venture out after dark to the main road where the night market is located.
After spending a few relaxing hours with nothing to do except watch the sun sink behind the palm trees into the Malacca Straits, there are bargains to be had here.
Hawkers line both sides of the street, selling everything from CDs, watches, T-shirts and jewellery, to bowls of rice and noodles and refreshing ice-cold Tiger beer and sugar cane juice.
While staying at the beach, we managed to fit in a visit to the nearby butterfly farm, with its collection of native insects and reptiles. But be warned, it's not recommended for people who get the heebee jeebies from spotting a spider in the bath.
As the island is small, everywhere can be reached by taxi. Apart from the top of Penang Hill, the highest point on the island, that is. It's arrived at by funicular railway and it's a great place to visit.
Once at the summit, where the temperature drops by several degrees, we were able to take in stunning views of the island.
Look in the travel sections of newspaper and you'll usually see twin travel deals to Penang and Malaysia's shiny, high-tech capital Kuala Lumpur.
But on the principal that you can't have too much of a good thing, we opted to spend the second half of our trip in Langkawi. Just an hour away from Penang by plane, the island of Langkawi lies closer to the coast of Thailand than Malaysia.
Langkawi also escaped the worst ravages of the tsunami, with little damage to hotels and resorts. Those in the know say it's like Bali was 30 years ago, a tropical paradise almost unspoilt by the usual trappings of the tourist industry.
Many of the non-native inhabitants are Australian and European backpackers who visited and decided to stay and have since opened their own vegetarian cafes, restaurants and other businesses.
To experience the real Langkawi, stay at the Bon Ton - set in the middle of reclaimed land near the airport, a number of traditional Malaysian dwellings have been carefully restored and fitted out with some modern facilities.
The restaurant is well known throughout the island for its excellent Asian fusion menu and wine tasting evenings.
The hotel's Australian owner, Narelle, proved to be the perfect guide to the area, taking us around and showing us the local paddy fields, rubber plantations and the area where scenes for the 1999 film, Anna And The King, were shot.
Langkawi is a lot less developed than Penang and with none of the former's colonial trappings - the island was a rural Malay outpost until quite recently when the tourist trade started to take off.
During our taxi ride to the small main town of Kuah, we saw water buffalos grazing, giant monitor lizards ambling about at the side of the road and villagers going about their daily business of tending to chickens and preparing food alfresco.
Shopping opportunities are limited, but as the island enjoys duty-free status, it's worth stocking up before returning home.
One day, we took a boat trip which stopped at some of the surrounding islands, most notably Pulau Dayang Bunting with its resident monkeys and huge inland freshwater lake, complete with over-friendly catfish, who are quite happy to nibble gently at your fingers and toes. We stayed in a couple of hotels on Langkawi, one of which was the luxurious Andaman, which is situated amongst ancient tropical rainforest beside the ocean. While sipping a cocktail in the bar, you can watch the exotic birds, monkeys and flying foxes gliding from tree to tree.
With the aim of seeing as much of the island as possible, we also stayed on the north coast of the island, at the Tanjung Rhu hotel. This isn't quite so close to nature, but boasts an excellent spa, restaurants and pools, with the coast of Thailand visible across the bay on a clear day. Despite its status as a relative newcomer to catering for tourists, must-see attractions in Langkawi include a trip on the awe-inspiring cable car, which provides an opportunity to see the whole island while dangling 700 metres up in mid-air - best avoided on a windy day, as we discovered!
There's also a crocodile farm and an aquarium, but the whole point of Langkawi is really to do as little as possible, apart from eating, drinking and soaking up its balmy beauty.

