Street sign in Johor Bahru
I found the people of Malaysia to be the most pleasant of all my travels this winter (although the few Turkish people I ran into during my five-hour layover in Istanbul were tremendously friendly). There were definitely plenty of individuals that saw the Western Tourist stamp on my forehead and smelled the money in my pockets (the joke was on them, all the money was in my Mother’s pocket!), but I didn’t see the dishonesty I felt from the Thai people or the hawkers that roamed the backpacker district in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon), which I’ll get to in another post.
But for the most part, I found the people in Malaysia to be upfront, honest, and friendly, much like the people of Georgia, and these characteristics are what I value most in a people. It’s why I love Georgia but don’t really care as much for Italy.
The point is, I really liked the people of Malaysia, and although it was tough to get used to all the headscarves on a majority of the women (my Mother corrected me in calling them burqas, which cover everything but a woman’s eyes), it would be irrational of me to criticize that.
I had never been in a Muslim country before we crossed into Johor Bahru a few days before Christmas, but here are a few things I noticed.
Erti – Malaysia isn’t a Muslim country in the same sense that, say, Saudi Arabia is, but I didn’t see one headscarf in Istanbul even though Turkey has much larger Muslim majority (I know it may sound like I'm measuring a country's level of Islamic faith by their female fashion trends, but there's more to it). So it’s tough to rate the importance of religion within Malaysian society just based on dress. But the variety of religious buildings made me feel as if Malaysia were an extremely tolerant society. In between all the mosques (some old with character, others new and tacky) everywhere you looked there were churches, cathedrals, Buddhist temples, and Chinese pagodas. While Malaysia has the mosque with the tallest minarets in the world (Blue Mosque outside of Kuala Lumpur), it also has one of the most famous Buddhist temples (Kek Lok Si Temple) which sits on Penang Island.
Ori – The religious tolerance wasn’t only apparent in the architecture, but also in the amount of Christmas decorations that adorned public spaces and restaurants. Although I don’t know how much of that is based on the Christmas spirit or the shopping spirit. This is something I’m sure I’ll bring up again, but shopping seemed to be a pillar of Southeast Asian culture. You couldn’t throw a stone in Malaysia without hitting a mall or market of some sort. Either way, the mass amounts of Christmas trees and cardboard cutout snowmen were pleasantly surprising. It was especially nice for my Mother who has spent the past three Christmas’ in Muslim countries (Turkey, Afghanistan, and Malaysia respectively). So she’s kind of an expert in the field.17th Century Church on a hill in the middle of Malacca
Sami – While roaming around Georgetown (a city with English origins [hence the name] in the Northeast corner of Penang Island), I wandered onto the property of a Mosque that sat in the middle of downtown. This guy who was sitting in the visitors office invited me in to rest my feet and have glass of water. His name was Kang, he was a member of the mosque but directed tours on certain days, and he was a super nice guy. He didn’t even pass judgment when I told him I didn’t practice any particular faith. Basically, he represented everything I love about meeting new people in new places. Totally welcoming and without even getting to know me, considered me a friend (or brother as he liked to use). This shouldn’t mean much, as there are plenty of people just like Kang that I have met everywhere in the world, but I just think if more people met Muslims like him, they wouldn’t have such a jaded view on the religion.
There were certainly a few things I found off-putting about Malaysian culture. The cities seemed like they didn’t know what century they wanted to belong to. They would have historic structures from English, Dutch, or even Portuguese imperialism neighboring some monstrosity of a 21st century mall, and then across the street would be some morose 1950’s concrete office building. There just didn’t seem to be a ton of planning put into anything (don’t even get me started on the streets of Malacca).
There are probably a few more bones I could pick: the sea pollution on the Southwest coast made it impossible to even stick a foot in the water (mostly due to all the freight traffic that runs through the Straight of Malacca) and the high price of alcohol (although that is to be expected in a Muslim country). But all in all, Langkawi (the farthest island North off the West coast of the peninsula) settled both of those concerns as it was duty free (much cheaper alcohol) and had incredible (and clean) beaches.
The Cameron Highlands (a set of towns that sit on the mountain range that runs down the middle of the peninsula) was one of my favorite parts of the entire trip as well. It lacked the humidity that made Malaysia unbearable at times, while it had much more to do in terms of healthy activities (hiking instead of banana boating, shopping or, drinking on a beach), some stunning views of the high tropical climate and rolling hills, and two vast tea plantations that visitors can tour.
My ten days in Malaysia definitely provided a fine taste of the country and enticed me to eventually return for a bigger bite (I’d like to check out more of the highlands and also explore the East coast, which is where the better surf is supposed to be, although I don’t surf, so…). I’ll certainly be bringing up Malaysia again as it compares to both Thailand and Vietnam, as there are tons of similarities and slight differences.
I will say that the biggest similarity I found between Georgian and Malay people had to be their disgust for government. I met a ton of Malaysians who only wanted to talk politics, and in doing so, only wanted to complain about their corrupt and dysfunctional government. Definitely reminded me of a few conversations I’ve shared with Georgian men, except the Malaysians speak English.
To make it even more specific, many of the Malaysian men I met (because, to be honest, I just didn’t meet that many women in the country who weren’t English, American, or Scandanavian) would complain about their own government while praising Singapore as the golden standard. I remember when I told Lasha (my host-father who constantly complains about the Georgian government) that I would be meeting my mother in Singapore, he put his thumbs up and said, Singapore… Very good. Great minds think alike, I guess.