A Very Brief History of Malaysia

  • Malaysia was ruled by various Malay kingdoms, until it became subject to the British Empire, from the eighteenth century on,
  • Malaya was restructured as the Federation of Malaya in 1948 and achieved independence on 31 August 1957.
  • The independent Malaya united with the then British crown colonies of North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore, on 16 September 1963, to become Malaysia.
  • In August 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation and became a separate independent country.
  • The ruling political coalition, Barisan Nasional, has been in power for more than 50 years.

Facts and Factoids

  • Malaysia is a federal connotational monarchy, divided into two regions: Peninsular Malaysia and Borneo's East Malaysia. These are subdivided into thirteen states and three federal territories.
  • Malaysia is a kingdom, but has a unique system where the king is elected every five years from one of the nine existing royal families.
  • The Name Malaysia means 'Land of the Malays', but in fact this is a very diverse population. About half the population is ethnically Malay, with minorities of Chinese, Indians, and indigenous peoples.
  • The country's official language is Malaysian Malay, whilst many people also speak English.
  • The currency of Malaysia is the Ringgit. The word ringgit means "jagged" in Malay, which refers to the jagged edges of Spanish silver dollars that were once used in the region.
  • Malaysia is one of 17 megadiverse countries on Earth. It is estimated that Malaysia contains 20% of the world's animal species. These include the orang utan. They can only be found, in the wild, here and in Indonesia.
  • It's not only the fauna that are diverse. Malaysia is home to the rafflesia, which has the largest flower in the world. It stinks. I can vouch for this - they grew one at Kew Gardens.
  • The Malaysian flag consists of 14 red and white alternating stripes, which represent the 14 states in the country, along with a crescent and 14-point star. The yellow crescent represents Islam, the official religion of the country, while the star symbolises the unity among the states here. It was designed for a competition.
  • Malaysia has numerous traditional (and delicious) foods, but the national dish is Nasi Lemak - fragrant rice which is cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaf.
  • The main exports are are rubber, palm oil, and cocoa. Tea is also grown, in the Cameron Highlands.
  • Malaysians have the highest number of Facebook friends, in the world, on average

What To See in Malaysia?

Malaysia is one of the most developed countries in Asia. A gentle introduction to Asia, a continent where cultural differences can feel overwhelming at first. It's very easy to travel in, most of the signage is in English. and is generally safe. (The FCO advice makes most countries sound highly risky.) As always, look after belongings, there is petty theft, if not much reported violence. Stay aware of the political situation. And note that Islamic insurgents have indulged in kidnappings off the remoter islands of Sabah.

This country is known for its gorgeous beaches, lush forests and historic cities teeming with colonial buildings and ornate temples. Read about my mainland travels here.

Or go to Borneo in search of long houses, stilt villages, coral islands, Mount Kinabalu and the orang utans.

Kuala Lumpur, Capital of Malaysia

I am pleased to report that I am back in pampered hotel land, from Indonesia. My hotel in Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, only has a five kitchen café this time, but it still does a buffet. And I can see the Petronas Towers, dominating the skyline, as always, from my window. Though I’m not sure how sensitive it is of the Malaysians to refer to them as 'the tallest twin towers still in existence'.

KL has definitely changed since I was here last - ten years ago. (read about KL and Borneo here) many more skyscrapers and when I venture out I might mistake this for the UK, or possibly the USA. The busy mall opposite is very up market - Chopard, Tod’s - although there are also McDonalds and M & S. It’s five minutes’ walk, but the hotel runs a buggy service there. In Malaysia, the people don’t like walking and they love shopping. The guide tells me they select hotels based on their proximity to the malls. He also tells me they are thinking about building drive-in mosques, where you don’t even have to get out of your car. I’m not sure if that was a joke or not.

Malacca, Malaysia

It is still de rigueur, however, to shorten city names in Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur is KL and Joha Baru JB and so on. I’m off to Malacca today, which they can’t shorten, but they do spell it Melaka. I think it will be a gentle jaunt through some rural scenes and I can take photos. The road is a three-lane highway, indistinguishable from the M1 most of the way (except for the palm trees and the lack of road works). After two hours, the driver says he will take me the last stretch in to town by the country route, which turns out to be a two-lane highway. The weather pattern is currently sunshine in the morning and rain in mid-afternoon I’m informed. What countryside there is, is swathed in haze. This is blamed on the Indonesian forest fires, where they are burning the indigenous trees to plant oil palm oil.