Sunday, 1st February 2004

  Multicultural Malaysia  


Penang, 370km north of Kuala Lumpur on Malaysia's north-western coast, is a mixture of state and island. Everything of interest in Penang State is on the 285km sq Penang Island, Pulau Penang, which is connected to the mainland by a bridge and ferry services. Confusingly, the island's capital and Malaysia's second-largest city, Georgetown, is also often referred to as "Penang".
It's a 12-hour flight there from the UK and you may be a little overwhelmed by the noisy, colourful hustle and bustle that you'll encounter on the way from the airport to your hotel. I was glad to leave it all behind when I arrived at my destination, the wonderful old Eastern & Oriental hotel. Recently renovated, it's actually a combination of two hotels, the Eastern facing the Esplanade and the Oriental which faces the sea. The latter was built in 1885 by the same people behind the famous Raffles hotel in Singapore.
It was a delight to walk through the lobby with its famous dome, past the 1885 Bar, and into my beautifully furnished ground-floor room. It had French windows that opened right onto the same gardens that were once enjoyed by such illustrious former residents as Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham.
As I gazed out to sea, the waves suddenly sprang into life as a tropical downpour arrived onshore. This is a regular occurrence in the rainy season, which runs from November to February. It was magical and refreshing, as only warm tropical rain can be, and it was also brief, and soon the terraces were dry once more.
Just down the road from the hotel at Fort Cornwallis, in the heart of the town's historic district, is where Penang's colonial past began. Captain Francis Light of the East India Company arrived here in 1786 and decided that Penang, then known as Pulau Kasatu, would make an excellent trading post between India, China and the Malaysian peninsula. It is said that Captain Light fired silver coins from his ships' cannons into the jungle to help ease the way for the British settlement.
There are thousands of original colonial buildings elsewhere, and over by the main ferry terminal, for departures to the mainland, is the Chinese Water Village. Better known as Clan Piers, this is a hamlet of houses on stilts joined by wooden walkways over the water, where 2,000 boatmen and fishing families live. Each group belonging to a different "clan", hence the name.
The Esplanade, known locally as Jin Tun Syed Sheh Barakban, is a place where much of the romance of the 18th and 19th centuries can still be felt. It reveals rows of handsome buildings, many once used by the colonial government. There is St George's Church, built in 1818 and said to be the oldest Anglican church in South-east Asia. Captain Light, who died of malaria in 1794, is buried in the nearby cemetery. Later I saw his statue at the entrance to the Penang Museum and Art Gallery. It's a spot that's well worth half a day or so, and a great way to absorb the history and culture of this enchanting city.
From there I went on to the Cheong Fatt Tze Mansion on Lebuh Leith, the beautifully restored former home of a wealthy Chinese businessman. The blue-painted mansion, which now operates as a small boutique-style hotel, was used as a location for the Oscar-winning film Indochine starring Catherine Deneuve.
Back in the hurly-burly of the main part of old Georgetown, I discovered surprises round every corner. Chinatown, centred on Lebah Chulia and Lebah Campbell off the main street of Jalan Penang, with its shop-houses, had an extraordinary buzz as people jostled one another in search of bargains.
Elsewhere I found areas dominated by Indians, Thais and the many other races who have settled here over the years and now call Penang home.
No visit to Penang would be complete without an exploration of the island's stunning temples. The busiest is Kuan Yin Ten Temple, near St George's Church, which is dedicated to the goddess of mercy. Close by is the Kapitan Keling Mosque, originally built for Muslim Indian soldiers, and the Sri Mahamariamman Temple, the oldest Hindu temple in Penang. And, slightly out of town, there is the Kek Lok Si (Temple of Paradise), the centrepiece of which is a 30m high Pagoda of a Million Buddhas.
If all this leaves you feeling overwhelmed, escape up to Penang Hill, which served as a colonial hill station. Take the delightfully slow funicular railway, past bungalows and splendid villas for some of the best panoramic views of the island.
Later I headed for the beaches of Batu Ferringhi, ten miles north-west of Georgetown, where the luxury resort hotels stand shoulder to shoulder, giving the area the appearance of Florida. But after dinner near the beach I discovered the Night Markets and the street life and know I am, after all, deep in the heart of one of the most vibrant, exciting parts of Asia.

