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Malaysia
When to go | Events | Attraction | History

 

Malaysia is one of the most pleasant, hassle-free countries to visit in southeast Asia. It's buoyant and wealthy, and has moved towards a pluralist culture based on a vibrant and interesting fusion of Malay, Chinese, Indian and indigenous cultures and customs.

Most visitors to Malaysia stick to the insane headlong rush of Kuala Lumpur, the colonially soothing Cameron Highlands Hill Station or the hedonistic torpor of Langkawi. However, the island of East Malaysia offers spectacular wildlife, longhouses and the awe-inspiring Mt Kinabalu.

Malaysia's love of Western-style industrialisation is abundantly clear in its big cities. Aside from the gleaming glass of the 21st Century, though, Malaysia boasts some of the most superb beaches, mountains and national parks in Asia.

Warning

Visitors are advised to be extra vigilant when travelling in eastern Sabah and to avoid altogether the islands off Sabah's east coast, including Sipadan and Pandanan, as there is a risk of kidnapping and terrorist attacks, particularly targeting foreigners.

Full country name: Federation of Malaysia
Area: 329,750 sq km (204,445 sq mi)
Population: 22 million
Capital city: Kuala Lumpur (pop 1.2 million)
People: 50% Malay, 33% Chinese, 9% Indian, plus indigenous tribes such as Orang Asli and Iban
Language: Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese dialects, Tamil, indigenous dialects
Religion: 52% Muslim, 17% Buddhist, 12% Taoist, 8% Christian, 8% Hindu, 2% tribal
Government: Parliamentary monarchy
Head of state: King: Tuanku Salehuddin Abdul Aziz Shah ibni al-Marhum Hisamuddin Alam Shah
Prime Minister: Dr Mahathir Mohamad

GDP: US$99 billion
GDP per capita: US$4,530
Annual Growth: 2%
Inflation: 4%
Major Industries: Tin, rubber, palm oil, timber, oil, textiles, electronics
Major Trading Partners: Singapore, Japan, USA

When to Go

Malaysia is hot and humid all year so you're going to have sunshine and sweat pretty much whenever you visit. It is, however, best to avoid the November to January rainy season on Peninsula Malaysia's east coast if you want to enjoy the beaches. The time to see turtles on the east coast is between May and September.

Events

The major Islamic events are connected with Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. The major Malaysian festival is Hari Raya Puasa, which marks the end of Ramadan with three days of joyful celebrations. Hari Raya Haji marks the successful completion of the hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) with a two-day feast of cakes and sweets. Chinese New Year, in January or February, is welcomed in with dances, parades and much good cheer. The festival of Thaipusam in late January is one of the most dramatic Hindu festivals (now banned in India) during which devotees honour Lord Subramaniam with acts of amazing masochism - definitely not for the squeamish. In KL, devotees march to nearby Batu Caves; in Penang, the event is celebrated at the Waterfall Temple. The Kota Belud Tamu Besar is a huge tribal gathering held in May at Kota Belud near Kota Kinabalu in Sabah. It includes a massive market, traditional ceremonies, ornately decorated horsemen, medicine men and tribal handicrafts. A smaller tamu is held in Kota Belud every Sunday if you're not visiting during May.

Attractions

Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur is an Asian tiger that roars: in 130 years, it has grown from nothing to a modern, bustling city of almost two million people. Take in its high-flying triumphs from the viewing deck of the world's tallest building, then dive down to explore its more traditional culture in the back lanes of Chinatown.

KL's boom periods have produced an intriguing mix of architecture throughout the city, elegant colonial buildings contrasting with soaring modern edifices such as the twin Petronas Towers. Add the ground level bustle of the numerous street markets, and you have a city that rewards exploration.

Cameron Highlands

The Cameron Highlands, in the centre of Peninsular Malaysia, comprise a series of hill stations at altitudes between 1500 and 1800m (4920 and 5904ft). This fertile area is the centre of Malaysia's tea industry and it's the place where locals and visitors come to escape the heat of the plains. Attractions include jungle walks, waterfalls, tours of tea plantations, beautiful gardens and plenty of wild flowers. The cool weather tempts visitors to exertions normally forgotten at sea level - like golf, tennis, and long walks - but this is really Malaysia's R 'n' R capital par excellence for those who don't like the beach and enjoy a bout of colonial nostalgia. Most of the budget hotels are in the village of Tanah Rata. The more expensive options are scattered between Tanah Rata and Brinchang.

