Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Malaysia: Truly Asia


Among the countries of Southeast Asia, Malaysia is surely one of the most pleasant and peaceful visits. Several decades of continuous economic growth and political stability have led it to become one of the places in the region where the most wealth and prosperity reign, inspite of the political power in the hands of the Malays, and economic power in the hands of the Chinese, which are traditionally divided along racial lines.



In Malaysia, there is a warm and humid climate throughout the year and then you will find plenty of sun and warmness at any time you decide to visit it. If you are interested in going to the beach, try to avoid the rainy season  from November to January in the peninsular region. Sea turtles lay their eggs on the east coast during the period from May to September.

The most important festivals are related to Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar. Malaysia celebrates Hari Raya Puasa in particular, which marks the end of fasting and provides three days of joyful celebrations of Hari Raya Haji and, in memory of the pilgrimage to Mecca, two days characterized by the enormous consumption of pies and various sweets. Even the Chinese New Year  during January or February is celebrated with dances, processions and lively events.

Among the celebrations of the Hindu festival of Thaipusam remember the terrible towards the end of January, now banned in India, during which the faithful will inflict the worst masochistic suffering. This celebration is held at Batu Caves, near Kuala Lumpur and at the Temple of Waterfall, Penang. The Kota Belud Tamu Besar has a large tribal gathering that takes place in the month of May at Kota Belud, near Kota Kinabalu (Sabah) where are held handicrafts markets, traditional ceremonies, racing horses ridden by riders in costumes and meetings of witches. For those who would visit the country during that month, Kota Belud has a small 'tamu' (weekly market) every Sunday.

At first glance, Kuala Lumpur might seem like the usual modern Asian city full of gleaming skyscrapers, but in reality, it still retains the charm and color, which has now been completely erased in places like Singapore. The center of Kuala Lumpur is home to several colonial buildings, a vibrant Chinatown with roadside stalls and night markets, as well as a picturesque Indian district.

The heart beats in Kuala Lumpur Merdeka Square, where the flagpole towering a high 95 meter, where you play all the festivals and processions in the city. The square was used by the governors of the country during the colonial period for cricket matches, but it was also the place where independence was declared in 1957. On the eastern side of Merdeka Square stands the Sultan Abdul Samed, built in Moorish style and dominated by the clock tower, 43 m high. Even the beautiful train station has a similar architectural style and is characterized by the eccentricity of its minarets, domes, towers and arches.

The building known as the Petronas Tower is less visible but equally picturesque. Since almost half a kilometer high, it is not surprising that it is one of the most impressive concrete structures in the world.
The Jamek Masjid (Friday Mosque), characterized by the onion dome, is situated in a grove of palm trees overlooking Merdeka Square and its reflection is clearly visible in the windows of the new building across the street. Just south of the mosque are the bustling streets of Chinatown, a lively and crowded area in which you mix neon lights, commercial activities and noise. In the evening, the central part is closed to traffic and becomes a night market enlightened and chaotic.

Cheap hostel are located in the Chinatown district and in the area of Jalan Pudu Lama, while the Mid-range hotels are in the vicinity of Jalan Bukit Bintang and, in part, to Chinatown. The night market held in the Chinatown district is definitely the most unique place to dine.

Melaka is a city that combines elements of Chinese, Portuguese, Dutch and English culture and is considered the most valuable historic place throughout Malaysia. It was once the most important commercial port in the region but now it is nothing more than a peaceful village. Nevertheless, ancient junks continue to go up the river, giving the area of the port a air of yesteryear, and the city is full of narrow streets on which there are Chinese shops, antique shops, temples and relics of the period of European colonial domination. The most important monument from the Netherlands is the huge city hall painted pink, the Stadthuys, built between 1641 and 1660.

Considered to be the oldest Dutch building in all of Asia, it brings together all the main features of the colonial architecture of the Netherlands, including heavy entrance doors and shuttered windows. The Town Hall houses some government offices and an interesting Ethnographic Museum, which focuses on the history and culture of the place.

The impressive ruins of St. Paul's Church, built by the Portuguese over 400 years ago in a spectacular location, stand on the hill of the same name. The sanctuary was regularly visited by St. Francis Xavier, who was buried here for a short time before his remains were transferred to Goa, India. The British used the church as a store of gunpowder.

For those who prefer religious architecture in strong colors, a visit to the Cheng Hoon Teng Chinese Temple, the oldest in Malaysia is a must. Located in the old part of the city, it was built in 1646 by Chinese craftsmen with materials imported from China. All the old part of Melaka is well worth a walk, and along Jalan Hang Jebat you will find the oldest antique shops of the city.

The island of Penang (285 sq km), off the northwest coast of Peninsular Malaysia, is the oldest English settlement in Malaysia, and has become nowadays one of the main tourist attractions of the country. What makes the island particularly interesting is the lively folk and Georgetown city. Located on the northeast coast, it boasts an array of Chinese culture far superior to that of Hong Kong or Singapore and walking in the oldest quarters you may think you have stepped back at least fifty years.