Sunday September 28, 2003

  Golden days in Malaysia  


Humidity wraps around me like a warm, damp towel as I step from air-conditioned comfort into the Kuala Lumpur evening.
KL, as the capital is known, is a typically vibrant Asian city with narrow streets of busy markets and modern shops opening on to wide tree-lined avenues overlooked by a high-rise skyline
There's a combination of Malay, Muslim, European, Indian and Chinese influences that makes for a city of modern complexity with an underlying colonial charm.
The central city area is known as the Golden Triangle, its landmark being the brightly lit twin towers of the Petronas complex.
Dance music throbs gently from nightclubs and echoes down the streets where throngs of well-dressed people mingle.
Thousands of lights and decorative effects along the bustling thoroughfares compete with lines of headlights, while motorcycle and scooters riders weave skilfully through the traffic.
Multi-coloured umbrellas blossom over bustling pavement cafes allow people to take time out from the hustle and bustle.
A few minutes' ride in a taxi takes me to Merdeka Square, where the Malaysian flag was first raised in 1957. Families stroll among gardens fronting the mock-Tudor Royal Selangor Club.
Only minutes earlier, the sinking sun had turned the copper onion-domes of the Sultan Abdul Samad building to burnished fire.
Nearby Chinatown has bustling streets and peaceful temples - it's yin and yang in the blink of an eye.
After dark, Petaling St market comes to life, where shops and stalls with bargain shopping and haggling pull the crowds.
Motorised traffic is barred and people are shoulder to shoulder, talking, laughing, smoking and eating. Aromas fill the air as smoke rises from frying rice, noodles, prawns or fish. Stalls are buried under piles of grapes, paw-paw, durian, and spiky rambutans.
Brand names draw visitors to bags, belts, clothing and hats, along with rows of bracelets and watches, glistening against the dark backdrop. All are fakes, but they are cheap and look good.
Chatting with a friendly stallholder, I buy two fake Rolex watches and a couple of T-shirts before elbowing through the cosmopolitan scrum to sit and assess my "bargains" over a cold beer.
At a nearby cafe I select a mouth-watering curry kapitan from a range of Nonya dishes on offer.
Daytime attractions include the Lake Gardens that date back to the 1880s. Built around an artificial lake, they cover more than 91ha, a place of peace close to the city centre. Walking the gardens is an option or you can ride in an open-sided bus.
Features include a bird enclosure, butterfly park, orchid garden and deer park. The National Monument commemorates members of the Malaysian forces who died in the fight against communist insurgency. The National Planetarium stands on a hill in the complex.
Set in a rainforest environment, the bird enclosure is the largest in Southeast Asia, with more than 5000 birds from 100 species - all free to fly under an immense, unobtrusive canopy. The strange-looking hornbills are a star attraction. There are few other places where they can be seen at such close quarters.
Flamingos and other birds add to the spectacle of colour in a lake fed by a stream.
The walk-in butterfly park, said to be the largest in the world, is home to around 120 species of every size and hue, creating brilliant splashes of colour among the thousands of native plants.
A more foreboding display is the scorpion pit, where dozens of these scaly creatures parade in silent menace.
Another popular tourist attraction is the Batu Caves, about 11km north of the city. The three main caves are home to monkeys that scamper around the rocky walls vying for titbits from tourists and onlookers.
Hiking up 272 steps is a daunting prospect in the 35C heat, but worth the effort to see the vast, cathedral-like caves.
They house the shrine of Lord Subramaniam, which attracts followers from all over the world.
In January or February the annual pilgrimage of Thaipusam can bring thousands of Hindus, some to carry the kavadi, a colourful framework that may stand over 2m high and is adorned with peacock feathers. Carriers have their skin pierced with dozens of metal hooks as a form of penance.
The busy streets don't appeal to everyone. And so I head to Malaysia's east coast - one hour by plane - to a region of outstanding natural beauty and a world apart from the capital.
Superb white sand beaches stretch almost the length of the peninsula, backed by some of the world's oldest rainforest. Offshore lie tropical islands surrounded by crystal clear waters with mature coral gardens.
Quiet villages, where the main occupation is fishing, are dotted along the coast in this mainly unspoiled rural area. Kuala Terengganu, the state capital, is little more than a town, the pace of life leisurely and unhurried with the Muslim faith much in evidence.
Now, instead of the predictable rhythm of dance music in the air, the haunting cry of the muezzin calls the faithful to prayer and echoes through dusty streets. I stroll to the waterfront and the central market, to a place that comes alive only when the boats arrive.
The wet market sells fresh produce, fruit, fish and vegetables and the crispy local delicacy keropok lekor. The adjoining modern shopping arcade is home to traders selling traditional handcrafts such as batik, silk, songket (a type of brocade) and brassware.
Visitors often cross to Pulau Duyung, an island in the estuary noted for boatbuilding. And the Terengganu State Museum is probably the finest in the country.
Returning to the city, home of a million people and a world away from the east coast sanctuary, I find myself back at the place where I last enjoyed a long cool beer. There are no bargains to marvel at during this visit. Instead, to pass the time, I enjoy every sip of the golden liquid as my mind drifts to the white sand beaches and a life less ordinary.
Getting around: KL is regarded as a safe city and driving is on the left - but don't hire a car unless you want to escape from the city. Transport options include taxis (cheap to hire but watch out for cabbies who don't put their meters on) and the light rail transit system is fast and efficient.
When to go: It's always hot and humid with maximum daily temperatures around 20C. It can rain at any time, but expect shorts bursts of heavy showers in the afternoons. June and July are the driest months.
Where to stay: If you would like to follow in the footsteps of the Britain's royalty, stay at the Carcosa Seri Negara hotel in Kuala Lumpur. The Shangri La in the city centre is superb and The Palace of the Golden Horses outstanding.
What to see and do: If you want to go to a disco, start out early as they close at 1am. There are plenty of historic buildings to see, as well as fascinating new ones such as the Petronas Twin Towers. There's also bushwalking and birdwatching.