Georgetown - Penang Island

The 285-sq-km (177-sq-mi) island of Penang, off Peninsula Malaysia's northwestern coast, is the oldest British settlement in Malaysia and one of the country's premier resort areas. The island's beaches are touted as the major drawcard but they're somewhat overrated. What makes Penang Island really tick is the vibrant and intriguing city of Georgetown on the island's northeastern coast. This city has more Chinese flavour than either Singapore or Hong Kong, and in its older neighbourhoods you could be forgiven for thinking that the clock stopped at least 50 years ago. Georgetown is a compact city and it's a delight to wander around. Set off in any direction and you're certain to see beautiful old Chinese houses, vegetable markets, temple ceremonies, trishaws, mahjong games and all the other to-ings and fro-ings of Asian street life.

You can still see the time-worn walls of Fort Cornwallis in the centre of Georgetown where the first Briton, Captain Light, set foot in 1786 on what was then a virtually uninhabited island. He established a free port here and the stone fort was finished a few decades later. The area within the fort is now a park liberally sprinkled with cannons, many of them retrieved from local pirates. Seri Rambai, the largest and most important cannon, has a chequered history dating back to 1600. It's famed for its procreative powers, and childless women are recommended to place flowers in the barrel of 'the big one' and offer special prayers.

Penang has many kongsis (clan houses that operate partly as temples and partly as meeting halls for Chinese of the same clan or surname), but Khoo Kongsi is easily the finest. The original building was so magnificent and elaborate that no-one was surprised when the roof caught fire on the very night it was completed. This misfortune was taken merely as a sign that the building had been too grandiose, so a marginally less magnificent structure was built. One wonders at the opulence of the original, since the present structure is a dazzling mix of dragons, statues, paintings, lamps, coloured tiles and carvings.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple right in the centre of the old part of Georgetown is nowhere near as impressive, but it's one of the most popular temples in the city and there are often worshippers burning paper money at the furnaces, night-time puppet shows or Chinese theatre performances. For the best view of the city and the island, catch the funicular railway up Penang Hill which rises 830m (2722ft) above Georgetown and provides cool relief from the sticky heat below. There are pleasant gardens, a hotel, a Hindu temple and a mosque at the top. The view is particularly good at dusk when Georgetown, far below, begins to light up.

Most of the popular budget hotels in Georgetown are along Lebuh Chulia; more expensive options line Jalan Penang. There are plenty of Chinese and Indian restaurants, but be adventurous and try the succulent local dishes on offer from the street stalls, which appear at night along the Esplanade behind the Penang Library.

Melaka

Melaka is an interesting blend of Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and British influences and is considered Malaysia's most historic city. It was once the most important trading port in the region, but is now little more than a sleepy backwater. Ancient-looking junks still sail up the river, imbuing the waterfront with a timeless charm, and the city remains full of intriguing Chinese streets, antique shops, temples and nostalgic reminders of the now-departed European colonial powers.

The most imposing relic of the Dutch period in Melaka is the massive pink town hall, Stadthuys, built between 1641 and 1660. It's believed to be the oldest Dutch building in Asia and displays all the characteristic features of Dutch colonial architecture (read incredibly weighty doors and pleasant louvred windows). The building houses government offices and an excellent Ethnographic Museum, which highlights aspects of local history and culture. The imposing ruins of St Paul's Church, built by the Portuguese over 400 years ago, stand in a beautiful setting atop St Paul's Hill. It was regularly visited by St Francis Xavier, who was buried here for a short period before being transferred to Goa in India. The church fell into disuse when the Dutch arrived, but is still surrounded by old Dutch tombstones. The Brits, with great sensitivity, used the church as a gunpowder store.

