Seven Surprising Things About Malaysia
The country is beautiful, complicated, and very conservative.
For the audio version of this article, go here.
I confess that until we came to Malaysia, I hadn’t given this country in Southeast Asia a whole lot of thought. Naturally, I’d heard of Kuala Lumpur — or “KL,” as it is usually referred to — and, of course, I knew of Petronas Towers, the twin towers that were the tallest buildings in the world from 1998 to 2003.
And I’d heard of Penang, which is where a lot of nomads go briefly so they can renew their visas to Thailand.
And curry! “Penang curry” is a thing, right?
That’s about all I knew.
The point is, almost everything about Malaysia surprised me.
But some surprises were more interesting than others!
1) Photos do not do the Petronas Towers justice.
Most of us have seen photos of Petronas Towers, and most of us have also visited very tall buildings in person.
“Huh,” you think. “That’s really tall.”
In person, two things make Petronas Towers different. First, they’re twin towers, and both buildings are massive. This is not one of those tall, narrow buildings, built to beat some height-record — like, say, Warisan Merdeka Tower, which they’re just finishing in KL (but which everyone thinks is boring).
In person, the scale of Petronas Towers is absolutely overwhelming.
Also, the building was constructed using a series of Islamic geometric patterns — meant to celebrate the country’s Islamic culture — which aren’t obvious at first glance, but are absolutely indelible once you become aware of them.
The resulting structure is simultaneously both modern and classic in a kind of perfection I’ve never seen before.
2) In KL, there is a series of Hindu temples inside a massive cave.
As an experienced world traveler, the question I most frequently ask myself is: Is this place I’m visiting cool enough to be featured in an Indiana Jones movie?
Alas, the answer is sometimes no.
But at KL’s Batu Caves, the answer is an enthusiastic, “Yes!”
The caves themselves — 400 million year old, made of limestone — are very impressive on their own. But two things make them absolutely spectacular.
First, there is the entryway, which includes a 42.7 meter (140 feet) tall statue of the Hindu god Lord Murugan, and also 272 very steep, very colorful steps leading up into the caves themselves.
Then, inside the caves are a series of Hindu temples.
I repeat: they’re inside the caves. Hello! Calling Indiana Jones!
Also, when you visit, be prepared for Macaque monkeys everywhere — and they’re absolutely adorable, leaping from a tree into a nearby pool of water solely for the fun of it.
But don’t bring food, because they will consider it theirs and simply take it from your hand, backpack, or, well, pretty much anywhere else.
3) I was not especially impressed by Malaysian food.
My favorite kind of food, by far, is All Things Asian. But my least favorite Asian cuisine may very well be Malaysian.
Speaking in almost complete ignorance, I found Malaysian to be a mix of Thai, Chinese, and Filipino. It’s spicy like Thai, and uses lots of fermented sauces and has some complex flavors; it includes lots of fried and stewed meats, and noodle and soup dishes like Chinese; but it runs on the heavy, greasy side, like Filipino.
The national dish is Nasi Lemak, which is a curry dish typically made with fish, chicken, or lamb. But it was way too fermented and heavy for me, especially for breakfast, which is when it’s sometimes eaten.
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