We were in Malaysia for a restful break, primarily to watch the Formula 1 Grand Prix, and here is a quick rundown of my impressions of the place:
7 Things I Like About Malaysia
1. The locals are nice and polite, always ready with a smile. Very much like Filipinos, too, Malaysians are generally soft-spoken and are naturally predisposed to helping tourists, whether it is for something as simple as giving directions, to suggesting where to get the best local fare, to cautioning you about always making sure you choose a metered taxi as opposed to hiring a cab with a driver who quotes you a price grabbed from the air.
2. English is widely spoken. So there is definitely no need for sign language, or illustrations using pen and paper. There is hardly any language barrier to begin with. If anything, you may need to adjust to their lilting accent, something I really did find charming.
3. The roads are solid and smooth, no potholes, hardly any bumps. You don’t feel the traffic as much because there is a lot of greenery when you look out — long and lush stretches of green that make it just so easy to relax the mind and sink into whatever the moment has to bring, even if it is just as simple as gratefulness deep in the heart for a God who makes the sun shine every day, and for raindrops that fall so romantically against the window pane as the car cruises along the highway.
4. The airport is impressively sparkling and organized. You don’t go through so many checkpoints (not that there is anything wrong with that; I believe in the better-safe-than-sorry mantra) but I guess their system is so foolproof and set up in such a way that once is definitely enough. Plus, removing the shoes is unnecessary!
5. The trees are so lush. There is a lot of green despite the wide, open spaces specked with modern infrastructure. Even within the confines of the city it is easy to spot a forest.
6. The sauces, the sauces, the sauces. Leave me with several bottles of these, with lots of rice, and I will survive with even just edible flowers and leaves for viands. They have the omnipresent sambal and then there is the chili sauce, but as the locals truthfully say, it is better to just enjoy as much of it as you can while eating in the restaurants there because the ones that are bottled and sold in the grocery that you itch to bring home are just not the real thing. I know that for a fact, too, because the first time I was there in 2004 I brought home so much of it but it did not taste half as good as I was so sure it would. I asked everywhere I went back then, and asked again everywhere I went during this trip: “Where do I buy good sambal, good chili sauce to bring home?” The perennial answer, and almost always apologetically, was “It is homemade.” Unless I befriend a Malaysian housewife, I guess it is truly a treat meant to be enjoyed there.
7. It never seems crowded in Malaysia. Their population is such that the government even encourages couples to have more children, at least that’s what our tour guide Kris said. There are a lot of beautiful beaches and resorts that will allow you to have a wonderful, relaxed time minus the crowd. As a local smilingly told me, there is “room for everybody even in the most in-demand beaches.”
7 Things I Did in Malaysia
1. Watch the Formula 1 Grand Prix, which was the highlight of our trip. I am no Formula 1 fan but being there was quite an experience. I guess it came largely, if not purely, from being in a place where the excitement was just palpable. It came from being physically present in the heart of where all the action was, where everybody was just happy to witness those insanely expensive little cars (which somehow remind me of Lego blocks in that you can take them apart almost piece by piece) literally speed by. It is a spectator sport and I guess that makes it even easier to get caught up in the rush. The energy is just contagious — I repeat, whether you are a Formula 1 fan or not.
2. Eat nasi lemak, nasi goreng, nasi ayam anything! This is just rice and, depending on what you order, can be presented to you simply fried with meats and condiments or soaked dreamily in coconut milk and then steamed together with pandan leaves, ginger, and sometimes even lemongrass which gives it a nice fragrance. Sometimes they cook it in chicken broth; other times it is just boiled and then pressed or crushed to form a block (that is true in the case of nasi impit). I know because I asked the very first time I visited Malaysia four years ago, and I still remember writing that in a little notebook I carried with me then. If you like rice as much as I do then all the magical things they do over there to transform it into nasi something/anything just makes you thankful cooking is a must for nourishment, that an appetite is innate in all of us, and that recipes were invented and continue to evolve to this day. Praise God for that! I can easily eat the nasi series every day if I have to.
