Malaysia – truly Asia

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The leaning tower in the Teluk Intan Town Square, with lanterns to mark the New Year


We’re on the shuttle to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, soon to depart Asia after five months of wonder, wats, wontons and, well, spicy food.

The past week’s been a blur since arriving in KL and meeting Pey Shan and her fantastic family. We travelled to their home in Teluk Intan, a few hours drive north of the capital, a quiet town in which we refreshingly seemed to be the only westerners. Our journey now takes us to Dubai, then Gatwick for a week of catching up before heading out again to South America. We’re already planning some time on the beach to get us through the stress of it all!

Chinese New Year was brilliant, a lively buzz of colour, drumming, lions, and lots and lots of food. The festivities begin on New Year’s Eve with ‘Reunion Dinner’, where the whole extended family comes together to eat and catch up over platefuls of delicious food. We were very warmly welcomed by the Heng family and spent a tasty evening eating the collective soup called steamboat, as well as other delicacies. They also had some sky lanterns which we managed to light, launch and see sail away despite the best efforts of the wind and telephone cables.

At midnight is the ‘ancestor praying ceremony’, where respects are paid to the family ancestors, spirits represented through various icons on a shrine. Huge incense sticks are lit and while they burn, prayers are said along with wishes for the future, made in the all-important southerly direction that we’ve found everywhere in Chinese culture. Symbolic money and origami boats are also burned, something which we happily took part in after a good craft session of folding them first.


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At the ancestor praying ceremony



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Lighting the sky lantern


Back home, it sometimes seems like New Year’s Day is just an excuse for a day off to nurse the hangover from the night before. Not so here, where the lack of abundant alcohol means you’re not quite so worse-for-wear, and more importantly, the festivities continue – with New Year’s Day 1, New Year’s Day 2 (also a public holiday), and then another thirteen days of celebrations (alas, working days) to mark the occasion.

On New Year’s Day itself, we dressed up in the traditional colour of red (symbolising prosperity) and attended the annual Lion Dance at the Family’s shop, a leading tyre business in the town. Neither of us have ever had the chance to appreciate this spectacle up close, and it was a real treat, with two extremely dexterous two-person lions dancing for half an hour or so to ward off the evil spirits. The dance is accompanied by a drumming and cymbals, all in the Chinese spirit of auspicious celebrations being as loud as possible. Amid the clamour and brash ferocity of the lions, there were touches of absolute elegance, with the creatures variously worshipping at the shrines in the building, rearing up on just two legs to eat lettuce leaves suspended from a doorway (I can’t quite imagine a pantomime horse managing that!), and at one point turning a collection of fruit into a multi-tiered shrine with lit candles, and the lucky number 8888 spelled out in tangerine segments on the floor. There was also the very sweet sight of Pey Shan’s cousin’s young toddler being simultaneously intrigued and terrified by the lion, which itself loved toying with him. The lions themselves were a work of art, with the huge puppet heads replete with blinking eyelids and moving ears – as well as a flapping mouth to chase after the little kids!

The proceedings finished with a blessing of the family cars, with the lions ceremonially cutting open tangerines on their bonnets (with their teeth, of course), before – to everyone’s amusement – getting in to the front seat of the cars, revving the engines and honking the horns!


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The lion dance in full swing


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The cars getting their blessing from the Lions

The New Year is about welcoming prosperity into the household, with this marked by adults giving red envelopes with money to children and those who are unmarried. We were touched to also be welcomed into this tradition, with a number of different visitors also bestowing upon us a small red gift and hence some spending money to celebrate.

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Red envelopes given at New Year


It was a great to really feel part of the various CNY celebrations, and we really want to thank the whole family for making us feel so very welcome. This is the first time in five months that we’ve really been made to feel at home and part of something very genuine, and not a facade for tourists. We only hope that we can find similar hospitality in South America – any offers welcome!

We drove back into KL yesterday, passing through tropical countryside to match the humidity and searing heat. The landscape is frequented with former tin mines, many now flooded into large manmade lakes, and others since converted into palm oil plantations, one of the few trees that will grow in the sandy soil left behind from the mining. From a distance, the plantations make the hills look like they’re covered in a green fur, with their thin spiky branches creating the illusion of soft hair. Up close, you can immediately recognise them as manmade, with rigid lines of trees perfectly spaced apart, despite a few wayward tree’s attempts to break the mold.
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Almost everywhere we’ve been in the past five months, the TV has been running a Malaysian Tourism campaign, ‘Malaysia, truly Asia’, so much so that the tune’s stuck in my head. It actually feels like a fairly accurate catchphrase when you get here, because this country is quite the melting pot for many of the different cultures of the continent. Indigenous Malay live alongside large communities of Chinese, as well as Indians – both Hindus and Muslims. It’s the most culturally diverse place we’ve been to in a long time, with our walks around cities going through Chinatown, little India, and past the mosque, Chinese temple, church, and then turning a corner and finding us next to the Hindu temple. It’s interesting to see that as a legacy of the British rule (albeit largely under slavery) that brought these people together, it is English, and not Malay is still the common language that unites the different groups, with signs and even radio stations often using English rather than the official national language.

On our drive, Pey Shan had also pointed out the ‘New Chinese Villages’, ghettos created to hold the communist Chinese community and contain their radical politics after the withdrawal of the British. Those people have since migrated to the cities, but it makes you reflect on just how far the country has come from the days of colonialism to have such a multicultural outlook, along with a thriving independent economy too.

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At the Thean Hou Chinese Temple we visited with Pey Shan in KL


This morning we got up early to see one of the symbols of the country’s economic growth – the Petronas Twin Towers, which are an iconic landmark of the city. I was expecting to say that they’re visible from anywhere, but they don’t quite live up to that billing – when we first arrived here a week ago, it took us a walk most of the way across town before we first saw them. That’s perhaps more of a measure of how sprawling KL is and how many other skyscrapers there are, since the towers are still pretty high, at 452m, and fairly recently the tallest building in the world.
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Visiting the towers was a fun morning, with a carefully guided tour taking us round, and fantastic views from both the skybridge halfway up, and observation deck on the 87th floor. It all started a little disconcertingly though, with a hologram introducing us to the towers and an instructional video that eerily reminded me of ‘aperture science’ in the computer game Portal, where things don’t work out quite so well for the participant. Fortunately, we made it back down in one piece and are all set for the adventures ahead!
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It’s a strange feeling, heading home after five months away. We’re sad to leave Asia after an amazing time here, so many colours, smells, tastes and experiences – but it will also be brilliant to see folks back home again and catch up, if only briefly. I think we’re both looking forward to those home comforts – brushing your teeth without needing to use bottled water, snuggling up under a cozy duvet, and of course the delights of home cooking. We’ve heard rumours that it might even be below 25 degrees back there, but are holding out on bringing an Indian summer back with us! Of course, having said that, it’s only for a week, so before we know it, we’ll be packing our bags again and boarding a flight – destination Rio and the energy of the Brazilian carnival.

Simon

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