Full country name: Federation of Malaysia
Area: 329,750 sq km (204,445 sq mi)
Population: 22 million
Capital City: Kuala Lumpur (pop 1.2 million)
People: 50% Malay, 33% Chinese, 9% Indian, plus indigenous tribes such as Orang Asli and Iban
Language: Bahasa Malaysia, English, Chinese dialects, Tamil, indigenous dialects
Religion: 52% Muslim, 17% Buddhist, 12% Taoist, 8% Christian, 8% Hindu, 2% tribal
Government: Parliamentary monarchy
Head of State: King: Tuanku Salehuddin Abdul Aziz Shah ibni al-Marhum Hisamuddin Alam Shah
Prime Minister: Najib Razak
GDP: US$99 billion
GDP per head: US$4530
Annual Growth: 2%
Major products/industries: Tin, rubber, palm oil, timber, oil, textile, electronics
Major trading partners: Singapore, Japan, USA
January: The festival of Thaipusam, when devotees honor Lord Subramaniam with acts of amazing masochism.
May: Tamu Besar, a huge tribal gathering held near Kota Kinabalu in Sabah.
Malaysian ringgit (dollar)
Malaysian banks are efficient. Moneychangers do not charge a commission but their rates vary, so make sure you know the current rate
before approaching one. For cash, you’ll generally get a better rate at a moneychanger than a bank. All major credit cards are accepted at up market hotels, shops and restaurants.
Tipping is not customary in Malaysia. The more expensive hotels and restaurants add a 10 per cent service charge to their bills.
The 104 islands of the Langkawi group are little visited, despite their good beaches. The main island, Langkawi, has direct boat
connections with Thailand. Low-key Taiping, in Perak, has beautiful lake gardens, well-preserved Anglo-Malay buildings, a good night-market and hardly any tourists. Although pretty inaccessible, a visit to Tasik Chini in central Pahang state is well worth the effort. It’s actually a series of 12 lakes surrounded by beautiful jungle territory. Taman Negara National Park, accessible only by boat, offers a rare opportunity to visit one of the most pristine primary rainforests in the world. The park covers 4343 sq km and sprawls across Pahang, Kelantan and Terengganu.
Sarawak has untouched jungle, the chance to visit longhouse-dwelling Dayak tribes and a good system of national parks. The area around the capital city, Kuching, has remote coastal villages, such as Pandan and Sematan, and unspoilt tropical rainforest, beaches and walking trails in the Bako National Park. Longhouses are found along the Rejang River and its tributaries – central and southern Sarawak’s ‘highway’.
About 10,000 years ago, aboriginal Malays migrated to the Malay peninsula from south-western China. One after the other, the peninsula came under the rule of the Cambodian-based Funan, the Sumatran-based Srivijaya and the Java-based Majapahit empires. The Chinese arrived in Melaka in 1405. Islam arrived in Melaka at about the same time and spread rapidly. The Portuguese took control in 1511, followed by the Dutch in 1641. The British established a thriving port in Penang in 1786 and took over Melaka in 1795.
Post WW II, the indigenous labor supply was insufficient for the needs of the developing rubber and tin industries, so the British brought large numbers of Indians into the country, altering the peninsula’s racial mix. The Japanese overran Malaya in WW II. Communist guerrillas, who fought the Japanese throughout the occupation, began an armed struggle against British rule in 1948 and Malaya achieved independence in 1957. Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore combined with Malaya to establish Malaysia in 1963, but two years later Singapore withdrew from the confederation.
The United Malays National Organization (UMNO) has been in power since 1974. In September 1998 the country hosted the Commonwealth Games, but the public relations aspect of the competition came apart when students and citizens protested against the unfair sacking and later imprisonment of deputy Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim.
A multicultural society, Malays, Chinese and Indians live side by side in Malaysia. The Malays are the largest community. They are Muslims, speak Bahasa and are largely responsible for the political fortunes of the country. The Chinese comprise about a third of the population. They are Buddhists and Taoists, speak Hokkein, Hakka and Cantonese, and are dominant in the business community. The Indians account for about 10% of the population. They are mainly Hindu Tamils from southern India, they speak Tamil, Malayalam, and some Hindi, and live mainly in the larger towns on the west coast of the peninsula.
