For three weeks I travel the length of West coast of peninsular Malaysia with my parents, in what feels like an interlude in my trip. I’m used to ‘slumming it’ and getting by on a budget, so getting treated feels strange after so long on the road – it feels opulent and not without a small sense of guilt (damn that catholic upbringing!). Our first stop is Malacca, a small coastal city in the south with a mix of colonial buildings and massive shopping malls.
Malaysia is a surprise. I knew it was amongst the richest countries in the region but was unaware how glitzy much of it is. Ireland almost seems quaint and underdeveloped in comparison. The Petronas Towers of Kuala Lumpur, until recently the highest building in the world, are the most obvious and visible symbol of Malaysia’s prosperity, completely dominating KL’s skyline along with the smaller KL Tower. Partially influenced by Islamic architecture and art, the structure’s main architect Cesar Pelli, said of the Towers:
According to Laozi, the reality of a hollow object is in the void and not in the walls that define it. He was speaking, of course, of spiritual realities. These are the realities also of the Petronas Towers. The power of the void is increased and made more explicit by the pedestrian bridge that … with its supporting structure creates a portal to the sky … a door to the infinite.
In this majority Muslim country, the ‘door to the infinite’ fits in well and is a marvel unsurpased in architecture. It somehow blends in with the tropical environment too but at the same time is a disturbing reminder of the environmental and social cost of ‘development’. Going to and from KL on the bus, through endless palm tree plantations which used to be rainforest, there is a sense of what this country has lost and the price it has paid. Around 70% of its forest has already been cleared, mainly for the purpose of exporting palm oil. If current rates of deforestation continue, Malaysia will have completely lost its rainforest by 2020. If that happens, all the shells of ‘development’ in the form of massive sky scrapers and gleaming shopping malls, will only stand as grotesque reminders of the permanent and fatal damage done.
The world heritage site of Georgetown on the island of Penang of the north-west coast is naturally a more relaxed place than KL and we spend over a week there chilling out. Half the population here is Chinese and the blend with Malay and Indian cuisine makes it one of the best places in the world for food. While I enjoy the relaxation and beaches, I can’t help but be disturbed (yeah, I know being disturbed is becoming a common theme in this blog) once again by all the new tourist complexes, shopping malls and consumer driven ugliness taking place. The Asian tsunami of 2004 hit this coast and while it wasn’t as fatal for human life as other parts, it still wiped out a lot of local buildings and structure, allowing an opportunity for developers to move in and take advantage. I’ve never been to such a touristically driven place before (with the exception of Sri Lanka, also hit by the tsunami) and it’s not a pretty site. Still, there are gems here, especially the unspoiled Monkey beach and the surrounding forest, which make for a more authentic experience of Penang away from the urban sprawl.
On the way back to Singapore we take another couple of days in KL. It’s a city I know I’ll definitely visit again, even if it’s just passing through. There’s so much more to explore in Malaysia and I’ll be happy to stay more time in the country given a chance – it’s an easy place to travel in: relaxed, friendly, relatively cheap and multicultural. The parents also enjoyed their time here and joked that they’re going to sell up at home and move to Malaysia permanently. The reality of living here might not live up to expectations but the standard of life is definitely more appealing that dreary north-western Europe – I can think of many worse places to settle down.