I was very fortunate in the summer of 2004 to be a participant in a US government-funded study tour to Malaysia (peninsular) and Indonesia (Sumatra). The majority of the trip was in Malaysia, a country I previously I had not thought much about previously (on the other hand, I was thrilled to be going to Indonesia). While I enjoyed the time in Indonesia, and have spent much time studying and teaching about the culture of the area, the place I want to return to most of all has been Malaysia, a country I feel I just was starting to get a feel for and wanted to spend more time.
With the (undoubtedly but unconfirmed) tragic news from Malaysia this past weekend, I thought I would share with you some of my pictures from Malaysia, perhaps to provide you with a little bit of a sense of why this country still is one I want to return to, and will sometime not too long from now.
The State Mosque in Kota Bharu, the city known at the moment for it being the nearest city to where the Malaysian Airlines flight seems to have vanished, less than 150 northeast off the coast of Kalantan State, of which Kota Bharu is the capital.
Follow me below the orange waves for more.
Malaysia has a long history and a diverse population. There have been Chinese here since before the visit of Zheng He, in the early 15th century. At the time there was a community of over 500 Chinese residents.
The entrance to the Cheng Hoon Teng Temple in Malacca (Cheng Hoon is a version of the name Zheng He). The veneration of Zheng He is relatively common among the Southeast Asian Chinese diaspora, although it is almost unknown in China itself. The decoration of the roof with cut-and-paste (cut to fit bits of ceramic plates and bowls) is very beautiful and as of 2004 was still being restored and replaced.
There are still many Chinese and those of Chinese ethnic origin here, practicing Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, and Islam.
Paper and papier mache figures of acrobats and servants, to be burned as an offering and (I was told) to accompany the deceased in the afterlife, from Kampung Kling (originally named for the Indian residents, but now much more mixed, and home to a large Chinese population) in Malacca.
Buddhists include people of Thai origin as well as Chinese.
Temples to the north of Kota Bahru in Kalantan Province.
(above) Colossal Buddha at Wat Phothivihan.
(below) Colossal Buddha at Wat Machimmaram.
Buddhism is the second largest religious group in the country, at about 20% running a distant second to Islam. To the British, the colonial ruler of the Malay Peninsula, someone who was Muslim was almost always Malay (the British drew lots of ethnic lines, whether accurate or not), and the promotion of Malay culture since independence in 1957 and the declaration of Malaysia as having Islam as the state religion, has assured a dominance in Islamic religious practice, even though Malaysia itself is very diverse religiously. The most observant Islamic area we visited was Kota Bahru, where the Merdeka Square (Merdeka means "independence" or "freedom") featured a huge pillar with an open quran on a kursi (special stand) towering over the gate.
The mosques are of varied forms, and incorporate remnants of earlier practices, such as the use of a drum (bedug) to call the faithful to prayer, as preserved here, in Kota Bahru, even though it is not used any more, and the more traditional muezzin in a minaret (shown in the romantic picture above the orange squiggle) is the more common option.
The Portuguese were the first colonizers from Europe, but were displaced largely by the Dutch, and then the British, although there are still Malaysians of Portuguese descent in the area of Malacca. The British were interested in tea and eventually rubber, both of which are still grown on the peninsula.
Tea fields, and (below) tapping a rubber tree for its sap (this from a botanical garden as a demonstration; the tea is grown for commercial purposes still).
You can read about life under the British in the stories of Somerset Maugham. His most famous short story about that was "The Letter" which was made into a fine movie starring (in the remake) Bette Davis. It was based on a true story, and the true crime was the subject of a book by Eric Lawlor, titled Murder on the Verandah.
The British brought Indians with them to help run the rubber plantations, and Hinduism, which largely is practiced by the Indian community, is the primary religion of about 6% of the Malaysian population. The most impressive monument of Hinduism is the Batu Caves, just outside of Kuala Lumpur, a location featured on one of the past seasons of the Amazing Race.
The national parliament meets in Kuala Lumpur (often referred to as "KL"), a crowded but fascinating city with a population variously listed as up to six million (if you include the greater KL area). The most distinctive buildings are the twin Petronas Towers.
The tallest twin towers in the world, these were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2004. You may remember them from the film "Entrapment" (or you may remember other aspects of the movie).
Renowned for its varied cuisine (I have a website for Malaysian food bookmarked on my computer), its textiles including the cotton/silk and metal thread weaving known as songket and batik, in a style very different from that produced in Indonesia.
(above) Songket and (below) Batik, both from factories in Kota Bahru.
There is much more I could talk about -- the Orang Asli, the indigenous people of the Malay peninsula, the interesting and complicated politics, the wildlife, including various primates and tigers and elephants (many species are quite endangered), the destruction of the environment and the horrible pollution, the push for modernization and computer technology -- but I am sure others can contribute their perspective. I found a lot to love in Malaysia and I am looking forward to returning sometime soon.