The main indigenous tribe is the Iban of Sarawak, who number 395,000. They are largely longhouse dwellers and live along the Rejang and Baram rivers. The Bidayuh (107,000) are concentrated on Sarawak’s Skrang River. The Orang Asli (80,000) live in small scattered groups in Peninsular Malaysia.
Malaysian music is heavily influenced by Chinese and Islamic forms. The music is based largely around the gendang (drum), but includes percussion instruments (some made of shells), flutes, trumpets and gongs. The country has a strong tradition of dance and dance dramas, some of Thai, Indian and Portuguese origin.
It’s not easy to find authentic Malay food in Malaysian restaurants. Satays (meat kebabs in spicy peanut sauce) are a Malaysian creation and they are found everywhere. Other dishes include fried soybean curd in peanut sauce, sour tamarind fish curry, fiery curry prawns and spiced curried meat in coconut marinade. Muslim Indian dishes have developed a distinctly Malaysian style.
Malaysia is divided into two distinct parts: Peninsular Malaysia and the East Malaysian provinces of Sabah and Sarawak in North Borneo. The two regions are 650 km apart, separated by the South China Sea. Peninsular Malaysia shares borders with Thailand and Singapore. Sabah and Sarawak border Kalimantan (the Indonesian part of Borneo), and Sarawak surrounds the tiny enclave of Brunei. The Andaman Sea is on the west coast of the peninsula. The east coast of the peninsula, Sabah, and Sarawak all adjoin the South China Sea.
More than 60 per cent of the country is still rainforest. There are 8000 species of flowering plants in Peninsular Malaysia alone, including 2000 tree species, 800 different orchids and 200 types of palm. Fauna includes elephants, rhinos, tigers, leopards, tapirs, sun bears, orangutans and gibbons.
Malaysia is hot and humid all year. Temperatures are usually between 20-30
Malaysia is hot and humid throughout the year. So be ready for sunshine and sweat pretty much whenever you visit. It is, however, best to avoid the November to January rainy season.
Kuala Lumpur is a modern, bustling city of more than a million people. It retains much of the character and local color that has been so effectively wiped out in other Asian-boom cities such as Singapore. It has plenty of colonial buildings in its center, a vibrant Chinatown with street vendors and night markets, and a bustling Little India.
When KL does something, it likes to do it big. The twin Petronas Towers skyscrapers – the tallest building in the world – dominate the skyline, while in Merdeka Square stands a 95 m.
People: 59% Malays and various indigenous groups, 32% Chinese, 9% Indian
Main language: Bahasa Malay, Chinese, English, Tamil
Time Zone: GMT/UTC+8
Telephone Area Code: 603
There is almost always something going on, what with so many cultures and religions in Malaysia. Visitors from Western countries will need to check the local lunar calendar for the exact dates of most events. New Year’s Day, Chinese New Year, Worker’s Day (May Day) and National Day (31 August) are just a few of Malaysia’s mind-boggling 44 public holidays.
Malaysia is divided into two regions – Peninsular Malaysia and East Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur in the Selangor province falls near the west coast of the Peninsular. The traditional heart of the city is Merdeka Square. KL is a relatively easy city to navigate, with major north-south thoroughfares. Traveling around the city on foot can be a frustrating experience. Six-lane roads and overhead fly-overs divide the city with no thought to pedestrian traffic.
Southeast of Merdeka Square, the banking district merges into the bustling, old China Town, where travelers can find a wealth of accommodation and restaurant options. Past the main post office is the historic KL train station, while further west is the ‘green belt’, housing the Lake Gardens, National Museum and Monument and the Malaysian Parliament.
Along with the station, the major transport hub in KL is Puduraya bus station, on the eastern edge of the central district.
When to go:
It’s hot and humid throughout Malaysia all year round. Overnight lows rarely fall below 20°C (70°F). Rainfall is variable and falls all year round. The driest months tend to be June and July.