Malacca has a very interesting history. It was first a fishing village and then the location of one of the earliest Malay sultanates. The area was inhabited by Malays and Indians, amongst others and utilised by first the Siamese and then the Chinese, as a trading base. It prospered, in control of major trade routes, especially with Arabia, India and China.

This all changed, when when the Portuguese conquered Malacca in 1511. Rather than achieving dominion over the network the Portuguese, had instead managed to disrupt it significantly. Malacca changed hands to the Dutch (far more concerned with the east Indies) and then, to the British in 1824, (first by the British East India Company and then as a crown colony). After the dissolution of this crown colony, Malacca (along with Penang) became part of the Malayan Union on 1 April 1946. There are still the remains of the old Portuguese fort to see. The head of state is called the Yang di-Pertua Negeri or Governor, rather than a Sultan. (Great name.)

Exploring Malacca

Malacca City is lovely. More how I had expected China to be. Maybe they are just better at renovating here. The capital of Malacca State is divided by Jonker Street and ornately decorated gates invite us in. Chinatown is also replete with quaint antique shops, merchants’ houses, old craft workshops and a night market.

Then, there are the colourful religious buildings. coexisting peacefully. The seventeenth-century Chinese Cheng Hoon Teng temple has ornate decorations and multiple prayer halls. And the green, three-tiered roof on the eighteenth-century, Kampung Kling Mosque. Not to mention the beautifully decorated trishaws. Tricycle rickshaws are stationed on all the street corners. The more competitive drivers have smothered theirs with artificial flowers. One even has spinning windmills and an inbuilt music system. Singapore in miniature, but probably with more character. Back in my room, I’m passing on dinner tonight. I’m still full of buffet from yesterday.

Cameron Highlands

It’s all very easy here, too. Everything in Malaysia is written in English - most things are very English. It's Asia for beginners. There’s a national day looming soon – August 31st and the flags are coming out. Why don’t we have one? The flag of Malaysia looks to be an Islamic version of the stars and stripes.

I am driven into the Cameron Highlands. It’s a very posh little SUV, but even this has hardly any leg room. Everything is made for tiny people - Lilliputian. More motorways, complete with English style service areas, including Dunkin Donuts and KFC. Though a bit of Asian bazaar does creep in, with some tourist tat and some very glittery versions of Claire's Accessories. The last part of the route today is indeed rural and winds continually and nauseatingly for over an hour up into the clouds.

The Cameron Highlands are Malaysia's first real tourist area. The table land is 800-1600 metres above sea level, Named after geologist and explorer, William Cameron the plateau is noted for tea plantations. It's also (relatively) cool and pretty with waterfalls, rivers and lakes.

Tea plantations, so velvety green they are begging to be stroked. And little towns straggling the backs of ridges with timbered architecture that could almost be Scottish, except that the effect is more Super 8 Motel. It’s parky enough to be Scotland, a bit of a shock to the system.

I wander into the nearest town. Strawberry farms are the order of the day: Healthy Strawberries, Biggest Red Strawberries, all sorts of strawberry confections, as well as the golf course and the Ramadan Market. It's Ramadan at the moment, and folk flock round the stalls to buy food treats, after dusk. The newspapers have reported at least one death already from eating like this. The other hot news is that Golden Churn butter has been deemed to be non Halal and Muslims are ordered not to eat it. It contains pig’s DNA.

The Epitome of Colonial England

The hotel is ‘the epitome of colonial England’, all wood panelling, afternoon tea and log fires. There's a delightful dining room, the windows festooned with strings of white lights. It’s a shame my bedroom hasn’t got a log fire too. Though it has got a huge four poster bed, so it’s quite cosy.

