Malaysia’s Melting Pot

Do you know what a map of Malaysia looks like? I knew about the part south of Thailand, but what’s that whole East Malaysia part about? Honestly I have no idea, I didn’t go there.

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I spent the last two weeks working my way around Western Malaysia’s main cities, visiting Kuala Lumpur (the capital), Melaka, and Penang. What makes Malaysia stand out to me among the southeast Asian countries is its diversity. If you were dropped at random into Kuala Lumpur you could simultaneously think you were in China, Indonesia, and India.  The major demographics that makeup Malaysia are roughly 50% Malay, 23% Chinese, 12% indigenous ethnicities other than Malays, and 7% Indian.

The history leading to this diversity is long and confusing…from Sultans to a myriad of colonial rulers beginning in the 16th century with the Portuguese, Dutch, and finally the British (along with constant battles with Siam (now Thailand) and a Japanese invasion during WWII).

Colonization Portuguese Dutch British Siam Japanese

I’ll share some things I found interesting but instead of giving a history lesson I just wanted to share an experience I really enjoyed.

On Saturday night in Melaka, I went to a restaurant called S Sihat Kafe, promoted as serving vegetarian Melakan Indian Fusion. The cafe was right on Jonker Walk where the weekend night market takes place. I got a seat at a table in front, the waitress asked, “do you want to be really full or not really full?”. Hmm, I’ll probably get dessert at the night market, so “not that full”. She brought me a plate with bread that reminded me of Injera, the spongy bread you get with Ethiopian food, a potato samosa, three vibrantly colored sauces, a small bowl of something soupy looking, and masala tea, then laughingly placed a fork and spoon on the table…I’m pretty sure you are supposed to eat these things with your hands (and I did).

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This was easily my favorite meal in Malaysia, not only because the food was amazing but because of my surroundings. The main street stretching in front me, Jonker Walk, in a city just ten years ago designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was abuzz with vendors setting up for the night market. People were carting around piles of food, you could hear the sizzle of various things being deep-fried, the whir of a blender making a mango shake, in front of me was a Chinese husband and wife baking something with pineapple batter, some loose chickens were running around, and the foot reflexology shop next door was playing relaxing spa music.

At this point I’ve been to countless weekend night markets in Southeast Asia. It’s one of the main attractions for tourists toting great street food and cheap souvenirs. But with my time in Southeast Asia quickly coming to a close, this really made me reflect on how cool it was to experience the diversity and excitement of these markets and to never take these moments for granted.

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A few other quick things I found interesting:

  • Malaysia is currently undergoing a major political scandal. Very long and confusing story short, former prime minister Najib has been accused of laundering USD billions of dollars from 1MDB (1Malaysia Development Berhad) which was founded in 2008 to be an investment fund to support Malaysia. Beginning in 2013 the fund started receiving global attention for racking up huge debts but what really drew media attention recently was when around USD $681 million was found in Prime Minister Najib’s personal bank accounts and another USD $700 million with companies controlled by Mr. Jho Low, a close friend of the Nahjibs. Najib claims the $681 million was a political donation from the Saudi Royal family. Part of the story I found ironic is that Najib’s stepson is Riza Aziz, a Hollywood film producer who runs Red Granite Pictures, which produced The Wolf of Wall Street, allegedly financed using stolen funds from 1MDB. A movie about widespread corruption financed by money laundered from the Malaysian government. This past May Malaysia started a crowdfunding platform for Malaysians to donate money to the government to help pay off the 1 trillion ringgit (USD $250 billion) national debt.

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  • A lot of cities in Malaysia start with the word “Kuala”. It means a confluence of rivers, or an estuary. In Kuala Lumpur’s case, it means muddy estuary, and if you see the rivers you’d agree.

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  • Walking around any city in Malaysia you’ll see a lot of restaurants labeled Nyonya. Nyonya is the term for a female descendant of a Chinese father and Malay mother. Between the 15th and 17th centuries many Chinese men started leaving China to make their fortune in Southeast Asia. Many of these men landed in Malaysia, became wealthy merchants, and found local women to marry. Their descendants become known as Babas (men) and Nyonyas (women) (they are also referred to as Straits-born Chinese and Peranakan). These families were unique in that while the men were the breadwinners, the women were masters of the house managing all the finances (or else the men would gamble it away). Chinese religion was closely followed; however, these families were culturally Malaysian. Many of their mansions have been well-preserved and offer really interesting tours.
  • With so many ethnicities in a city there are of course many religions. Malaysia prides itself on being accepting of all religions, and in Melaka there is even a street called Harmony street where a Chinese Buddhist Temple, an Indian Mosque, and a Church all sit within two blocks of each other. I particularly enjoyed walking around Penang watching the Chinese temples light up while listening to the call to prayer fill up the streets from a mosque just down the street.
  • Penang is one of a few “street art capitals of the world” and walking around it is immediately clear why. Here are some of my favorites.
  • My book choice for my two weeks in Malaysia was The Gift of Rain, a novel by Tan Twan Eng. The novel centers around a wealthy and well-established British family leading up to and during the Japanese occupation during WWII. The Japanese took over Malaysia immediately after the bombing of Pearl Harbor with little resistance from British forces and occupied it for almost four years. Japanese treatment of the Chinese in Malaysia was particularly brutal, with mass genocide taking place all across the country. Most British POWs were sent to Northern Thailand (then Siam) to work on the railroad which would come to be known as the Death Railway (you may recall I visited back in January, see Feeling Alive on the Death Railway).
  • Turns out Malaysian food is really similar to Indonesian food, and unfortunately for me the local specialties are heavily seafood-based. I did manage to find a vegetarian version of Laksa Lemok (one of many famous Nyonya dishes) but I mostly stuck to Indian food (which was fine by me as it is one of my favorite cuisines).

SO! Tomorrow I am heading to my final destination, Singapore, where I’ll meet up with two more Bay Area friends, Patrick and Raisa!

Here are a few more photos from my two weeks in Malaysia:

3 thoughts on “Malaysia’s Melting Pot

  1. auntlinda5

    Amazing again Em! What’s your book for Singapore? Did you hear they made a movie out of Crazy Rich Asians? Opens August 15 so you can see it at home 😊

    1. Funny thing, I had vaguely heard of Crazy Rich Asians and I was doing a tour of Cheong Fatt Tze’s famous Blue Mansion in Penang and learned parts of it were filmed there! Now I’ll definitely have to go see it! On my list for tonight is to research Singapore books! I only have a week there and with friends so trying to find something short!

  2. auntcorie

    Emily, What a store of memories you are accumulating! The foods,the sights,the cultures.
    I have learned through your travels that there are many ways to be a human being on this planet.

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