Malaysia has been colonized overtime by the Portugese, Dutch and British and, before then, it was crucial stop on the Spice Route. This brought a lot of diversity to Malaysian culture and food, which you can still see today. Malaysia remained a British colony until 1957, which greatly affected its sound infrastructure- roads, education, architecture, development and government. The government is modeled after the English structure of common law with a two house parliamentary system, a prime minister and a king. Even though the official religion is Islam, it promotes a mostly secular style of living with a large basis for religious tolerance (more than Ive seen from other Muslim countries). THe political parties are based off of ethnicity, but the government gives the indigenous people, the Malay, the majority of the power. People say that the Malays control the government while the Chinese control the economy. Malaysia has three dominate ethnicities: Malay, Chinese and Indian which means it has accomplished quite a feat: bringing together the two most chaotic nations in the world and producing a calm, collective country. The Chinese make up one-third of the population but hold 70% of the nations wealth. This was most obvious in Penang, where the majority of the business owners were Chinese and the labor workers appeared to be Indian.
Another reason Malaysia may have an edge is that, unlike Vietnam, Cambodia, Myanmar or even Laos, there isn't a dark past looming over their present. The west coast of Malaysia was an important stop on the Spice Route and a bustling trade center. Merchants would stop in port towns before heading into the Strait of Malacca, one of the most important trading routes in Asia, that flushes out into the south China sea. Being part of the spice route and an important trading route evoques feelings of ancient Asia, or the Orient. Walking through the streets of Penang and Malacca, I felt transported back in time to what Asia may have been like hundreds of years ago, as a busy trade center with a mixture of cultures. There are still spice shops today as well as antique stores. There is also a vibrant art scene in every city we visited. Street art and art galleries can be found anywhere, all different, some with religious tones and others taking on a more activist role. The more I traveled through Malaysia, the more I liked this eclectic, diverse place.
No country could better represent the crossroads Asia faces, between adapting to the modernizing world and still retaining its fascinating unique history and culture. Malaysia succeeds on both counts. Women in full length burkas, with only their eyes uncovered, walk the streets of Kuala Lumpur, texting on their Iphones. Street food stalls line the financial district where business workers sit on plastic stools. Ancient colonial buildings have been transformed to run businesses such as cafes or boutiques. While in Kuala Lumpur I attended the Thaipusam Festival, a Hindu holiday celebrated by up to a million people in KL alone. The thousands of devotees and visitors walk to the Batu caves outside of Kuala Lumpur. As a form of penance or sacrifice, many carry "kavadis" which literally mean "burden" like jugs or pitchers. They sacrifice their bodies to piercings and metal hooks expecting favors from their Gods. We got up at 6:30am to witness the festival. The train on the way there was filled with women in colorful saris and children with facepaint. At the base of the hill was a fair ground of loud indian music and stalls selling everything from saris to bright jewlrey to henna tattoos. The crowd was so thick I had to push my way through to the foot of the mountain. Two lines of people slowly made their way up the 280 steps on the mountain that led to the caves, one for the sacrificees and the other for the puiblic. In the line over from mine were hundreds of men with hooks pierced into their backs that held all kinds of objects: miniature jugs, coconuts, oranges, chains. Others carried floats and some pierced their mouths shut with a spear going through each cheek. They all ascended the mountain, carrying these "burdens" in the scorching heat, chanting prayers as they went. When I reached the entrance of the cave, I could see the jam packed crowd in front of me heading towards the temple in the back. Shaman healers performed a ritual to remove the "burdens". Each time they took out a spear, or piercing, they'd chant, pour white powder on the persons back and then slap it. This was repeated several times before they moved on to the next person. This ancient Hindu ritual, thousands of years old, took part in a cave, on a mountain, overlooking the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpurs financial district. And its this very fusion of cultures and ethnicities, religions and rituals, antiquity and modernity that best represents Malaysia, and should be what the rest of Asia strives for. That way, the wonderful continent of Asia, with its incredible people and fascinating customs, doesn't get lost in todays rapidly changing globalized world.
I write this post four hours before my flight to leave Asia. Words cannot express how sad I am to leave behind this continent and close this chapter, of the last eight months, that have truly changed my life forever. Opening the next chapter titled, Australia.