Magical Malaysia

Malaysia, land of contrasts.  You just get used to one sight when another elbows its way in.

Different cultures, religions, nationalities, clothes, food and language jostle with each other on the street.  From sari to mini skirt, from purdah to fashion labels, this, mostly, Muslim country has it all.

If you time your journey for the early months of any year, you could be rewarded with a feast of festivals, each very different. The year i wrote this year Hari Raya was first, followed by Thaipusam and then the Chinese New Year; all celebrated with public holidays in this seemingly tolerant country.

Hari Raya Aidilfitri is the event that follows the end of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan and is marked by new clothes and feasting as well as gifts to the poor.  If you like shopping, this is also the time of sales!

Thaipusam is the seemingly masochistic event during which Hindu devotees pierce their bodies with hooks and skewers before walking barefoot to the Batu Caves (Kuala Lumpur) or the Waterfall Temple in Georgetown (Penang)

And finally the Chinese New Year, celebrated with all the colours and noise of Asia.  Drums, cymbals, street theatre and opera as well as lion and dragon dances.

Festival of the Hungry Ghost

After all these, have a vacation from your holiday on an east coast island.  Mid to late February the monsoons have usually finished and I can recommend Pulau Perhentian Kecil, an island in the Perhentian group (a marine reserve near the Thai border).

Painting of Moonlight chalets in early '90s - the first accommodation on Long beach

At the Moonlight Chalets on Long Beach clichés come alive.  Think of a quiet tropical island and you will have the picture.  Palm trees, white sand, blue skies, sun, warm seas, fish, coral, butterflies, birds.  Add good food, charming hosts, who remember your name from the time you arrive, add a chalet right on the beach for less than NZ $10, no roads, vehicles or jet-skis and paradise is complete.  If you are looking for sophistication, this is not the place for you: simple, lazy and as the locals say ‘tiada masala’ – no problems. (this painting was done many years ago by a French man who stayed there, and before the land on the left was taken and the first concrete monstrosity was built on what was a peaceful, electricity-free paradise)

Arriving is just the beginning of the adventure.  Two hours on a fishing boat from Kuala Besut ( better than the speed boats – after all what the hurry?) and you will be transferred to a speedboat for the exhilarating, frightening for some, race for the shore, the last metres surfing.  Make sure valuables are in plastic.  Bags are unloaded and then the decision of which place to stay.  Along with Moonlight, names such as Symfony, Shake Shak and Tooty Frooty (no spelling mistakes by the author) invite you to come stay or eat.  If you’re lucky you may hear tales of pirates, caves, buried treasure and even a ghost or two.

Along with a resplendent resident rooster, iguanas will wander or hurry past you, geckos calls loudly during the night, palm squirrels with bottle-brush tails chase each other up and down palm trees, monkeys swing, play and call from the trees, and mid year the turtles lay their eggs followed by the hatching some 45 days later.

Lets lie under a palm tree

That first year I was there, I witnessed the final monsoon storm!  48 hours of torrential rain, thunder and lightning, the beach rearranged, little creeks flood, gentle slopes and pathways become waterfalls and rivers.  The generator fails.  Palm trees sway, looking like umbrellas on a windy Wellington street.  A green wheelbarrow, a large blue plastic drum, palm tree trunks and a two-metre iguana were all swept along in the violent rush.  And then the sun returns, and island life begins again.  Snorkelling, jungle walks, reading, beach-combing, swimming, sleeping and for many guests, a necklace ‘so you’ll never forget this island.’

Early memories of this island ensures this is where my mind returns to when mediating for relaxation

excerpt from Naked In Budapest:travels with a passionate nomad

I’m keen to get to Thailand but I need a few days to relax and get used to the heat so decide to move onto Malaysia [by bus from Singapore] in the morning and prepare for another 12 months of travel. Did I really only get a passport when I was 40-something – I’m really playing catch-up now.

