Noi6 means "the 6 of us" in Romanian.

We are five, you are the sixth one.

We thank you for joining us in our trip around the world...

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Wonderful Malaysia

Like many countries, Malaysia is trying to promote tourism and in the process is using various slogans. Wonderful Malaysia. Malaysia, truly Asia. Amazing Malaysia. Occasionally slogans have some truth in them. For us Malaysia has been wonderful.

Malaysia is wonderful

We've been in the country enough times that we
lost count. We came for an overnight in the airport on January 15, flying from Kochi, India to Guilin, China. We've been overnight in an expensive hotel by the other airport flying from Macau to Siem Reap on January 27-28. We came for 36 hours on February 28, stayed in Penang overnight, flew to Kuala Lumpur and took our flight to New Zealand. We came again for a longer stay on June 8, and this was the first time we really got to discover a little bit about the country.
At 27 million people, it's just the right size. Big enough to count a little, but small enough to try to get people's attention, to be humble and welcoming. It has an unique system of government, I knew about it for 30 years, and couldn't imagine how it worked. It works, as far as governments are concerned, pretty well. It is a federation of 13 states, nine of them being hereditary monarchies. The nine sultans take five years turns in a preselected order as head of the country. While the sultan from one state runs the country, his crown prince runs the local state. Charming. The prime minister has much more power then the sultan and they have a democratically elected parliament. How lovely if we could get something like that in the European Union. Twenty seven countries, nine monarchies, and let the kings and queens choose one of them to run Europe for five years at a time...

They have a Malay majoritarian population and sizable Indian and Chinese minorities. For a while there was a policy to promote the Malay people, to the point of creating a reverse "apartheid" where Malay were given preferential treatment. Now there seems to be a concerted effort to promote a more meritocratic, "equal opportunities" type of society. Interesting to compare this sort of things around the world.

I think it started with the nazis and the communists, then America (with the affirmative action), South Africa (with the apartheid and now the black economic empowerment), and so on. Malaysia, where the Indian and Chinese minorities were traditionally better educated, richer and disproportionately powerful in commerce, has (or had?) a scheme of promoting a certain percentage of Malay people over their minorities. It was called bumiputra and had some limited success. Now they have pictures of a protective Indian girl holding the shoulders of a Malay and a Chinese boy, and all over it's just talk about "merdeka" (togetherness) and "bersatu" (united).
on every bus station

Funny, there used to be a Malaysia-Singapore Federation. They kicked Singapore out in 1965, they were jealous that the city of Singapore was more developed than Kuala Lumpur, and the Singaporeans didn't want to promote the Malay first politics. In the museum of Singapore, this event was not even mentioned (or, despite looking for it, I couldn't find it). In Kuala Lumpur, their museum says that Singapore chose by itself to leave the Federation...

Malaysia became independent in 1957, culmination of a long term process started by a group of locals educated in the English schools. But Malaysia is much older than this. They have evidence of human activity 12000 years ago, some relics from the second century, and they are very proud of the sultanate of Malacca, which was a major economic power in the area. The sultan converted to Islam relatively early and thus facilitated commerce with various economic powers of the time. After a regrettable incident, when their envoy was killed by the Sultan, the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. Later the Dutch took over and then the British. We ran into the Portuguese and Dutch inheritance in Goa, Kochi, Macau, and Java already. It made sense to visit Melaka (modern day Malacca) to complete the picture. It is a World Heritage site together with Penang which we saw in February (link here). It is a couple of hours south of Kuala Lumpur, a modern city of 700,000 people, with an old touristic core visited every weekend by scores of Malaysians. It took several hours to get there from Singapore, but we made it (link Singapore). We stayed in a crumy room in a cheap hotel downtown. Like Ioan said, the biggest bed so far, there were two double beds that we put together and we slept all in that, like the sardines in a box. It was just a few minutes walk from all the touristic places. The first evening, they had a boat parade on the river for the 750-year anniversary of the city, but we missed that. We got out to look for food and a tropical rain started. It stopped us in our track and we slowly returned to the hotel and retired for the night. In the morning we saw an old Portuguese church, a Dutch administrative center and the ruins of another church. Then we crossed the river, visited a newly restored old dwelling and the Baba Nonya house. Baba Nonya is the name given to the chinese population settled in this areas, they were mostly rich merchants. They preserved almost everything in the 19th century house and the funniest thing that I learned was that they had highly prized china imported from England. Chinese people who had Chinese china for everyday use and English china for the guests!
No pictures were allowed there, unfortunately.