* Bob Marriott was hosted by the Malaysia Tourist Office and Malaysia Airlines.

From the September 2001 issue of World Press Review (VOL. 48, No. 9).

  Malaysia: So Near, So Far  

By A.A. Patawaran
Manila Standard, Manila

It's so near, yet so far, but only because it seems so different from us. For one, everything seems to be going skyward, led by the Petronas Twin Towers, which, at 452 meters, are the world's tallest, that is until China is done with its construction of its record-breaker. In Kuala Lumpur, one is reminded of Seattle or Sydney, what with steel and glass, all shimmering in its ever-changing skyline, and the roads well paved and clean and new, as clean and new as the cars traveling on them. But in this Malaysian capital, one glimpses relics of a golden age: domes and turrets and palaces, as well as women clad in traditional costumes (although some of them wear modern signatures for their headgear, a Dolce & Gabbana scarf, for instance).
Kuala Lumpur is home to 1.5 million people, 40 percent of whom are Chinese. It is roughly divided into three different areas, namely the Golden Mile, otherwise known as Chinatown; the Golden Triangle, where lies the business district; and the Greenbelt, which is the lung of the city, with forests of trees and no modern buildings, just colonial ones housing government offices. Nevertheless, even outside the Greenbelt, birds and trees are at home, despite the rapid pace of development in the city. Frequent visitors are amazed at how fast Kuala Lumpur is changing.
Only 10 years ago, according to them, the city was barely a shadow of what it has become. Of course, many claim it's Malaysia's Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's "no fear, no excuses" policy that is keeping it on its toes.
Kuala Lumpur began as a mining settlement in the late 1800s with the discovery of tin at the confluence of the Klang and Gombak rivers. Today, it is the pulse of the nation, leading Malaysia's fast-paced development in trade and commerce, banking and finance, manufacturing, transportation, information technology, and tourism.
Because Malaysia is in the neighborhood, I never quite thought of it as an exciting, let alone exotic, destination. So I was surprised that tourism plays a crucial role in Malaysia's continued success, being number four in its list of important industries. Petroleum, of course, is the backbone of Malaysia's economy. It is the reason it is running into trouble with its neighbors, specifically Indonesia and the Philippines, with whom it has yet to conclude once and for all a tug-of-war with Sabah playing the rope.
During my first visit, I stayed at the Melia, which is situated in the center of the Golden Triangle. Just behind the hotel, on Jalan Sultan Ismail, over which the Petronas Twin Towers soar from a distance, I found myself inching my way through a thick crowd at 2 a.m. On the sidewalks at this ungodly hour, I found tourists reclining on chaisettes, availing themselves of a foot massage, which a masseur told me would only cost me 30 Malaysian ringgit (RM), about US$8.
Everywhere, tourists share the space with locals, whether in the restaurants or in the bars, the Internet cafés or the 24-hour convenience stores, or even the late-night stalls peddling all manner of merchandise.
In nearby Chinatown on Jalan Petaling, there is almost no room for buyers, as there are three rows of stalls occupying this narrow street. It is the place to be if one is looking for "genuine imitations," unless one has been to Guangzhou, China, where the fake items come with fake certificates of authenticity. (Louis Vuitton, take note!)
But in Kuala Lumpur, there is much to buy for the counterfeit addict. You can get a Rolex for RM25 ($7), and it will last you three years, provided you buy a battery worth another RM25. It's not so bad a deal, except that it's not the real thing. Beyond Kuala Lumpur, it is just as exciting, albeit in a different way. I heard so much about Kuala Selangor, barely an hour away. This coastal riverine town is popular with birdwatchers for its large population of marshland and migratory birds. Within the vicinity is Kampung Kuantan, where fireflies at dusk along the upper reaches of the river attract nature lovers.