The staff here all call me Miss Susan. Very deferential - I think. It’s the first time this trip I’ve actually stopped and done nothing, or very little anyway. I read in bed for a while and then I spend the rest of the morning in the spa. As tea and strawberries are the local specialties they feature heavily. I am supposed to have a relaxing tea bath. (Another first.) It looks great, with rose petals and chrysanthemums floating on the water. There is a tray resting over the bath that contains sugar scrub for my body, tea scrub for my face, lime slices for my elbows and knees and a tea bag for my eyes). There are even headphones to wear, if you like repetitive plastic music. Then I have a brilliant body scrub and a very long massage. Well, after that I am really good for nothing.

Jim Thompson Mystery Walk

However, I crawl out to do the Jim Thompson Mystery Walk, later on in the afternoon. I should have learned by now that in Asia the word walk is synonymous with sliding down narrow, muddy rainforest tracks, whilst simultaneously trying to avoid being garrotted by tree roots growing across the path. There is only me and a guide, exploring the Mossy Forest. (It's deemed to be the oldest forest in Malaysia -around 200 million years.) To add to the enjoyment, it starts to rain and he issues us with plastic ponchos. So there we are like two pixies tottering around. The terrain necessitates him holding my hand quite a lot.

The secondary forest here is being eroded, as the wood is deemed useless and all the rare orchids superfluous. The land is being developed for palm oil or apartments. A giant oak tree has fallen across our path and the guide suggests a long detour. I demur as I don’t want to prolong the excitement (especially the hand holding) and we hack our way through. Then I collect a leech, which is another first. The little bugger takes more than a sample test tube’s worth. The blood’s still trickling down my leg.

The Story of Jim Thompson

The guide also tells me a very long and complicated story about Jim Thompson. I have only previously associated him with restaurants that sell Thai food and his house/museum near Bangkok. An ex-architect, a retired army officer, hotelier, a one-time spy, a silk merchant and a renowned collector of antiques, Time magazine claimed he "almost singlehanded(ly) saved Thailand's vital silk industry from extinction". However, it seems he disappeared from the bungalow up the road here one afternoon in 1967 and never came back. The story involved communists, hordes of local witnesses, assassinations and the CIA and was far more involved than the one I have just perused on Wikipedia. Quite exciting though.

Visiting the Tea Plantations of Malaysia

Yesterdays’ exertions and massage certainly had an effect. I slept for over eleven hours last night. When I finally emerge from breakfast I get a taxi to take me up the mountain, through the tea plantations. The driver is a happy little soul. Ignoring the extra £12 he has extorted from me for going up the mountain, he complains all the way about the state of the road (it isn’t great, but might have qualified as an A road in Indonesia).

Then, he goes on to say that it is a waste of money going up the mountain anyway as it is always cloudy. (It is a bit cloudy, but I do get a view). Next, he starts on the tea pickers’ rickety wooden houses, saying how dirty and horrible they are. He says he used to be a tea picker and it was awful work. (It’s mostly mechanised round here now). I wonder if he makes much money taxi driving, as he obviously didn’t want this commission, even though he is being paid by the hour.

“You go back to hotel now? Good.”

Nevertheless, the plantations are stunning. (Far more picturesque than any I have seen in India, Sri Lanka or China). I visit the famous BOH plantation for a quick look at the ancient sorting machinery, much to my driver's disgust.

It is raining again this afternoon, so I have no choice. I have to head back to the spa.


I pulled this morning. A retired Aussie cattle rancher, who has had some kind of stroke, asked me to go out for the day with him. His wife is ill in bed and wasn’t consulted. But I have to leave for Penang. This state, part on an island, part on the Malay peninsula, was founded by Captain Francis Light, together, with its capital city of George Town, in 1786. ( His son, William founded Adelaide in Australia). It's an uneventful drive to the island, over (what was) the longest bridge in Asia (13.5 km). Driving reminds me that I forgot to mention the incursion of Tesco. The stores are everywhere - all sizes. The locals seem very proud of them.

