Malaysia is one of the most fascinating cultural melting pots in the world and is blessed with stunning natural attractions and endless outdoor activity possibilities. For centuries, due to its location at the junction of two different monsoon winds systems, its 600-year-old port of Melaka was the region’s busiest trading post, with European ships and Arab dhows arriving from the west, Chinese junks from the east, Thai traders from the north and Indonesian merchants from the south. This has had a profound effect on Malaysia today, as members of all of these disparate groups have been assimilated and have fused into one of the most ethnically, linguistically and culturally diverse nations in the world – and arguably the most interesting one in southeast Asia in which to eat.
The different strains - mainly Malay, Chinese and Indian - get along fairly well, even whilst bowing to different gods. Allah is number one in this devout but progressive Moslem state, but lots of Hindu and Chinese temples and Christian churches rub shoulders with the mosques. Because Malaysians are hooked on shopping, Mammon has a powerful position in the firmament too, as evidenced by the profusion of night markets, deluxe megamalls and skyscrapers.
The crossroads of Malay, Chinese, Thai and Indian cuisine, Malaysia is an excellent place to eat. Look out for regional specialities and for Peranakan cuisine, the fusion between Malay and Chinese cooking. Malaysians are very proud of their cooking and most towns or even villages have their own delicious specialities. Watch your waistband.
Malaysia is hard on crime and miscreants are subjected to the agony of the cane or the finality of the noose. Hence the general lack of crime and aura of peace. If the tranquility starts to pall, then spice things up with chilli crab: the whole crustacean swamped in chilli sauce. Or be even braver and tuck into the yellowish flesh of a durian fruit, which is a bit like eating garlic ice cream beside an open sewer.
Malaysia has enough contrasting destinations to provide something for almost everyone. If you skirt the periphery of the melting pot and visit its islands, you will find superb white powder-sand beaches lapped by crystal-clear waters and teeming with improbably-hued fish. Sun worshippers and water sports enthusiasts will love such island paradises as Lang Tengah, but are regrettably nowadays advised to avoid Penang’s polluted beaches and stick to it’s wonderful restaurants. Langkawi is the up-market beach destination, whilst Redang and Sipadan are Malaysia’s top scuba islands. Culture and history buffs will enjoy the Cameron Highlands and Penang, but love Melaka.
And then there’s Borneo, possibly the most exciting destination in southeast Asia, if not the entire world. Recoil in vicarious horror at the bygone antics of the head-hunters, or alternatively do something interesting like climb, golf, dive, explore or hike. Home to SE Asia’s first Via Ferrata and tallest mountain as well as to the world’s largest cave system, no superlatives suffice to describe the quality and variety of charms and thrills that Borneo has to offer.
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