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Asia / Cultural Immersion / Culture / Southeast Asia

Malaysia: Highlights from 40 Years of Travel through the Asian Peninsula

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At the opposite end of the spectrum from the Cameron Highlands is Penang, Malaysia’s premier seaside destination. Penang was founded in 1786 when the local sultan gave Sir Francis Light permission to turn the island into a duty-free port. Penang was soon eclipsed by Singapore and today trade takes a backseat to tourism. Most visitors camp at one of the luxury beach resorts along the eastern shore, but the island’s most distinctive hotel is the Eastern & Oriental in the city of Georgetown. Developed by the Sarkis brothers, who also built Singapore’s Raffles and the Strand in Rangoon, the E&O has benefited from an extensive restoration. After you get bored with Filipino rock bands in the clubs along Batu Ferringhi, Penang’s most popular beach, hit the E&O’s piano bar. It features aging Chinese chanteuses who sing “As Time Goes By” with all the melancholy you’d expect from Rick’s Bar in Casablanca.

Separated from the populous west by the peninsula’s mountainous spine, Malaysia’s East Coast has some of the best beaches in Asia. But tourism here lags because of a fundamentalist Muslim culture that can be uncompromising. Travelers willing to dress conservatively and abstain from alcohol, however, can visit pristine Malay villages that have changed little in half a century.

Image credit: Wikimedia

At night as the wind stirs the bamboo, banana and coconut groves that surround most rural kampongs, villagers gather for wayang kulit shadow plays depicting scenes from the Ramayana epic. The real entertainment, however, occurs in the afternoon when peasant artisans sporting songkok caps and batik sarongs gather to test themselves in aerial combat.

Flying a kite in Malaysia is not always child’s play. Kelantan “howling” kites are as tall as a man, often weigh up to 20-lbs. and have a span up to six feet. Made of thin bamboo carefully dried to provide resilience, then covered with three layers of paper and cellophane, Malaysian kites often soar to 1,400 ft. But the most distinctive feature is the bow-like attachment fitted horizontally across the top of the wings. Once the kite is aloft, the bow vibrates, producing a strangely hypnotic humming sound whose pitch varies according to the strength of the wind.