Georgetown is a small town and strolling through its streets you will run into Chinese homes beautifully decorated, fruit and vegetable markets, temples in which they celebrate anniversaries, rickshaws, games of mahjong and everything that characterizes the normal grind of streets of an Asian city.

Located in central Georgetown you can still see the old walls of Fort Cornwallis where Captain Light landed in 1786, the first Englishman to set foot on what at the time was almost entirely uninhabited island and founder of a port of free trade. The stone fort was finished a few decades later and now it houses hundreds of guns, many of which were commandeered from the local pirates. The most famous of these guns, the Seri Rambai, is storied, and dates back to 1600, considered a symbol of fertility, is the subject of floral offerings and prayers by infertile women.

Penang Island is home to countless 'kongsis' (buildings which met the Chinese clans, also used as places of worship), among which is the Khoo Kongsi. The original building was so beautiful and full of decorations that no one was surprised that the fire burned the roof in the evening when it was completed. A similar misfortune was interpreted as a divine sign that it intended to punish the exaggerated opulence of the place, and so it was rebuilt another a little less pretentious place fiven the incredible collection of dragons, statues, paintings, Chinese lamps, colored tiles and various sculptures that adorn this building.

Kuan Yin Teng Temple, right in the old center of Georgetown , is not so great but it is definitely one of the most visited holy places of the city and it is not uncommon to see believers burn paper money, evening shows and puppet theater performance of the Chinese. To enjoy the best views of the city and the entire island, take the cable car up to Penang Hill, 830 m above Georgetown. In addition to procuring relief from humidity and heat, the hill offers a pleasant walk in the gardens, a hotel, a Hindu temple and a mosque. The view is especially beautiful at sunset, when the first lights of the city.

Most of the cheap hotels in Georgetown is located along Lebuh Chulia, while more expensive ones are in Jalan Penang. Although the Chinese and Indian restaurants abound, try your luck and try the local specialties for sale in the stalls and in the evening you gather along the Esplanade behind the Library of Penang.
Cameron Highlands

The Cameron Highlands are located in the heart of the Malay Peninsula, include some weather stations in altitude between 1,500 and 1,800 m. This area is very fertile, is the main center for the production of tea in Malaysia and is popular with both locals and between foreigners who wish to leave behind the excessive heat of the plains. You can go hiking in the jungles and tea plantations, reach the numerous waterfalls, walking through beautiful parks and observe the incredible variety of wild flowers.

The cool climate also pushes to perform activities usually impractical at sea level, such as golf, tennis and long walks, this is in fact the Malaysian city par excellence for those who love the beach and have nostalgia for the colonial times. The less expensive hotels are located mostly in the village of Tanah Rata, the most expensive ones you will find them in the area between Tanah Rata and Brinchang.

This island postcard is located in the South China Sea off the east coast of Peninsular Malaysia, and boasts beautiful beaches, crystal-clear waters, coral reefs, colorful fish, almost unexplored hills covered with jungle, streams of crystal clear water and the high peaks of Batu Sirau and Nenek Semukut.

The names of places they taste exotic (Hill of palm leaves, Village of the doubt) and the island is often referred to as the mythical Bali Hai in the movie South Pacific. Tioman is sparsely populated and tourists are usually more numerous than the inhabitants of the island. The tourist season is from June to August and during the monsoon rains of November, December and January, the island is almost deserted.

The west coast is dotted with towns and houses a luxury resort. A favorite of travelers is Palau Tioman, but if you want to go into more peaceful place, head to Kampung Nipah. The island is accessible by boat from Mersing or from Singapore and is also equipped with an airstrip in Kampung Tekek, the largest village on Tioman.

The archipelago of Langkawi is located a few kilometers off the coast of Perlis but is little known despite the beautiful beaches. The main island, Langkawi, is connected by sea to Thailand. The little-known in the state of Perak, offers tourists the rare beautiful gardens and ponds, ancient buildings and the Anglo-Malaysian night markets. In the same region is also Kuala Kangsar, a city of great historical value which abound in beautiful mosques and palaces and the birthplace of the rubber industry. In Ipoh, the capital of Perak, there are elegant villas and spectacular cave temples.

Though rather difficult, a visit to the region of Tasik Chini, in the central part of the state of Pahang, it is certainly worth. Here you can make interesting excursions in the vicinity of twelve lakes surrounded by lush jungle, supposedly related to an animal shelter of the Loch Ness Monster.

Taman Negara National Park, accessible only by boat, offers a rare opportunity to explore a of the world's most pristine tropical forests. The park covers an area of 4343 square kilometers between the states of Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu, and offers the chance to see wild animals, especially during the excursions to places less frequented.

A visit to the state of Sarawak can offer unexplored territories covered by jungle (actually decreasing rapidly), Dayak tribes who still live in their homes tribal and national parks rather interesting. Around the capital, Kuching, there are numerous coastal villages such as Pandan and Sematan, unspoiled tropical forest, beaches and hiking trails in Bako National Park.