E and O Hotel, Penang

I was really looking forward to this hotel in Georgetown and it has lived up to its promise. It’s even more colonial than the last one, marble, palm trees and white shutters. A four page cocktail list. I decide it looks like a smaller version of Raffles in Singapore. Then I find out that it was built by the same people - the Sarkies brothers - so not really surprising. The E and O Hotel boasts it has an Otis lift, which is one of the oldest operating in Asia. I am not as impressed by this information as the hotel intended. I have been stuck in lifts before.

My room is palatial. I have a sitting room with orchids, a bedroom and a huge bathroom with two sinks. There’s even a duck to float in my bath and brass switches, one of which is the call button for the butler. I’m terrified I’ll press it by mistake. The window looks out over the sea and the swimming pool. It’s good to be back in the balmy heat of the lowlands, but it is pretty humid. I open my window and within 30 seconds all the mirrors have steamed up. (Not, I regretfully hasten to say, because there is any action going on). The service is assiduous, if not obsequious. Though I still grapple with some hotel customs. Here are my questions:

  • Why is there always a telephone next to the toilet? Is that where people finalise business deals or is it where most emergencies happen? (Valiantly trying to avoid any bad taste puns here.)
  • I have expounded before on the need to fold points into the end of the toilet roll. Why? I’d rather my tissue was untouched by human hand thanks.
  • Why do they always call at six pm to turn down the bed? Isn’t that when everyone has a shower before dinner? And why do they have to turn down the bed anyway? I can think of a lot of things I’d rather have help with than getting into bed.
  • Why does the person who calls to service the room always ring when you are on the toilet? And why do they not hear you shout, 'Please leave my room till later?'
  • Then there’s air conditioning, though that’s not limited to hotels. Why is it always set so you feel as if you’re sitting in a refrigerator? We’re always getting nagged to lower the thermostat a degree or two at home. If they increased all the air conditioning settings worldwide by 10 degrees it would crack global warming instantly.

Breakfast is absolutely sumptuous, on the veranda, with the boats sailing by. You’re probably sick of me going on about food by now. This dining room has juice made to order from every fruit imaginable. I eat some sushi – and I’m still contemplating the chicken curry and the also made to order Asian soups and stir fries. Maybe tomorrow.

Georgetown, Penang

Then I ‘do’ Georgetown. Light named Georgetown after George III and developed it, as an entrepot, a port for importing and then exporting more or less the same goods. It developed rapidly, but eventually gave way to Singapore, in terms of importance. First impressions are that it is less colourful than Malacca, but I soon realise that’s it’s actually more authentic. It's a really excellent and rewarding place to explore.

Like Singapore, there are Little India and Chinatown. It isn’t too obviously touristy, with all the locals going about their business. Little India, for example, is full of saree shops, curry stalls and Hindu temple offerings for sale. I wander down Harmony Street, where there are temples, mosques and churches of all persuasions, coexisting happily together. Then, past all the British colonial buildings and the fort.

Far too many Chinese Temples for me to admire today, beckon. They demonstrate clearly the domination of the Chinese people here. The Goddess of Mercy Temple in Pitt Street, Penang's oldest Tao (and Buddhist) temple (1728), the Hock Teik Cheng Sin Tao Temple, in Armenia Street and the Han Jiang Ancestral Tao Temple, to name just three. One has a sign ‘It is forbidden to roll the granite ball in the lion’s mouth’. I hadn’t even thought about doing that, until I saw the notice. The Khoo Kongsi, with its magnificent gilt decoration, is is the grandest clan temple in the country. It is also. I understand one of the city's major historic attractions My route home takes me past the Christian cemetery. The Chinese name for it is ‘place for people with red hair’

It also seems that there are even more celebrations going on or imminent. The newspapers and shops are full of them. Not only is it National Independence Day this month (Merdeka), it is Malaysia Day next month, when Sabah and Sarawak joined the union. (Singapore did too, but we won’t mention that.) It’s Ramadan the whole of this month and Eidhilfutr (spelled every way you can think of in the papers) or Hari Raya the whole of next month of course. And for the Chinese it’s the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts for a month. They have to leave out a lot of food to feed all the family ancestors, so there are banquets and food of all kinds in the temples.

Back at base I lounge by the swimming pool. A little man asks me if I want a foot massage and it seems churlish to refuse.

