Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Kuala Lumpur and Melaka, Malaysia

Kamal is a man of peace, and a man of god. A graphic-designer turned advertising executive, he packed it all in for a calm, happy life. He bought a taxi, printed a few business cards and started ferrying people to and from the airport. "I like to tell foreign people about my country, Malaysia," he tells us. "It is a country I love."

This is my second time in Malaysia in as many weeks, and it is a sentiment I'm beginning to share. There is a calmness and a friendliness that seems to wash off the people here, an attitude which has bred a multi-cultural, multi-faith society where a Hindu temple, a Mosque and a Chinese temple can stand side by side on Harmony Street. When we found Kamal, he was a little down, worn out by a few dispiriting trips back and forth from KL International. When we found out he'd take us to Melaka and back for the same price as two return bus tickets, and throw in a personal tour of his country and some of his insights to boot, we got him to perk right up. "I'll take you all over," he half cackled as he turned round to smile at us at 120kph on a motorway. "I'll show you the real Malaysia".

Malaysia is a rare feat in this world. Dare I say it, it's a country which has been left better off by colonialism. The British have left behind a strong legal system, a thriving middle class and an exceptionally cheerful populace. Whilst the capital shows off the overt signs of wealth - the ubiquitous Asian skyscrapers and malls, topped off by the Petronas Twin Towers, until recently the tallest building in the world - the prices are shockingly low, and certainly the cheapest I've come across.

The real history is to be found in Melaka, a city whose bloody colonial past is belied by the bright clashing colours of it's diverse population. It has changed hands from Portuguese to Dutch to British and housed Malays, Indians and Chinese. Now repackaged as a tourist attraction you can wander around the museum complex, which covers politics, literature, history and the customs of the various inhabitants, or sit in gaudy yellow carriages biked around by tour guides dressed in matching yellow (sponsored by Digi, the Malaysian mobile phone carrier, naturally) past the dark maroon dutch quarter, the bright reds of chinatown, pausing by the mosque so your guide can pop in for his afternoon prayers.

Leaving Melaka, Kamal took a detour to introduce us to a different side of Malaysia. Slipping a few layers from the pristine main road to more rough-and-ready tarmac, he took us to meet Noor, his sister-in-law, who collects rubber from small producers and sells it on to factories. Along with Palm oil production, rubber is a driving force in the prosperity of Malaysia's rural population, ensuring a stable income from exports to all over the world. Noor and her husband have been able to take advantage of this to build up a decent business and build a large house in a rural village. Even out here, far from the city, they speak decent English, and we were given a distinguished welcome, letting Alex have his first taste of pomelo and me my first chew of sugar cane.

And that's what's so great about Malaysia. It's just nice. It doesn't seem to have the tourist traps that abound in Thailand and Bali, the people are friendly and welcoming through good-heartedness, rather than greed, and everything feels pretty easy. Add to that the cheap prices and the lush beauty of the country and it becomes one of the nicest places to visit I've come across.

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