I personally had the chance to visit Melaka. Perched midway in the Strait of Malacca, it is a state so rich not only in natural resources but also in history and folklore. Its tourism slogan, in fact, only underscores its pride of place in the history of Malaysia: "Where it all began."
Founded in 1936 by Parameswara, who named his sultanate after the "melaka" tree, this state, which lies next to Singapore, has provided the stage on which the Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch, and English played their roles in shaping history.
I was forewarned by friends to keep my pockets safe from the lures of antiques there. Unfortunately, I was barely able to explore Melaka by foot, save for a brief stop at the Baba Nyonya Heritage Museum. Originally the home of three generations of a Peranakan family, the museum is in the exquisite Chinese Baroque style, characterized by neo-classical European elements such as Greco-Roman columns, floral and pictorial motifs, and gilt carvings. Although I did not have enough time to experience more of it, I found Melaka quaint and charming, with trishaws pacing up and down its narrow streets that wind through a mishmash of architectural styles.
I also visited Genting Highlands, a poetic destination on top of a mountain that, in the morning, seems to be afloat on a bed of mist. The poetry, however, has to give way, as it now houses a casino and a theme park, as well as a hotel crowded with replicas of the world's most famous landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower, the Great Wall of China, and Big Ben.
If what one wants is peace and quiet, Genting is the last place to be on Earth, but it is, in fact, teeming with people. Soon to go full blast in this City of Entertainment is First World Hotel, which is set to be Malaysia's biggest hotel with a total of 6,300 rooms.
Since December, 1,000 rooms have been ready for occupancy. The rest will be opened in the next few weeks. What I found exciting on Genting Highlands, however, is the cable ride to the Genting Highlands Resort, which I do not recommend.
The Genting Cable System is the fastest in the world and the safest route into the heart of the city. What's more, it plies a route breathtaking in its vista of lush vegetation and steep mountainsides and, at certain times of the day, awesome cloud formations.
Overall, I think Malaysia's most irresistible attraction is its people. It's not because of their smiles or their hospitability. Malaysia's wealth of history has wrought a state of cultural diversity. The influx of immigrants and traders from China, Arabia, and the surrounding nations of the Malay Archipelago, as well as of seafaring conquerors from the West - Portugal, the Netherlands, and England - in search of riches and resources has left an indelible imprint on the country. As Leisure Guide Malaysia puts it, "Some stayed, Chinese and Indian immigrants chiefly, to form part of the triumvirate that constitutes the majority of Malaysia's multiethnic, multi-religious population today. Others left, but remained in spirit, as we are sometimes reminded by a merry Portuguese jig, a dusky red church in the center of an historic town, and cricket matches on a brilliant green lawn."
Nevertheless, it is Malaysia's national pride that best lures in the tourist and, perhaps more important, the foreign investor. Unlike us, the average Malaysian offers no apologies about his country, where he is safe and secure and his needs are met and where things continue to happen to make his life better. Unlike the Filipino, the average Malaysian has all the opportunity in the world to enjoy his country and share it with the rest of the world.