It stretches from the eastern edge of the Bay of Bengal to the outer reaches of the South China sea. Pristine beaches, exquisite coral reefs, coastal mangroves, mountainous peaks and misty highlands, tropical rain forests and rivers, exotic flora and fauna, muti-cultured peoples, fusion of cuisines – Malaysia has it all. From the archipelago of Langkawi in the west to the island of Borneo in the east , Malaysia, a land just north of the equator, is split almost in two by the South china sea.
The warm equatorial waters surrounding Malaysia are ideal for the growth of reef building corals. Over 500 species of them are found in the reefs surrounding Malaysia and Borneo. On my arrival at Kuala Lumpur airport, I was delighted to see a very large aquarium tank with a replication of such a reef – complete with reef fish, of which over 3000 species abound in the waters around Malaysia and Borneo. On land, Malaysia boasts 600 species of birds , 210 species of mammals, 150 species of frogs and 80 species of lizards. Additionally, 140 species of snakes are to be found, both on land and on sea . 40 of these are venomous , including the unusual red headed krait and 4 species of cobra – King, Malayan, monocled, and spitting cobra. A snake temple, started by a Buddhist monk 900 years ago, exists on the island of Penang on Malaysia’s west coast.
red headed krait
I was on a flight from Taiwan to Singapore. I was not expecting a brief stopover at Kota Kinabalu on the western shore of the island of Borneo in the Malaysian state of Sabah . As the plane made its landing approach, the scene from the air was breath-taking. Below me were islands and lagoons on which stood stilt houses of the locals. On my left, one of the innumerable rivers of Borneo wound its way to the sea from the impenetrable jungle beyond. And in the cloud-covered distance was Mount Kinabalu which, at 13700 feet, is the highest peak between the Himalayas and New Guinea. I gathered later that this part of the world is virtually the only habitat of the world’s most intelligent great ape – the Orang Outan.
Kota Kinabalu lagoon : image courtesy lifeislikethat.com
The aircraft had just crossed the island of Balabac at the southern tip of the Phillipines and the narrow strait that separates it from the northern tip of the Malaysian state of Sabah. It was in these waters — the Sulu sea — that the world’s largest pearl, the Puerta Princesa pearl, weighing 34 kilograms — was recently found . This pearl, found in a giant clam by a Filipino fisherman, is on exhibition at the Puerta Princesa city hall on Palawan island of the Philippines.
Puerta Princesa pearl
Since Malaysia is located just north of the equator, the climate is typically hot and humid. . However, in the center of the mainland are highlands rising to 5200 feet . These are the Cameron highlands, with a cool and salubrious climate and surroundings of tea estates , orchards, golf courses , waterfalls and lakes . It is a prime holiday resort.
Tropical rain forests — north Borneo
The island of Penang on Malaysia’s west coast was an important trading hub from the time of the Ming chinese dynasty. Its population is still largely Chinese. However it was the British who, recognizing its strategic importance in the eventual colonization of the Malayan peninsula, constructed their first colonial settlement here in 1786. They then moved on to colonise Malacca and then Singapore.
Apart from the cuisine , the multi-ethnic society of Malaysia has produced a fusion of styles in jewelry, architecture and textiles.
Peranakan chinese bridal hairpin : courtesy Asian civilisations museum , Singapore
Malayasian Batik work : image courtesy shutterstock.com
Penang : Ornamental pillar
It is this western part of Malaysia that is rich in tin deposits. Trade in tin and spices were responsible for the growth of these ports. Malacca in particular was hotly contested – first occupied by the raja of Tamasek in 1440 A.D., captured by the Portugese in 1511, then by the Dutch in 1641, and finally ceded to the British in 1826. Where there were shipping lanes there were pirates. Malacca has been a haven of pirates for centuries . Today , the straits of Malacca continue to be one of the most notorious – with pirate haunts extending all along the coast down to the mangrove swamps of Indonesia.
Langkawi archipelego — west Malaysia
In the capital city of Kuala Lumpur on the mainland, many man-made wonders – in steel, glass and concrete — are on display. But the one that impressed me most was the multi-ethnic cuisine. The fusion of Indian, Malayan, Bornean, Chinese, Indonesian and Thai cooking, combined with the Malaysian love of rice and chillies, and the addition of many spices ( going back to the days when Malaysia was an important hub on the maritime silk route ), make Malaysian cuisine one of the most complex and diverse in Asia. The port city of Penang is the food capital of Malaysia. Though Malaysia is a largely muslim country, pork preparations abound , as also preparations of all types of meats and sea-food.
Much of the geology of Malaysia is ancient limestone. These rocks are susceptible to erosion by water . Over millennia, rain water has carved caves – large and small – all over all the territory . The most famous of these caves – the Batu caves – lie 13 kilometres north of Kuala Lumpur. They comprise 3 large caves and several smaller ones. The largest cave, known as the Cathedral cave, houses several hindu temples and shrines. They are administered by a hindu Board of management.
Cathedral cave — Batu
All things considered, Malaysia is a ‘must see’ destination on the itinerary of any visitor to south-east Asia. It is well and truly an exotic outpost.
( My last blog was centered on a mysterious people of northern Asia – the scythians . My next blog is on an equally mysterious people of southern Europe–the Etruscans of Italy. Stay posted )