Feature

This week’s travel dream: Malaysia’s multicultural feast

With a population that is 54 percent Malay, 26 percent Chinese, and 8 percent Indian, the small nation in Southeast Asia is a fascinating mix of cultures and peoples.

I’ve been to Malaysia many times, but the fascinatingly diverse country­ is “still a mystery to me,” said Dorinda Elliott in Condé Nast Traveler. It’s a place where, in one day, you can witness the “blessing of a cow at an Indian temple and then go to a mosque and see a cow ready to be slaughtered.” The small nation in Southeast Asia is “a strange mix” of cultures and peoples—its population is 54 percent Malay, 26 percent Chinese, and 8 percent Indian—that all “coexist,” somehow, in “seeming harmony.”

In the country’s capital, Kuala Lumpur, “an ornately carved Hindu temple might stand on one corner, an onion-domed mosque on another, right next to a Buddhist temple billowing incense.” Up north in the Cameron Highlands—a ­former retreat for the British who ruled the country until 1957—Tudor-style mansions stand tall amid the “cool hills and tea plantations.” To me, though, the place that best captures Malaysia’s “marvel of racial diversity” is Penang. The tiny state off the country’s northwestern coast is a “colorful hodgepodge of Chinese, Indian, and colonial architecture.” I could spend days wandering through its Hindu and Buddhist temples and perusing antiques stores “stacked with colonial tea sets and fading photos of solemn Chinese couples.”

You can’t come to Penang and not experience the “multicultural food fest” that takes place daily. At open-air food courts you will find stalls with cuisines from all over Asia: clay-pot chicken and rice, Hokkien mee noodles, barbecued pork, curry mee noodles, and mutton satays. But don’t be tempted—Penang has “the best nyonya laksa (sour and spicy noodles) in the world.” At lunch, you might simultaneously see Muslim Malay women in head scarves, “Indian businessmen in dark pants and button-downs,” and Chinese tourists in shorts—all “eating curry puffs, spicy laksa, and satay side by side.” This is the easiest way, I suspect, to learn the secrets of Malaysia—open your eyes and mouth to take in all the country has to offer. Contact: Tourism.gov.my

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