North Penang

I have resolved to lodge a stiff complaint with the hotel management. My duck will only float on its side. Now I shall have to seek some other amusement.

Management turn out to be otherwise engaged today. They are filming the final of Asian MasterChef here and there are cameras and film crew (who all look about 16) everywhere. They are posing little groups of Asian beauties on all the staircases. The bar is full of slightly older Chinese men talking about Nigella Lawson as if they know her intimately. I haven’t seen her yet. We have to take a very circuitous route to breakfast. Then a very arduous day. I take the hotel shuttle bus up to the sister hotel in the north of the island and sunbathe by the pool there. I stroll on Batu Ferringhi Beach, but there are jelly fish warning signs and no-one (unsurprisingly) is in the water. Then I come back and sunbathe by the pool here.

Getting to Langkawi Island, Malaysia

Off to Langkawi Island today, for my last four sleeps. I can’t believe how quickly the time has gone by. I am flying, from Penang, instead of taking the ferry, because the travel agent told me to. I've been told the sea can be uncomfortably rough here, so hopefully this is the best option. It is chaotic at the airport, as they are building a new terminal. I can see why as I am waiting for my flight; it is raining (despite the rule about it only being allowed to rain in the afternoon) and water is dripping through the roof onto my head.

Maybe the flying wasn’t such a great decision. We take off. The illumination on the seat belt sign pings off and the stewardess throws us a packet of peanuts. Immediately afterwards they announce it is time to land. Great, short flight I think. But we don’t land, because there is bad weather in Langkawi. there is even more illegal rain there too, which isn’t great either for the plane or for my holiday prospects. We circle for a while and I start to worry about us running out of fuel. That is obviously on the captain’s mind too as we then fly back to Penang. We wait half an hour and then take off yet again. Everything is played out in rewind, but this time we actually arrive.

Staying in Langkawi

The resort is very different to my last hotels in Malaysia, but a perfect place to finish. It’s ultra-modern: big white umbrellas and infinity pools. The view is gorgeous, a string of little islands across the bay. It’s really pretty at night with the swimming pools and trees all lit up, very romantic..... And there are about 20 really posh little villas. The hotel calls them ultra-luxurious. They have their own swimming pool, massage area and staff quarters.

My room is lovely. There is a huge TV set into half a wall (honestly). It's a shame there’s nothing, on except bad Australian movies or the fighting in Libya. Anyway, back to the hotel and cocktails. There’s a martini bar and a mojito bar. What’s more there’s a free martini every night. This must be what heaven’s like. It’s just a shame that it’s still bucketing down and the forecast for the next four days says heavy rain.

Around Langkawi

More excitement: thunderstorms all night and a power cut this morning. I’m also covered in incredibly itchy sand fly bites. So much for a tropical paradise. There is still a sprinkle of rain this morning, so I saunter into town. It’s a duty free island and to be honest, some of it looks like the hypermarket area near Calais. There are heaps of fake clothes and handbags. I am quite excited by the bags until I realise that they aren’t even copy designs. Similar items are labelled Jimmy Choo, Mulberry, and so on. Even if I had wanted to make a purchase it would have been difficult. Ramadan seems to be taking a toll on the shop assistants. Most of them are asleep under the counters.

The highlight for me is watching a troop of monkeys make a raid on a deserted bar. They swarm across the trees and slide down the telegraph poles much faster than firemen. Then they turn over all the bins and even remove half full glasses of juice (or cocktails?) Perching out of reach they scoop the liquid out with their paws. Many of the macaques are mothers with babies, who crawl out from their fur beds and sit on their mum’s backs to watch the fun and beg a bite or two. When it is all over, they return via the telegraph poles, the mothers stuffing the babies back into their furry stomachs before they vault up into the trees.

The rain holds off enough for more sunbathing and then the hotel lays on unlimited free cocktails and canapés to make up for the power cut. So I don’t need to buy any dinner. And I have a very nice half hour’s flirtation with a much too young Dutch hotel manager. He is avoiding having to speak to other hotel guests and I have had too much to drink on an empty stomach.

 I shall close my diary, do my packing and watch the rain!

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