December 12, 2013
TravelSunday, September 15, 2013
Malaysia — all of Asia in one corner
A country of stunning contrasts where city and jungle meet
It is both very difficult and very easy to describe Malaysia’s tourist attractions in a single sentence or word — very difficult because they are so many but also easy because they can all be summarized under the Southeast Asian country’s outstanding asset, variety.
A variety which starts with the people. Between the Islamic Malay majority and the large Chinese and Indian minorities everybody in Asia can find their ethnic and/or religious cousin in Malaysia except perhaps Japan and the Koreas. A variety which logically extends to the food — Chinese and Indian cooking should need no introduction but the dishes of the Malay mainstream are just as tasty (such as a prawn sambal accompanied by nasi lembak or coconut rice). If exotic eating is a priority for you, earmark November for the local food festival.
But no self-respecting tourist should go abroad just to stuff themselves or laze on a beach. Although even if you do opt for the seaside, you might not find yourself idle, especially if you go to one of the many diving resorts along over 4,000 kilometres of coastline (usually islands, which is why nine times out of 10 you’ll find the place called Pulau-something since Pulau is the Bahasy word for “island”). Underwater snorkel and scuba diving will introduce you to an incredible variety of exotically colourful tropical fish and coral paradises — although such contact with nature is not incompatible with luxurious five-star accommodation.
Sun and fun but the mainland also offers plenty to do (including adventure tourism) — whether shop till you drop in the capital of Kuala Lumpur, golfing on one of over 200 links around the country or taking a night safari into the world’s oldest rain-forests with orangutans and proboscis monkeys swinging from the trees. Or all the colour of Sabah and Sarawak on the island of Borneo.
Before continuing further into the many reasons why Argentines should be interested in Malaysia, it is perhaps worth asking why Malaysia should be interested in Argentina. In recent years Argentina has represented one of the fastest-growing tourist markets for Malaysia — an almost 50 percent increase from 6,040 to 8,929 in 2011 (no final, official figures for 2012, a slower year here) — but from a very low base. A four-digit drop in an ocean of some 25 million tourists spending over 20 billion dollars in Malaysia last year, projected to reach 36 million spending 56 billion according to Malaysia’s “2020 vision” — tourism is the country’s third most important industry, accounting for 6.6 percent of Gross Domestic Product.
So why come all this way to ask people to brave a flight of at least 21 hours? Malaysia is not only interested in quantity — such a highly varied country would like to see more variety in its tourism with the faces of its Asian neighbours a dime a dozen.
A few more Latin American complexions would seem as exotic to them as a tropical rainforest or a yellow-tail barracuda to us.
A more specific reason for interest is that government planners have identified both Argentina and Brazil as “long-haul markets” (perhaps in every sense of the word with recent currency restrictions here) — i.e. prospects for the future when current markets have been saturated.
For over some two decades that flight was in the hands of the national carrier Malaysian Airlines (whose flight code is not “MA,” as one might logically expect, but “MH” standing for “hospitality”), which flew to Kuala Lumpur via South Africa — very useful in 2010 for those interested in the World Cup there. Now Malaysian Airlines has been replaced by Emirates (a leader in most global airline rankings) so by the time of the 2022 tournament in Qatar, World Cup fans will be onto an equally good thing. Despite the change of airline, Buenos Aires continues to be the gateway to the region — the more so under Emirates, for whom Argentina is a new market.
But let us return to the variety Malaysia has to offer — a vast range of contrasting locations which nevertheless have in common being linked by modern highways with scenic routes within moderate distances (all Malaysia is only about 20,000 square kilometres bigger than Buenos Aires province)..
In most cases your visit to Malaysia will begin with the arrival point in Kuala Lumpur’s ultra-modern airport although it should not end there.
The vibrant capital (a status increasingly shared with the new administrative centre of Putrajaya nearby, worth a visit for its interesting blend of modern and neo-Islamic architecture) offers you good value for money below the Petronas twin towers designed by Tucumán-born architect César Pelli (the tallest building in the world between 1996 and 2003) — and by good value we do not only mean shops but five-star hotels between 90 and 110 dollars a night (with yet lower prices for less stars).
Should Kuala Lumpur be too modern for your taste, Malacca offers Dutch and Portuguese colonial architecture while Penang, the “Pearl of the Orient,” further to the north will give you both history (founded by Captain Francis Light of the East India Company in 1786 but with Chinese temples alongside the British forts) and the most modern shopping, apart from all the beach possibilities offered by an island.
Beyond the cities, various opportunities beckon — the kampung village experience for traditional rural life, the resort islands of Langkawi, Redang and Sipadan or the upmarket beaches of Port Dickson, the Cameron Highlands with their golfing links and jungle hotels alike, the basis for trekking, rafting, canopy walks via hanging bridges and even hang-gliding in the jungle. Also spas and medical tourism.
And crossing the South China Sea will take you to Sabah and Sarawak, the “land of the White Rajahs” (James Brooke, who founded a dynasty there as from 1841) with its rivers snaking endlessly inland into a lot more jungle.
In a word, variety.