Malaya is a word that conjures up the mystery of the East: sultans and headhunters, jungles with exotic wildlife and travel on clippers on the South China Sea. Of course, today’s Malaya is a different world – the jungles are contained in national parks or turned into rubber and palm oil plantations, Kuala Lumpur is a modern metropolis of glass, and container ships, not clippers, now sail the sea.
Even so, the country has retained its cross-cultural stamp with the sharp spices of its Indian markets, its flamboyant red Buddhist temples and the prayer call of the muezzin echoes from a multitude of mosques across the country. Sandwiched between Singapore to the south and Thailand to the north, the Peninsula states support the great bulk of the country’s population. And just as Malaysia itself is a country of two halves, so the Peninsula too can be broadly divided into a vibrant western side and a bucolic east, separated by the Barisan Titiwangsa, the Peninsula’s jungled spine.
Fraser’s Hill and the Cameron Highlands offer a taste of colonial Malaysia, and there are good walks around the Cameron Highlands. There are many islands you can visit off both the west and east coasts of the Peninsula, although the east coast islands come closer to popular notions of palm-fringed island idylls. Penang has a wide selection of hotels and tourist facilities and a fantastic historical centre. Pulau Langkawi has developed rapidly and is more the haunt of upmarket resorts than budget-friendly guesthouses. Georgetown, the capital of Penang, is Malaysia’s second city of architectural and historical note, with probably the finest assembly of Sino-colonial architecture in the region. It was awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 2008.
One of the main highlights of a visit is the food. Malaysians, like their neighbours in Singapore, love their food, and the dishes of the three main communities – Malay, Chinese and Indian – comprise a hugely varied national menu. Even within each ethnic cuisine, there is a vast choice; every state has its own special Malay dishes and the different Chinese provincial specialities are well represented. In addition there is North Indian food, South Indian food and Indian Muslim food. Nyonya cuisine is found in the old Straits Settlements of Penang and Melaka. Malaysia also has great seafood, which the Chinese do best, and in recent years a profusion of restaurants, representing other Asian and European cuisines, have set up, mainly in the big cities.
Malaysia is a fusion of colours, flavours, landscapes and ethnicities. Stay on Penang the “Pearl of the Orient” Island, visit tea plantations in the cool hill station of the Cameron Highlands and take a jungle walk spotting wildlife in Taman Negara, one of the world’s oldest virgin rainforests. There will also be time for sightseeing amongst the futuristic skyscrapers in the capital Kuala Lumpur, exploring the historic Portuguese trading town of Malacca and relaxing and swimming on the beautiful Tioman Island.