An explosion of Asian culture

Malaysia is a boiling pot of different cultures and energies. This is what we got to experience when we flew in to attend their Mega Familiarization trip, along with more than 150 members of the media from all over the world.

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Intricate works of kolam (drawings made of colorful rice) are a known feature of Deepavali celebrations.

Our trip from Nov. 9-15 coincided with the Deepavali Festival of Lights–a Hindu commemoration of the return of Lord Rama and his wife Sita from a 14-year exile, and how people lit their houses on a dark night so that husband and wife could find their way. We were treated to an explosion of Indian culture — from the beautiful works of kolam (drawings made of colorful rice) spread on the floor, the clash and shimmer of Indian finery and dancing, to various curry dishes (I typically don’t like curry, but found I loved it when paired with buttery roti canai).

Food heaven and street art

From Kedah, we transferred to Georgetown, Penang, which I personally considered the highlight of the entire trip. Driving through the island’s Singapore-like landscaping, we were soon greeted by the quaint and colorful colonial structures left behind by the British. Not only did the streets seem to be lined with toy houses, but quite a number of them were smattered with street art — from paitings by Lithuanian artist Ernest Zacharevic, to welded iron wall caricatures. You could also see the town’s creativity translated in the numerous shops that lined the sidewalks.

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Street art adds character to the facades of Georgetown’s colonial-era buildings.

 

Not all travel destinations are a pleasure to walk around in (especially in Southeast Asia), but Penang was definitely one of them. On top of it being pedestrian-friendly, there was always something to see. So even if you had a specific destination in mind, you’d be pleasantly occupied with Instagrammable discoveries until you got there.

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On top of being pedestrian-friendly, there is always something to see along the streets of Georgetown, making it a pleasure to walk around in.
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Shops provide travelers with various ways to take home Penang’s street art, from magnets to cellphone cases.

There were Buddhist temples, Hindu temples, and mosques. There was Chinatown and Little India, where you’d walk by DVD shops blaring Bollywood music on speakers. There were perfectly preserved old Chinese houses converted into hotels and museums. There were countless quirky cafes, some of them decorated with a hoarding of vintage, throwaway items. A particularly interesting find was ChinaHouse. It was an unusually long establishment that changed purpose and character through each doorway you entered. You walk in through a cafe, which leads to a reading room, a dark and inviting wine room, a chill outdoor space decorated with Chinese lanterns and wall art. There’s a small collection of contemporary art upstairs. And if you walk all the way through the end, you’d find a “secret” bar with live jazz music.

 

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Mosques and Hindu, Buddhist, and Chinese temples coexist in Malaysia. This is the Thai Buddhist temple, Wat Chayamangkalaram. We were required to remove our shoes before entering (and in the adjacent sign, cautioned against shoe thieves).
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Cheong Fatt Tze’s famed Blue Mansion in Penang houses a Chinese restaurant and 18 beautifully restored suites.

Penang is also a known food heaven. Now, I was used to being disappointed by certain places that people had built up to the clouds and beyond. But this little Malaysian island did not disappoint. It didn’t seem to matter where we ate — whether on the streets or in trip-advisor- approved restaurants — or even what cuisine — Thai, Malay, Indian. Every single place had us gushing over combinations of flavors and textures.

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Penang lives up to its reputation as a food heaven. Must-tries are cham peng (coffee mixed with tea), ho fan (fried noodles), and you tito (fritters) dipped in bah kut teh. But seriously, try everything else.
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Notice how Malaysian streetfood includes skewered vegetables and mushrooms. We enjoyed eating at this stall — until we handed our garbage to the owner and witnessed how she recycled our used sticks for the next batch of food.

Flying into the capital

On our second to the last day, we finally flew into Kuala Lumpur. Our tour guide repeatedly advised us to be watchful of our belongings as we beheld the bustling cityscape. It was interesting to witness the transformation from the quiet and nature-filled Kedah, to artsy Penang, and now the chaotic and competitive vibe of a capital city where people were a lot less trusting. Malaysia’s unique mix of Malay, Chinese, and Indian races added further character to this energy.

For dinner, we explored the various street food stalls along Jalan Alor Street in Bukit Bintang. It’s very possible to have a healthy meal along the streets of Malaysia with their assortment of meat, seafood, mushrooms, vegetables, and fruits (along with stands selling chicken skin and chicken feet). Jalan Alor also comes with interesting entertainment in the form of legless buskers pretending to blow harmonicas over mobile machines playing minus-one tracks.

We ended the night taking photos by the Petronas Towers, which were impressive structures in person (up until seeing them myself, I had thought of them as touristy cliches). Putrajaya, a planned city that serves as Malaysia’s seat of government, held even more samples of grand architecture — from the Perdana Putra (Prime Minister’s office), the pink and iron mosques, to the Putra bridge and its minaret-type piers.

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The minaret-type piers of the Putra bridge offer a promising prelude to the sights one will see on the Putrajaya lake cruise.

For my first time, I can very well say that I had a generous and diverse sampling of what Malaysia had to offer. My only regret is that we only got to enjoy the humble beginnings of their year- end sale, which will be on nationwide until January 3. Now, that is definitely something to plunder.

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Malaysia’s Year End Sale — going on nationwide until January 3 — gives travelers even more reason to fly in and plunder, on top of the sights and swoon-worthy food.

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Originally published in The Philippine Star SUPREME (28 November 2015)

Photos by Cate de Leon

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