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Malaysia 2008

Malaysia 2008  – a country of  sun, orangutans and caves
The name of the country, Malaysia, has always been exotic for me.  Only recently I have realized that this country is not situated only  on the Malaysian peninsula, but that its part is also spread on one of  the biggest islands in the South China Sea,  Borneo. It is on Borneo, where we decided to spend a fortnight. The exotic touch of the country really starts with the names: in the lessons of geography in the basic school, we had to learn by heart in geography lessons  the names of  four major islands in the area between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, belonging to Indonesia: Borneo, Sumatra, Java, Celebes. What a beautiful sound their names had for our ears.  And then there is a song played on the guitar at the campfires  in our student years:  "You black-eyed Malaysian girl,  your wild beauty is tempting me so much...” Speaking of the names, also many other names of  cities and areas in Malaysia have a charming  onomatopoeic sound: two Malaysian provinces of Borneo are called Sarawak (Land of Hornbills) and Sabah (Land Below the Wind). The capital of Sabah province is named Kota Kinabalu, the highest mountain  (4101 m) is Mount Kinabalu. Not to forget to mention the port of Melaka on the Malay Peninsula (from the Middle Ages a base for pirate raids, which last until today, as the Strait of Melaka is considered the most dangerous in the world for sailors) or a port on the east coast of Sabah, called Sandakan (reminding me of the  famous romantic movie hero Sandokan).


01 orangutans, caves, beaches

The big positive of the country is  its pleasant and hardworking people. The country counts less than 25 million, of which Malaysians are about 62 percent, Chinese 24 percent, Indians around 7 percent and the rest goes to various other nationalities. In Borneo, however, the inhabitants  do not consider themselves Malaysians but  identify themselves as Sarawakians and Sabahans. The predominant religion in Malaysia is Islam, but religious freedom is guaranteed by the Constitution (the Chinese are Buddhists and Taoists, most Indians are Hindus, there is a lot of Christians as well). There is Roman Catholic church in every small village in Borneo.

Malaysia gives the impression of a thriving country that  has largely dealt with the problem of poverty and slums. Poverty, although it obviously exists, is  much better hidden than, say, in India – there are suburbs of the cities,   poor fishermen on the coast, the Orang Asli (indigenous people of Malaya, mostly living on the edge of tropical forests, which are increasingly disappearing in favor of monoculture oil palm), or the Nomads (whom  the government is trying to settle). Unemployment, however, accounts for less than 4 percent and a social network for the poorest exists. One has a pleasant feeling of a multicultural society in Malaysia - despite some internal tensions between ethnic groups and the violence in the past, it is clear that the government and the population alike are aware that they can only prosper together.

The country's history is complicated, as customary in this area. On the territory of today's mainland Malaysia the Buddhist empire Srivajaya was founded already in the years around 600. Much later, around 1400, a renegade Hindu prince Parameswara founded Melaka, but already in the 15th century Islam began to be spread by Indian traders - it was a time of Mughals´ rule over a vast empire at the present territory of India, Pakistan and Burma. The typical swapping of colonial powers followed: in the 16th century the country was ruled by the Portuguese, in the 17th century by the Dutch and starting 18th century by the British, first just through the East India Company. The first British Queen's representative was appointed as a ruler in 1874.
However, the history of the provinces on the island of Borneo, Sarawak and Sabah, is different. Sarawak was for centuries under loose control of the Sultanate of Brunei. The change occurred only in 1839, when James Brooke arrived there as a representative of the British East India Company and founded a dynasty called the White Rajas.  His nephew Charles Brooke became another White Raja, and the third White Raja, Charles Vyner Brooke, the second son of Charles, ruled until the Japanese occupation of Borneo in 1941 and subsequently handed over the post-war Sarawak  under the rule of the British in 1946.
The fate of the province of Sabah was different, it has long been a pawn in the political games between Indonesia and other South-East Asian powers, and from 19th century it was dominated by the British under the name of North Borneo. The Japanese during the occupation of the country in 1941-45 behaved in Malaysia with the same brutality as everywhere else. As a result, the British lost respect after the war, because the Malaysians felt betrayed and left to the mercy of the Japanese. However, in 1946, the British still managed to convince the sultans of nine provinces on the Malaysian peninsula to form the Malayan Union governed by the central government. The Sultans retained their income as paid "consultants". This truly unique system remained maintained to some extent till today. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, the Sultanate, where the supreme ruler is elected every five years by the Council of nine sultans. However, it is traditionally organized in such a way that every province gets its sultan as a Supreme Ruler in due course. Following the protests of the population who was not reconciled with the British influence as easily as Sultans, the Malayan Union became the independent Federation of Malaya in 1948.
This federation preserved privileges of sultans, but also announced special privileges for the Malays. Malaysian citizenship was no longer so easily accessible for non Malays and up to now Malays have been supported and received certain privileges, e.g. quotas at the universities and in the state offices, in order to raise the level of Malay ethnicity. No wonder the Malays regarded enactment of the new federal constitution as a victory because the British accepted their conditions, but Chinese minority felt betrayed, especially because it was mainly them who fought against Japanese during the Second World War.  Thus, rural residents (mainly Chinese) became an easy prey to the communist ideology, which promised an equal and fair society. Guerrilla war in Malaya lasted from 1948 to 1960, more than twelve years. It was without any doubt a civil war, but the state moderately called it "emergency",  for an obscure reason so that the insurance policies could  remain in force and paid. Under normal circumstances, the insurance does not cover the risk of war, civil wars and civil unrest. Thus, the twelve years lasting civil war was officially simply called the "state of emergency".