At the bus stop in Malacca I hire a man and a bike to take me to a hotel. My bag is only 14 kilos but Mr Ong, with his skin and bone legs, finds it difficult to get the bike moving. When we reach a small rise I offer to walk but he declines with vigour. He tells me he has been a cyclo for 50 years, he’s now 80 and has postcards from all over the world and will I send him one from New Zealand? (I did)

For over a week I explore, keep out of air-conditioned places and I’m now enjoying the heat; I’ve even stopped my arthritis medication – I’m sure I was meant to be born in a hot climate.

‘Selamat. Hari Raya Aidilfitri.’ I’d not expected to be welcomed with these words at the home of a Malaysian Cabinet Minister. Hari Raya, the celebration at the end of Ramadan, the Muslim fasting month, is a time of reflection and thanks for the past year, gaining merits for the next life.

Over the past 10 days I’ve been reading, in the newspapers, the exact time of the beginning and end of each day’s fast that is governed by the time of sunrise and sunset. Yesterday was the last day of fasting and was announced in the newspapers and television by the keeper of the Ruler’s Seal, Engku Datuk Ibrahim Engku Ngah.

The days leading up to Hari Raya have been festive: special songs are blaring from giant speakers; houses are cleaned ready for visits from friends and family; new clothes are worn; festive fare prepared; and advertisements and banners in the streets proclaim ‘Our differences keep us together. Hari Raya Aidilfitri.’

During Hari Raya, Muslims give charity money (zakat fitrah, a moral tax or tithe, usually 2.5% of a person’s income) to the mosque for distribution to the poor and for building and maintaining mosques. ‘What happens if people don’t pay?’ I ask.

‘They will have problems when they die,’ James, the manager of the budget hotel tells me. His Chinese employer will not give him time off work to attend prayers today. ‘I will have a bad year.’

I wonder at the actual depth of the racial harmony that’s proclaimed daily in newspapers and on posters – although I am impressed by the apparent tolerance the different races and religions show each other. I meet Muslims who are Indian, Indonesian, Malay and Chinese. Conversely I also meet the same cultures practising many other religions in this country of numerous races and religions: Muslim is predominant, about 52% and television programmes are interrupted each evening for prayers.

Over the past two days huge crowds have swamped bus and train stations as people return home to celebrate with their family. James tells me to go to an ‘open house.’ ‘Of course you are allowed to go’ he says. ‘Everyone is welcome.’

Catching a bus, to follow his advice, I’m surrounded by brightly dressed people many carrying gaily-wrapped gift hampers. I’m on my way to the home of Deputy Health Minister, Dr Mohammed Ali Rustam even though my western mind is not totally convinced that I, a non-Muslim stranger, can attend the celebration.

Under a huge canvas roof beside the house I meet the Doctor and his wife, who welcome me, saying they enjoyed their trip to New Zealand: I sit opposite Janet and her mother who doesn’t speak English. Janet, an elegant Chinese woman, tells me, ‘I went to New Zealand. I was at Rotorua with the Hash Hound Harriers – the boiling mud and geysers were amazing.’ She’s not Muslim and is one of the few people dressed in western-style clothes.

A delightful young girl willingly tells me about the various foods. It seems the little cookies and cakes are made especially for Hari Raya while redang is a dish of meat cooked slowly in coconut milk, chillies, onions and a mixture of spices and served with lemang – a glutinous rice dish cooked with coconut milk and inside a bamboo stalk. Dozens of dishes are served and Janet’s mother encourages me. ‘Eat, eat,’ she says, giving me delicacies off her plate and to be polite, my usual vegetarian diet goes.

The bright yellows, greens, reds and other multicoloured robes and scarves make me feel dowdy in my casual back-packer clothes. I’m wearing a T-shirt and fish-covered long cotton pants I’d made two days before I left home. However, with all the laughter, greetings and smiles I feel part of the dozens of guests and I’m asked to pose for many photos – reversing the usual as the traveller becomes the focus. (pages 152-154)

NOTE: my ‘few days’ in Malaysia becomes three months!

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