The huge Batu Caves are among KL’s best known tourist attractions. They form an intense backdrop to the spectacularly masochistic feats performed annually by Hindu Thaipusam devotees. The main cave, a vast open space known as the Temple Cave – is reached by a 272-step climb. Beyond the stairs is the main temple. There are several other smaller caves in the same formation.
Templer Park was established during the colonial period. The 500 hectare park is a tract of primary jungle featuring marked jungle paths, swimming lagoons and several waterfalls. Just north of the park is a 350 m limestone formation known as Bukit Takun. There is still plenty to do in KL. The large parks and gardens are apt for bird watching. The city also has many facilities for swimming. At night you hit the floor at a disco – but only till 1 am.
Kuala Lumpur was formed in the late 1860s when a band of prospectors in search of tin landed at the meeting point of the Kelang and Gombak rivers. They named the place Kuala Lumpur meaning ‘Muddy Convergence’. More than half of those first arrivals died of malaria and other tropical diseases, but the tin they discovered in Ampang attracted more miners. Soon KL quickly became a noisy, brawling, violent boom town.
Shifting between colonial powers the whole Malaysia peninsula came under British rule in 1913, when it was known as British Malaya. The economy prospered. By the commencement of WW II, Malaya supplied nearly 40% of the world’s rubber and 60% of its tin. This pre-war boom period also saw massive movements of Chinese and Indian nationals to the region. By 1931, the Chinese outnumbered the indigenous Malays. The war had a devastating effect on Malaya, which fell to the Japanese with relative ease. It took Japanese forces just a month to repel the British and move into Kuala Lumpur.
When Malaya gained independence in 1957, a coalition of Malays, Indians and Chinese assumed power, although the constitution granted indigenous Malays special privileges. In 1963 Malaysia came into being, combining Malaya, Singapore, Sarawak and Sabah (Brunei pulled out at the last moment). As soon as the new nation was formed, the Philippines laid claim to Sabah, while Indonesia laid claim to the whole ‘East Malaysia’ region. British troops in the region took three years to quell the threat. At the same time, a dispute erupted between Singapore and Malaya over pro-Malayan policies. Singapore was kicked out of the union in 1965.
Although Malaysia was by the mid-60s a politically united country, internal political and social problems continued. Despite the luxury of legal privileges, Malays had a very weak hold on Malaysia’s economy. In 1969 only 1.5% of company assets in Malaysia were held by Malays, and they had a per-capita income that was less than 50% of non-Malays. Despite this, there was still much resentment directed towards the Malays, spilling over into bloody riots following the 1969 election. From then until now, successive governments have attempted to gradually legislate away inequities between races in Malaysia.
Today Kuala Lumpur continues to develop on a monumental scale, however neglected infrastructure is catching up and pollution, traffic congestion and water supplies are a growing problem.
The international airport (KLIA) was opened in 1998 and boasts state-of-the-art facilities. Two terminals are linked by a shuttle service, and host all international arrivals and departures. Public Transport is not an easy way to travel to the airport, which is 75km south of the city center.
Taxis from the airport operate on a fixed-price coupon system, available in the arrival hall. KL’s main bus station is Pudu Raya Terminal, just east of Chinatown. From here buses go all over Peninsular Malaysia, including the east coast, and to Singapore and Thailand.
The public transport system within KL is speedy, comfortable and uncomplicated. New expressways, a remodeled rail network and the new train station have all contributed to a reduction in traffic congestion. While buses and city trains move huge numbers of people, travelers will probably find most joy with the fast and frequent Light Rail (LRT).
Taxis are a cheap alternative to the mass transport options. Drivers are sometimes unwilling to use the meters – check with locals about going rates or simply get out and hail another cab.
Diving, snorkeling, bicycling, trekking, fishing and bird watching – there is lots you can do in Malaysia. In Sarawak, Gunung Mulu National Park has a number of spectacular caves, including the 51 km long Clearwater Cave, one of the longest in the world. Adventure-caving expeditions can be arranged.
In Sabah, Pulau Tiga National Park off Kuala Penyuh has good walking trails across the volcanic island and several snorkeling spots. Many visitors to Sabah climb Mt Kinabalu. Turtle Islands National Park, 40 km north of Sandakan, is a good place to see green turtles between July and October.