The Independence of Malaysia was declared still in the "state of emergency" in 1957. In Malay language the word for independence is “merdeka”.  Thus Merdeka Square can be found in almost every town and city. In 1963, after an extensive diplomatic struggle, Singapore and former British provinces of Sabah and Sarawak joined the mainland Malaya. However, the union with Singapore was short-lived, as the ratio of the population in both countries is the opposite - the Chinese, who are a minority in Malaysia, form a majority in Singapore.  British (and Malayans) were very much concerned about the increased Chinese influence in the country and they did not like the communist views of the political party victorious in Singapore elections either.  Singapore was more or less forced to withdraw from the Union in 1965. The first prime minister of Singapore, the father of the original unification, Lee Kuan Zew,  young, Cambridge educated, left-wing orientated and by the Communist Party supported lawyer was said to be crying during the breakup of the Union. However, he soon dried his tears, seized the opportunity and made out of a small Singapore what it is today, a flourishing state with an unusually strong sense of order and cleanliness, respect for law, lack of poverty, thriving banking and trade. Malaysia was left behind.
The Province Sabah in Northern Borneo was immediately after unification with Malaysia claimed by the Philippines, on the other hand also Indonesians  claimed that all Borneo island belonged to them. The confrontation lasted three years, but Malaysia was never really threatened.
The status quo in Borneo has remained preserved till today, meaning the province of Sabah and Sarawak belong to Malaysia, a  small part of the island belongs to  the Sultanate of Brunei, the oldest existing absolute monarchy in the world, and the remaining  major part of the island belongs to Indonesia.

Tourist delights:

We went to Malaysia to relax together with our German friends. Plaza Hotel Shangri-La near the city of Kota Kinabalu was beautiful, the waves in the sea high just enough not to be dangerous, the pool was large and the food in four different restaurants with varied cuisine according to the ethnicity excellent. Directly next to the pool we could encounter a rich fauna - plentiful colorful birds were teaming up with lizards basking in the sun on the walls and catching mosquitoes, we noticed even small green snakes on the palms.

02 - Hotel Shangri La

Behind the hotel was located a "rehabilitation center" for orangutans. They are the only primates living outside Africa. Even in Borneo they have become  increasingly rare. They are solitary animals who build nests from branches as their dwellings for overnight. The young orangutans are taken care of at the rehabilitation center as  long as they are not capable of living in the jungle. Most of them are then transported to a large reserve with an area of ​​forty square kilometers in Sepilok.

03 - Rehabilitation Centre Orangutans

Kuala Lumpur - Petronas Towers – for  some time the tallest building in the world built by oil company Petronas, therefore called the Petronas Towers. The twin towers have 88 floors and 452 meters, but the observation deck called Skybridge is just 180 meters high. Petronas Towers are impressive from a distance, but their visit is disappointing. They are surrounded by a nice park, but you can find just an average department store inside, besides  allegedly fantastic concert hall with excellent acoustics. At the time of our stay, there was only one concert a week scheduled (with not exciting repertoire, however, we would have gone to that concert anyway because of the hall and the building, but no chance. With the weekly frequency of concerts, the tickets were obviously sold out). There was also a long queue for the tickets to the Skybridge starting  8.30 in the morning, no wonder when it closes already at 16.00. I could imagine more interesting and better organized use for this famous building which could attract much more visitors.

