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Back to Malaysia

MALAYSIA | Tuesday, 29 September 2009 | Views [1604]

In the mid nineties I traveled all over South East Asia passing through Malaysia several times and I managed to explore most of the country including getting over to Borneo. It has always been a favorite of mine, a mix of cultures with a positive feel to it, although most travelers just pass through, regarding it as expensive and not that interesting. I was last here in 1998, when the roaring of the Asian tigers was muted as they were going through the Asian financial crisis at the time, a local version of what we are all now experiencing. Abandoned building sites were fairly common, as the money ran out. Returning this week after eleven years I was eager to see what had changed.

Zooming into the city from KL Airport on the super fast express train, you do feel that you’re in a country that’s still going places. Out of the window we pass by palm oil plantations and the odd stands of forest and bananas, watered by big brown rivers. Mixed in with all these are developments, huge apartment blocks, some of them twenty to thirty stories high, have been built with new ones being added. For some reason in a country that has a lot of land in proportion to its population, these monoliths are all clumped together, so a group of them probably contain the population of a small town.

Beside the railway you also see brightly colored buildings, Chinese and Hindu temples, and the more subdued mosques. Malaysia has a mix of races that all seem to get along together, although this has not always been the case. As a traveler it’s difficult to tell what tensions lie under the surface, but it has always appeared to me to be a tolerant place, it certainly makes it colourful.

As the train approaches Kuala Lumpur, their big ass status symbol appears on the horizon, the Petronus towers, the largest buildings in the world. This is Malaysia’s statement – we have arrived and if the number of new apartments still going up is anything to go by, the country continues to boom on.

In KL itself, little seems to have changed. Malaysia has a distinct smell, it’s the smell of spices, very subtle, not overpowering, mixed with cloves, again not too much; almost as it has just wafted over from Indonesia. The train station is filled with little kiosks piled up with goods, and the buildings are dimly lit, as if they couldn’t find any higher wattage light bulbs. I find my hostel in Chinatown, which is as hostels always seem to be in this country, tiled floors, no windows, a fan and nothing on the walls. 

The night market in Chinatown has changed very little, although they do seem to have built a roof over it but very high up, so you still feel as if you are outdoors in a street and not in a building. Stalls are piled high with counterfeited goods, clothes, DVD’s,CD’s, watches and bags; though the software hawkers seem to have gone. Waiters try to hustle into their restaurants to drink their overprice beer, all is noise and bustle.

But it’s the little things that bring it all back, the chopped up fruit sold by the bag with a cocktail stick to eat it with, fried rice with a fried egg on top for breakfast. People walking by with plastic bags of Milo, the chocolate drink; yes - this is a familiar place.

There are some changes, Starbucks and Nandos have arrived as has Macdonalds, which were here before but now seem to be on every street corner. People use them for directions - turn left at Macdonalds, after all you can hardly miss them. Also continuing their plan for world domination, Tescos has arrived big time; their own brand products are omnipresent.

Travelling up to Georgetown, the Malaysians don’t seem to have a problem with their colonial past so haven’t gone in for renaming places, the countryside seems much as I remember it. There are still quite large stands of wild looking forest at the side of the road, mixed in with the palm oil plantations. As we pass towns, more of the high rise apartments are going up everywhere. On the outskirts of towns cookie cutter estates are being built for the middle classes which to a western eye these look rather soulless places, as the developers forgot to plant any trees or gardens.

When I tell people I haven’t been here for eleven years they all say, you must have noticed a lot of changes. Well the answer to that is no. Some new buildings have gone up, but where in the world haven’t they? It’s not the swanky new buildings that make a country, its the people, the smells and the small everyday things. I wonder if this will continue to be the same, as I make my way up the peninsular to the countries further north.  

Tags: cities, on the road

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