The tribal houses are located along the Rejang River and its tributaries, a real natural way of communication between the northern and southern part of the state. Going down the river from Kanowit and Song will find very few tourists. In the northeastern region, do not miss the Niah Caves, reached only by a canoe ride and a 3 km walk: in addition to the cave paintings, the area offers the chance to see wild animals, explore the jungle and search for mushrooms glow at night that grow there. Unfortunately, those who will go to Sarawak can not help but notice how deforestation is ruining the natural environment and the lifestyle of the tribes of Dayak. Inform yourself of the problems this is causing reckless practice in Malaysia, before visiting it.

The majestic landscapes and incredible wildlife are the major attractions in the state of Sabah (which is very expensive). Just off the capital, Kota Kinabalu, you will find the immense Tunku Abdul Rahman National Park (4929 ha), formed by the islands of Gaya, Mamutik, Manukan, Sapi and Sulug, where you will find some of the best beaches on the island of Borneo, a rich wildlife, a beautiful coral reef and colorful fish.

Not far from the border with Kalimantan, Batu Punggul, you can find a resort that organizes adventure trips into the jungle, canoe trips and visits to the caves. It can be reached only by boat, passing through villages that still preserves the tribal houses. Located north of the capital, Kota Belud, is instead home to one of the main markets and outdoor Sunday gatherings called tamu in Sabah, where you can buy and sell everything from magic pills to livestock.

You will find Mount Kinabalu, one of the major places of tourist interest in Sabah and one of the absolute easiest mountains to climb, offering a panorama simply fantastic, especially at sunset. The diving and snorkelling can choose between the many islands of the east coast, including Tioman, Pulau Kapas, Pulau Redang and Perhentian Islands.

For those who love the land, the best cycling routes are located in the eastern part of the peninsula and along the crossing Butterworth-Baling. In Taman Negara National Park in the state of Pahang, you can go trekking, bird-watching and fishing, while in the beautiful area of Tasik Chini, Pahang always, you can go canoeing and fishing, and long walks in the jungle. In Sarawak, Gunung Mulu National Park is home to some beautiful caves, including the Clearwater Cave, with its 51 km is one of the longest in the world. The park also offers excellent hiking: we recommend the 4 days leading to the top of Mount Gunung Mulu (2377 m).

In Sabah, the National Park Pulau Tiga, near Kuala Penyu, is known for the trails around the island volcanic and the many places to snorkel. Many tourists who travel to this location also carry an excursion on Mount Kinabalu. The Turtle Islands National Park, 40 km north of Sandakan, is a great place to see turtles laying their eggs between July and October and the same is true of the coast of Terengganu, Pulau Lumut and Pangkor off the coast of the Isle of Selingan in the northern part of Sabah.

The main airline is Malaysian Airlines, which has flights so on the peninsula as the states of Sarawak and Sabah. The rates are reasonable, but it is unlikely that you will serve other flights within the peninsula unless you have very little time. It costs less to get in the air in East Malaysia from Johor Bahru rather than starting from Kuala Lumpur.

Unlike the Peninsula area, in the eastern part of the country the plane is the only way to move fast, but remember that the flights from Sabah or Sarawak are often full during the school holidays and have an unfortunate tendency to delay because of the variability of the time. Always check the web to find deals. Peninsular Malaysia has an extensive bus service, fast and cheap, so that is definitely the best way to visit it.

In Sabah the roads are in excellent condition and there will be difficult to find a minibus to take you to the most important destinations. In contrast, the buses run along the main road of Sarawak and a few other rides. The rail service on the peninsula is cheap and efficient with the most important lines that are connecting Singapore to Thailand via Kuala Lumpur and Butterworth, and one that, through a branch in Gemas, proceed to Kota Bharu in the north-east. In Sabah, the train, starting from Tenom, exceeds the Pegas River gorge and then goes to Kota Kinabalu.

On the peninsula, the long distance taxi costing twice as much as buses are an efficient way and, by comparison, luxurious way to travel. If you want to rent a car you will find all the major agencies in Kuala Lumpur. There are ferries between the two regions of Malaysia, while many boats travel the rivers of Sarawak and Sabah. The rickshaws have almost completely disappeared in Kuala Lumpur, but can still be found in rural areas.

Malaysia is gradually developing a pluralist culture based on a marriage dynamic and completely original between the peoples of Malay, Chinese, Indian and traditional cultural elements and other indigenous ethnic groups. Many of the tourists who come to visit Malaysia are limited to the peninsular region, where the hustle and bustle of Kuala Lumpur can be interrupted by a trip to the Cameron Highlands, or the relaxed atmosphere of Langkawi. A few come to Sarawak or Sabah, in East Malaysia, which have been an incredible wildlife, tribal life in the huts and the imposing peak of Mount Kinabalu.


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