MALAYSIA: Part Trendy and Part Tranquil

Written by  Roberta Sotonoff

ASIA Malasia
Traditions like a marriage dowry remain in Kuala Lumpur and the rest of the country. My Borneo guide, Nor Noridah tells me, “I got married when I was 15. My husband paid 5,000 MYR (Malaysian currency about US$1,122) and a cow. It was a very big cow.”

Though Malaysia has leapt into the 21st century, its culture hasn’t modernized as quickly. My visit to both KL, as Kuala Lumpur the capital is known, and Kota Kinabalu in Sabah, Borneo lets me sample both.

Kuala Lumpur
KL beckons visitors with its smart attitude and sleek altitude. Skyscrapers, world class shopping, five star hotels and spas abound. It gleams with glass and stainless steel. The world’s tallest twin spires, Petronas Towers, connect with a double-decked skybridge on the 41st and 42nd floors.
“When you walk the skybridge, you either collapse from acrophobia or it feels like you are on top of the world,” says KL guide, Humdam Bom HJ Harin.

On the other hand, the blue and white tiled entrance of the 1,381-foot-high Menara KL Tower makes you feel you are entering an Old-World mosque. The lobby’s dome of prisms shimmers. Its elevator speeds up 889 feet with stops at a revolving restaurant, the expected souvenir mall and an observation tower. But if it’s good photos you want, ride the slowly revolving Eye on Malaysia, a 197-foot-high enclosed Ferris wheel.

Surrounding KL’s towering structures is a bit of the old Kuala Lumpur. Government buildings reflect Moorish architecture. Across the street is Dartaran-Merdeka, Independence Square, where E. M. Forrester and W. Somerset Maugham once watched cricket games. On Aug 31, 1957, it became the site of the Malaysian independence ceremony.
For 120 years, the Central Market was the local meeting and shopping area. Nowadays, tourists come here to bargain for batik and crafts. Hindu ladies browse for new sari material on Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahan Street where bolts and bolts of vibrant silk and tundungs - beaded, colorful scarves that Malaysian Moslem women wear - are everywhere.
Chinatown’s Petaling Street smells of curry, roasting chestnuts and “rambutan” (a sweet, chilled lichee drink). Stalls are plentiful. Streets and alleyways are lined with Rolex, Fendi and Louis Vuitton knockoffs.
The real things are found in the boutiques and mega malls on the traffic-filled Bukit Bintang Road. Upscale shoppers and veiled, jilbab-clad (black long coat) Saudi women will rush by you loaded down with bags from Versace and other famous designers.

Not as chic is Suzi’s Corner on Jalon Ampang Street. Located near a viaduct and surrounded by a cyclone fence, the three-sided shack offers more color then the flashing Christmas lights that hang from its tin roof. While munching on some naan (Indian flat bread), there might be some Aussies dining on steak, Moslems eating rice, or some kids from the nearby international school sharing pizza or Chinese egg rolls.

Sabah, Borneo Island
Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu lacks KL’s classiness and crowds. Every evening, families and couples gather on the boardwalk to watch the sun set over the South China Sea. Later, many make their way down the narrow streets to the numerous, nearby food stalls. The natives, including Malays, Chinese and thirty-two indigenous tribes, seem to enjoy the simple life.

Sabans were not always like this. Less than 100 years ago, some were headhunters. The Sabah Museum traces the history of many of the indigenous tribes with handicrafts and ethnic treasures. There are even wedding dowry items like giant jars, stuffed water buffalos and cannons. Today, future Sabah grooms need only cash and a cow.
The Monsopiad Cultural Village, a 20-minute drive from Kota Kinabalu, celebrates the Kadazan culture. Dedicated to former warriors, headhunter’s trophies hang from the ceiling at The House of Skulls. Kadazan sling shots, blow gun darts and stilts are on display as well as women’s tung kung necklaces. Tradition dictates that women wear two if they are single, and three if they are married. They are quite heavy. “Maybe your husband is like a weight around your neck,” chuckles the guide.
Villagers do tribal dances and give dance lessons at the community hall. The Darling Darling Dance, performed at weddings and happy events, pays homage to the spirits and helps to protect the people. What’s strange is that during this celebration dance, “warriors” will stare at someone in the audience and make weird sounds.
Kinabalu National Park is about a one-and-a-half-hour from the city. Its lush primitive rain forest and hot springs were the backdrop for the first Survivor program.

Mt. Kinabalu resembles a shorter version of the Grand Teton. Climbers coming down from the summit are easy to recognize - they are the ones that are limping. Most visitors opt to drive to Mt. Kinabalu’s base camp. They stroll amid the 700 hundred ferns and the many species of orchids and pitcher plants. Giant “pitchers” can hold up to three liters of acidic water.
Speaking of water, the Celebes Sea, an extension of the Pacific Ocean, surrounds Sabah on the southeast. Sapi Island/Tengku Abdul Rahman Marine Park, a quick boat ride from the harbor, offers watersports like snorkeling, parasailing, and diving in its crystal waters. With advance reservations, visitors can enjoy a hot lunch. The firing up of the barbeques is the signal for the monitor lizards to make their way out of the bush to see if they can scrounge some noodles, fish, shrimp, satay or rice. These creatures are as energetic as the tourists that come to lounge on the sand.
So, when visiting Malaysia, satisfy your shopping cravings in Kuala Lumpur. Then, hop a plane to Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, to chill out and forget about all the money you spent at the malls.
For more information contact Tourism Malaysia, 212-754-1113;

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