Melaka tower

Restored Dutch house

The river in Melaka

At least 24 museums to visit in Melaka

The other attraction in Malacca is the cuisine, with the mixture of Portuguese, Chinese and Malay, there was a huge list of things for us to try.
They travel for hours to come here and stay in line for hours

Only in Melaka

The town was full of bicycle rikshas, decorated in a very extravagant way and carrying huge speakers in the back, blasting a cacophony of western music. I imagined for a moment a guy like that on a street in my little village, he would probably be taken to see me, the psychiatrist, for an evaluation.
Melaka BMW

It was easy to get from there to Kuala Lumpur. We landed in the most touristic part, the China Town, where I booked a room for five in a cheap guesthouse. From two nights we ended staying five, it was dirt cheap, tolerable conditions, shared bathrooms, poor breakfast but fast and open Internet. We had a major hurdle to overcome and that took a lot of time.

South Africa. It still requires visas for Romanians, an aberration that nobody seems to notice. They also require people to get the visas in their countries of residence, for us would have been USA. We had already invested almost $10000 in plane tickets for going to and leaving South Africa (a typical requirement for visas) and for the side trip to Madagascar. After the firm refusal in Singapore we had our last hopes in Kuala Lumpur. And it happened! It took several discussions, visits, statements, a nice secretary who watched some documentary about Romania and worked for a Romanian lady once, they checked our blog to see that our story is true. We got our visas almost at the last moment and we will always have fond memories of KL! Waiting for this to happen we tried to imagine alternative scenarios, skipping Africa altogether, flying somewhere else, going to Romania or just staying in Malaysia. I refused to invest time in researching these, I also stopped reading Nelson Mandela's memoirs until I got a resolution. With only two days left we got in emergency mode to try to discover the city. First, it is a former tin-mining city, called by the first founders "muddy confluence". They all died of malaria shortly after (1857?), but the tin was there, miners kept coming. It was ruled first by Chinese criminal gangs, but slowly over the years evolved in the modern capital of a pretty modern country. It still has some shanties and plenty of old colonial buildings in poor shape, but it has a great transit system, modern high rise buildings, neat commercial malls and various attractions. It is surprisingly affordable, our first 5-bed room was $33 per night and we could eat five portions for $12 at the restaurants nearby. A beer was $5, but that is another matter.

Brand new for sale in a store ($20)
We lived right next to the Central Market and the touristy Petaling street. There you can buy anything you want, they claim is authentic, but is cheap imitation. Most people get fooled and we were warned to look only, not even talk with them. Ileana, my daughter, was interested in a lipstick. The asking price was $50, and they kept pushing for an offer from us. The price was cut down to $3, but even then I kept my line, that I don't need it. I asked about a DVD, an Indian movie, Jodah Akbar. "Oh, that is so old, nobody watches it anymore, we have new movies!" - and they had everything, on DVD and BluRay discs. They can keep them.
Petaling street

Central Market

Visiting the Islamic Arts Museum, we had an interesting experience. Ann Dunham's exhibition about the art of batik in Java, Indonesia. It was nice, and it had a panel of biographical information about her. I started at the end with the note about her death, but then I noticed the previous picture at the wedding of Michelle and Barrack Obama. I was excited! She knew the President! Hey, look, that really is a younger version of the presidential couple. By this time the rest of my family discovered that she was the mother of the president, he even had a looping speech on a monitor nearby, specifically recorded for the exhibition.
A short but special life

The Islamic Arts Museum is impressive. Housed in a new shiny building it has a lot of interesting information, nicely displayed, a quiet, peaceful atmosphere, it was fascinating. Unfortunately at the end of the visit, I had a troubling happening. I was so relaxed, transported into a different, nicer world, that when I got to the last panel I had a little shock. They were talking about Palestine and Israel. Where did this come from? "Could it be that those fools are still fighting over there?" It was just so unreal to be buzzed back into the real world so abruptly. Or, I was just spacey that morning, later I almost hit my head on the white ceiling walking under a stair.
An amazing museum

This is unfortunately no joke. In a world full of beauty fools are fighting for ever

I barely avoided the spiky sprinkler on the ceiling

We crossed the street to visit the impressive National Mosque. For me, it was fun to take pictures of my girls dressed in burkas, for them it wasn't.

Please put your caption in the comments

The impressive National Mosque


Next day, we visited the National Museum and the girls returned straight to the hotel. Ioan and I went to the bird park, the largest free-fly bird sanctuary in the world.

As we left we were shocked to get a woman taxi driver, the first we saw in Asia. She had countless questions and we just answered them. She was shocked to learn about our trip, "here nobody does that". Like everybody does "that" in Romania or in the USA.
Great driver!

I thought we would visit the Petronas Towers, a few years ago it was the highest building in the world. There is a bridge at the 40th level and the access used to be free. Now they changed it, they give you a tour and they charge $20. No way...

Petronas Towers - skip...

Malaysia is wonderful. If you could adjust to the high cost of beer and, like I did in this post, ignore the messy history of the last few years, the tensions between Chinese, Indians and Malays, the Islam divide between the extremists and the progressists, the clamp down on the rights of women and several other problems, you could also have a fabulous time here.

Ignore the teeth on the door - this was ASEAN for you

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