I’m up in the air with a full row of three seats to myself. In about six hours I’ll be landing at Kansai International Airport, Osaka Japan. As usual, I have no idea what to expect of the land to which I am traveling other than that it’s a country famous for samurai, cherry blossoms, Toyota and bullet trains. But I’m not there yet and as I sit here I find myself reflecting on my time in Malaysia and how it fits into the bigger scheme of my quest for 42.
Originally, Malaysia was not a destination of itself. It was meant to be a two week intermission in a longer trip to Japan. A chance to catch up with Paul so that our time apart did not extend beyond a month. As it turned out, I moved my flights so that I will only have one month in Japan. I moved them for a range of reasons but mostly to give Paul and me a chance to live together and create a basis on which to build something real. And so, instead of being a reunion trip, Malaysia became a destination in its own right.
The thing that stands out about the past fortnight are the Malaysian people. For me they are up there with South Koreans as one of the most genuinely friendly cultures I’ve experienced. Unlike Thailand where I felt like people were only nice if they wanted my money, in Malaysia I felt a sense of hospitality and warmth. This is not a wealthy country but it seems like a country that proudly stands on its own feet without looking up in awe at its old colonial oppressors (unlike Indonesia where white folk are called ‘sir’) or white skinned tourists (unlike Thailand where white folk are ATMs) who pass through.
Speaking of tourists, most of the tourists we saw were from Asia. While there were certainly some white tourists in Melaka and Kuala Lumpur, they had that air of passing through on short transits visiting places easily accessible from the airport. Once night came or when we ventured away from the main transit routes it was rare to see any white people. That’s not to say we weren’t regularly surrounded by tourists because there were plenty of Asian tourists in our hotels and walking around the places we went. So this industry must be healthy.
I found Malaysia an easy country to travel. Many people speak English and the roads are of good quality for driving so there is really no need to rely on point-to-point public transport. You can meander around in a car. Accommodation is as cheap as Indonesia and of a higher standard. Food is delicious and readily available even at 1am. You can get almost anything you want but Malay, Chinese and Indian are the best options being the local cuisine. Mind you, if you are hanging out for KFC or McDonalds you’ll find at least one in every town if not more.
The Cameron Highlands were my favourite place to drive through and Ipoh my favourite of the three cities we visited. I think it was because we stayed in a local place and ate at local restaurants far from the city itself. In future, I would do more of that local travel in Malaysia where we stayed and explored a place further from the capital.
Malaysia is a beautiful mix of cultures. Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism exist side by side. Malay women wear head coverings, Indian women wear saris and red dots painted on their foreheads, while Chinese women mostly wear Western style clothing and make up. Blended languages drift through the air. Unlike Australia where people might mutter “they should be speaking English if they want to live in our country”, Malaysians seem to accept that tourists speak English, Indians speak Hindi, Chinese speak Mandarin (or is it Cantonese that’s spoken here?), Malays speak either dialect or Bahasa Malay and everywhere the influence of Arabic language and script shows the influence of Islam. And people move so effortlessly between the languages to communicate with each other as though communication is more important that being righteous. Perhaps underneath there is a tension but it’s not visible to the casual observer.
On a personal level, I was once again pleased to be travelling with Paul. He forces me to extend myself as a traveller. He doesn’t seem to tire. Often we start our exploration around 10 or 11 in the morning and don’t stop until well after midnight. And even then we are usually still awake talking about our day or uploading photos to the internet for another hour or two before succumbing to sleep. It’s hectic but fun. When I travel with him we see the big attractions like Sam Poh Tong and the Cameron Highlands. But we always end up spending more time seeing lots of cool and quirky things like the Melaka Butterfly and Reptile Farm or Kellie’s Castle. His reaction to an opportunity to see something new is always, “Why not? We’re here.” And his taste for a little luxury means we are never short of a good meal, a trip to the cinema or a relaxing massage. He doesn’t have champagne tastes because we stay in cheap places, often with share bathrooms, but he does know how to make the travel dollar stretch far enough to take in some treats.
Malaysia was fun. I am glad to have visited this country. It’s close to home, cheap to access and cheap to visit. Accommodation costs about $15-25 a night for a clean and comfortable double room. A local Malay, Chinese or Indian meal sets you back between $1.50 and $5 per person depending on how many dishes you select. There are many things to see that are free like temples, nature and art. Our biggest cost was car hire but it was worth it for the freedom to experience more of the country at a local level. The biggest challenge here is the heat so maybe it is a good idea to pace yourself and take a few rest days to avoid melt downs.