David Rich 500 Words
M a l a y s i a W i l l A m a z e Y a
Malaysia has two parts, the wilder part on the island with Borneo and the peninsula part. When we crossed from the ultra-immaculate city-country-state of Singapore to the Malaysian peninsula, we figured this would be a whole different ballgame. But for a completely unanticipated reason, Malaysia will amaze ya.
We'd always lumped Malaysia in with the rest of Southeast Asia, which was to say (excluding Thailand) backwards infrastructure, but Malaysia was different. The west side of the Malaysian peninsula was freeways and sleek modern cities and every fast food outlet we'd ever heard of. We weren't even sure we'd left the States until our first stop in Malaysia, the historic part where Malaysia began, in 1300s Malacca also known as Malaka when a local powerbroker saw a mouse deer kick a dog into the river and declared, "Here I build my kingdom as a tribute to the underdog." He did and the underdog non-Malaysians, the large Chinese and Indian populations, have been outsiders in the Kingdom ever since.
The kingdom allied with the Chinese against the nasty Thais in 1403 but was taken over by the Portuguese in 1511, a hundred years later by the Dutch for several hundred years, and, finally, the Brits. Malaysia didn't achieve independence until the 1950s, and we'd thought there'd always been a Malaysia.
Malacca had commemorated independence with an edifice sprouting vibrant, Yellow-cab-colored spires. But the rest of Malacca was an old-town of quaint refurbished storefronts and remnants of the Dutch; ancient Christchurch, the maritime museum built in the shape of an old, Dutch ship, and the Stadhuys Town Hall colored rusty and crammed with 700 years of history. There is an A & W Root Beer restaurant in the middle of old town for relief from the heat and humidity, a near impossibility.
The independence cry was Malaysia for the Malaysians, ignoring the mouse-deer Chinese and Indian merchants who the Malaysians believed continued to kick them around, even in the capitol of Kuala Lumpur, a most modern city with the tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers. The real charm of Kuala Lumpur was its fabulous parks of orchids, hibiscus, and birds, Chinatown near the old City Hall and an ornate old mosque. The rest of the city was chock full of shopping centers to match Singapore, plus a space needle and the tallest flagpole in Asia. Patriotic Malaysia was rather like every country in the world.
Malaysia boasted resort islands, Penang its foremost, up near the Thai border where you could buy a four-star hotel room on special for twenty-seven dollars. Penang had its history too: a British fort and church, Hindu and Chinese Temples. It had restaurants to drool over, famous beaches, and great shopping, if one were so inclined. But the highlight of Penang was the Blue Mansion built by a Chinese Rockefeller in the early 1900s, now restored, admission two dollars-fifty cents. Opulent Blue Mansion rooms were fifty-four dollars for doubles in cool Persian-blue, ying-yang shutters, intricately carved room dividers. Amazing Malaysia, it was like barely leaving home.