For those who prefer their religious architecture to be a little more colourful, the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in the old part of the city is the oldest Chinese temple in Malaysia. It was founded in 1646, and all of the materials and all of the artisans who built it were imported from China. The old part of Melaka is a fascinating area to wander around, and this is where you'll find many of Melaka's famous antique shops; a stroll along Jalan Hang Jebat will pass the best of them.

Tioman Island

This picture-postcard island lies off the eastern coast of Peninsula Malaysia in the South China Sea. It boasts beautiful beaches, clear, coral-filled water, technicolour marine life, virtually unpopulated jungle highlands, crystal-clear streams, and the dramatic peaks of Batu Sirau and Nenek Semukut. Tioman has been blessed with exotic place names like 'Palm-Frond Hill' and 'Village of Doubt' and is generally quoted as the setting for the mythical Bali Hai in the film South Pacific. The permanent population on Tioman is low, and locals are usually outnumbered by tourists. June and August are the peak tourist months, but during the heavy November to January monsoon the island is almost deserted.

The island's west coast is dotted with villages and is home to a classy resort. Pulau Tioman is the most popular travellers' destination, while Kampung Nipah is the place to go if you really want to get away from it all. You can get to Tioman by boat from Mersing and Singapore. The island's largest village, Kampung Tekek, has an airstrip.

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History

Aboriginal Malays (Orang Asli) began moving down the Malay peninsula from southwestern China about 10,000 years ago. The peninsula came under the rule of the Cambodian-based Funan, the Sumatran-based Srivijaya and the Java-based Majapahit empires, before the Chinese arrived in Melaka in 1405. Islam arrived in Melaka at about the same time and spread rapidly. Melaka's wealth soon attracted European powers, and the Portuguese took control in 1511, followed by the Dutch in 1641. The British established a thriving port in Penang in 1786 and took over Melaka in 1795.

The British traded for spices and colonised the interior of the peninsula when tin was discovered. East Malaysia came into British hands via the adventurer Sir James Brooke (who was made Rajah of Sarawak in 1841 after suppressing a revolt against the Sultan of Brunei) and the North Borneo Company (which administered Sabah from 1882). Gradually, the Federated Malay States were created in piecemeal fashion over the course of the 19th century.

The final pieces of the Malaysian mosaic fell into place when Britain took formal control of both Sabah and Sarawak after WWII. The indigenous labour supply was insufficient for the needs of the developing rubber and tin industries, so the British brought large numbers of Indians into the country, altering the peninsula's racial mix.

The Japanese overran Malaya in WWII. Communist guerrillas who fought the Japanese throughout the occupation began an armed struggle against British rule in 1948 and Malaya achieved independence in 1957. Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore combined with Malaya to establish Malaysia in 1963, but two years later Singapore withdrew from the confederation. The formation of Malaysia was opposed by both the Philippines and Indonesia, as each had territorial claims on East Malaysia.

Tension rose in 1963 during the 'Confrontation' with Indonesia. Indonesian troops crossed Malaysia's borders but were repelled by Malaysian and Commonwealth forces. In 1969, violent riots broke out between Malays and Chinese, though the country's racial groups have since lived in relative peace together. The United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) has been in power since 1974. Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who is keen to exert his influence on the world stage as a pan-Asian leader, presided over a booming economy until 1997, when tumbling Asian currencies dragged the ringgit down with them.

In September 1998 the country hosted the Commonwealth Games, but the public relations aspect of the competition came apart when students and citizens protested against the unfair sacking and later imprisonment of deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim. Continuing street protests calling for the resignation of Dr Mahatir Mohamad have unsettled Malayasia's reputation as one of the most politically stable of southeast Asian countries. By the time the 21st century rolled around, social upheavals had faded to a distant rumble and the Malaysian economy had clawed its way back into the black. Dr Mahathir Mohamad remained a controversial figure until the end. Just before his resignation in October 2003, after 20 years at the helm, the PM addressed a meeting of Islamic countries hosted by Malaysia, and exhorted them to collectivise against an alleged world Jewish conspiracy. His replacement, Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, won a March 2004 election in a landslide. In August 2004 the country's highest court upheld Anwar Ibrahim's appeal against his sentence and he was released from jail.

 

 

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Last Updated on Thu 23-Sep-2004 8:45