After Thailand, Malaysia ranks as my second favorite country of the ones we’ve visited, though like Thailand, some cities/areas are more enjoyable than others. We seemed to enjoy East Malaysia (on the island of Borneo) a bit more than mainland Malaysia. East was all about nature – mountains, wildlife, rivers, beaches and diving (that we only heard about), and very little by way of big city life, or really even small city life. Even the capitol city of Kota Kinabalu felt more like a small town. The mainland had the big city of Kuala Lumpur and just seemed more developed, more prepared to compete on the international stage. Sure, there were some very pretty areas in mainland Malaysia that were remote/rural, but even they felt somewhat more self-aware and ready for whatever than parts of East Malaysia.
But, I will say that though I thought I could live in Thailand, permanently, after I left it – I cant really say that about Malaysia. It’s a great place to visit, but I’m not ready to move there. Being inside of a predominantly Muslim country was a new experience for me. I wasn’t prepared to see nearly every woman with her head covered, and sometimes even her face hidden behind massive sunglasses. We saw a sign outside a pub in the Cameron Highlands that said it was “against the law” to serve alcohol to Muslims.
1) How do you even know, as some employee of a pub, which customers are Muslim, if they’re not wearing anything different, and they choose to wander into a pub in the first place?
2) It’s an actual federal law? Voluntary compliance isn’t/wasn’t enough?
I couldn’t tell what the underlying reasons were – I just got this feeling at times that the government had a strong hand and they liked things on the conservative side. Even the Petronas Towers, which have to come represent the success of a large Malaysian entity – Petronas is still a government-owned enterprise. And the towers themselves were designed as homage to Islam (per the architect, whose design vision is proudly showcased).
I liked visiting Malaysia, would recommend certain parts of it for others to visit (Langkawi off the coast of the mainland and East Malaysia in Borneo), but that’s as far as my recommendation goes.
I really enjoyed Malaysia, especially all the nature Borneo had to offer. And I feel like there were at least three other places we could have gone if we had more time on peninsular Malaysia and all of Sarawak in Borneo. I liked the cultural diversity (and food!) Malaysia has to offer – from Malays, Chinese, Indians – it seemed a little more diverse than the other countries we have been to thus far (though I limit this comment to peninsular Malaysia – Borneo seemed predominantly Malay). However, there’s also a definite bias toward Malays – for example, we heard that you can’t own a business after a certain size if you weren’t Malay-Malay (not Chinese or Indian Malay, even if you were actually born in Malaysia). Which kind of struck me as odd, especially being a first generation American myself, I always identify myself as American first and Indian second. But I probably wouldn’t do so if my government treated me as a citizen of a different class than other Americans… perhaps that’s just a result of America being a newer country and a ‘melting pot’. Anyway, I digress. I also think already being in Southeast Asia for a couple months may have tempered our experiences in Malaysia since we had seen some of the same types of things in India, Thailand, Laos or Cambodia. But the nature in Borneo was completely new and I would love to go back and explore other areas of Borneo, including the Indonesian side. There really seems to be something for everyone there – hopefully they plan to expand the train system there to make it easier to get around (though the buses and flights worked out fine). At the end of the day, given the diversity of its people, activities, landscapes and topography, I’d have to agree with the Malaysian tourism board ads that we seemed to see on TV all the time… “Malaysia, truly Asia”.