04 - Kuala Lumpur

Kuala Lumpur - Fish Spa. Massage and rehabilitation, like in India, Thailand and China enjoy a great popularity in Malaysia. But we could not decipher what is meant by Fish Spa, so we had to visit it.  It goes as follows: you come into a room which is beautifully furnished and looks relaxing, you shower thoroughly your feet, have a seat on a comfortable pillow and stick your legs down into the aquarium up to your knees. Shoals of small fish of a special kind originating from Turkey nibble on your feet.  They crawl between your fingers, tickle on your soles, nibble on your calves.  Their lively activity is supposed to promote blood circulation and is also used to treat some types of eczema. Whether it has any healing effect or not, I do not know, but it is very pleasant.

05 - Fish Spa

Trip to Mount Kinabalu. It measures 4,095 meters and is listed among the UNESCO protected natural areas. It is the highest mountain in the region between the Himalayas and New Guinea,  and it continues to grow - about 5 mm per year. As is customary in such cases, the natives believe that the mountain is inhabited by spirits of the dead. We were just strolling around and admiring the jungle, giant horsetails on the base, waterfalls and breathtaking views. But for many tourists Kinabalu is the opportunity to climb to the top. Those who are fit can apparently  handle it in one day, an average tourist in two days. Every year there is a competition for fastest climb to the top. The fastest person did it in three and a half hours. And the oldest person ever to reach the top was a ninety years old Japanese lady.

05a Mount Kinabalu Sabah

A trip on a motor boat on one of the local rivers was moderately interesting -  we were told  at the very beginning  that the observation of the animals "is not guaranteed". As a result  we saw all sorts of monkeys swinging in the trees along the river and when I required for at least some crocodile, our  guide found a crocodile hatchling  20 cm long on the banks but when he  wanted to catch it (so that I could stroke it), the hatchling escaped. Much  more impressive was the sight of a full moon, which appeared after sunset in all its beauty above the river. We were informed about the existence of mosquitoes in advance, so repellent cream helped to avoid the bites.

06 River Excursion Sabah

Trip to Sarawak in Gunung Mulu National Park. We flew by a small plane to Mulu. It is the airport in the middle of the jungle, no roads lead there, the only other option to get there is by boat and it takes 24 hours. The park includes eight types of forests, including tropical rain forest, peat, moss and others.  There are 170 types of orchids, 275 kinds of birds, 74 species of frogs, 281 kinds of butterflies, 458 kinds of ants represented in the forest, many of them endemic. To see majority of them  would of course require the examination of several months, not three days that we had for it.

07 - Tropical Forest Mulu

A special view is offered by miniature squirrels, climbing on lianas (Pygmy squirels) and by free-tailed bats. In the huge cave called Deer Cave there is around two million bats. During a three kilometer tour of the cave which is 2160 m long and 220 m deep a strong smell of ammonia coming from guano on the ground gives the bats away, otherwise they look like a monolithic mass glued to the ceiling.  Every day between five and seven o'clock in the afternoon they flip out of a massive cave entrance in various formations  - the flight takes around half an hour and it can be seen also from a distance. However, to be present and follow this natural phenomenon at the entrance of the cave is a real experience.

08 - Deer Cave - Bats

Later on we went through the tropical forest but the combination of heat and humidity made it quite difficult, even if we did not need to have a machete to hack, because all paths were free. However, the most exciting adventure was sky walking on the top of tall tropical trees.

09 - Skywalking - Mulu

Another tour from our chalet in Mulu led to the Clearwater and Wind Caves.  We drove about an hour by long slender boat (Long Boat) steered by a native.
The Wind Cave
has magnificent limestone formations of stalactites and stalagmites and as per its name has a really nice breeze which is refreshing after a steep ascent to the entrance.

10 - The Wind Cave

The Clearwater Cave is 51 km long (the longest in Southeast Asia), of which, however, it is possible to  pass only about 2 km after  climbing 200 stairs up the  steep hill.  A river flowing through the Clearwater Cave forms at the exit a small lake where we made a dip and refreshed ourselves in the cool water.

11 - Clearwater Cave

When we were leaving Shangri-La, the last morning all the personnel who took care of us gathered at the reception, including singers from the bar, where we went for a regular drink, and everybody sang a farewell song expressing hope that we will come again.  We had stayed at the hotel for two weeks and we became sort of inventory, because usually people stay much shorter. It was touching, because the Malaysians somehow manage to convince you that they mean it and that we were really welcome in their country.

12 - Farewell from Shangri La