3. Eat jackfruit. I bought peeled jackfruit, arranged neatly in plump golden rows in Styrofoam plates covered with plastic wrap from the grocery, practically every single day we were there. In our hotel room we would easily consume a pack or two, it was just so good.
4. Indulge in their seafood. It is wonderful, maybe because their coastlines are very clean, fresh, succulent, tasting exactly like seafood is supposed to. It is so fresh that Juliana once lamented during lunch “Mom, my soup tastes like the sea.” Of course it would. It was shrimp noodle soup. The squid is terrific. Anywhere we ate — at an American-style steakhouse, a Malaysian joint, or a Chinese restaurant, whether it was with sweet and sour sauce, with sambal, or in battered calamari — the squid was always perfect. There was something about its texture, I never got to ask if it was of a specific variety or just the way it was cooked, but it was wonderful, very tender. We never once felt we were chewing rubber.
5. Have a massage. We did not have time to go and immerse ourselves fully in the benefits that simply being in a spa brings but the room massage we got was definitely worth the 280+ ringgit (for two persons) we paid for it. Under the expert hands of my masseuse I melted like butter. She was quite noisy though, always chatting with Richard’s own masseuse, but I did not mind. I was too tired to mind and I just pretended their voices were coming from the TV.
6. Visit the Royal Selangor shop. It makes you dream of proudly Filipino products that can also be, hopefully one day, presented that way. We already have the talent, the products, but the presentation and marketing could be so much better.
7. Visit the landmarks. It is always nice to own your time and just go where the wind blows but there also is a charm that comes with being a tourist in the truest sense of the word, relying on a tour guide’s carefully planned itinerary. Only then will you be able to see a pink-colored mosque (this was in Putrajaya), know how it feels to be literally on top of the world as you visit two of the world’s tallest buildings, the Menara Kuala Lumpur Tower and the Petronas Towers, etc., etc, etc.
Having a tourist guide makes you discover more, and allows for a deeper appreciation of the local landscape, too.
7 Things I Want To Do On My Next Visit
1. Join the river cruise where wildlife viewing is possible from the water.
2. Discover their local handicraft and learn more about their cottage industries.
3. Experience one or two local festivals.
4. Stay in a beautiful beach resort, for three nights at the very least.
5. Eat Nasi Lemak Panas from a roadside stall, where it comes traditionally wrapped in a banana leaf. Try Nasi Kerabu, too, rice boiled with a special herb (which makes it blue) and mixed with grated coconut, pan-fried and pounded into a paste. I read about that in a local magazine. I do know how it tastes but it is nasi something, so I’m sure it’s good, plus I have never tried eating anything blue except for icing and frosting!
6. Fly a Wau, a giant kite that reaches up to four meters in length. Based on pictures I’ve seen, it is a beautifully made item of various colors and patterns, almost like batik, but shaped like and used as a kite. It so pretty it can also be used as home décor.
7. Buy items made of pewter from Royal Selangor. I decided against it the first time I was there. I did the same during this most recent visit, and I regret it deeply. I wish I had bought the beautiful bowls I saw or even just the pretty decorative plate made to look like a large leaf. I know I could have used them as catchalls. Better yet, drop in at Royal Selangor Visitor Centre’s School of Hard Knocks and get a crash course in pewtersmithing, and be rewarded at the end with my very own handmade pewter souvenir that I can slip into a Royal Selangor box.
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I am home already, but I can still taste clearly and remember dearly the sambal and the chili sauce. I miss that already. In my desperation last night I scoured through the bottles in our pantry and came face to face with a bottle of what the label said was Spicy Pork Alamang (for orders call 221-9700). I had bought boxfuls of Pinakurat vinegar many months ago and it was a freebie. What a wonderful freebie, it is a foodie’s treasure I now know, delicious heated and eaten with fish, meat or vegetables and lots and lots of rice. It is as close as I can get to the sambal and chili sauce I enjoyed over there in heaps. It will make for a wonderful meal here, something that will in turn bring me closer to the flavors of Malaysia that I so loved.